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Karaoke Inventor Tunes Out His Bad Luck

Daisuke Inoue, a tone- deaf drummer, decided that a machine could perform the same task as his band. But he never patented device.

January 12, 2003|Hans Greimel | Associated Press Writer

NISHINOMIYA, Japan — Back when Daisuke Inoue was a youngster banging drums with a local lounge band, he didn't think that his invention for sing-along soundtracks and a portable microphone would amount to much.

He certainly had no idea of applying for a patent.

Three decades later, karaoke is a household word and Inoue hardly sees a dime. His closest link to the business is selling cockroach killer for karaoke booths.

"In 80% of the cases, karaoke machine breakdown is caused by bugs," said the ponytailed entrepreneur, 62. The term karaoke -- Japanese for "empty orchestra" -- actually predates Inoue's 1971 invention of the "8 Juke," a red-and-white painted wooden box that combined microphone, amplifier and an eight-track tape player with dials labeled in English to "look modern."

Inoue practiced the original karaoke as a tone-deaf drummer for a singerless band that made the lounge rounds playing requests for customers who wanted to get up and sing. Then he was struck with the idea that a machine could do the same thing.

"I was the worst in the band. I have absolutely no music skill. So they made me business manager," Inoue said. "I thought, 'Why can't a machine do this instead of us?' "

Under his wing, six band members formed a company called Crescent, built 11 of the 8 Juke machines and began renting them to local bars, where people fed the television-sized box 100 yen, or about 80 cents, to belt out a tune. It was a hefty price back then, but people were happy to pay to indulge their egos.

"Without karaoke, it was nearly impossible to sing like a real pro with a full background band," Inoue said. "It used to be just a dream."

Within three years, karaoke was so popular that big companies swooped in on Inoue's idea and introduced their own machines.

By the time someone suggested that he apply for a patent, it was too late.

"I never even once thought about a patent," Inoue admitted.

Crescent battled the big boys until 1987, keeping pace with a range of newer, better karaoke machines. But when laser disc technology came out, he called it quits.

Inoue, once named by Time magazine among Asia's most influential people -- with Mohandas Gandhi and Mao Tse-Tung -- says he has no regrets about losing out on the patent. Had one made him rich during the booming 1980s, he says jokingly, he most likely would have overextended himself with other investments and been buried in debt when Japan's economy stumbled.

"I never bought land, stocks, a golf-club membership. Nothing," Inoue said. "And I never wear a jacket and tie except at funerals."

For all his global impact on frustrated, undiscovered pop stars from Tokyo to Topeka, Inoue reckons that he has sung karaoke himself only four or five times, and he is unsentimental about the invention.

"Sometimes l look around at the new karaoke and it's like, 'Wow that's great!' But it's completely unrelated to me."

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