How We Turned Our Living Room Into NYC's Best Karaoke Den
Tricks of the trade from the owners of Lion's Roar Karaoke House.
When you're invited to sing karaoke in a stranger's living room, you might be understandably apprehensive, but all that fades when you walk into Lion's Roar Karaoke House. The business, run by Roberto Williams, a former contract linguist for the FBI, and Zaida Soler-Williams, who works in TV production, out of their home in the East Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, is a magical place where songs are performed under blue light, Batman and Robin mannequins greet you in the kitchen, and a pet cat named Jedi wanders up to you mid-performance.
For years, news of the existence of Lion's Roar seemed to spread through a whisper network of in-the-know New Yorkers. But recent media attention made it safe for us to ask Roberto and Zaida to join in on our weeklong celebration of all things karaoke. In their own words, here's how they turned their passion (and their living room) into a thriving and supremely fun business.
Step 1: Fall in love with karaoke
Roberto: I had a 10 year career in law enforcement. I was working from 1996 to the summer of 2006. I was working as a contract linguist for the FBI on narcotics cases. The discovery of karaoke actually happened because the FBI office where I was working, which was in the Brooklyn/Queens office division, which at that time was on Queens Boulevard. There was a Red Lobster on the ground floor of the office building that I was working in. They had a karaoke night. I never had even heard of karaoke prior to this circa 1996. So I started going semi-regularly, and I became very good friends with the host of the show.
Zaida: Roberto did invite me to start joining him because he's a good singer. So I think some of the women in attendance were kind of aggressively trying to connect with him. He felt uncomfortable. He was like, "I really need you to come so they know I really do have a girlfriend." We weren't married at the time. We were just dating. I was like, "Sure. No problem." We became regulars as a couple. We used to follow the same [host] that was the Red Lobster guy. He had several gigs throughout the city.
Step 2: Start a traveling karaoke business
Roberto: The story behind that was essentially that I had become very disillusioned with my work in law enforcement. I really started to hate my time doing it. We were building our home at the time, which is now Lion's Roar Karaoke House.
Zaida: Ultimately, by this point, I had moved up the ranks in television. Making a really good living. There were a few karaoke hosts around town that we'd become friendly with. Every once in a while they would have a booking conflict where they would have to go do a private party and they needed coverage at their weekly night at a bar or something. So Roberto would stand in for them on hosting duty, and he discovered that he was quite good at it. He simply sort of developed your own style. But the funny thing is, so that year I had been working on our taxes. Going through our receipts. At that point we used to go to a lot of private room karaoke places. Just the two of us. We would always say we're going to go for an hour or two, but we inevitably end up closing the place down. Hundreds and hundreds of dollars on karaoke on a weekly basis. You don't notice it on a week to week basis, but when you're working on your taxes and tallying up how you're spending your money, I was kind of appalled at what we were spending on karaoke. I was like, "Do you realize that if we just took the money that we spend on karaoke we could've bought our own system, thrown parties here, and have money left over?" It was that obnoxious. I'm not disclosing the amount. It was a lot. So that year we made the commitment. We were like, "You know? We have to make a change. We're going to do our taxes. When we get our tax return, whatever money that is we're going to invest it into our first karaoke system."
That was where we initially said, "Let's try to give this a go." We had no idea what we were doing. We had no idea what a karaoke DJ could possibly make or even how much to charge. We just sort of were winging it. Our whole gimmick at the time was classy-oke. We wanted to try to elevate karaoke. Really cater to singers. Obviously non-singers, not professional singers would join, but whenever we saw someone that was a really strong singer, we really catered to them. Made sure they were happy with their mic; made sure they were happy with their sound. There were people that would come to our locations because they loved the quality of singers.
Roberto: We developed that reputation at a time when karaoke was regarded as a place to go listen to bad singing. We had the uphill battle of saying, "No. It should be an elevated experience where it can be fun for everybody, for every skill level, but there has to be some really polished or at least really competent good singing in there so that people have something fun to listen to every once in a while." It's like if you tuned into American Idol and it was full of bad singers. After a while, it would just get dull. But if you have the occasional really good singer in there, it's like, "Wow. That person's really good." At the height of our popularity we had, I think, three weekly shows running at once, three different nights a week.
Step 3: Retire from bar karaoke
Zaida: The business evolved into more of an arts education business. We were using the karaoke equipment, but instead of going to bars and restaurants, Roberto was taking them to school.
Roberto: Then the fateful night happened. We're hanging out at home one night after our long work week. Just kind of winding down. Zaida winding down from her stressful work in television. Me winding down from teaching. We're just relaxing in bed one night and the phone rings. The person who calls is asking if they can come over for karaoke. We were confused because we didn't know what the heck was going on. By this point, around 2013, we were pretty much out of karaoke, with the exception of the occasional maybe once or twice a year private party. This one phone call came in one night, and this person asked if they could come over for karaoke. To which I naturally responded, "No. You're calling my house." This person said, "I'm sorry. I looked up karaoke in Brooklyn, and your website came up, and I thought you guys were one of those private room places." I said, "No. I'm sorry. You misunderstood. We're not." And the guy said, "Oh, I'm sorry," and he kind of hung up. We didn't think anything of it, and then the following weekend it happened again. A totally different person. We had made no effort at all to establish Lion's Roar Karaoke as a house party business. That was the furthest thing from our minds. That's why I say the business happened to us. We didn't think of it. We were sitting around at home minding our own business and somebody mistakenly called us, and then more people started to mistakenly call us. And then we looked at each other and said, "Maybe there's something here."
Zaida: But it took a few years before we even did that.
Step 4: Turn your living room into a karaoke lounge
Zaida: All these calls had been coming through. Roberto and I had an honest heart to heart. At that point, we had a few Airbnbs on this property. We're like, "You know? Honestly, our Airbnb tenants have been doing pretty great, and this wouldn't be that different than that." Not only that, we're not leaving the property. We're here. Supervised events. So I don't know. What would it take to get this going? We looked around, and we were thinking, well, we definitely don't want people wandering into our bedroom. We're like, how do we close this off? Our design was very open. The only room that has a door is the restroom. we started to walk through the space trying to think, how do we do this to the point where we feel okay? We realized very quickly we're actually kind of designed in a way that is conducive to entertaining here at the house. All we have to do is maybe add a curtain. We didn't really want to start building doors because in our personal life we like everything to flow.
Roberto: The architecture of Lion's Roar Karaoke House as you've seen it when you've been here is exactly the way it was when I designed it. All we did was add a curtain going into that back room. That's the only change we made.
Zaida: We added the disco balls. We didn't have disco balls in the house. And we added speakers permanently to the space. So we already owned the speakers. But we realized if we're getting calls on the fly, we need to be ready to turn the switch on. So we established spots where the speakers could be without disrupting our overall style and aesthetic. We got a couple of home security cameras. And that's it really. We set up a free Yelp ad.
Roberto: In the years leading up to Lion's Roar Karaoke House we had entertained here many times with friends and family. So we knew how to do karaoke within the space. We knew what the sound parameters would be. How to make everything sound the best it could be.
Step 5: Host a party and establish rules
Roberto: When we thought we were ready, we finally said yes to a person who called.
Zaida: They were a bunch of European kids that were doing a farewell for a friend that was going back to Spain. About 12 people. When they walked in, they were just floored. Everyone was like, "Whoa!" That was the first time that we'd let a group in. I was definitely not expecting that big a reaction. They looked at us, and they were like, "You guys are going to make so much money." We both looked at each other like, "Whoa. Maybe there is something in this." The thing that did evolve out of that first party, was our orientation speech [we give before every party]. In a way, this first party is what sparked that because this was the infamous party where someone took a shower. I think they took our description of "Airbnb meets private karaoke" very literally, I think, in all fairness to them. That's what we were sort of pitching ourselves as when we were trying to explain to people what it is.
Roberto: And in all fairness to them, there was no precedent for this kind of a business. People assumed that they were renting the apartment and that you can do what you do at a hotel or at an Airbnb. The lead guest who booked the party, at some point during the night he felt...
Zaida: He got warm I guess.
Roberto: He felt he needed a shower. So he dropped his clothes.
Zaida: They were free Europeans, let's just say.
Roberto: Clothes were dropped literally in a trail from the living room all the way to the bathroom. He took himself a shower, a really quick shower. And then he came running back out and sang a song wearing nothing but a bath towel.
Zaida: I look out and I see that he's just in a towel. I'm like, "Oh dear. Rob, I think we're going to have to develop a few house rules because this guy's not dressed." And Rob is like, "What?" And looked over. He's not standing there naked, but he's definitely not wearing clothes. So Rob, gently, was like, "Dude. I'm going to need you to put your clothes on, please." He's like, "Oh, I'm sorry. Is that not allowed?" He was very apologetic.
Roberto: The punchline to that story is that about three years later that same guest returned to Lion's Roar Karaoke House. We didn't remember who he was. He was the one that reminded us. He's like, "I'm the guy that was here for that very first party, and I took a shower." We laughed. He came back with another group. We had a wonderful night. As a joke we said to him, "You've got to do it."
Zaida: We staged a photo.
Step 6: Cater to singers
Zaida: I would say a month or two after we opened we were ready, at that stage able to open up the library [via YouTube] so it could really be anything. When people realized that they could do that here, that added a lot more guest. I started to see a lot more younger people coming through. Especially the songs that they want to do that maybe just came out a few months ago are available on YouTube that a lot of karaoke places wouldn't have yet.
We invested in really good quality mics and speakers because nothing frustrated us more than going to a place where we sounded muffled or we couldn't hear ourselves. It just takes all the fun out of it. Even those people who are not the superstar singers, we're going to make them sound their best. Maybe if we think a little reverb will help them, we'll do it. We sort of go with the flow to sort of see what people need. If someone is kind of a softer singer, Roberto will raise their voice mic but then bring down the music a little bit so they can be heard. He's making adjustments throughout the night to cater to the specific singer.
Roberto: That's what puts us apart from a lot of karaoke shows. They pretty much have one setting for the mic for all singers, and they don't care to make a tailored sound for every individual singer. When I'm emceeing and hosting a Lion's Roar Karaoke night, the adjustments on the mics are constant.
Step 7: Don't forget the cats
Zaida: We're down to one kara-o-kat. We've lost Oola and Wampa are no more. But Jedi's here. He just had his 16th birthday.
Roberto: The kara-o-kats, they were just such an awesome part of what we're doing, particularly Oola's presence. She was our all-white female.
Zaida: She really embraced the whole kara-o-katness.
Roberto: It was devastating to lose her. She really embraced the whole theme, the center of attention of karaoke night. She and Jedi both understood orientation time. They would come out every single time.
Zaida: They were here before the house business started. That was something we had to talk about as well when we were deciding to start the business. Okay, we have cats. Not everybody likes cats. What's something fun that we can do to brand them? I don't even remember how kara-o-kat came up. Rob and I were joking around. You probably came up with it.
Roberto: I coined the term. In the tradition of going to some of these neighborhood bodegas and grocery stores, they have a kitty cat there sometimes. It's on the shelves or whatever, just chilling out. We figured let's just leave them there. I think I said one night, "And we'll call them the kara-o-kats."
Step 8: Make Batman part of the fun too
Roberto: At this point now it's been six years ago, I produced a stage play with a bunch of my students from when I was teaching. I produced a stage play that told a story of how the Batman character was created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger in the Bronx in 1939. In the play the characters come to life on stage around them as they create out of this little grungy grimy Bronx apartment. We had to make all the costumes of all the Batman mythology characters, the Gotham City mythology characters. We had to make all their costumes because they all were featured in this space production. When the show was over I kind of re-dressed the mannequins, and they were just stand up exhibits here in our home. Initially they were in the back room. When we decided to move forward with the idea for Lion's Roar Karaoke House we said, "Gee. It might be fun to have something interesting in this corner of the kitchen, as a strange goofy conversation piece." So we place Batman and Robin in that corner underneath the speaker, kind of to camouflage the speaker that's in that corner, but also to have an interesting conversation piece. And they've been a hit. People have come over and they've just been like, "Wow. You've got Batman and Robin." I've actually made some friends who come over, because naturally there are a lot of Batman fans everywhere. They see Batman and Robin and they react. They say, "Oh my god! You have a Batman and Robin in your kitchen? Oh my god!" And then I struck up a conversation with them. "Are you a Batman fan?" "I sure am!" Another life long friend. So the Batman and Robin exhibits have been a really big hit, just because of their kitsch appeal and pop culture appeal. I always tell people they're not going to do karaoke, but we like them.
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