The Future of Karaoke Bars Is Filled With Uncertainty and Hope
Experts weigh in on what will happen after COVID-19.
Joey Park has a "mild obsession" with survival. He's taken weeks-long courses where established Bear Grylls-types teach aspiring Bear Grylls-types how to stay alive in the wilderness. He's hitchhiked across the country several times, equipped with only a backpack. His friends routinely joke that he'll save the world when the "apocalypse" arrives.
Eventually, this fixation transposed to his economic prospects. "I bought a bar because I thought it was recession-proof," he told me over the phone, inside a newly purchased Airstream trailer in Bloomington, Indiana. "I didn't know I should be aiming for pandemic-proof."
Seven years ago, he returned to New York fresh from one particularly lengthy coast-to-coast-and-back-again hitching trip, and went straight to Baby Grand, a boutique karaoke bar in SoHo that isn't much bigger than the Airstream he currently occupies. It was his local bar of choice. And that night, when the "adorable married couple" who owned the place announced their intention to retire, Park made a move that reads like a bad sitcom pitch: He got some friends together and bought his favorite karaoke bar. Business trended up during his tenure. The place was always packed. They even opened a second location in Greenpoint, Brooklyn with imminent plans to expand to New Orleans. It actually worked out. Until it didn't.
If you had the privilege of going to Baby Grand during Joey's reign, you'll know it was one of the most fun bars in the city… and potentially the most COVID-friendly (meaning, bad). Up to 40 patrons would pack the 240sqft space to belt out old standards from Dean Martin and System of a Down. Flight Attendants on layovers would file in, luggage in tow, to chug vodka sodas and botch "Rocket Man." It was the kind of place where people would actually buy a round of shots for everyone at the bar, and you could probably make out with someone within 20 minutes if you were so inclined. Everybody knew your name, mainly because they had to call you up to the stage. It was sublime (as long as no one sang Sublime).
When COVID-19 hit, it didn't take Park -- the constant survivalist -- long to grasp the inevitable. "Rather than hobble along, we decided to sell the spaces and take what we could, with the plan of opening up again one day when it's safe," he said. Park bought a trailer and relocated to Indiana. He brought the iconic "Baby Grand" sign with him, with the intent of using it again one day.
He is just one of the thousands of karaoke bar owners -- along with millions of small business owners -- who were forced to close during the pandemic. The rest, of course, are currently struggling to survive.
So, just how "unsafe" is karaoke as we know it?
"At the end of the day, singing karaoke is really just harmonic shouting," said Jason Tetro, author, microbiologist, and self-proclaimed "Germ Guy" who's done extensive work involving emerging pathogens like SARS (the last song he sang at karaoke was Linkin Park's “In the End,” by the way). "You combine this release of airborne droplets with indoor spaces without proper ventilation, lots of people, alcohol, no distancing, it's a very high-risk activity."
Basically, bars in any form are dangerous right now. Encouraging everyone to shout "Mr. Brightside" at the tops of their lungs inside these confined indoor spaces is like pouring Everclear on a dumpster fire.
"Think about that church choir practice in Washington that ended up killing a couple people and potentially affecting hundreds more," said Calvin Sun, an emergency room MD who was on the front lines of the pandemic in NYC and runs the grassroots travel community, Monsoon Diaries. "They were singing inside for a few hours and you can see the results."
Research has emerged that specifically linked some "superspreader" events with karaoke and singing in general, but that hasn't stopped Japan, the originators of karaoke, from reopening its bars with some new rules: contactless payment and ordering, masks and sanitary mic covers, and mandating that everyone face the same direction, even while singing (weird!). Cities like Nashville, Tennessee, on the cusp of entering "Phase 3," have had some of their karaoke bars open for months, employing similar sanitary plans to those outlined by Japan (including a Spice Girls-squashing "no more than three people on stage at all times" mandate).
Though in Tetro's mind, these measures probably aren't enough to mitigate risk in these spaces. "If you're in a small room for a long time without ventilation and someone is positive, it really might not make a difference," he said.
And mandatory temperature checks?
"Those temperature guns they scan your head with, they're kind of bullshit. They don't really give an accurate reading. It could be a hot day and it will think you have a fever, or it can give you a false negative. The most accurate thing is what we do at the hospital, when we stick one up your butt," Sun said, while admitting that would make for a much different karaoke experience overall.
But according to both Sun and Tetro, there is a glimmer of hope for amateur singers longing to safely embarrass themselves in front of their friends again, and it starts with looking at the NBA.
Private rooms with your bubble buddies
"We all know about the bubble effect. The NBA has been using it to great effect, the NHL has done it perfectly. If you are with your group of people, and you are sure they haven't been exposed, then yeah, you can go to a private karaoke room together and be reasonably sure it's safe, as long as the room itself has been disinfected," Tetro said. The issue with the bubble, as he explains, is ensuring a proper testing regimen, and having complete trust in your group to stay safe and avoid infection. Which isn't always that easy (people can suck).
Sun, who recently went on a cross-country "COVID-safe" RV road trip with a group from Monsoon Diaries, employed this method on his trip: testing regularly and taking precautions to make sure they stayed safe along their journey.
"If you do that, test everyone beforehand and regularly, and are sure that no one is positive, then you can definitely have karaoke in a private setting. It's when you introduce strangers that this becomes compromised," he said.
The very thing that made bars like Baby Grand so appealing -- the wall-to-wall wall of strangers cheering as you stumble through the outro of "Semi-Charmed Life," the laissez-faire sharings of Juuls and joints outside without confirming a negative COVID-19 receipt in the past 24 hours -- are the very things that would seemingly stop any hope of imminent resurrection.
"OK, bars like that will still exist in the future, they just might look a little bit different. " Tetro assured me. "But, that's not a necessarily a bad thing."
Get ready for plexiglass and outdoor singing
"I think we're going to see businesses adopt a sliding scale of measures to deal with potential future outbreaks," Tetro said. "Remember The Blues Brothers? How they sang behind the chicken wire? Karaoke bars can do the same thing with plexiglass."
Right now we're in an "all or nothing" mode. But one thing we can learn from this pandemic is how to implement sliding scales of protections to try and keep bars open during future outbreaks. Common places with increased ventilation, emergency protocols, multiple removable barriers, blocking off certain areas of the bar -- these are all things bars can, in the future, be prepared to do at a moments' notice. "Bars didn't really think about these kinds of things before, but they will now," he said. "And that's a real silver lining to this pandemic, it's something people in my field have been pushing for, for years."
"Outdoor karaoke is totally an option, too," Sun said. "You get a big open space, some wireless mics, and make sure everyone is distanced. That pretty much solves the problem." Sun and his travel squad held an impromptu "karaoke" session after their Amtrak train broke down coming back to New York. "One person in my group had a guitar, she jammed outdoors with one of the conductors and everyone sang along, it totally worked. But obviously, you're not always in an environment that can support that."
When asked about the business logistics of outdoor karaoke, Joey Park intimated that he'd considered it, but feels it can only work in certain areas -- even the question itself conjured bad memories of noise complaints.
"We already had problems with our neighbors complaining about the noise, I think it would just be unbearable," he said. "The charm would wear off quickly once you hear five people butcher 'Bohemian Rhapsody' in one night."
Still, restaurants like Manhattan's recently opened (and by all accounts excellent) Dr Clarke attempted the outdoor karaoke set-up this summer, until the SLA (State Liquor Authority) deemed it "...not presently permitted for reasons of health and safety,” according to Eater NY.
And this post regarding Dr. Clarke's setup from the always popular "NYC" subreddit would seem to prove Park's theory correct, at least in one case (while swapping out Queen for the admittedly more annoying "Sweet Caroline").
OK, so when will we sing again?
Both Tetro and Sun acknowledged that when a vaccine does come, it could take months, or even years before the majority of people aren't vulnerable to the virus. But, the overall sentiment remains: no one believes the drive to sing karaoke will be snuffed out by a lingering effects of a pandemic.
"You might roll your eyes at the thought of karaoke right now, and ask 'is this really important,' but at the end of the day, it's just a microcosm of what we're all going through," Tetro said. "What does it matter? Well, it matters a lot to some people. We all want to go back to the things we loved. And in a lot of ways, a safe karaoke experience can mean a safer world, post-COVID."
For Baby Grand's regulars, myself included, a familiar pandemic dilemma presents itself as the siren song of karaoke beckons: How do we mitigate the obvious risk with the potential reward? Do we resort to at-home karaoke sessions and tempt visions of Steve Carell peacocking through "Word Up?"
"I know that a bunch of my own frequent customers are doing weekly Zoom karaoke sessions," Park said. "It's just the communal experience that people are desperate for, it's something that makes us human."
There is no clear answer, unfortunately, except echoing the all-too-common-of-late refrain of patience and optimism.
"I tried desperately to keep this all alive for people. But you know what? One day, we will make a triumphant return, I'm sure of that," Park said, after considering the future of his dream business, his Baby Grand. "Right now, unfortunately, we're all just stuck in a waiting game."
To quote longtime karaoke songbook stalwart Tom Petty, and (prophetically, coincidentally) the last song I ever sang at Baby Grand: the waiting is the hardest part.
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Wil Fulton is a producer and writer for Thrillist. If you told told him he could only eat one thing for the rest of his life... he'd be frightened and confused. Follow him @wilfulton.