After spending every night for 2 years singing (7 nights a week), and 1 year hosting Karaoke, I’ve learned a few things that were not entirely evident to me in the beginning.
Overall, one of the things I have been pondering the most lately is just how abstract my job as a DJ is. My job is a bit unique compared to other Karaoke host jobs in that it is really a double-duty of Karaoke Hosting and traditional DJing of music videos all night. When a performer sings a song, I have become accustomed to carefully selecting the track that will follow it in order to either compliment the vibe of the performance or, if needed, contrast it. In that sense my job is, in the most abstract sense, to “make the club money”. In order to do that, my job is, in a nutshell:
- Keep people in the club
- Keep people buying drinks and food
- Attract people to the club
Under those abstract directives, I spend much time pondering tactics and strategies to maximize the output (read “money”) of my nights.
- Play music that sets the tone for fun
- Stop people from ruining the fun
- Support the room and singers with good sound quality, good mixing, good signal optimization
- Create an energy that encourages people to return, potentially with more friends
- Reward the people who come, stay, stick around, and spend money, while also keeping the night fair (sometimes tricky)
in pursuit of those goals, I have:
- Brought in my own equipment to augment the club’s system
- Spent countless hours building set lists and cue points, transcoding videos
- Constantly on the lookout for new tracks that catch my ear and can be added to the library
- Created a whole new karaoke software suite to better engage with the audience (work in progress) both in the club and on their phones.
No club is doing Karaoke 100% “right”, and what is “right” also depends on the local market conditions as well. Different needs come on different nights of the week during different seasons and holiday periods. It is possible that you can take the best parts from all the clubs and combine them together to create the perfect karaoke experience for your market.
Northeast Minneapolis is an absolute Mecca for Karaoke and competition is tough but also fruitful. Within a small area, 4 clubs offer Karaoke 4+ nights a week, and 3 of the 4 clubs offer Karaoke 7 nights a week, not to mention, Nye’s piano bar, where you can sing along with a live pianist. In Uptown/Lyn Lake I know of 4 clubs running karaoke nights. One club does Karaoke 6 nights a week.
Top choice: Monday nights at Mortimer’s
If I had to pick a club that has the single best karaoke “vibe” out there, it would have to be Mortimer’s on Franklin and Lyndale. Their Monday night karaoke experience is fairly close to perfect. For starters, Mortimer’s packs the house on a Monday night, every Monday night. Part of this is due to the vibe of the place. Unlike most karaoke venues, Mortimer’s has an appropriate stage, appropriate lighting, a video backdrop, and a great sound system (with wedged monitors). The room itself was recently remodeled and has a high-class, comfortable vibe. The Karafun library that they use is expansive, but not perfect, yet they will sometimes reach beyond Karafun’s limitations to accommodate singers. The hosts are always friendly and inclusive as are the patrons and community.
The atmosphere and sound system are not enough to have a successful Monday night. There’s also community and community outreach involved as well as market positioning and messaging. Mortimer’s has made “Autotune Karaoke” their brand with a bit of a gimmick of offering the ability to add T-Pain-style autotune (optional) to your performance. The actual delivery is awful but even the horrible sounds are fun to try out and the offering invites people who might otherwise be too shy to sing. The hosts are well-known in the Karaoke community and are part of the “glue” that keeps this unique community together. In general, Mortimer’s has figured out the community aspect of Karaoke through marketing, market positioning, vibes, and energy to give the community the experience that they’re asking for.
What could they do even better?
Compared to other clubs (below) my list of suggestions for “Morts” feels a little bit like splitting hairs as they score just about perfect in my book. But if I had to identify their shortcomings:
- They need to present the lyrics to the crowd, not just the singers.
- The lighting is appropriate for the mood, but the lights are not dynamic.
- Drinks are on the high side of affordable, especially for a Monday night, but it doesn’t seem to be keeping people away.
- No online signup, rather just a clipboard.
- Stage sound is not always properly tuned, but it is way better than most places.
- The autotune sound is actually pretty harsh and doesn’t really follow the melody. There are new technologies out there in development (which I am personally involved in developing) that can solve this problem.
- The library is not #1. If you’re looking for the #1 library, you have to go to Otter’s Saloon.
Best Weekend Karaoke: Vegas Lounge
The Vegas Lounge’s weekend success could possibly attributed to just a few factors as, ironically, the level of effort required for a successful weekend night is less than the effort required for a weeknight. Vegas is able to have the best weekend karaoke with just a few key attributes:
- They have an elevated stage so that it is easy to see the singers, even when the room is packed.
- The room is sizable
- The drinks are some of the cheapest in NE Minneapolis.
- The patio is a great escape from the noise
- I, personally, go for the Heggie’s Pizza. Ask Diedre for an “ass blaster”. Tell her I sent you. 😉
Of course, some things could be improved
- There are lights, but they are never used.
- The sound system has no wedges for the singers, making it difficult for the singers to hear themselves.
- The actual sound in the room is a crap shoot.
- The screens are TINY (but numerous) for a venue that size and therefore contribute little to the energy (not to mention, making it an outright terrible place to watch a sportsball game)
- The bar is cash only. Some patrons turn around at the door due to that simple fact.
Weeknights vs. Weekends
Weeknights vs. weekdays have different requirements and should not be treated the same. To put it simply, weeknights are about community, and weekends are about atmosphere and energy, although no karaoke night can be successful absent any of community, atmosphere, or energy.
A Typical Weekend singer
- Has mostly Top-40 musical taste.
- Less serious about performing, and more interested in entertaining friends or the crowd.
- Generally arrives in a group and may leave with the group
- Willing to pay a premium for atmosphere and vibes.
A typical Weeknight Karaoke singer
- Is a lover of music, interested in exploring new songs and deep cuts.
- More serious about performing, less interested in crowd-pleasing
- Seeking the companionship of other music lovers and regulars.
- Interested in drink specials, contests, and/or generally cheap drinks
To capture the weekend singers, you need to offer the best experience possible in terms of lights, sounds, and service. It is less important whether or not you have the best karaoke song library in the region. It is less important that you cater to a community vibe on the weekends. Most of the karaoke regulars I know actually avoid the karaoke clubs on Fridays and Saturdays because they like singing, and long wait times for singers are a big turn-off for the regulars. Additionally, the patrons that attend Fridays and Saturdays are less serious about Karaoke and sing the same songs every night, offering a repetitive experience for the listeners… who are there inevitably waiting for their turn to sing, sometimes for hours. The regulars grew tired of hearing “Sweet Caroline” every night. They’d rather be exploring B-Sides from obscure 90’s grunge albums, and the weekends are full of very predictable performances of songs like “Mr. Brightside”, “Goodbye Earl”, and “Any Man of Mine”. I’ll admit that even I dramatically narrow my own song choices on the weekend, choosing to “read the room” rather than simply sing a song that I love. Of the 300 songs on my list, I choose to sing maybe a dozen on the weekends. The songs I might want to sing on a weeknight include super-rare but great songs, like track 1 from the Soundtrack to the 1990’s Movie “Singles”, arguably one of Chris Cornell’s best songs… like… ever. which basically every kid owned. Or the closing track to Pearl Jam’s breakout first album “Ten”, entitled “Release“. Both of those tracks are exclusive to Otter’s Saloon.
On weekends, since the crowds are bigger, it is best to have a room where the singer is elevated on a stage rather than just in a corner on the floor. If you can light up the stage, bonus points. The sound system has to be balanced and loud to fill the room and overpower the inevitably screaming friends of the singers, and the video screens should present the lyrics not just to the singer, but to the audience who will often sing along. Minneapolis’s Vegas Lounge has a small but effective stage that folds out of the wall so that it doesn’t take up extra room during the day. Being able to actually see the singer in a packed room makes a huge difference, but Vegas Lounge is definitely lacking in other areas.
Conversely, a weeknight singer is a community-minded lover of music. They are looking to hang out and enjoy drinks that don’t break the bank in terms of prices… after all, they sang yesterday and they’ll be back tomorrow to sing some more. They talk with each other about music that makes them happy, often nostalgic, and are constantly looking for new songs to learn. They want to browse the song list casually, looking for hidden gems and deep cuts that make the other regulars proud of their song choices. On a weeknight, it is important to have a good sound system, vocal processing, and good sound mixing because the singers are more serious and care about how they and others are heard. It is NOT, however, important that the vibe is loud.
Atmospheric touches like lighting are a bonus, but not totally necessary in all cases. It also isn’t as important to have a stage… however, if you do your weeknights right, you will hopefully have nights that are as busy as weekends on occasion warranting a stage… but there’s never a guarantee.
Karaoke is fickle in the sense that the busier your venue gets, the less fun it becomes. If there are too many singers, people are forced to wait longer and may decide to leave. It may be similarly true that the same thing happens if the line for drinks and food is too long… but the problem is that, whereas you can add cooks and servers and bartenders to accommodate demand, you can’t really do anything to shorten the Karaoke wait time unless you build your club around private, redundant, small rooms like they do in New York City. That’s a whole different business model, arguably not fun at all, and doesn’t translate to most of the world.
Other venues were considered and observed in the authoring of this article, including the club where I host my own nights. Here’s a smattering of notes from all of them.
Grumpy’s on Washington (now closed permanently)
Even though Grumpy’s on Washington is now rubble and replaced by generic condos, in the history of Minneapolis, Grumpy’s positioned next door to Minneapolis’s reputable “Amphetamine Reptile” record label had a unique way of operating. It’s market position, having grown from a community with proximity to 90’s rock energy also offered some unique draws. If Joel Stizel’s world-class Karaoke collection wasn’t enough of a draw you in, the fact that every week was pinned to a “theme” and if you sang a song in alignment with the theme, the club would dole out drink tickets (while supplies last). It conjured a karaoke community that was deep into exploring new songs and trying new things, rather than singing the same songs every week.
Morriseys (on Lake Street)
Joel Stitzel’s new home for Karaoke Saturday nights is where I would be spending my time if I were hosting my own night at the 1029 Bar. Joel brings his spectacular library of Karaoke tunes with him to Morrisey’s attracting many of the old Grumpy’s regulars, however what didn’t follow him were the drink-token-backed theme nights that kept everything fresh.
- enough of a stage to be effective
- expensive food and drinks
- Acoustics have been pretty harsh in my experience.
A fierce competitor in Northeast Minneapolis’ Karaoke market, Otter’s Saloon has succeeded in drawing a crowd nearly every single night of the year on a shoestring budget.
- The absolute best Karaoke library in town stretches even into B-Sides from nostalgic movie soundtracks, obscure local bands, and viral internet memes.
- Cheap Drinks, accepts credit cards.
- Acoustics are terrible, it sounds like someone’s garage.
- Sound system is not up to the task of handling the terrible acousitcs
- Lack of elevated stage completely ruins the weekend vibes.
- No bouncer on weeknights has led to occasional issues, including issues leading to staff turnover.
James Ballentine Uptown VFW post 246
- in addition to regular Karaoke nights in the back, “Big stage Karaoke” happens once a month on a proper stage.
- Sound and acoustics are generally good
- Great song library
- Lack of Community outreach leads to empty rooms on many nights, even when the main room is full of energy.
- Crime has been a bit high in the area in recent times. Street camping presence has only worsened.
- Karlynn, the usual host, is one of the most open and accepting hosts in the community and a genuine lover of all people.
- Community of regulars,
- Limited Library
- No real lighting
- No stage, rather just a corner of a bar
- The sound could be better, and on the right night it is, but the staff seems to fight over what the levels should be so much that singers cannot often even hear the music.
- Karaoke ends at Midnight.
The 1029 Bar
Of course I cannot avoid listing the club where I host my own nights.
- Higher energy than most places, particularly on the weekends.
- 1029 is the only Karaoke bar in Minneapolis that plays Music videos in between Performers.
- Bigger screens than most places.
- The sound system is well above average compared to most places but is not as modern as Mortimers’
- Particularly famous for it’s food
- No stage
- Lights haven’t worked since pre-covid
- Drinks on the high side of affordable
- Karaoke Library needs to improve to make weeknights successful.