Mini Stories: Volume 6

Main Hall of the Michigan Central Train Station, image by Albert Duce (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Juke 8 by Sean Real

If you’ve ever embarrassed yourself singing along to a karaoke machine at a holiday party, or wailed to your heart’s content to “Don’t Stop Believing” at a karaoke bar, you have one man to thank for that: Daisuke Inoue. In the late 1960’s, Inoue was a lover of music and a struggling musician. He spent nine years as a traveling musician with a band playing cabaret music — but felt like he didn’t have the natural talent to make it as a road musician.

Daisuke Inoue

The concept behind karaoke (i.e. singing along to popular music) already somewhat existed. It was already a popular social activity, but up until the early 1970’s, the music would have to be performed live by an accompanying musician in order for a person to perform the songs. After Inoue retired from his life on the road, he was living in Kobe, Japan, and one of his regular gigs was playing the keyboard or guitar so that people could sing along at local bars. At one point, Inoue said that he had learned to play around 300 songs. It got to the point where he started forgetting other songs, or mixing them up with others.

One of Inoue’s regular singing patrons was a businessman, and in 1968 he had a request for him. He was going to be traveling for work, but wanted to be able to sing along to Inoue’s backing tracks while traveling because he loved his playing. Since Inoue couldn’t come with him, he decided to tape himself playing some of the patron’s favorite songs for him to sing along to, and it worked! Inoue was paid for his work, and the process gave him an important idea.

Daisuke Inoue with the Juke 8

In 1971, Inoue commissioned a friend to build him a machine out of an amplifier, a coin box, and an eight-track car stereo. He called the machine the Juke 8. When you deposited ¥100, the machine would play a backing track for five minutes, and also allowed you to sing through a microphone to accompany it. It was the first karaoke machine.

Inoue recorded all of the songs on the machine himself with his band, and leased these machines to bars all over Kobe. He even got contracts with major record labels in order to use popular songs. One thing he didn’t do, however, was patent the machine. Inoue recalls, “When I made the first Juke 8’s, a brother-in-law suggested I take out a patent. But at the time, I didn’t think anything would come of it. I was just hoping the drinking places in the Kobe area would use my machine. Most people don’t believe me when I say this, but I don’t think karaoke would have grown like it did if there had been a patent on the first machine. Besides, I didn’t build the thing from scratch. The amp, the microphone, the eight-track player—even the ¥100 box machine—all had patents on them.”

Karaoke machines became popular all over the world, but Inoue was not bothered by the fact that he missed out on a multi-million dollar patent. “I may not have the original patent (some say I would have made $80 million last year—and that was a bad year), but I have good friends and family that I love, and I can’t help but smile every day,” says Inoue.

But he didn’t walk away empty-handed. In 2004 Inoue received an Ig Nobel Prize award, which is an award that honors fun, strange, or absurd achievements. The Ig Nobel Prize award is organized by a science humor magazine called The Annals of Improbable Research, or AIR. Inoue said that to honor Karaoke, he and his wife, daughter, and three granddaughters get out a song book once a week, and see who can sing the most songs before going hoarse.

To read more about Inoue’s story in his own words, check out this interview with him from The Appendix.

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