For the final installment in our Extraordinary Audiovisual Experiences series, we continued our conversation with Scott Lennartz, Chief Operating Officer of Voicebox Karaoke.
CL: Can you talk a little more about what the experience is like for the average person who comes to Voicebox for the first time?
SL: We have two types of people. First, we have the person who’s organizing the event. Usually they’re enthusiastic about it and they’re a connector. They know people and are bringing them together. They want everyone to have a good time, and they’re confident in themselves that they’re going to have a good time doing this. Then we have the reluctant participant, which is the person who got invited and is often thinking, “I don’t sing well, I don’t like this, I’m uncomfortable, I’m just going because I have to, for some reason.”
What we’re trying to do, especially for the people who are reluctant, is to make sure that when you walk in, you’re not confronted with singing, or any high-pressure scenario. It’s just a neutral communal space, and the actual karaoke rooms are completely separate. Most people like this. Already things are de-escalating, because you see the people you know and you’re in a familiar and fun environment. Once everyone settles in to the karaoke room, a staff person gives a little spiel about how the room works. Then comes the moment of the first song. Usually there’s somebody who’s pretty eager. Those people tend to be the first to sing. At that point, it doesn’t matter if the person is good or bad, because you’ve been entertained by something that you find silly, enjoyable, endearing, or whatever it is. If you’ve been feeling reluctant, watching your friends sing and have fun, helps you relax and feel more comfortable. Given enough time, even if you were initially reluctant, you’ll end up singing something. It can be a really cathartic experience because you’re letting go of your reservations and singing in front of a supportive audience, which ends up being a really great experience. That’s usually how it unfolds, and when the party is done, everyone walks out with a nice memory.
CL: Your catalog is much broader than typical karaoke places offer. I think that makes people happy too. They can sing the standard karaoke classics if they want to, but there are some slightly more obscure choices available to them. For example, you just got the complete cast recording of Hamilton this year, which I’m sure was by popular demand, even if it’s not for everyone. The song catalog is a major distinguishing factor.
SL: Licensing is tough because we want to act in good faith with the publishers, which is not true of every karaoke provider. Sometimes our guests don’t understand the licensing aspect, so people are like, “you didn’t get this song!” Well, if we can’t get it, it’s because the publisher doesn’t make that song available for karaoke, or there is an artist who doesn’t want their song to be available for karaoke. We’re trying to respect that. In some cases, we just don’t have rights to it, or the publishing is super complicated with dozens of owners on a single song and we can’t track them all down.
CL: That’s a really interesting behind-the-scenes thing to know, because I come here a lot and I wonder,
“There’s this huge pop song that came out last year, why don’t they have it?” That explains it. Having to make that choice between giving customers absolutely everything that they might ever want to sing, and being respectful to the artists who created these songs by making sure they are getting the royalties that they deserve.
SL: We want to be good partners with everybody, because the market for karaoke is not big. We want to pay our karaoke providers so they stay in business and keep making songs, and they have to choose which songs to make. Sometimes songs come out and they have to evaluate whether they’re going to recoup the costs for producing them. That’s why sometimes there’s a pop song that comes out and it’s not available for karaoke, or it’s not available for the U.S.
CL: Do you have any stories of particularly great Voicebox experiences that come to mind?
SL: We’ve had a lot of people get married here.
CL: Really? That’s fun!
SL: Yeah, we also had people who met here and then got married here. We get a lot of proposals, just a lot of celebrations. One of the biggest things that happens at Voicebox is people come to have a memorable moment to mark something that happened in their life. We see it all the time. Teenage kids come here for birthday parties, and it’s great for them because they get to have some independence. The kids stay in the karaoke suite, and the parents sit at the bar. Everybody wins, right? You have those great moments. We get graduations, a ton of bachelorette and bachelor parties, which tend to get super rowdy and over-the-top because everybody is so revved up. We also get corporate events, and just groups of friends who want to get together for no particular reason. Groups of people with special needs come here, and it’s a moment for them to do something that they don’t normally do and then to feel independence in a way that they might not access on a day to day basis. I think it’s really great that we’re able to have a space that brings together such a diverse collective of people. It doesn’t matter who you are, what your circumstances may be, or what you’re celebrating. You’re here and you’re having so much fun. At the end of the day, all you’re doing is singing. It’s a timeless activity, but we provide enough structure and nudging to get people going and then they’re doing something that they already know how to do anyway. That’s the magic of it.
CL: Voicebox has always felt like a welcoming and supportive environment. There are places where you know the same crowd has been going there for 10 or 20 years and they don’t take kindly to outsiders. There are places that get too rowdy by the time anybody feels like singing. That’s not Voicebox. Voicebox feels like a safe haven where people can experiment too, because at a lot of the regular karaoke places, you put your name in and you wait an hour, you get one song. Maybe two if you feel like hanging around for a long time. Here you can sing as much or as little as you want, or you can just come in and observe and it’s fine.
SL: That’s a big thing we talk about. We want it to be comfortable, we want it to be safe. Those things are always on our mind, and they can change depending on the time of day. On a Saturday afternoon, safety means one thing, because there’s a different crowd, then we go through evening and get into the later hours when people’s energy and expectations can change. How do we meet them in a place that feels good, where everybody – the staff, the guests – in our little community is doing okay?
CL: What kind of feedback do you get from guests? I know that the e-mails go out and people can choose to take the survey and respond. Do you see those? Do you have anything that comes to mind from the responses that people send?
SL: Most of the time people, are commenting on what you’ve mentioned. I see a lot of “I was surprised at how friendly the staff was,” and “I was surprised how good a time we had.” That’s usually what people will comment on. That’s a very common occurrence.
CL: Can you talk a little about what Voicebox as a concept means to you?
SL: I’m somewhat against falling into the well of digital immersion, because there’s a real risk of becoming a society where nobody knows how to talk to each other anymore or look each other in the eye. We’re all staring down at our phones and creating these things with social media that promises we’re always going to be connected, but it’s not real connection, it’s just a reflection of our self. We’re curating all the things we like and then just gazing at them. We’re never challenged, we’re never learning anything, and we’re just kind of into our own little worlds. I really dislike that.
The thing I like about being part of Voicebox is this is an activity where we bring all types of people together and they do something that is based in reality and it is interactive, and they learn about each other on an emotional and spiritual level. When the evening is done, they walk away enriched in their relationship with one another. That’s is what I really like about it. The fact that it’s karaoke is not what matters; it just matters that people are sharing something. It’s the opposite of staring at your phone and just like making weird comments that you would never make in public. I like that we provide experiential entertainment.
It’s a place for gathering, and maybe that’s implicit in what I’m thinking. You get together physically and you do a thing together. I like that, and I think that’s increasingly rare. Most people don’t go to like a bowling league anymore. That’s such a 60s or 70s thing to do, but people used to come together and do this activity. They weren’t really doing it for the bowling. They were doing it because they connected with the people they knew, and had fun. I think Voicebox is the same idea. I like the idea of community and connection.
CL: One last question – what is your go-to karaoke jam?
SL: For a while I was doing “Home Sweet Home” by Mötley Crüe. I also did “Private Eyes” by Hall and Oates. It’s a good one. I do a pretty good “Take on Me” by A-Ha. With my wife I’ll do Bohemian Rhapsody.
CL: That’s ambitious.
SL: We’ve got that one down pretty good. My one daughter is super into Frozen and “In Summer,” so I can do a pretty good rendition of that now.
CL: That’s a solid range. Do you have one that you really want to try?
SL: There are certain songs that I want to sing, but I just can’t. I’m from New Jersey originally, so I have to like Bon Jovi. It’s a state requirement. “Livin’ on a Prayer” is so hard to sing. It is a throat shredder.
CL: That’s really interesting because it’s one of the standards. Every time you walk into a karaoke bar, the odds are high that someone will be singing that song.
SL: Somebody is going to try it, but they’re not going to get it right. It’s so high. That’s a tough one. I would love to be able to sing it, but I can’t.
CL: The whole crowd would help you though! People will come running from three blocks away to sing “Livin’ on a Prayer.” Anyway, I really appreciate the conversation. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me.
**This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity