Until recently karaoke seemed to be as integral to Chinese culture as soy sauce and chopsticks.
KTV bars were everywhere – even small villages – and in cities like Beijing, companies like Cashbox and Melody built glowing singing centres that could house thousands.
Now, the lights are being switched off in these temples of fun .
China’s KTV bubble has burst – a victim of changing trends and the new political climate.
Take Melody, a neon pink complex in the heart of Beijing which used to rock until 4am each morning. Prices for a small room there once started at Rmb250 ($40) an hour, and drinks cost triple what you would pay outside. Even so, sometimes the queue for a slot was more than two hours, even in the middle of the night.
Today Melody’s car park is empty and its gold lamé interior uninhabited.
The reasons for the venue’s collapse, say local media, are threefold: costs are rising, young people don’t like karaoke as much as they once did, and officials and executives from state-owned enterprises have been told to stay away from KTV parlours under Xi Jinping’s austerity rules.
Other big KTV chains such as Cashbox – also known as Party World – and Party Life have fallen foul of the same changes.
“The KTV industry is in crisis,” the Beijing Youth Daily has warned.
KTV entertainment started to appear about 20 years ago in China. At first it was too expensive for most people to enjoy regularly. But more places opened up and it became more accessible and less glamorous. Simultaneously KTV bars developed a reputation as places frequented by gangsters, dodgy businessmen and ladies of the night. They weren’t always the safest places to visit – fights often broke out, as did fires, and the evening’s bills were regularly padded out for unsuspecting customers.
In many ways the KTV scene became synonymous with the gaudy lawlessness of some of the Hu Jintao era.
Xi Jinping, of course, is making a show of cleaning up Chinese politics and Chinese society. Hence delegates attending the parliamentary session in Beijing last month were expressly banned from going to karaoke bars. And even during less sensitive parts of the year KTV joints have seen government officials stay away because they no longer have the money to spend on entertaining. “The industry’s current bleakness is connected to the ‘Three Publics’,” the Beijing Youth Daily quoted a KTV club operator as saying, referring to Xi’s slogan for curbing officialdom’s once lavish expenditure on travel, food and cars.
Yet it is more than the austerity drive that is forcing the likes of Cashbox and Melody to shut up shop – China’s hipster youth also play a role. If they go to KTV, nowadays, they want more for their money than a microphone and a cracked video screen. The best chains understand this, and are trying to keep up with the digital age. One format that is popular with the twenty-something crowd is Show Time because its terminals allow partipicants to record their warbling and then download it onto their smartphones.
But others say KTV’s days are numbered because people are spending more time online or opting for healthier pursuits, such as hiking and yoga. And with popular venues now reporting just 50% occupancy even at peak times over weekends, there may be some truth to the predictions of an irreversible decline.
“Young people have richer, more stylish, more interesting and innovative entertainment options,” The Paper believes.
“KTV was a product of its time, and of its generation. That generation has grown up,” the China Daily adds.
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