Lockdown reflections: I tried to be the karaoke king

In his second piece looking back on his career, EQ Founder John Spiers recalls his karaoke adventure.

FacebooktwitterlinkedinmailFacebooktwitterlinkedinmail   by John Spiers, 17th March 2021

Early February 1991, the UK is experiencing a savage recession and the weather is as grim as usual for that time of year. Over 80% of the activity in my business took place in the few months before April 5th – end of tax year so I’d been working late and needed to lift my spirits. As I trundled down four flights of near vertical steps from my office and into the alleyway I noticed unusual sounds from the adjacent cellar bar.

Despite the considerable charms of Maria, the proprietress, the bar was normally deserted at 9 pm on a Wednesday but now it sounded like New Year’s Eve. Probably a private party but I ventured down to check it out. This was my first experience of karaoke, which I’d regarded as a rather new-fangled imported phenomenon. Despite the discomfort of listening to tuneless singing by highly inebriated folk I couldn’t help sensing the euphoric mood, rather like a great apres-ski bar. I was hooked and became a regular.

Open to new opportunities

I was always on the lookout for new business ventures. With varying degrees of success I had set up an investment advisory firm, a chain of transport cafes, bought a nursing home and was developing a robotic lawnmower. I decided that Karaoke would fit neatly into this empire. The returns appeared to be highly enticing – based on the hire charge that Maria was paying, the equipment could recover its cost in less than three months.

As a regular at Maria’s I got to know one of the guys running the show, Sean, who was clearly dissatisfied with his lot. Every night, after lugging heavy equipment all the way down, then back up, the stairs and performing his heart out for 3-4 hours, he collected £300 from Maria, from which he kept £50. We hatched a plot to launch a rival. I really should have spotted the fatal flaw in this venture right then.

Karaoke King

On Saturday I motored down to Sussex to see the distributor and negotiated a purchase. That evening, at a friend’s party, I couldn’t stop talking about this new opportunity which, with characteristic modesty, I’d named ‘Karaoke King’. A couple who ran a ski bar in Andorra were sufficiently enthused that they agreed to hire my new machine for the remainder of the season. That would fully repay my cost. This karaoke business was clearly a gold mine so I phoned the distributor on Monday and bought two more units, instantly becoming his number one customer. That was probably the high point of this venture.

I wasn’t so crazy that I wanted to run this business personally, so I recruited Andrew, a victim of the commercial property slump, who was temporarily helping out in my investment business. Although this could be seen as an opportunistic choice, Andrew actually had the two key requirements for the role. He’d spent most of his adult life inside pubs and has more brass than the Black Dyke Mills Band. Buttering up tight-fisted pub landlords would be a doddle for him.

It quickly became apparent that others had spotted the opportunity and rental prices were falling rapidly in London. We needed a less competitive environment and decided to focus on Oxfordshire, which had barely experienced any karaoke so far. Mid-week nights were quite simple – but Monday, Fridays & Saturdays tricky. The first because most people had no money left after the weekend, the latter two because the pubs didn’t need to provide any incentives to bring in the punters – they were full anyway.

The Sean problem

Andrew & I reckoned that we could overcome some of these issues by setting up a regional competition running over two months and culminating in a grand final. Amongst all the tuneless bawling there were a few people with real talent. With good media support (and we were successful with local press and radio) we had something extra to offer the pubs. It worked for a while but then we ran into the Sean problem.

Every session needed a presenter to deliver the gear and run the show. The best source of these was amongst the audience. Unemployment was high so there were plenty of people who fancied getting an income for being in the spotlight and were prepared to do the heavy lifting that 21″  cathode ray TVs involved.

A pattern developed: initially they would be grateful for the opportunity, then they would get a little self-important and finally they would buy their own kit and undercut our prices. Adam, Ron, Terry, Rob – the list ran on and after the fifth occurrence I gave up the struggle. Financially it had been just about okay but the emotional cost was too painful. The last of my machines resided in a dark corner of my garage until recently when I decided it had to go. There were too many memories but it did outlive the robotic lawnmower.

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    John Spiers

    John is Chairman of EQ Investors and Chief Executive of The EQ Foundation.

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