Meet the Millionaire Karaoke King of YouTube
There’s big business in crudely re-recorded karaoke versions of pop songs
As a teenager, Nya Crea would rush home from school and rehearse karaoke tracks every night. She found endless inspiration in Christina Aguilera, Aretha Franklin, Pink and “diva singers with powerful voices and charismatic personalities,” she says from her London home. After 12 years as a professional singer-songwriter, Crea now shares new material and Whitney Houston covers with her 35,000-odd YouTube subscribers.
“I’m always looking for instrumentals to add my voice to,” she says, but until a few months ago struggled to find backing tracks she’d actually want her name attached to. One day, while Crea was frustratedly scrolling through YouTube, she came across a channel called Sing King Karaoke, and hasn’t looked back since. “With Sing King I am never disappointed, and [viewers] love it too which makes me super happy.”
Crea is one of 6.8 million subscribers devoted to Sing King, who since late-2012 have made the joy of screaming pop lyrics at high volumes their business. From their small office, nestled amongst the vibrant streets of Soho in London’s West End, Sing King’s team of six have amassed over 3.3 billion views solely through singalong videos, making them the biggest dedicated karaoke community on YouTube.
Up to 100 million viewers perform bedroom renditions of ‘Bad and Boujee’ by Migos or Frozen 2 ballads every month, with December being their most lucrative to date. 20+ million unique users spent their festive break serenading family members with golden oldies (‘Stayin’ Alive’), Christmas hymns (‘Silent Night’) and new material from impeccably dressed British heartthrobs (Harry Styles).
Those kind of numbers are usually a surefire sign of success — and a resultantly buoyant bank balance. Better yet, the process seems, on the surface, relatively simple: they create an instrumental version of a popular record, add lyrics, upload to YouTube and wait for the revenue to roll in. But that isn’t the case. Until March 2019, when they became a fully licensed channel, a minefield of legal and copyright laws meant Sing King spent years struggling to make their huge platform pay. Now, they’re earning six-figure sums per month.
Sing King was created by Chris Michael, who built his karaoke fortune from the ashes of a quintessentially 2000s-era business. IntoMobiles, Michael’s first company, produced ringtones for Nokia 3310s and flip phones from the hits of Blu Cantrell and other noughties favourites. “I was marketing my service against the Crazy Frog which was everywhere at the time,” laughs Michael. (With just shy of two billion views, the official music video for Crazy Frog’s biggest hit is YouTube’s 41st most-viewed video ever.)
Cell phone ringtones was big business until the global financial recession, regulations and iPhones killed the market, leaving Michael with re-recorded versions of thousands of records. “We had all this content doing nothing,” remembers Michael. “So we repackaged the audio into video and became a karaoke business.”
Karaoke has largely remained the same since 1971 when Japanese musician Daisuke Inoue founded a new form of entertainment, one that encourages often tone-deaf (and always tipsy) revellers to perform wobbly versions of ‘My Heart Will Go On’ to varying degrees of success.
Innovations have happened. In the mid-2000s, home karaoke games like the SingStar series grew popular and by 2009 had sold 20 million copies, but this success didn’t last — Sony recently announced that the SingStar servers will be taken offline on 31st January.
In 2009, UK publications proclaimed the death of karaoke, with The Independent putting part of the blame at a 5% drop in British pubs offering karaoke nights and, strangely, a lack of British singers participating in that year’s World Karaoke Championships. Even in Japan, the home of karaoke, participation numbers have fallen by 15.1% between 1996–2016.
No need to warm up the vocal cords for a rendition of Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’, however (one of the most popular songs at funerals). There is good news. Since 2014, annualized revenue in America’s karaoke industry has (slowly) increased by 0.8%, generating $781 million in 2019. IBISWorld stated that “renewed interest in high-end karaoke bars has stimulated consumer interest in urban areas.”
“One reason for the karaoke resurgence is that people are playing with the medium,” says Anna Kealey, host of the Karaoke Theory podcast. “And apps like Smule and Musical.ly, now TikTok, have given people a chance to have fun singing at home.”
“Karaoke is incredibly similar to the experience of going to a club,” adds Sing King CEO Jordan Gross, who is well experienced in both. Before joining Sing King in 2018, Gross co-founded East London venue Oval Space, a haunt for techno DJs and dancers wanting to rave until 6am. “It’s all about enjoying the collective experience of music and sharing that with others.”
Sing King is most popular in the USA, Britain, Indonesia, the Philippines and Brazil, and their audience is predominantly “kids from 13 onwards,” says Sing King COO Shrina Lakhani. “We also have a sweet spot with people between 18–34.” She owes this broader success to how karaoke is moved away from “dark bars” to become a legitimate form of culture. “People want to sing from their bedrooms, with their friends and in the car. YouTube allows them to do this.”
Tracks join the Sing King playlist when they gain success in the pop charts. “Billie Eilish has an incredibly active community, and there’s huge appetite for K-Pop,” tells Lakhani. Sing King also monitor social media trends — their ‘meme karaoke’ playlist features the unforgettable CaptainSparklez ‘Revenge’, and the inimitable ‘ok boomer’ by peter kuli & jedwill. “We have a keen eye on what’s really trending, and it’s not necessarily what’s number one on Spotify,” says Lakhani. But ultimately, their requests are decided by their fans, who plead for future uploads of their favourite songs over hundreds of comments.
“Singing liberates me from stress, and Sing King plays a major role in this,” says Wilson Kitandu from Tanzania. Kitandu is a Sing King superfan, commenting ‘Please I request Juice wrld ft seezyn HIDE instrumental’ on every single one of their Instagram posts dating back to 26th March 2019. “I would love if they upload [this song]. If it’s a wish, I wish to see that song uploaded,” she says. For now, she remains disappointed.
For each video, Sing King commissions a member of their global team of freelance bedroom producers and studio musicians to recreate a chosen record. Hip-hop beatmakers reproduce Kanye West while pop musicians take on Taylor Swift, and it takes around two weeks to get from track request to YouTube. These instrumentals can be freely uploaded, but the bigger problem comes when you attach lyrics to the screen, which require sync licenses to publish.
Broadly speaking, copyrighted songs can be used on YouTube but videos are either not eligible for monetisation or the copyright owner receives the revenue. For Sing King, as aspects of an original song — the artist’s voice — are removed from their videos, the question of who owns and earns what “makes karaoke a complex type of music to license,” says Michael. For this reason, YouTube doesn’t verify karaoke content.
How did Sing King become the exception? Money, mostly. In mid-2018, the team set out to prove to publishers that Sing King could earn them enough regular cash to make it worth their while. “When we started, we were told we’d never be big enough to pay publishers enough revenue,” Michael remembers. “So we took it upon ourselves to show them that we could be big enough.”
Eventually they were successful, and have agreed licensing deals with big players like Sony/ATV, Kobalt and Universal Music Group. After that, following years of failed attempts and pressured negotiation, Sing King proved to YouTube that they had the legal green light. “It wasn’t until March 2019 when we first started to generate ‘proper’ money,” says Gross. Now, as Sing King are the only directly licensed music channel on YouTube, they’re making lots of it, and solely through YouTube adverts.
In 2020, Sing King doesn’t just want to dominate YouTube. It wants to dominate the world. They plan to launch aa mobile and TV app — so you can perform karaoke wherever you want — and with licenses in place, Sing King can pursue brand partnerships, merchandise opportunities and everything else that comes with a hugely popular YouTube channel. But while the future is bright for Sing King, their passion for amateur theatrics remains. “People send us videos from their wedding receptions using Sing King or singing to our playlists on a train in Thailand,” says Michael. “Everybody loves to sing, and we’re giving them the tools to do what they love to do.”