Swan song for karaoke in Santa Fe?

April 22, 2018

Wearing loafers, pleated pants and a long-sleeved button-down shirt better suited for an office than a stage, 66-year-old David Jaramillo doesn’t look the part of a rapper as he spits out lyrics about passing blunts and getting his game on with the ladies.

But on the karaoke stage at Tiny’s one recent Saturday night, Jaramillo pulled the performance off flawlessly — rapping in sync to the smooth beats of “Big Poppa” by The Notorious B.I.G., a rapper who was killed in a drive-by shooting in 1997.

“I actually learned a few rap songs because my son used to come with me to karaoke, and he knows I’m old school,” said Jaramillo, a longtime musician who got his start in music by playing the trumpet in his elementary school band.

“I’ll do like ‘Put Your Head on My Shoulder,’ Beatles stuff, old stuff, and he says, ‘Oh, Dad, I’m going to teach you something a little at least within the last 20 years,’ ” Jaramillo recalled after he performed the rap song, which drew not only looks of surprise but loud cheers and applause from at this decades-old restaurant and bar south of downtown.

“So,” Jaramillo explained, “he taught me a couple of rap songs, and that’s why I do them as sort of a goof, I guess, because I’m so old. But it’s fun.”

The fun of karaoke, though, may be going the way of the mechanical bull, at least in Santa Fe.

A shifting nightlife

While no one is singing about “the day the music died” like in “American Pie,” Santa Fe’s karaoke scene seems to be fading as two of the four regular karaoke hot spots in town — Boxcar Bar and Grill and the Palace Restaurant and Saloon — have pulled the plug on the mic. Now, the only two remaining public venues in Santa Fe with dedicated karaoke nights are Tiny’s and Cowgirl BBQ.

Boxcar stopped offering karaoke about two years ago and the Palace ended its karaoke night three weeks ago.

“They wanted to try something new,” said Michele Leidig, who hosted karaoke at the Palace on Thursday nights.

“You know, nightlife is shifting so much these past few years in Santa Fe, so they’ve got to consider the crowd they want to pull in, their overhead, everything,” she said. “A lot of people were sad to see it go away [at the Palace] on Thursdays. I had a big regular crowd that liked to come in and sing. But after five years, they wanted to try to something different.”

Representatives for Boxcar declined to comment.

Santa Fe has long had a consistent karaoke presence, according to people who follow the scene. But in recent years, the city’s once high-spirited nightlife started to grow dim, making the Palace’s recent decision especially sad for karaoke lovers, who fondly remember the days before the activity started to fade.

But at the end of the day, it’s a business decision.

Bartenders and waiters say some karaoke singers show up only to perform and don’t spend any money on food or drinks. There are also singers who follow the karaoke circuit, so their performances become stale. There’s also this: Some customers are turned off by karaoke, so either they leave when the singing begins or they avoid the bar altogether on karaoke nights.

Bar owners say they consider several factors when deciding on entertainment. When it comes to karaoke, one of the factors is the cost of music license fees for songs, which some say have become so high that hardly anybody can afford to host karaoke nights anymore.

“I have to pay the royalty fees, and I hire the hosts who also have to pay royalty fees,” said J.R. Palermo, who owns Tiny’s.

“I’ve got three entities — SESAC, BMI and ASCAP — that all require licensing,” he said, referring to three performing rights organizations that represent songwriters and music publishers.

“But then my karaoke hosts also have to pay licensing fees for usage of material for them to offer our guests, so they’re not only hitting the business, they’re hitting the providers of the karaoke,” he added. “It’s a double tax.”

Bobby Mares, who said he hosts karaoke at the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post, doesn’t pay licensing fees. He said it was his understanding that he only had to account for his music collection, which, even then, he said he probably couldn’t do.

“I understand the artists need their money and all that,” he said. “But doing karaoke for as long as we’ve been doing it, I don’t know that we could account for every song that we have.”

A spokeswoman for one of the performing rights organizations, ASCAP, or the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, declined to comment and referred inquiries to ASCAP’s website, which she said would answer most questions.

“Music is more than just an art form for ASCAP’s 600,000 plus members,” the website states. “It’s also how they earn a living, put food on the table, send their kids to school. Like any business that offers a service or produces goods for consumption, songwriters have the right to be compensated when their music is performed — even when they’re not in the room playing it themselves.”

Nanci Bushrow, who hosts karaoke at Tiny’s, said any establishment that plays music or karaoke is required to pay licensing fees to performing rights organizations, such as ASCAP.

“These organizations have been hit hard by artists wanting to recoup their share of the profits for their music that is played,” she said via Facebook. “Because of this, the organizations are like a dog with a bone. They’re going after establishments to make sure they’re in compliance. These are additional fees that a lot of places weren’t paying or aren’t willing to pay. They can get hit with a hefty fine. Some places don’t feel it’s worth it.”

Bushrow said there are a lot of “gray areas” when it comes to karaoke.

“We try to abide as closely as possible, but because so many things aren’t written in stone, it leaves everyone a bit vulnerable,” she wrote.

Pam Scissom, who has followed the karaoke scene in Santa Fe, said she would be willing to pay a cover charge to help defray the costs incurred by business owners and karaoke jockeys who follow the rules.

“I believe that songwriters earn every penny that they make; they deserve it,” said Scissom, 50. “I have friends who have been songwriters, and they receive a check for like three cents. It’s ridiculous. It’s not even worth the paper it’s printed on or the postage it costs to mail it to them. They deserve something for their hard work and effort like every other artist. Nobody should be asked to do anything for free unless it’s a charity event.”

‘They need to take it easy’

Despite the costs, Scissom said she believes businesses like Tiny’s and the Cowgirl will continue to offer karaoke.

“There’s still going to be karaoke,” she said. “They will just cut back on their songbooks, and I’m going to have less variety to pick from.”

Scissom, who performs a drag king act outside of karaoke under the name Adam Bomb, said she likes karaoke “because it’s fun as hell.”

“Karaoke is something that everybody can do,” she said. “You don’t have to get drunk to do it. People that do that, they more than often sing more poorly because they don’t have their faculties about them, but they need the courage to get on stage.”

Though he was drinking a beer, Cory Petermann, 31, needed no liquid courage to get on stage at Tiny’s.

“It’s a cool scene, man,” he said. “Everyone who can come together and sing some songs and appreciate music, they got to be a pretty cool person, in general. And it beats just sitting at a regular bar doing nothing, just drinking to get drunk. To me, it’s more fun if you’re doing something at the same time.”

Leidig, who used to host karaoke at the Palace but now does it only at the Cowgirl, said the karaoke scene isn’t the only thing that’s changed in Santa Fe’s nightlife.

“I’ve been living in Santa Fe for 20 years, and yeah, I remember the nightlife back then. I’m one of the crusty old ones sitting at the bar going, ‘Oh, back in the day,’ ” she said, laughing.

“Ten years ago, Tuesday night was such a massive locals night,” she said. “People who lived here went out a lot. Tuesday nights many years ago, I co-hosted the open mic at El Paseo. It was dollar Tecate night, dollar Pearl night at the Cowgirl. There was tons of live music and stuff going on and people actually coming out. That’s been steadily dwindling. Everyone is financially strapped, so instead of like people going out maybe two, three times a week, they maybe go out once a week now.”

Carving out a niche

Palermo, who declined to disclose how much money he pays in music licensing fees at Tiny’s, said he has no plans to do away with karaoke on Saturday nights. He said Saturday is one of his busier nights.

“I want to be able to offer a niche,” he said, adding that businesses like his are now competing with neighboring casinos. “We’re all competing for a slice of the pie and the pie is getting smaller and smaller.”

Patrick Lambert, co-owner of the Cowgirl, which offers karaoke on Monday nights, said music licensing fees for karaoke and other forms of entertainment are “fairly expensive.”

“It’s another one of those myriad of things that a business owner has to deal with,” he said. “The public may not understand the huge amount of hidden costs in running a place that sells food and alcohol. It just goes on and on and on.”

Karaoke keeps some customers coming back, including people like Jaramillo, who learned rap on the advice of his son.

“I’ve never been a member of any organization like Kiwanis or anything like that where it’s a social thing,” he said. “But this is sort of like a social club, although it’s nothing — what do you call it? — organized. But that’s part of it, too. You want to come. You don’t want to be isolated at home, so it’s a feeling of belonging.”

For karaoke jockeys like Bushrow and Leidig, Jaramillo’s sentiment is music to their ears.

But as local business owners turn down the volume on the city’s karaoke scene, their reality could hit a sour note.

Contact Daniel J. Chacón at 505-986-3089 or dchacon@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter @danieljchacon.