'Rocky' Balboa KOs the karaoke scene

They come for the fame, they come for the applause — and they come to sing

"Rocky" Balboa, owner of SingWithRocky.com, got into karaoke both because he loved to perform and because it was a natural progression from his broadcasting background.

Heidi Schiller
   As the lights dim and the stereo’s clanging guitar solo fades, a sudden thumping bass begins to shake Glynn’s Shamrock Pub when “Rocky” Balboa takes the microphone.
   While the beat thwacks and bumps, Balboa announces the start to this night’s entertainment. It’s not a band, or a DJ …
   It’s karaoke.
   Balboa, Bellingham’s karaoke guru (not to be confused with the famous boxer from Philly), can’t help but cut a few inadvertent dance moves and air-guitar strums as he sets up the makeshift stage, arranging play lists and organizing request cards, before starting off the show with his own rendition of Elvis’ “Thing Called Love.”
   Two young women shimmy their way in from the outside, shaking to the beat and joining the small clapping crowd.
   One of those women is up next, and sings a Shania Twain song, “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?”
   She twangs and croons her way through the tune in a beautiful voice that defies the normal karaoke stereotype of drunken growling and ear-splitting cackles.
   It appears to be a departure from the karaoke of the ‘80s, an era that recalls sloppy howling and off-key serenades.
   Balboa has worked toward recreating the perception of karaoke and redefining it as a form of performance entertainment, rather than a glorified drinking game.

More than a feeling
   Rocky Balboa was born Edward Balboa, but renamed himself a few years ago after his hero, “Rocky.”
   During the ‘80s as a Nooksack High School teenager with Bon Jovi hair, Balboa was sure he was going to be the lead singer of a rock band, like Journey — his favorite. He moved to Seattle intending to hit it big, but soon realized rock stardom didn’t come easy.
   “I found out if you wanted to be a rock star, you had to have a day job,” he said.
   So instead of cleaning toilets or waiting tables, he enrolled in a small broadcasting trade school, the National Broadcasting School in Seattle, and after graduating as valedictorian, began a career as a DJ. He worked at Seattle’s KISW for five years and then at KUBE for 10 years, where he hosted the “Saturday night hot mix,” the “5 o’clock traffic jam” and the “old-school lunch” programs.
   He later became the manager of a small independent radio station in Tacoma, called the Funky Monkey, and sold the business after three years.
   Back in Bellingham in 2003, he found his true calling.
   “I stumbled into Glynn’s Shamrock Pub, and this guy was doing karaoke,” he said. “I got up on stage and sang a Journey song.”
   He liked the experience, so when he found out the guy was selling his business, he saved up $5,000 and bought all of the songs and equipment and formed Stallion Entertainment, which began offering karaoke services as SingWith Rocky.com.
   “And it just blew up,” he said.
   Balboa now has four sound systems, more than 50,000 songs to choose from listed in four fat notebooks, and seven evening shows a week.
   So you want to be a rock and roll star
   Most karaoke hosts get into the business because they love the performance aspect of it, Balboa said. But his success comes from the fact that he has both star quality and a business background with a degree in broadcasting, a DJ voice, and marketing and advertising experience.
   A major success has been his Radio Idol program, modeled after the American Idol TV show, where his karaoke singers vie to win either $500 or a trip to the next American Idol auditions.
   “Karaoke singers by and large have pretty big egos,” he said. “I came up with the idea for Radio Idol because everybody wants to be on the radio.”
   He also saw an opportunity to cash in on a national phenomenon.
   For three months, audience members at each of his shows chose three winners to perform at a Friday-night finale at Hot Shotz Martini Bar, and that night’s winner got a clip played on KAFE radio station.
   “Everybody got to be Simon out in the audience,” Balboa said.
   KAFE listeners then voted for the ultimate winner of Radio Idol on his website in May, who opted for the $500.
   Because his shows attract competitive singers, he said he draws more crowds than normal karaoke nights, which is good for him and also good for bar owners.
   “A lot of people think karaoke is about singing, but it’s not. I don’t consider myself a karaoke host, I consider myself a beer salesman,” he said. “If I’m not making a bar money, then why am I there?”
   But Balboa loves the art form and its adrenaline, too.
   “I love being in front of people, I love being on stage, I love the camaraderie of the karaoke community,” he said. “It’s a small, hardcore group of people that just love to sing. Maybe they didn’t get enough love in their childhoods, I don’t know, but what happens is they turn into applause junkies. You get up onstage and you’re pretty much buck naked, there you are in front of God and everybody and I push play and a song comes up and you can fly or die, you know?”
   Kaye Marvin, a 24-year-old participant at Glynn’s Shamrock Pub, said she fell in love with karaoke when she turned 21.
   “I love being a star for two minutes,” she said.
   Marvin, who was the second-place runner up in Radio Idol, goes to about three of Balboa’s shows a week. She said she has tried other karaoke venues, but none match up to Balboa’s energy and equipment.
   Her friend, 29-year-old Danielle Swedelius, agreed. She said she appreciates that Balboa lets her record and listen to herself sometimes.
   “I go as often as I can,” she said.

With a little help from my friends
   When Balboa first checked out Bellingham’s karaoke scene, he was bored, to say the least. The shows lacked energy, had limited song selection, and the performers just didn’t “pop.”
   With his 50,000-song selection — five times more than the average karaoke host, he said — his expensive sound system, bigger amplifiers and vocal processing capability, Balboa turned the karaoke experience into a performance destination, and then advertised furiously.
   One of his marketing techniques has been to start a MySpace page in addition to his website. Balboa said it has been an effective marketing tool because it’s free and he gains access to all of his MySpace friends’ friends.
   “You end up building this bank of friends, and when you’re running a business like I am, you can send out bulletins and event invitations to a large network of people,” he said.
   Balboa offers free drinks or appetizers to any of his MySpace friends who re-post his events on their friends’ pages.
   Despite his efforts, there is still a segment of the public that looks down on karaoke, a segment Balboa is slowly punching down.
   “There is a group of people who don’t consider karaoke as real entertainment,” he said. “Karaoke is like the red-headed stepchild of entertainment.”
   Balboa is determined to change this perception by proving people wrong with good singing. And good singers bring fans that follow them to the show, making money for himself and the bar owners.
   “It’s almost like I should be paying them,” he said.



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