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story.lead_photo.caption Cher Evans of Bentonville performs last month at Big Box Karaoke in Fayetteville. - Photo by Charlie Kaijo

FAYETTEVILLE -- A new venture on Block Avenue is introducing Asian-style karaoke to Northwest Arkansas.

Unlike typical karaoke setups in the U.S. -- with singers taking turns serenading a bunch of strangers -- Big Box Karaoke offers seven private rooms of various sizes, configured for a state-of-the-art singing experience.

Rooms feature big screen TVs, a top-end lighting and sound system with wireless mics, and seating for two to 25 people. Singers can select from up to 60,000 songs available through a smartphone app -- with a 100,000 song selection soon to come. The app also allows users to create a playlist before they visit Big Box so no time is wasted searching through songs to select.

Big Box Karaoke opened in January, the brainchild of Mailena and Justin Urso, a pair well-known in Northwest Arkansas' entrepreneurial scene. The couple lived for a while in Japan where they fell in love with Asian karaoke, where the singing takes place in private suites.

"You don't have to wait. You're with the people you want to sing with," Mailena Urso explained. "In Asia, that's just how they karaoke."

When they returned to the U.S., the couple experimented with a few nightspot business ideas but when they saw that the building at 115 N. Block Ave. was available, they knew it was the right location for Big Box Karaoke. It had the space, could be renovated to meet their needs and was part of a growing number of businesses on the street.

Brett Amerine, chief operating officer of Startup Junkie, a business consulting group based in Fayetteville, said the private suite concept that Big Box Karaoke capitalizes in is popular and is a good fit for Block Avenue.

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Cook Paul Wappler prepares a banh mi sandwich at Big Box Karaoke. The bar and restaurant mirrors Asian-style karaoke setups that feature private rooms.

"It adds to the mix of boutique retail and local food businesses like Little Bread Company, Hugo's, and Foxtrot for example," Amerine wrote in response to emailed questions. "It's a concept that's proven in other MSA's (metropolitan statistical areas), and its great way to further activate Block street in the evenings."

Big Box rents rooms by the hour at a prime time rate of $10 a person, with some time periods reduced to $5 per person. It also offers group rates. Food and drink can be ordered for the room and consumed there. There's also a large, open lounge area where people can have meals, snacks or order drinks. The clientele includes couples, groups of friends and relatives, and participants in birthday and bachelorette parties and team-building events.

The location boasts its own bar and kitchen. It features a menu that's described as Asian-inspired street food. Young people are allowed in Big Box until 9 p.m., after that its strictly for people 21 years and older.

"It's been awesome so far," Mailena Urso said.

In 2017 karaoke bars in the U.S. saw revenue of $434.8 million, according to a report from research company IBIS World. Sixty-nine percent of that income came from alcohol sales, with a little more than 17 percent from cover fees, song charges and room rentals, and nearly 14 percent from food and nonalcoholic beverages. The report indicates that between 2012 and 2017, the industry saw an average annual revenue decline of 1.2 percent, but it predicts an annual decline of 0.1 percent from 2017-22.

The report notes that the success of the industry is linked to household disposable income and that it faces a variety of competition from other forms of entertainment, some of which don't require people to leave the comfort of their homes.

High-end karaoke bars in urban locations that offer private rooms have kept consumers interested in the category, according to the report, which says success is linked to use of new technology -- including wireless microphones and digital song access. In the future, karaoke bar owners are expected to focus more on their target market -- people 35 years old or younger.

Big Box Karaoke's concept using private suites allows it to serve a wide variety of customers -- from teens at birthday parties, to executives in a team-building exercises, to groups of friends looking for some spontaneous fun on a Saturday night, Mailena Urso said. She said if the concept is successful, the couple will consider expanding to other cities in Northwest Arkansas.

"This is the perfect way to start," she said.

SundayMonday Business on 02/10/2019

Print Headline: Karaoke in Arkansas gets an Asian-style twist: New spot offers high-end electronics, private singing suites

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