Karaoke website aims to hit the right note

PureSolo founders John Thirkell (left) and David Kaplan
Image caption PureSolo now hopes its website will strike a chord with singers and musicians in the US

As many of us can attest, having a go at karaoke in a pub can seem like a great idea at the time - but less so when we remember the morning after.

Perhaps as a result of so many tuneless memories, more and more amateur singers are choosing to get their karaoke fix in the privacy of their own home.

And they are increasingly doing so via their computer, using one of the growing number of online karaoke providers, which according to industry figures have seen their trade increase four-fold over the past year.

One start-up UK website, PureSolo, has gone a number of stages further.

In what it says is the first business of its kind, vocalists can download a song - from thousands of popular titles - and make as many recordings as they like for a single one-off fee per track.

They can then share their performances with other PureSolo users, burn or email a copy, or attach it to their Facebook page.

PureSolo is also open to musicians, who can choose to play any instrument featured on a particular song.

You simply pick which instrument you wish to be muted, and play your guitar, bass, saxophone etc into your computer's inbuilt microphone.

And if you want a little help hitting the right notes, the sheet music or tablature is displayed on your computer screen.

'Absolute jungle'

With licence agreements in place with all the main record companies, PureSolo, which launched in the UK in 2007, has now just expanded into the US - a move it believes will transform the business.

The company, which currently employs just 14 people from its London office, was co-founded by UK professional musician John Thirkell.

Still much in demand as a session musician, Mr Thirkell has played trumpet for everyone from George Michael to Tina Turner, Jamiroquai, and Roger Waters from Pink Floyd.

"It can be a lonely business learning an instrument, so the idea for PureSolo was to make the process as enjoyable and interactive as possible," he says.

However, before PureSolo could get up and running, Mr Thirkell and his co-founder, former Goldman Sachs financier David Kaplan, first had to persuade the record label bosses.

This was far from easy to begin with, they said.

"Getting the publishing rights was an absolute jungle," says Mr Thirkell. "We had to persuade and cajole.

Image caption PureSolo's users only have to pay once for a track before making as many recordings as they want

"We had lots of meetings with the record labels, and told them they should consider us as an alternative revenue stream, and another way for them to engage with their fans."

Mr Kaplan adds: "At the first meeting they looked at me as if I was mad.

"But we kept arguing our case and persuading, and we got there eventually. Getting the first record company on board was tough, but once we were over that hurdle, the others followed.

"And now we have entered the US, which offers massive potential to grow the business. There is a giant market in the US for PureSolo, a huge amount of singers and musicians."

'Learning tool'

With downloads costing from 49p to £1.99 per track (of which the publishing firms take a cut), PureSolo has doubled its number of UK users to 42,000 over the past year.

To help achieve this, its promotional work has included running competitions with a number of high-profile musicians, such as Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler and DJ David Guetta.

Image caption PureSolo ran a guitar playing competition where the winner received a lesson from Mark Knopfler

In the case of Mark Knopfler, the PureSolo user who best replicated one of his famous guitar lines won a one-to-one mentoring session.

For David Guetta, the winner of a singing competition was flown, all expenses paid, to see one of his concerts in Europe and meet the man himself.

Yet it is not just the rock 'n' roll lifestyle for PureSolo, as its website is also now being used by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music to help classical musicians practice for their exams.

PureSolo's software is also installed on computers at schools across the UK as part of the government-backed Sing Up campaign to promote singing among children.

"We are particularly proud of these two developments, as we always believed that PureSolo has real educational value," says Mr Kaplan.

"Yes, there is a fun side to the business which attracts the karaoke fans, but it is a great learning tool."

'Bad habits'

Yet while learning to play an instrument via a website may sound enjoyable, is it ultimately any substitute to going to a proper tutor?

David O'Callaghan, owner of Chiswick Guitar Group, who has been offering guitar lessons for a number of years, does not think so.

Image caption PureSolo's website is also used by people learning classical instruments

He says: "Whilst the internet is a marvellously rich source of learning a musical instrument, there really is no substitute for learning technique, touch, and tonal control from another human being.

"Bad habits are very easy to pick up when starting any new skill, and the guitar is no different.

"I'm afraid the internet does not watch over you while you are learning, and is not there to tell you when you are doing something wrong."

He adds that with many people now spending their working lives in front of a computer, they don't want to do so when they get home in the evening.

Sheet music

Yet such is the march of the internet, that even the main producers of sheet music are now increasingly seeing their business go online.

Mark Mumford, European director of sales at Hal Leonard, the world's largest sheet music publisher, says: "Our online presence is growing and growing in significance.

"The problem for us in the past is that while we have always had great websites, users would simply print out the sheet music, which as a result, was of a lesser quality, and of lesser use, than actually buying the book in the first place.

"What has transformed things is the onslaught of the iPad [and its computer tablet rivals], which is exactly the right size for displaying sheet music.

"We can rely on this to really enhance the sort of things we are doing regarding digital content."

At London-based Sunfly Karaoke, the switch to online has been even more dramatic.

"Our DVD and CD mail order sales have fallen off almost completely over the past 18 months," says Franceska Brown, Sunfly's business development manager.

"By contrast, downloads from our website have tripled, if not quadrupled.

"For us, online is much more efficient because we can make the tracks live as soon as we produce them. We can follow the charts."

Back at PureSolo the focus is now on cracking the US.

But have they considered trying to break Japan, the home of karaoke?

"That's a tough one," says Mr Thirkell. "It is a challenging market with a lot of established players, but we haven't ruled out looking to try and get a local Japanese partner."

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