For the ideal affordable weekend escape, Alex Casey suggests a trip to Auckland’s coin-operated karaoke booth.
Within the gleaming citadel of the fancy Newmarket mall, it’s easy to feel like you are stoned in an endless escape room. There’s a river on the roof, there’s a bridge in the sky, and it often feels like the only way to get out is to ask for so many free samples at Mecca that you get escorted out by security. We reviewed it when it opened and it did not go well. The very last time I was there, I got lost in a basement level at night and had to traverse a steep ramp not meant for humans, the saddest version of American Ninja Warrior ever captured on a security camera.
But the scary flash mall has a terrific not-so-secret secret: Coin Booth Karaoke. Not only does it make the whole mall a worthwhile visit, but is arguably the best thing you can do in Auckland with nothing but a $2 coin and a song in your heart. Right by the KFC, with its blazing neon sign and impossible-to-miss hot pink exterior, the space is rammed with private karaoke booths, all with their own charming illuminated “ON AIR” sign. You pay a handful of pennies to the nice person at the front desk, get assigned a booth and then all the world becomes your stage.
When you travel through Coin Booth Karaoke, you are immediately surrounded by muffled versions of what is, truly, the absolute worst singing you’ve ever heard. Sometimes you can make out lyrics. A man belting “I’M A PAAAaaAAAaaYPHONE, TRYING TO CAAaaaAALLLLL HOME” at a volume that suggests he is actually trying to reach Adam Levine in his Montecito residence. A gaggle of high school gals giggling their way through ‘Anaconda’. What sounds like the same guy, again somehow, singing ‘Let It Go’.
At Coin Booth Karaoke, everyone can hear you scream. But everyone’s screaming, so it’s OK.
I know I just broke this rule but, generally, Coin Booth Karaoke patrons respect each other’s privacy. You might pass someone as they are leaving and exchange a small bashful nod, the kind usually reserved for when you catch eyes with someone in the mirror at the hairdressers when they have their hair slicked back, or enter the tragic air space of someone eating a muffin alone. It’s a look not of pity, but of a shared understanding. I understand you are doing this for yourself, not for me. You’re at a payphone, trying to call home, all of my change I spent on you.
Inside your booth, which really only fits two people comfortably but can be rammed like a clown car if you are a teenager pooling funds, I’d suggest going straight to the digital library. There are classic laminated songbooks, sure, but last time I visited I was told that the song library is updated every day, rendering the books about as useful to you as a copy of The World According to Clarkson is to a charity shop. Instead, search with your heart open. You can afford to take a risk. It’s only you, your karaoke partner, and probably me listening outside.
We’ve written about how to avoid karaoke mistakes before, but in Coin Booth Karaoke you can tear up the rulebook. You don’t have to know the whole song. You could, hypothetically, get three minutes into ‘Beauty and a Beat’, ready for Nicki’s grand entrance, and realise the only bit you actually know is “buns out, wie-ner”. You aren’t ruining it for a room of people, just your trusted partner who has seen you do much, much, much worse. You could choose ‘Blank Space’ and immediately crack the biggest high you’ve ever cracked. It’s fine. You’re safe here.
What also makes Coin Booth Karaoke truly sing (ha ha ha) is the automated party lights that pop off time in perfect timing with your chosen song. During a recent sojourn which included marathon belter ‘It’s All Coming Back To Me Now’, the coloured party lights dropped away to stark white fluorescence right in time with the “BABY BABY BAAAAABBBYYYY” and it was the single funniest and most vulnerable moment of my life to date. At 7.39 minutes long, it was also just enough time to forget that I was filming with my front camera on, so enjoy this.
You can see why, since it exploded across South Korea in 2018, coin-operated karaoke continues to be outrageously popular. Coin Booth Karaoke has another franchise in Chancery in the CBD, the preferred location of a cool 12-year-old who agreed to be interviewed about her obsession. “I like it because you can sing with a mic in front of a big screen,” she says. “You can sing however you want as well because it’s kind of private. And if you go with a group you can split [the cost].” Her songs of choice? ‘After School’ by Weeekly, ‘On the Ground’ by Rosé and ‘My First and Last’ by NCT Dream.
The booths are thoroughly sanitised between every use, a reminder of what we’ve all been through to get to this dream-state of living where we can stop and sing ‘Welcome to the Black Parade’ on the way to buying a pair of tights at Farmers. Compared to the hectic and expensive carnival-themed bar in the same building, Coin Booth Karaoke has none of the same feeling of “forced fun”. It’s hilarious, it’s harmless, it’s joyful and every visit has lifted my mood more dramatically than any kind of new-fangled “fitness” or “therapy”.
Plus, for just 1/14th of the average brunch price, or 1/570,000th of the average house price, you’re not going to find anything, anywhere, any time, for much better value in Auckland.