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In-Depth: Should We Keep Pre-Recorded Vocals In Eurovision?

Pre-recorded vocals are confirmed to be part of Eurovision 2022, after being introduced last year. Should they be kept in the contest?

Along with the three-minute song length rule and the six-person limit on stage, the requirement for live vocals is one of the hallmarks of the modern Eurovision performance; this means that any vocals required for the performance,ย  including any backing vocals, must be replicated live on stage. This has caused issue for some songs that lend themselves to complex vocal arrangement, which then struggle to translate to a live performance. In general, this has been an uncontroversial rule that the majority of broadcasters accepted.

In 2021, with the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, the EBU considered a range of measures to ensure that the majority of countries could still take part as usual, and avoid having to severely strip back or even cancel the show.  One of these measures was a one-year trial allowing delegations to use pre-recorded backing vocals in the 2021 contest in Rotterdam. Eurovision Executive Supervisor Martin ร–sterdahl said:

โ€œThe lessons learned from the spring of 2020 are that we need to plan for a global crisis, and we have tailored the rules of the Contest to that effect. We must be able to be more flexible and to make changes even to the format itself and how we organize the event in these challenging times.โ€

Martin ร–sterdahl, 2020

The main rationale for including pre-recorded backing vocals was to allow delegations to cut costs as and when needed. Through removing up to five backing singers, a delegation could save substantial costs on headcount, which could prevent them needing to withdraw due to financial strain.  It was expected that this would only be a temporary measure for the 2021 contest, which was heavily impacted by the ongoing situation; however, even with restrictions lifting and the likely return of a full audience, the EBU have continued to allow pre-recorded backing vocals in the 2022 contest. This seems to be influenced by use of pre-recorded backing vocals being generally successful in the 2021 contest, and the fact that the 2022 contest may still be impacted by the pandemic. This has raised questions over whether the EBU is planning to keep pre-recorded vocals for good, leading to debate from fans, who are largely divided on this issue. This article explores some of the main argument for and against the use of pre-recorded backing vocals in Eurovision performances.

Arguments For Pre-Recorded Vocals

More Diverse Songs Could Enter

The requirement for completely live vocals has meant that songs that sound great in studio then fall flat live on stage, as delegations have struggled to replicate some vocal elements in the live setting. For example, the backing vocals in Monsters by Saara Aalto in 2018 sounded fine in studio, but screechy on stage; this wasnโ€™t necessarily the fault of the backing vocalists, as it was a difficult effect to perform live versus in studio. In the same year Oniro Mou by Yianna Terzi from Greece had a thick backing vocal effect, however, even with five backing vocalists backstage, Greece struggled to replicate the rich vocals from the studio track to the live performance.  

The year before, Norway was facing a similar issue, as Grab the Moment by JOWST featured a โ€˜choppedโ€™ vocal effect that would have been near-impossible to perform live. In the end, Norway was able to bend the rules and incorporate the necessary pre-recorded vocals. Although this was met with some controversy, there was not really an alternative option that would avoid having the live performance sound strange.

JOWST performing Grab the Moment in 2017.
Credit: BBC

It is often difficult to get complex vocal arrangements to be replicated perfectly on stage; this leads to songs either sounding flat in the live performance, which may deter delegations from entering these types of song to the contest. Hence, allowing pre-recorded backing vocals would avoid this problem and mean that songs with a variety of vocal arrangements could be entered without any hesitation.

It could be argued that backing vocals are not so much vocals, but more part of the instrumentation, which has been fully pre-recorded anyway since the orchestra was retired in 1998. Therefore, it would make sense to keep this pre-recorded to ensure the backing track sounds as close to studio as possible, with only the main vocals being performed live.

Further Staging Potential

The six-person rule in Eurovision is an uncontroversial and popular rule among the fandom. However, this limits the amount of singers, backing vocalists, dancers, band members or anyone else that a performance may require.  For example, if a song by a solo artist requires three backing vocalists, then this only allows two further people to be on stage. By removing the need for live backing vocalists, this gives delegations more freedom to choose who goes on stage. We saw this across the 2021 cohort, with many countries having more dancers on stage thanks to the lack of backing vocalists.  We will likely see this in 2022 as well, with performances likely to feature performers that can enhance the live show (dancers, instrumentalists, even sand artists!). Since the six-person rule is unlikely to be lifted anytime soon, it is beneficial for delegations to have more choice in who goes on stage, regardless of the vocal requirements for the song. 

Israel’s Eden Alene performing Set Me Free, a performance that was able to incorporate more backing dancers due to the pre-recorded vocal rule change.
Credit: Times of Israel

Reduced Costs For Delegations

The use of pre-recorded vocals in a solo Eurovision performance has the potential to reduce headcount from six to one, as this feature would mean that only the main singer is required. By reducing headcount, delegations can save significant amounts on plane tickets, hotel rooms, and all the other expenses associated with sending anyone to the Eurovision host city for two weeks. This potential budget reduction could help attract countries back to the contest, who have previously withdrawn due to financial reasons (e.g. Luxembourg, Slovakia). 

Pre-Recorded Vocals Have Worked In Melodifestivalen

Pre-recorded backing vocals have been a feature of Swedenโ€™s Melodifestivalen since 2009, and it overall it has proved successful. While there have been some complaints about how this sounds in some performances, pre-recorded vocals have been a useful asset for the majority of Melfest performances. The main issue with using pre-recorded vocals in Melfest has been translating this to the Eurovision stage; however, if pre-recorded vocals are to stay in Eurovision, this will no longer be such a problem.

Alcazar performing Blame It On The Disco in Melodifestivalen 2014, a performance that relied heavily on pre-recorded vocals.
Credit: Eurovoix

Arguments Against Pre-Recorded Vocals

Artists Could End Up Relying On Pre-Recorded Vocals

The issue that many fans have raised is whether the use of pre-recorded vocals in Eurovision will lead to some artists taking advantage and not performing at their best vocally. While pre-recorded vocals are only intended for backing vocals, and not as a replacement for main vocals, some have raised concerns about whether pre-recorded vocals will be used for the right reasons. All throughout Eurovision there have been artists who have had weak vocal performances, which is usually apparent on the night and is deservedly reflected in the result. However, over-use of pre-recorded vocals could mask an artistโ€™s poor vocal performance, leading to an undeservedly high result โ€“ ahead of artists who performed well.  If pre-recorded vocals become a permanent feature, it may be difficult to regulate instances like these.

Defeats The Purpose Of Eurovision

Eurovision, by definition, is a live music event. For decades it was fully live, with every element of a competing song needing to be fully replicated on stage, whether by the orchestra or by the singerโ€™s voice. In the 90s, playback was introduced for songs that did need the live orchestra. After 1998, the orchestra was scrapped and all instrumentation was pre-recorded. Although this rule change was implemented for a number of reasons, it significantly reduced the live aspect of the contest. The requirement for live vocals in all instances ensured that a key part of the contest was still live. However, by reducing the live aspect of the contest even further, this leads to raises questions over whether pre-recorded vocals defeat Eurovisionโ€™s purpose of being a live music event. Some are concerned that pre-recorded backing vocals could lead to relaxing the requirement for main vocals to be live, which would result in an effectively pre-recorded contest, in which there would be no need for live shows.

Eurovision 1998: the last edition of the contest to use a live orchestra.
Credit: ESC Insight

Some Songs Sound Better When Fully Live

Although there have been many instances of backing vocals not translating well from studio to the live performance, there are some instances where songs have actually sounded better on stage, thanks to the requirement for live vocals. A good example of this is Ukraineโ€™s 2012 entry โ€“ Be My Guest by Gaitana. The studio track features a range of vocal elements in addition to Gaitainaโ€™s singing, including backing vocals, cheering and โ€˜na na naโ€™s. Ukraine likely wanted to recreate these vocal elements live in Baku with backing vocalists; however, they also wanted four backing dancers as part of the staging.  As Ukraine was bound by the six-person rule, they did not have enough spaces for both backing dancers and the sufficient amount of backing vocalists required for the song.  Ukraine opted for the four dancers, leaving all of the vocal legwork to Gaitana. This led to some changes in the vocal arrangement for the live performance Be My Guest vs the studio cut, but ultimately the finished product on stage ended up sounding just as good, if not better, than in studio.  This is a good example of how the rule for live vocals can sometimes lead to a better outcome than if pre-recorded backing vocals are automatically used.

Gaitana performing Be My Guest in Eurovision 2012.
Credit: Eurovision Ireland.

Majority Of Successful Songs In 2021 Did Not Need Pre-Recorded Vocals 

When it was announced in 2020 that pre-recorded backing vocals would be allowed in the 2021 contest, many assumed that all countries would take advantage of this. While many did, with countries like Slovenia and North Macedonia even using a pre-recorded gospel choir, a lot of entries did not use any pre-recorded vocals. In fact, the entire Top 5 in the final did not use any pre-recorded backing vocals – with the exception of Daรฐi og Gagnamagniรฐ from Iceland, who used this feature for their โ€˜virtual choirโ€™ interlude. Other impactful and well-performed entries, such as Russian Woman by Manizha, still performed their backing vocals live despite there being no requirement. Based on the 2021 contest, there seems to be no direct correlation between pre-recorded vocals and quality of performance.

Russian Woman by Manizha
Credit: EBU // Andres Putting

Are Pre-Recorded Vocals Here to Stay?

There are plenty of arguments for and against keeping pre-recorded vocals in Eurovision. Ultimately, itโ€™s a subjective matter and each fan will have a different viewpoint. But regardless of whether or not pre-recorded vocals should be kept in Eurovision, will they be kept? The rule change in 2021 was put into place as an emergency measure due to the Covid pandemic. However, with restrictions relaxing across Europe, the use of pre-recorded vocals in the 2022 contest could very well be a trial to see if they should be a permanent feature. We will have to wait and see how the 2022 contest is impacted, if at all, by this rule relaxation, and if it is something we will have to accept going forwards.

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