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The Right Decision: Eurovision To Allow Vocals On Tape  Written by on June 18, 2020 | 5 Comments

With the news that pre-recorded backing vocals will be allowed at the Eurovision Song Contest 2021, Ewan Spence discusses why the change is one more positive step in the continued evolution of the Song Contest.


First up, let’s start with the core message from the EBU today regarding the Eurovision Song Contest. It’s not the rule change around backing vocals, it’s not the temporary nature of the rule change, it’s that the Song Contest will continue. Executive Supervisor Martin Ōsterdahl:

The 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.

The Eurovision Song Contest will return. When it does return it will have changed. Good. Change is not only good, but necessary, for the Contest to survive.

One Show Or Many Shows?

Let’s look at another beloved TV series with a highly engaged community and ask a simple question. How long has Doctor Who been running? 

Given the show first aired in 1963, the easiest answer is 57 years. But is that actually the case? Jon Pertwee’s third Doctor was a dandy helping the authorities on Earth to fight off alien invaders, something that was vastly different to the impish and innocent Doctor played by Patrick Troughton the year before. Every actor brings his or her own interpretation, and each regeneration could effectively be a different television show, albeit sharing the title with a previous show.

Naturally there are other voices in the community that suggest each show should not be determined by the actor, but by the production team. Looking at Tom Baker’s run, there were three different shows – the gothic horror Phillip Hinchcliffe, the lighter tone of Graham Williams, and the soap opera stylings of John Nathan Turner.

Doctor Who in the 21st century has also had multiple series, depending on your viewpoint, and the now highly connected in real time community will defend ‘their’ series against all others, decrying the ‘death’ of the show at the point of any major change. Yet ‘Doctor Who’ continues.

Which leads to a fundamental question for our community.

How long has the Eurovision Song Contest been running? Is it the sixty-four editions since 1956? Is it nine years old, spanning the reign of Jon Ola Sand as Executive Producer? Did it only start four years ago with the changes to the voting presentation? Or three years old, starting only with the new voting system?

The answer is all of the above. The Eurovision Song Contest is an ever-changing constant.

Things That Have Been Lost And Gained

By the very nature of being a long-running television show, things will change at the Eurovision Song Contest. By the very nature of fandom, when certain elements are changed the show will never again be the show that someone fell in love with.

A look back through the history of the Song Contest shows that elements of the show that were once considered fixed have been diminished or removed. At one point the Contest’s entry list was full up and some countries (such as Malta) stayed on the alternates list for years before appearing. Then relegation was introduced, before a single Semi Final, followed by two Semi Finals.

The invited audience in their finest evening wear is part of history now. Tickets can be bought by anyone, and a standing audience around the stage is the current norm.

Not only do we not have an orchestra providing live music, we also no longer have an artist able to play their own instrument on stage.

Certain songs have also led to changes in the Contest. Sometimes they force a change on the music presented at the Contest; ‘Poupée de cire, poupée de son‘ dragged the Song Contest away from its earnest Variety Hall years into a more pop orientated sound, ‘Making Your Mind Up‘ brought an increased focus on staging and choreography, and ‘Ooh Ah Just A Little Bit‘ forced discussions on the orchestra and how music was presented.

If you are looking for a turning point in regards the use of vocals and vocal effects on the backing track, Jowst’s ‘Grab The Moment‘ may end up as being one of the key songs of this decade, as Ellie Chalkley lays out here:

“The post-chorus ‘kill…kill…kill” section in ‘Grab The Moment’ is clearly intended to be interpreted as vocals…. the fact that we have cyber-Aleksander’s mouth opening and cyber-vocals coming out does put us in a new area for which the original rules aren’t enough any more.”

If the Song Contest is to stay true to Marcel Bezencon’s goals, of reflecting modern society and culture, it has to change with the times.

Why The Change Is Good For Music

In 1957, mathematicians Yutaka Taniyama and Goro Shimura theorised a connection between the two different fields of elliptical curves and modular forms. It was elegant, it was easily understood, and it was an incredibly useful tool. It was also not proven until 2001. Until then, mathematicians would start their own proofs with ‘Assuming Taniyama-Shimura…’ and carried on as if the theorem was true.

Thankfully for more than forty years of mathematics, it was proven.

The changes to the pre-recorded vocals on backing tape are just for Rotterdam 2021, to offer more flexibility in how next year’s Contest will operate in the face of Covid-19:

“The ESC Reference Group agreed to trial the rule change for one year. As with all the rules for the Eurovision Song Contest it will be reviewed following next year’s event.”

For now, though, let’s ‘assume Taniyama-Shimura’ and consider this a permanent rule change (much like Australia’s one-off invite to enter the Contest).

This is a rule change that will benefit the Eurovision Song Contest

Firstly, the sound of modern music is not easily replicable on the Eurovision stage while staying within the ‘no pre-recorded vocals’ rule. Any treatment of vocals was not allowed, at which point we return to Jowst’s vocals and highlight contemporary tracks such as Lady Gaga & Ariana Grande’s ‘Rain On Me‘.

This features vocal samples on the backing track in the chorus. These are clearly not part of the lead vocals, and you would not be able to replace them with a synth. And they add complexity and power to the sound.

Break My Heart by Dua Lipa has close harmony ‘voice chords’, an effect that you would never get with five backing singers on stage… but put it on the backing track and you have magic.

Black’ by Dave creates an immense and emotional soundscape infused with choral effects and vocal treatments alongside a critically acclaimed blend of reportage and rap.

The Impact On Eurovision

Anyone looking to bring popera to the Contest can bring a powerful choral section to the backing tape, although the limit of six people on stage could make it look awkward… almost as awkward as Gina G having to wheel a PC on stage in 1996 because ‘all instruments used in the song had to be visible’

It leaves scope for more spectacle on stage. With a limit of six performers and a need for backing vocalists, a delegation’s presentation choices are limited. Freeing up five positions on stage will allow for many songs to be presented in a way that the audience at home will be more familiar with… namely a music video

This of course stands out as a negation of the ‘potential for a smaller delegation’, but as with any artistic choice, budget will always play a role. The option is there to leave the backing singer at home and reduce the number and expense of the delegation in attendance.

It also means that in a band with seven members, the ‘Sad Tony’ seventh member can be involved in the final performance, albeit still out of sight.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the EBU has been explicit that lead vocals are not to appear on the tape… that includes any ‘lead dub’ where a backing singer matches the melody of the lead singer’s vocals. If a delegation wants to go down that route, then it will have to put that singer on stage, either as part of the performance or in an ‘off-camera but still counted as the stage’ location.

Why Change Is Needed

Is the Eurovision Song Contest behind the times in terms of music? To quote the revered text of ‘Love Love Peace Peace‘, ‘…this can easily be fixed by adding a DJ who pretends to scratch. In real life of course, this is thirty years old but in Eurovision, it will give your number a contemporary feel.”

In practice it’s clear that there are many massive hits that could not translate to the Song Contest. With the new rule on backing vocals, that will change. While the superstar artists may not join us, the Contest just became a little bit more attractive for songwriters.

There’s a reason that this change has been announced at the very start of the season. This is when the Eurovision songs are composed, submitted to broadcasters, and selected either for National Finals or to go directly to the Contest. Changing the rules while the canvas is blank is the right time to change the rules.

Nothing Stays The Same

Over the years, the Eurovision Song Contest has changed. There is a clear line from ‘De vogels van Holland‘ opening up the first Contest though to the reprise of ‘Arcade‘ last year, but between those two moments almost everything has changed.

Change is hard, but change happens.

It’s also natural that something a community of fans are going to feel comfortable and connected to the current format of the Contest. Those feelings are going to be challenged by new rules and formats, and there will be resistance.

But Eurovision will be renewed, and while many will feel a loss for the old Contests, there will be a lot of love in the new Contests.

The more the Eurovision Song Contest changes, the more the Eurovision Song Contest stays the same.

About The Author: Ewan Spence

British Academy (BAFTA) nominated broadcaster and writer Ewan Spence is the voice behind The Unofficial Eurovision Song Contest Podcast and one of the driving forces behind ESC Insight. Having had an online presence since 1994, he is a noted commentator around the intersection of the media, internet, technology, mobility and how it affects us all. Based in Edinburgh, Scotland, his work has appeared on the BBC, The Stage, STV, and The Times. You can follow Ewan on Twitter (@ewan) and Facebook (

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5 responses to “The Right Decision: Eurovision To Allow Vocals On Tape ”

  1. […] after reading both positive and negative responses to these rule changes, I thought it was time to look for some nuance. Are […]

  2. Though I love reading, and on a lot of occasions I agree with you Ewan, right here I must strongly though respectfully disagree ;-). Perhaps my recent blog post sums up my view on this rule change.

  3. Shai says:

    I had to think long about what I think about this decision and came up with the following:

    1. Economically, there is no different between of any combination of 5 people extra to the lead singer,on stage. It still 5 persons that a delegation can bring in and it doesn’t really matter if they are the backing singers, the dancer or a combination of both. To place this change of rules under economical reasons is doing this for the wrong reasons.

    2. Eurovision is, among others, a live singing contest. Live vocals is an art of itself. It requires both to listen to each other, in order to get the harmony right. The balance between the lead singer and his/her backing singers(all of them) is the one that distinguish the singers from one another. This distinction will get some how lost.

    3. When the orchestra was gone we had a time when the contest was sounding like a karaoke evening in a bar. I think we are heading to that kind of contest, once more.

    4. Some countries have already the advantage of doing this kind of backing vocals during their NF. It means that for now, the field is not been played even, which is a bit against the spirit of the content. Eventually it will all leveled up, but this will take time until everyone get to the same level.

    All in all,I think this is not a good decision.

  4. James says:

    1. A Swedish-fication/Melfestication of Eurovision is certainly not welcomed, even if the Reference Group approved it.
    2. Allowing back-vocals to optionally stick to playback will only encourage delegations to bring in dancers which is counter to the intent behind the rule change.
    3. All vocals, whether it’s backing or leading, has long been a great equalizer to all the entries. That is something that fundamentally should not change. It would not make for a more modern contest if all it will do is give the more commercial songs an advantage when live performers can’t replicate what is expected of them in a live performance, which apparently has been the case now in Melodifestivalen.

  5. colmmcc says:

    If the EBU can guarantee that the “big note”, for example, is not being produced by a pre-recorded backing track then I will accept/support it. The minute this rule gets manipulated to compensate for a poor lead vocal is the minute the contest is dead. When that happens there might as well be no contest because we will be asked to vote on audio that was created weeks before the actual contest. I don’t understand why Sweden allows pre-recorded vocals in its NF.

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