XTRA Debate: Should live instruments make a return to the contest?

When ‘Toy” was dropped in March, part of Netta’s viral appeal was the use of her iconic looper. Upon release, we expected that Netta would not only bring the looper on stage as a physical prop, but as a live instrument itself which had clearance from the EBU and RTP. 

A Live Looper is a musical instrument that records and consequently plays back a sample of music in real-time. The effect of this adds a sense of polyphonic layering to music, giving it a bombastic and energetic feel.

As we all know, the Eurovision rules stipulate that pre-recorded vocals are not permitted in the contest. However, see for yourself if the rules clarify where looping comes into it: 

Artists shall perform live on stage, accompanied by a recorded backing-track which contains no vocals of any kind or any vocal imitations aiming at replacing or assisting the live/original voice of the Contestant(s). The Host Broadcaster shall verify respect for this rule.

Eurovision rules, EBU 

Hm… maybe not. It seems this year Israel have unintentionally exposed a gaping loop hole (pardon the pun) in the breadth of the contest rules. Honestly, I think it was only a matter of time.

Nevertheless, “Toy” acts as a contemporary example of an age-old debate within the fandom: Should live instruments make a return to the contest? 

Problems on problems 

On a practical note, this seems like a firm no. I’m not entirely convinced that the addition of live instruments would demonstrably improve the contest. The infrastructure would have to change. Adding more microphones, sound levels and other tech. Needless to say, all of this comes with a price tag. 

Similarly, backing vocalists who mimic the actions of playing an instrument on stage would need to be replaced by actual musicians who would also double up as singers? One more layer of complication. 

There is an obvious added risk too. Could you imagine if Alexander Rybak hit a bum note or one of the strings was slightly out of tune in a song called “That’s How You Write a Song”? Awkward would not be the word!

Furthermore, the reintroduction of live instruments, or even an orchestra to the contest adds a complex moot point. Would live instruments or even an orchestra be mandatory, or an optional add-on? Can the setup and changeover of live instruments (alongside props!) be realistically achieved in the 40-50 seconds of a postcard? I think these rhetorical questions need to be answered before the Contest makes a change. 

As it stands, Jan Ola Sand has a pretty firm position on the issue – as evidenced with his interview with ESC Insight this year. Referring to the Looper he comments:

That would actually be like bringing an instrument into the Contest. We don’t allow that for production reasons basically. Because if you allow one instrument, be that looper or guitar or violin then we build something that might be difficult on the night.

Jan Ola Sand

Nostalgia and Professionalism

Even though my head tells me live instruments in the modern Eurovision is a non-starter, I am sympathetic to calls to bring them back. There is a great element of nostalgia watching older contests with live instruments, observing musicians in their prime. Using Netta again as an example, despite initial assurances, she was not able to use her looper as anything more than a prop. Although the Israeli delegation created a substitution using the backing singers, it did alter the overall sound of the performance. 

Following her win, Netta outlined the setbacks she faced during her Eurovision journey – including the looper issue: 

It was very difficult, I didn’t know how to digest it, I even collapsed…I’m a looper artist. That’s how we built the song. Without the looper, we were giving up on our professional integrity.


The final sentence is particularly helpful. The Eurovision Song Contest is beyond three minutes on stage. It is about showcasing the best of musical artistry. To strip away live music, in a sense, hollows out the raw musicianship of the song.  We should celebrate the artistry and craft of music, rather than clinically restrict it where necessary. 


On the question of live instruments:

Shows like Sanremo or the FiK remind us how much power an orchestra can bring, and also how organic and “living” music can be. “Occidentali’s Karma” falls from grace was partly due, I believe, to the absence of an orchestra. 

San Remo… A time of live instruments and extra fur

My first thought would be to say: let’s accept a few instruments, like one or two. Rybak’s violin, the Serbian flutist in “Lane Moje”, etc. A whole orchestra wouldn’t fit and would indeed cost a lot, especially with 42 countries.

By putting a limit on how many instruments you can play, the EBU could add some creativity in a Eurovision package, and encourage countries to take risks: another live element is another potentially failed live element (think about the saxophonist in “I Anixi”, Greece 1991). Countries could stick to the “all recorded” or the “partly live”. But we would need to notify the televote, at least for the voters to know if they hear a perfectly played music, or a backing track.

The only issue, of course, is that the only songs that could be fully live would require minimalistic instrumentation. Thankfully, we have two record-breaking such winners on both sides: “Amar Pelos Dois” with recorded track, and “Rock’n’Roll Kids” with a live piano and a live guitar. It wouldn’t be a problem.

On the question of vocals:

Live vocals are an integral rule of the contest, and they are necessary, especially if we are to keep a “no live instruments” policy (which seems to be the case). Voices are actually the only live instrument allowed, and delegations have been innovating and pushing the boundaries of the rule, which is artistically interesting. From voice transformation (the vocoder of the Olsen Brothers, the “echoes” in many songs, etc.) to the allowed use of a looper, countries have been creative.

I’m quite attached to backing vocalists: they form a team with the lead singer(s), they foster their talents and Eurovision experience, and some of them even end up in Eurovision later on (Imri, Surie, Cesar Sampson, etc.), while some Eurovision stars can go back to the big stage as backing singers without “suffering” from the fame (Anabel Conde, Sahlene, etc.). They need to be good, to form a true team, because if they can “save” a song by covering faulty lead vocals (“This is Love”), they can also break a song (“Say Yay”). 

However, the use of artificial voices as a specific kind of sound effect is not something that worries me. It’s the “Grab the Moment” controversy. I completely agree with the EBU’s take on the matter: as those sounds are completely artificial and impossible to reproduce with a human voice, it falls more into the category of sound & music. Moreover, in this specific case, the “voices” were synced with pixellised faces, making it obvious it was nothing truly natural, but more part of some sort of digital psychedelic fantasy… So it’s fine!

What are your thoughts? Is it realistically possible to get live instruments back into the Eurovision Song Contest? Let us know your thoughts and feelings in the comments or on social media @ESCXTRA!

Comments on XTRA Debate: Should live instruments make a return to the contest?

  • http://eurovisionthroughtheages.blogspot.co.uk Martin

    The problem with Netta’s vocal looper was that it was classed as an instrument and that, although everyone was led to believe at one stage by the Israeli delegation that she had clearance to use it, the EBU had already decided that she would not allow be allowed to use it on stage in Lisbon. This was confirmed by the Israeli delegation in a question to them by a Polish journalist in one of the press conferences there. There was probably more hope that realism before the Contest…
    It has to be an all or nothing scenario – it seems easy to let portable instruments play live but they still have to be set up for sound and tuned for the environment – there is also the question of other acts protesting about not being able to USE their instruments. Can you imagine Waylon sitting passively by and letting Netta use her looper live when he would be stopped from playing his guitar? There were 13 acts in Portugal who could have played their equipment live – that is a lot of tuning and setting up that the production team can’t do for a tightly run tv show…

  • https://wordpress.com beccaboo1212

    No orchestra, please. They just ruin the competing songs. 🙁

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