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Is karaoke singing valid street performance ?

Ahoy there viewers,

Last week in my effort to circulate The LOW RENT ORCHESTRA’s tunes around the region I went to Nambour for some busking. Located 15 minutes from the beachs of Mooloolaba, Nambour was once the regional centre of the Sunshine Coast. The town has been subjected to many changes over the last few decades and survives more than anything by way of it’s proximity to the Bruce Highway, the main railway line passing through it’s commercial centre and more importantly the diverse and tenacious nature of it’s local population. I have been busking in Nambour streets since 2007 and as a result been invited and stoked to perform in some of the town’s markets and festivals in that period.

Traditionally an agricultural centre, Nambour now days offers cheaper rents for both residentual and commercial use than the adjacent coastal strip which has a tourism focus. I guess that is why I often hear the phrase ” Nambour is where the real people live “. One of the great things about Nambour is the opportunity for folks to experience a rural lifestyle within ten minutes of the town centre. The real people I meet there are usually doing their shopping and enjoying the pleasant and recently rejuvenated streetscape in the town centre. On Thursday mornings there is a street market and the pensioners are out looking for a bargain. A perfect time and place for some busking and always my experience there and that of some of my busking friends ( such as Eb n Flo ) has been hugely appreciated. We buskers have always have managed to share the best spot outside the shopping centre.

A few months ago whilst walking toward my favourite Nambour busking pitch pushing my trolley laden with guitar, drum, stomperine, bells and whistles I could hear what sounded like a country & western record playing at loud volume. Wow . . . right where the street musicians performed I found a man singing into his karaoke machine. It was about ten o’clock in the morning so I introduced myself and asked what time he would finish so I could decide whether to wait or go elsewhere. He told me he would be there until after midday when the lunchtime trade would provide his best time to make some money. So I went off up to the main street, sought permission from a shop to busk outside and went about my business of putting some live original music into the streets of Nambour.

I remembered there had been another karaoke performer in Nambour a year or so previously, however his show and street persona was more of an example of poor street performance etiquette. On that ocassion I was busking away in my favourite spot outside the shopping centre and watched in amazement as this dude set up his paraphenalia only twenty metres from where I was performing. He ran his amp from a 12 volt battery mounted on a trailer he towed around on his old push bike. He had a solar panel rigged up and he lay that out on the pavement, then he unloaded his deck chair and a rackful of CDs and without as much as a how do you do, what’s your name or how ya goin . . . he plugged in the microphone and started his show . . . right over the top of my own show . . . real loud. He had some much stuff spread out all over the footpath it reminded me off a prospector staking a claim. I instantly figured it would’nt be long before the cops arrived so I packed up quick and vamoosed . . . happy with my own effort and not wanting to get caught up in the debacle unfolding outside the shopping centre.

Subsequent visits to Nambour and other towns where I see buskers using pre recorded music for their show has become the basis for this article. My conversations with the karaoke buskers have lead me to question their validity as street performers and their place in a council operated permit system for street performers. I understand the use of pre recorded music, backing tracks, sound canvas at reasonable volume can deliver a nice vibe when accompanied by a polished performance with an instrument. Which raises the question: is the voice is an instrument ? However I am of the view that use of pre recorded music by a performer, but particularly by a busker is less desirable that of a completely live performance that expresses the skill, talent and often virtuosity of a musician. Public interaction with a live musician is deservedly ” more real ” that the experience of listening to a CD played in a public.

The disparity between the two methods of delivering a performance and the relevance of live versus pre recorded can be argued on many grounds. The energy of a completely live act is, in my opinion, so different from the option of pushing a play button that I would rest my case on this factor alone. The use of karaoke equipment has it’s place I’m sure, but not for busking . Easy manipulation of pre recorded music ( and often copyright law ) is completed when the karaoke performer sells themselves and cds created from the musicianship of others. Isn’t technology wonderful folks. What do you think ?

20 responses to “Is karaoke singing valid street performance ?

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  2. Anonymous April 19, 2019 at 9:27 am

    I think people just really need to get their heads out of their backsides. I write/perform my own music, I play piano and guitar but I’m going to get some backing tracks, a Roland Cube and sing because I bloody well want to. Simple as that. I will not over power any ones spot like some ignorant tosser , or set up without consideration but for people that really want to build themselves up as a ‘real’ busker while looking down at others is just foolish. We do what we’ve got to do and as long as we are doing it well then it is for people to decide. I personally am not someone who would kid myself about weight of busking influence on nobility or society in general so live and let live perform and let perform is my viewpoint.

  3. Eliza August 24, 2016 at 10:05 pm

    Yes, the voice is certainly an instrument. As a classical singer some of my best songs are unaccompanied – so if my voice isn’t an instrument, what are people listening to? And guitar as an instrument? Every second person can play the guitar. *I* play guitar – but not to sing to as my songs doing suit it. I play the harp, but don’t always take it (with the amp etc it’s a bit to lug around). So I will use backing recordings. I prefer my accompanist, or a band, but I can’t take them busking! The other points you mention don’t really have anything to do with the central question – those people were just rude, no matter what “instrument” they had or didn’t have. Go tell Julie Andrews, or Joan Sutherland that the voice isn’t an instrument. Real singers spend as much time learning and practicing their instrument – MORE TIME – then the average joe strumming a guitar.

    • dws53 August 28, 2016 at 1:58 am

      Right on, Eliza.
      The human voice is of course an instrument, perhaps even the very first musical instrument by a human.
      What was described by captaintricko is horrendous and I reckon illegal, as per council standards. But it is also just plain “cheap” for someone to pop in a CD and sing along pretending to be an artist – any L-plate clown can do that.
      The tracks I use are professionally arranged and produced and sold by firms in the US, France, UK and Germany mostly. I purchase each track I use, and often the per-track cost can be as much as an average 20-song CD or even higher if I am asking for something very specific or unique. These are tracks made especially for vocalists, and included in the cost are the rights to perform in a live, public arena. I cannot make and sell CDs, nor can I perform in any broadcast medium without paying a substantial fee and having written permission beforehand. This is part of the licensing agreement.
      I cannot play a portable instrument like a guitar, trumpet or host of other instruments that I’ve played in the past, due to a physical disability. But I CAN sing, and have been professionally trained by two very well-known voice tutors who are also actively performing singers and of whom I have full support.
      My voice is my main instrument of choice. As it was for Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Andy Williams et al, all of whom NEVER played a musical instrument of any kind. And nowadays many pop artists record over tracks that have been previously recorded.
      I’ve watched morning-show TV where performing “live” bands are obviously using backing tracks to perform their recent album hits/releases. Let alone the fact that the fingers on the frets don’t match the chords being played, etc etc etc.
      I sometimes sing with a 30+ pc brass & wind orchestra, and let me tell you it’s great to have the punch of a big, live band behind you. But I can’t take them with me on the footpath.
      Let’s also remember that I had to actually audition for my busking permit, besides having to formally detail the full particulars of my “act” for council to consider before granting me a license. I’m proud to say that I have renewed my permit each year, as well as holding a valid ABN and full liability cover insurance. I take this very seriously. Quite a fair number of buskers out there have not even bothered to secure a permit, which ends up affecting the rest of the bonafide buskers.

      • Keith Upward March 1, 2018 at 6:54 am

        Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra were accomplished musicians as are many of the popular artists known only for their vocal ability. I have been busking in Nambour using my vocal ability. I am praised for my ability to mimic Sinatra, Buble` and Bobby Darin. Their talent relied/relies on their consummate timing which I try to emulate. Yes I consider my voice an instrument when I blend it with some of the wonderful backing bands that these performers use. I agree that almost anyone can knock out a Johnny Cash or other Country Singers work using the digital backing music. I do that myself at Karaoke for fun. I do play the Blues Harp, but I don’t consider myself good enough to perform live, but I’m only 78! so I’ve got plenty of time!

    • Richard November 24, 2017 at 3:02 pm

      I went the Sammy Davis Jr. show at Caesars in Las Vegas. He performed with pre-recorded music with just the silhouette of the band behind him. His voice and showmanship are what I came to see and hear and that’s what I got. GREAT SHOW!

  4. Benedict Roff-Marsh June 1, 2015 at 7:54 am

    I don’t think we should set rules on how art can happen or what it should be but karaoke (while entertaining for some) is pretty slim as original performance. What you are talking about here is laziness and arrogance. I hope there isn’t anyone rewarding that sort of thing.

    • Richard November 24, 2017 at 3:19 pm

      I went the Sammy Davis Jr. show at Caesars in Las Vegas. He performed with pre-recorded music with just the silhouette of the band behind him. His voice and showmanship are what I came to see and hear and that’s what I got. GREAT SHOW!

  5. Dave April 25, 2015 at 2:05 am

    Hmm… I’m in a dilemma here. I’m primarily a keyboardist, but lugging a keyboard around to busk is virtually impossible. I used to play guitar, but losing a finger off my fretting hand now makes that impossible. I have purchased professional backing tracks (NOT karaoke) from companies in the US, UK and Germany. The licensing stipulates I cannot use them for broadcasting performance (TV/Radio), or any place that charges an admittance or cover charge. I also cannot make CDs without purchasing specific licenses for each song, and believe me the prices are not cheap. Public performances however are covered, and that is what these are made for basically. Royalties have been paid to the original song owners.
    As I sing a lot of Rat Pack material, I HAVE to use backing tracks. They just don’t cut it on a guitar or ukelele. Ask any voice teacher and they will certainly agree that the human voice is indeed an instrument; the very first musical instrument many would point out.
    I’d have to ask you all – is your guitar the accompaniment to your voice, or is your voice the accompaniment to your guitar?
    I’m mainly “out there” to entertain, not to steal some busking position. I do love to entertain in the outdoors and at small cafes and the like. I’ve always been a public person, having spent decades in the hospitality business. I hold valid council permits, including $20M liability insurance and an ABN. Many buskers I’ve come across don’t have anything at all and couldn’t be bothered.
    If I’ve paid the dues, why should I be scorned?
    (Thanks for listening!)

  6. Francis Brennan April 23, 2015 at 9:36 am

    I just edited wikipedia because they referred to buskers who use karaoke tracks as “one man bands”. These performers are an absolute disgrace, and it’s time we let them know. Anyone can wank on a guitar or a sax, playing solid backup is what’s difficult about music!

    • miguel de la o July 24, 2016 at 7:51 am

      For a singer it is usually quite difficult to be invited to be a bands singer. The options are hire your own band. $$$$$ Karaoke tracks make it possible to be a basker. I sing Gnarls
      Barkley Crazy – 3 1/2 pitches down and 12 % slower and make it my own. It is well received. How many renditions of Michelle My Belle – have been covered.

      • Count Harmony October 3, 2016 at 7:29 am

        I like to sing harmony on duets. But finding someone to sing a strong lead is tough – & who wants to busk.. I buy the Bette Midler Karaoke “The Rose”. I record the lead. then I go out and busk the harmony adding in real time vocal gestures.
        Sarah McLachlan – In the arms of an angel —stunning, stunning harmony. Stand by Me – brilliant harmony and back up.
        Close harmony is being forgotten -flying pickets, pippinni sisters, Everly Brothers, Andrew Sisters – thank God for Collabro.

      • dws53 October 5, 2016 at 10:11 pm

        Miguel, you have definitely NOT “made it your own”. You are stealing someone else’s intellectual rights (copyright) by taking the actual production. What you have done is altered an original track simply by a pitch and speed alteration. A cover is something entirely different, as in putting your own arrangement in and whatever variations to “make it your own”. Cole Porter’s “Night And Day” was recorded by many artists, such as Sinatra, Fitzgerald, Bennett, Tormé – etc etc. Some are slow and sultry, others swingy and very jazzy. But the original copyright owner is firstly entitled to fair payment for the use (and subsequent re-recording and distribution) of his own material. These other artists simply added their own “twist” to the original song, AFTER GAINING PERMISSION TO FIRST USE IT.
        I purchase individual tracks for the purpose of live performing. I don’t copy karaoke CDs. The licensing restrictions are spelled out and must be adhered to. There was a case only a couple of years ago where a performer was using Michael Jackson karaoke CDs for his act, where he chose and duplicated specific tracks to use in his MJ “show” or “revue”. His act including singing and various dance moves to accompany the songs. He was sued by Sony Entertainment for the copyright breach and received a very heavy fine. It was a landmark case to show that Sony takes copyright seriously.

        Count Harmony, you are basically doing the very same thing.

        It’s like buying a Hyundai car and taking all the emblems and insignias off it and putting on Mercedes Benz ones and then calling it your own creation.

  7. Eb'n'Flo May 31, 2014 at 5:42 am

    RIGHT ON BROTHER! If you can’t play, stay home. . . . .otherwise I could record all my vocals and just play rhythm. . . what a cop out. A Real Busker makes the music on the spot.

    • Andrew O'Hara August 8, 2018 at 9:25 am

      This kind of attitude is absolute elitist garbage. Just because I don’t play an instrument doesn’t make me any less of a magician or an artist.

      I came upon this page because I’ve been interested in busking, but I don’t play an instrument. I have tried over the years and I simply lack the dexterity. So, the thought has occurred to me to try it using a backing track whether it’s a track specifically made for karaoke or an individual’s personally made instrumental cover/backing track. Regardless of what I use, when I sing the songs I enjoy singing, it’s rare that I do a straight karaoke version. Not only that, with very scarce exceptions, karaoke tracks are not being played by the original artists and already contain slight difference from the original. It’s extremely rare that a karaoke track is released by the original artist. So, the notion that it’s somehow nobler to use a different track that isn’t earmarked for karaoke is just silly.

      And to the person who claimed that adjusting the tempo and key of a track isn’t “making it your own” then you clearly lack an understanding of what that term means.

      Here’s a personal example: I sing “Zombie” by The Cranberries when I go to a place for karaoke. I don’t alter the karaoke track in any way. I sing it in the same key and same tempo as the original. However, there isn’t a single person that has heard me sing that song that would tell you that I don’t make it my own version.

      The bottom line here is that it isn’t up to any one person to create rules as to what is and isn’t “legitimate” performance. Just like any art form, it’s subjective. In this case, it’s up to the passers by to decide if they like what they’re hearing.

      The other issues you mentioned like turning up the volume to overpower what another performer is doing. As someone else said, that’s an entirely separate issue. That could happen no matter what the person is playing.

  8. March 12, 2014 at 9:10 pm

    Is there a website or music store that would allow me to choose which specific karaoke songs I would like on one CD?.

  9. March 12, 2014 at 9:10 pm

    This is just sick and wrong!!!. . Isn’t there a speed control on that midi device???. . As? spoken at the end: It’s insane! Thanks for sharing!!!

  10. March 12, 2014 at 9:10 pm

    Where is a good place for music in Warsaw, Poland?

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