ROTTERDAM 2021 ■ Eurovision to become less ‘live’

Change is by default one of the instruments that many people talk about these days. Especially in these ultra-complex times, change moves societies forward, but also majestic projects like the Eurovision Song Contest. With regard to the new Eurovision regulations that were announced yesterday –vocals from backing singers do not need to be ‘live’ anymore and can all be part of digital backing ‘tapes’– it is pretty easy to say that they only have long-lasting positive effects. By: Gert Waterink

But after reading both positive and negative responses to these rule changes, I thought it was time to look for some nuance. Are these rule changes really rooted in true socio-empathic arguments? Are they really positively influencing the financial sustainability of the contest? Is the Corona-crisis really opening up our eyes about how we should deal with costly mass events? What about the technical complexities; should they be a positive Marcel Bezençon-esque driving force or a simple negative we need to get rid of? So does modern change always equal good change?

Minimize the size of their delegations, thus saving costs” and “Reducing the technical burden and costs for the host broadcaster as well” are perhaps the two most important lines of the new Eurovision regulations that basically create an incentive to produce music in the most modern way possible. The future Eurovision stage is made ready for music that embraces the age of digitalization. And frankly on the surface to me it looks okay.

The charm of ‘live’

To analyse this rule however, it is important to look at why there is a certain complexity with regard to adding as much ‘live’ music as possible, including backing vocals. Sound checks need to be executed in the editing room. That in itself is indeed a process that inherits certain complexities, takes time, thus could also increase some costs. Backing vocalists, if their mics have too high volumes, can sound too loud with regard to the lead singer(s). Not to mention singing in tune, which these days after so many rehearsals can become a problem.

But isn’t that part of the charm of a competition? Doesn’t this add to this wonderful bit of unpredictability that otherwise would be lost if more and more music would be on a backing tape? And, although I have great respect to sound editors, they make mistakes too. We saw that with Madonna during last year’s interval act. Yet, those are the rough edges that distinguishes live television making from YouTube, Vimeo and Spotify streaming services.

The ‘Corona Poker Card’

Obviously, here we touch the actual problem that the contest faces in the age of pandemics like Corona. The past months digitalization went into the highest gear. Before the Corona Crisis digitalization was already inevitable. But looking at how Zoom and Skype really took over traditional physical interactions between human beings, it’s a new normal that does reduce so called aerosols, thus increases chances of being infected by the virus.

However, in recent weeks we also saw how the Corona Virus heavily collides with the economic and financial household of nation states. Securing public health more often now starts colliding with the health risks of the virus to the economy. Unemployment, the superfluous nature of (physical) jobs, bankruptcies, income inequality: as we speak they fully create havoc.

Backing vocalist Marcel Swerissen about to provide vocal support to Duncan (2019)

Back in March both medically approved & tested mouth masks ánd the 1,5 m distance rule were seen by national public health institutions as good instruments to prevent infections. However, we’ve already arrived in a moment where airline companies prefer to take the mouth mask as the best option and throw the 1,5 m rule into oblivion. Not because the 1,5 m rule is less effective on people’s health, but simply because that rule is like 500% more incompatible with large economies of scale. A mouth mask can all too easily avoid these destructive complexities, thus airplanes can be fully stockpiled again with humans. No empty seat in between, nothing.

I got a similar feeling with this new Eurovision rule. Make no mistake, this has nothing to do with turning Eurovision in a Corona-proof event. With or without this crisis, eventually this change would have happened. But the underlying arguments as to why the EBU comes with this rule change to me seems typical to mass event organizers. By applying trickle-down policies, this is again a rule that puts the individual EBU-member state in the unwanted driver’s seat from the bottom upwards and handily avoids bigger more drastic rule changes (the European Broadcasting Union) that are now needed from the top down.

Creative arguments

First of all, the EBU mentioned cost arguments as to why such a rule –no ‘live’ backing vocals are necessary– would be good. I don’t see it yet. It could facilitate a focus on different aspects of the actual acts. Think about the use of elaborate props and four or five dancers accompanying the lead singers. If someone recently watched the “We Dared To Dream” documentary from Israeli broadcaster KAN, one can see how many people with six-pack muscles are needed to swiftly empty the stage from props and exchange them with sometimes even bigger props for a new act. God knows how many aerosols are being blown away in that confined space. And then there are the dancers. There are obviously no sound editors needed here, but they do need to choreograph themselves during countless of rehearsals that are kicked off in their home nations.

There you have it. For the EBU it’s perhaps relatively easy and less risky to slowly dwindle down the use of the sound editing room, but it could facilitate a focus on bigger and more elaborate acts that are not prone to changing rules in the age of Corona. Make no mistake, by doing so you tend to focus on what music producers and broadcasters want, and a little bit less on what musicians would like to do.

The costs then become a national talking point, whereas it should be a more concrete talking point within the European Broadcasting Union. More rich public broadcasters will probably not immediately act upon this rule, but smaller, less financially capable broadcasters could basically demand certain musicians to leave those backing vocals home, whereas for the acting musicians they are meant to be ‘live’, a pivotal part of their music palette. Thus, in a way, the EBU facilitates a certain craftmanship of music that isn’t always meeting standards of what musicians would like to bring on the Eurovision stage. A certain type or genre of music could therefore benefit more from it than others.

These are creative arguments, but are rooted in costs as well. But even the financial reasoning behind it doesn’t cut the full narrative of financial sustainability either.

Financial sustainability at large

In recent years organizing the contest has become costly, if not disruptive for both national broadcasters and local governments. We already saw in the KAN-documentary that the Tel Aviv 2020 contest was literally an event that was organized by a completely new unexperienced broadcaster and that most of the investments were made on government loans (whereas Prime Minister Netanyahu initially ‘promised’ KAN to pay for everything). For the Dutch organizers it’s even much harder. The cancelled 2020 event due to the Corona Crisis basically made it happen that around €6 million was thrown down the gutter, as no insurance company would repay the 2020 Ahoy Arena reservation costs.

To make a long story short, it would be better not to put (delicate) financial reasoning behind rule changes like these if all the EBU now needs to do is financially supporting host organizers in case of such hardships. To me digitalization and its cost-efficiency look like the more logical reasoning behind this new rule change. Health risks then all too easily could become an excuse, not a goal in itself, to speed up such rules

And even then it’s at best a cynical decision that makes the profession and craftmanship of backing vocalists more obsolete, especially in comparison to prop manufacturers and dancers. Not to mention the role of influential record companies in all this.

Loïc Nottet doing the soundcheck with his backing vocalists / dancers (2015)

The Swedish brand

It also seems that the so called ‘Swedish School’ has become the prime blueprint for everything that happens to the Eurovision Song Contest these days. Martin Österdahl (already the fourth Scandinavian executive supervisor since 1993, after Christian Clausen, Svante Stockselius and Jon Ola Sand) said: “In 2013 and 2016, when I was Executive Producer for the Contest at SVT in Sweden, we implemented changes to how the running order of songs is chosen and later the way the voting is presented. Both of these adaptions to one of TV’s oldest entertainment formats helped to create a more exciting show for viewers.” True, but those were utterly necessary changes, already talked about heavily be fans and aficionados before the EBU embraced them.

But perhaps in these difficult times, where social media questions everything, even winners, the EBU needs to take a step back and also reflect on themselves, without Swedish guidance and without trickle-down risk aversion.

The right decision?

Change is necessary, but for goodness sake be critical about it. Most of the time it works, but the initiation of a full 100% televote back in 1997 in hindsight was not the good one and juries came back to accompany us in deciding the winner. The new rule change though, seems to be an unnecessary one that is verbalized with flawed financial, creative and health arguments.

I encourage NOS, AVROTROS and NPO therefore to really tackle the big bottlenecks of mass events in the age of Corona, as I don’t see the EBU doing it (yet): real financial sustainability and durability (the radical one, you are needed here EBU, shorter run time), a real Corona-proof contest (no standing area) and a contest that truly facilitates all aspects of music (not just the one that’s exponentially helped by digitalization and record companies).

In the meantime it’s at best too early to say it’s a good change to allow vocals on tape and at worst a cynical change where its arguments have been mixed in a badly ventilated sound editing room.

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