The Eurovision Song Contest was created in 1956, inspired by Festival di Sanremo, the Italian festival we know as a lengthy national selection. Singer Antonio Diodato won the 70th edition of Sanremo and was slated to go to Rotterdam to sing “Fai rumore” (Make some noise) on 16 May.
On 30 January, two tourists tested positive for COVID-19 in Italy. These were the first two cases in the country. Sanremo 70 occurred the week after.
On 9 March, after over 9,000 cases were diagnosed and 460 deaths, the entire Italian nation was put on lockdown. In the following days, PrePartyES, Eurovision in Concert (Netherlands), and the London Eurovision Party – the three main pre-parties in Western Europe – were canceled.
On 18 March, what fans were dreading came to pass: the Eurovision Song Contest, slated to be hosted in Rotterdam, would be canceled for the first time in its 64.5-year history. Dreams of sprawling stages and Eurovision alum alongside live orchestra during a dazzling interval act starring DJ Afrojack were dashed by the harsh realities of current life. According to the John Hopkins live numbers, over 3000 new cases were reported in the span of about four hours (between midnight and 4 AM on 21 March UTC), as well as 400 deaths and 800 recoveries. Over 175,000 people worldwide are actively fighting the virus inside of them. The communicability of the disease led to dramatic measures to decrease close communication with others worldwide.
The cancellation of the event (and many others, including all sports seasons) crushed fans worldwide, as well as alumni of the competition and even the artists themselves. The EBU had posted its official statement and FAQ, but yet, fans were still aghast at its cancellation. Actions from fans and performers included:
- petitioning the EBU for things such as an online competition (which was specifically rejected as an option);
- asking for a delay (which was specifically rejected as an option);
- petitioning the EBU to crown Iceland the winner of Eurovision 2020 on account of it being a “banging tune”; and
- requests to perform songs from the 2020 season in 2021.
This was the first year I had followed the national final season so closely. I listened to the intriguing output of people from all over Europe and beyond and covered 20 national finals in the Three-Minute Throwdown series (as well as Festivali i Këngës before much turmoil arose, to say the least). I may not have agreed with all the results, but in the process, I found some beautiful music and some intriguing ways people have arranged and executed their own music. There were only a few songs that I disliked, but that said nothing about the performers themselves, who have shown themselves to be incredibly charismatic despite the limited media contact under the current circumstances. It is hard to see these songs go without any international fanfare on a Eurovision scale, despite the circumstances absolutely necessitating the dilution of crowd density. The EBU put the nail in the coffin on the third request, though not without significant concessions for the artists in the context of EBU-wide content programming, and according to the tweet below, likely in more ways than just releasing the 2020 CD, as Croatian broadcaster HRT has indicated on Instagram.
From a musical business point of view, this makes sense. Outside the Eurovision bubble, most songs lose their novelty after a year. The current music market demands novelty and is filled with continuous streaming of the same tired musical facsimiles. After a certain point, novelty gives way to burnout on the recording: never changing, cheapened with time, dead in creativity and original expression. Even in the post-album era of today, the chances of one song sustaining an artist’s career without additional chart or touring success is slim to none. On the business side of Eurovision, then, lies a deep well of economic and musical opportunity for the participants. This is possibly where the greatest losses for the artists originate.
An online song contest is out of the question as well after measured considerations. In person, each delegation is provided with the same stage and sound team to work with. The EBU can guarantee the authenticity of the performances when their workers are there in person to ensure that performances follow the rules. There is no such guarantee on an online platform. Even if performers follow the rules of live performance, the different studio environments could handicap some broadcasters, as may have been the case for Carla (France) and Melani (Spain) before Junior Eurovision 2019. A contest without even preconditions for the competitors is thus not worth having for the sake of all parties involved.
If the Eurovision Song Contest were the only one of EBU’s contests to air annually, perhaps rescheduling for this year and years to come would be a more reasonable demand. As it stands, Poland is still scheduled to host Junior Eurovision in November. Pushing adult Eurovision to late summer or fall would induce an oversaturation of Eurovision music in the second half of the year between the two competitions and split the attention of the audience and media. That is unfair to the participants of both contests, whose fans would be split between anticipating a delayed contest and following a second season of national final selections. The semi-current May/November schedule provides an optimal buffer between each competition’s conclusion and the lengthy international selection process. On top of that, the shortened turnaround time for any future Eurovision contest, should the contest schedule remain as it has this millennium, would likely cause significant broadcaster stress between rushed preparations, construction, and yet another musical vetting process. Permanently moving Eurovision to the second half of the year is likely out of the question for the same reasons as mentioned above. All of this can be reasoned without interference from COVID-19, whose vaccine research and development are currently underway but which still remains the world’s most immediate threat.
Despite discussions of Eurovision as a contest, however, the Eurovision Song Contest is far more than just a contest. It is a festival of song, where delegations of musicians and media professionals come together to network, make lasting friendships, and speak with prospective fans while the artists perform the one song that represents their country countless times (nowadays, at least). Beyond the musical networking and countless interviews from all sorts of media sources lies a great sense of camaraderie between many participants. The sense of togetherness – of having been picked to perform on the same stage together, if not outright performing – gives these performers a space to share in their commonalities even outside the contest. JOWST and Kristian Kostov released a song together in March 2018, “Burning Bridges”, following their meeting in Kiev.
Eliana Gomez Bianco (Malta, Junior Eurovision 2019) wished her good friend Mila Moskov (North Macedonia) colorful birthday wishes last week.
Finally, “You Raise Me Up”, the most famous song by Norwegian-Irish duo Secret Garden (1995 winner), was originally meant to be a collaboration with the legendary Johnny Logan (1980 and 1987 winner; composer of 1992 winner “Why Me?” sung by Linda Martin).
Despite being a contest between countries in name, modern Eurovision contests in particular have made it clear that group unity is a driving goal, not just in the context of the competition but also the European Broadcasting Union in general. The Great Depression did not end humanity’s will to overcome. Wars did not extinguish humanity’s longing for connection. If we think of each other over our selves, however, increasing isolation measures give all of us a chance to inch one day closer toward seeing each other again in better circumstances. And so we persevere as humankind, onward until we can communicate in word and deed again. Let us hope that the “alternative programming” planned by the EBU and its members earnestly commemorates the event’s aims, music, and people involved in the 2020 production, lost to the COVID-19 pandemic.