MTV VMAs 2016 Preview: Lukas Graham on Being VMA 'Underdogs,' Plus Show's Return to NYC & More

Danny Clinch
Lukas Graham

Erik Flannigan, executive VP of music/events strategy & development for MTV, discusses the awards show coming home to Madison Square Garden.

The 33rd annual MTV Video Music Awards go live this Sunday, and while the weeks leading up to the main event have been filled with artist and presenter announcements, on Thursday (Aug. 25), Billboard received an inside look at the awards show's venue.

This year marks the show's return to its original home in New York, as it will take place at the iconic Madison Square Garden -- a decision Erik Flannigan, executive vice president of music/events strategy & development at MTV, says "feels right."

"New York and MTV are synonymous with each other," Flannigan tells Billboard. "Barclays Center was great, but Madison Square Garden is Madison Square Garden. And I think for the artists too, it’s even a bigger moment -- VMAs are big no matter where they are ... [but] put them here and I don’t know how much bigger you could get."

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The new venue isn't the only change the VMAs will explore this year, as the awards show has also nixed the concept of having a host. Instead, there will be various correspondents including DJ Khaled, Jay Pharoah and comedic duo Key & Peele.

Flannigan says the idea sprouted from the fact that "even [when] some of the best people host one of these shows, some of those jokes are funny, some are not." Having correspondents plays into the vibe of being in Madison Square Garden, a venue "where you could have a political convention [or] the NBA Finals." Key & Peele will sit at a desk, similar to the one in which sports or political commentators often sit during such events, to help move the show along between awards and performances.

In terms of performers, Flannigan says watching Future rehearse "was amazing."

"I'll give you a little tip on that," he says. "You know how he sometimes refers to himself as Future Hendrix? It’s kind of a Hendrix performance. Maybe not necessarily a Hendrix performance, but it fills this room, and Hendrix is a good reference point."

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Regarding whether Future will bring out A$AP Ferg to perform their latest hit single "New Level," Flannigan says, "He’s sitting right over there, so who knows? He’s in the building. … Lots of people are in the building, there could be a lot of spontaneous collaborations."

Yet another highly anticipated performance will come from none other than Britney Spears, who Flannigan says has had "some of the biggest moments in the history of the show."

The nostalgia a performer like Spears brings to the show should resonate with a large audience and draw in a diverse demographic, especially when paired with performances from rising acts like Alessia Cara and Lukas Graham, both of whom will perform during the pre-show. "I would say as a brand, in a certain way, we’re not afraid to look back and look forward at the same time," Flannigan says.

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One such way in which MTV looks to the future is with its best new artist category, which this year includes Lukas Graham, as well as Bryson TillerDesiignerDNCE, and Zara Larsson.

"We’ve always been the underdogs at these types of events," Lukas Graham frontman Lukas Forchhammer says. "The award for us and the prize for us is we get to play music for people around the world, we get to hear our music on the radio, share our stories with regular people all around the world. And in that sense, it’s not that we don’t think it’s cool to be at the VMAs -- don’t get me wrong -- it’s just that the nomination is more like an extra kudos, and then the fact that we get to perform sold-out shows in almost any country in the world, that’s the real prize."

Lukas Graham rose to fame with the hit "7 Years," which Forchhammer says took only three and a half hours to write. The band says as the song was gaining more attention each week, they would play a game they deemed "Billboard bingo," in which they would post to Twitter what number on the Billboard Hot 100 they thought the track would rise to. (It eventually peaked at No. 2.)

"There was like seven guys doing it, so there’s always one that’s close," Forchhammer says. "And the guy who’s the furthest away has to buy a round of drinks. Billboard bingo… it’s a new trend!"

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Although, if the hit song doesn't assist in earning the band a Moonman, they say they are also big fans of Larsson and Tiller.

Considering the show is only days away, the members appear relaxed, as they are content with the success they have reached this far. Though that doesn't mean they aren't already looking ahead -- they say the next milestone they hope to reach is selling out Madison Square Garden for their own headlining show.

"If your dreams and your ambitions don’t scare you then you didn’t set the bar high enough," Forchhammer says. "The only thing that’s worse than being afraid of your failure is being afraid of your success; that is just stifling." 

2016 MTV VMAs