Behind the EMAs: A Look Back at Some of the Biggest Moments in Recent EMA History, and What You Didn't See On Camera
Bruce Gillmer is the executive producer of the MTV EMAs.
When I first joined the MTV International team in 2008, we embarked on a mission to evolve the MTV EMAs from a pan-regional European award show into a truly global event that resonates with fans in every part of the world. How to make this happen was a hotly debated subject, until the answer - simple and elegant - came to us: music. Over the past two decades and the technological advancements that have come with them, the entertainment industry has gone through massive ups and downs, but one of the biggest changes has been the true globalization of music. Today, it doesn’t matter where an artist is from - fans can listen, watch and love their music from wherever they are in the world. We wanted to bring that shift to life in the EMAs by creating a show that embraces the biggest artists from around the world, and creates moments that no single other awards show in history could do.
Looking back, it’s the moments when the global power of the EMAs and of the MTV brand have collided with the musicians that move us that make the most powerful and memorable shows. Getting to those moments is not always as easy as it seems on camera.
Here are a few of my favorite stories from the creation of past EMAs, and what you can look forward to for 2016:
When in Liverpool, You Need a Beatle – And a Border-Smashing Duet
So much goes into the organization and production of the EMAs that the audience never sees. Consider for a moment how difficult it can be to get a room full of musicians and celebrities together in New York or LA, where many are based. Now imagine trying to do the same thing in a new country every year, with artists flying in from every corner of the globe.
Not surprisingly, this can make producing a big global music event intense, especially in my first year heading up the EMAs. That year’s show was in Liverpool, and one glaring hole in the lineup haunted us endlessly: we needed a Beatle. How could we throw a global music event in the city that made the world’s biggest musical act of all time famous, without acknowledging that history? As the days ticked by, and conversations continued, we anxiously awaited a firm answer. Mere days before the show, Sir Paul McCartney’s team called to say he was in, and I almost fell out of my chair. To this day, that remains one of my most memorable moments.
Yet even with McCartney on board, we were just a week away and the show still didn’t seem complete. The lineup was dynamic, but we were missing a big hip-hop element. Just before I left the US for Liverpool, I headed to an electronics store to distract myself by purchasing a TV for my wife’s office. I’m haggling back and forth on the price - this poor sales representative had no idea what kind of person they were dealing with that day - when I get a call from a manager I’ve known for quite some time, saying “Hey, Kanye wants to come to the show.” I pretty much dropped the phone. Not only is Kanye a music icon around the world, but at the time he was just featured on the lovely and talented Brit singer Estelle’s mega single “American Boy.” The combination of their different roots and contrasting music styles made the show complete. That duet was a perfect example of the truly global nature of our show.
Worlds Colliding with Bono and Jay Z
The 2009 EMAs were set in Berlin, just weeks away from the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, so the entire event was set to the backdrop of this incredible moment in history. We knew we had to do something big, but the bar was extremely high: the very first EMAs took place in Berlin in 1994, at the Brandenburg Gate, featuring a powerful performance of “Freedom” by George Michael.
Twenty years later, we were musing over how to top a moment like that. Thankfully, we were fortunate enough to have a long-standing relationship with U2, and they were on board to join the show as long as we could deliver a massive, unique moment. So we began discussions around a potential outdoor broadcast to bring the EMAs to the Brandenburg Gate a second time. We went into a deep, intensive planning mode. Staging a live band performance in a remote location in the dead of winter wasn’t going to be an easy feat, but we were set on making it a reality.
So the show was shaping up extremely well, but it was just a few weeks out and there were some big names we were still hoping to lock. That’s when I found myself with the team at a Jay Z party in London. I spotted his manager and went to work convincing him that Jay Z had to perform at the show. Next thing I know I’m shoved onto a couch, practically landing in Jay’s lap. I went right into it, asking if he’d come to the EMAs. He kept saying, “We need to do something big though,” then he asked if we were doing something at the gate.
I freaked out a bit. This was U2’s moment, and we hadn’t told anyone - but I also have to get Jay there and I don’t want to say no to him. What are the odds? He proceeds, “Put me on top of that wall.”
Little did we know, the door was already somewhat open to making a collaboration a reality. Bono and Jay Z had been in touch, and although there was no solid plan in place - our wheels were spinning. Together, we were able to bring the world an extraordinary moment in music history as these musicians with different styles and backgrounds came together in a performance for the record books. Seeing worlds collide for the most perfect, unexpected collaboration was one of the most surreal moments I’ve ever experienced at the EMAs.
When the Heavens Opened Above Milan
The week leading up to the EMAs is always a sleepless blur, where you’re constantly in a state of excitement and exhaustion; the days are long, and the mornings can be rough.
The day before the Milan show, it’s early – I was in the bathroom splashing my face with cold water, and heard this incredible, otherworldly voice. So resonant, powerful and ambient, unlike anything I’ve witnessed. I peer into the hallway to see a mass of people gravitating towards this raw, beautiful sound. No one spoke a word. Everyone from the crew to the tech guys started following this voice to the stage – all finding ourselves in an otherwise empty concert hall just staring in complete awe at Italian legend Andrea Bocelli rehearsing a capella center stage with his wife and son. It was like the heavens opened up.
Having living legends like Andrea grace our stage with up-and-coming, powerhouse artists like Tori Kelly is what makes the EMAs an event unlike any other out there.
The Best Is Yet to Come...
As a global show, we’re lucky to have the entire world as our inspiration. We’ve seen iconic moments spurred from the incredible power of music, and the local cultures of our host cities. I can’t wait to bring the 2016 EMAs to the world, and to give fans a glimpse inside Rotterdam. There are countless stories I could tell this year, but not without spoiling some big surprises along the way. For now, let me just say that one of the moments I’m most excited about centers around the fact that we have one of the most legendary acts in punk rock lined up to perform, with something powerful to say. What happens next… you’ll have to tune in to see.
The 2016 MTV EMAs will take place in Rotterdam on November 6, 2016 at 9 pm CET.