LONDON — For years television viewers in the United States and United Kingdom have dismissed the Eurovision song contest as a kitsch joke that was better known for earnest power ballads, extravagant costumes and contestants receiving nul points (no points), than a potential road to international stardom.
But lately the song contest — most famous for introducing ABBA to the world in 1974 — has started to become more attractive to major record labels. That’s in no small part thanks to the decline of viewership of the Grammys and the MTV Video Music Awards, the massive audience of 180 million viewers that Eurovision commands — and last year’s hit movie starring Will Ferrell.
Take the case of Blas Cantó, Spain’s entry in Eurovision’s 65th edition, which wraps up Saturday. Already an established star in his home country, Cantó, 29, is a former member of boyband Auryn who topped the Spanish charts in 2018 with his debut solo album Complicado and its hit single “Él No Soy.”
Warner Music Spain, Cantó’s label, is confident that both Cantó and his song “Voy a Quedarme” (I’ll Stay) will make a big impression when he takes the stage Saturday in Rotterdam, Netherlands, for the Eurovision final. Despite songs performed in languages other than English typically doing poorly in the competition, Guillermo Gonzalez, president of Warner Music Iberia says the label is “aiming to open new markets and for Blas’ music to travel everywhere.” He adds, “This is a great opportunity for him and for us to succeed in other territories.”
As the music business grows increasingly global thanks to streaming, Warner is not alone in looking to capitalize on Eurovision’s profile and audience. Among this year’s favorites to win is Italian rock band Måneskin, signed to Sony Music Italy, whose Eurovision entry “Zitti e buoni” (Shut up and behave) has earned more than 20 million combined views on YouTube since March 3. (The group’s official Eurovision video has 2.5 million views.)
Måneskin is one of five Sony acts taking part in this year’s competition. Others include Maltese singer Destiny and Australia’s Montaigne – the only contestant who has not travelled to Rotterdam due to COVID-19 safety concerns and will deliver her performance via pre-recorded video. Universal Music has 10 acts performing, including France’s Barbara Pravi, Germany’s Jendrik and Congolese-Swedish singer Tusse. Warner is represented by Cantó, Lithuania’s The Roop and Romanian singer Roxen.
Part of the reason for the heightened interest from the music industry is Eurovision’s huge — and consistent — audience. Eurovision Song Contest 2019 in Tel Aviv, Israel — the last time the event took place — was broadcast live in 41 countries and watched by an audience of 182 million, making it the world’s biggest live music event, according to the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which organizes the contest.
By comparison, this year’s Grammy Awards drew 9.2 million viewers, down 51% from 2020 and the lowest rated show since 2006. Just 6.4 million people watched 2020’s MTV Video Music Awards, the third-lowest rated show of the last seven years. February’s Super Bowl, the biggest U.S. television event annually, drew 96.4 million TV and online viewers — a 14-year low.
With a much-hyped guest performance from Madonna, the 2019 Eurovision nearly doubled that, commanding a 36.7% share of the viewing audience across 40 European territories, the EBU said.
Then in 2020, Netflix brought Eurovision to a wider U.S. audience when it released the musical comedy film Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. (It was meant to coincide with the song contest, which had to be canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.) The movie, starring Ferrell and Rachel McAdams, follows two Icelandic singers as they pursue their dream to represent their country at Eurovision. It played well with Eurovision fans and was the top-streamed item in the U.S. on Netflix its first weekend. (The film’s soundtrack debuted at No. 5 on Billboard’s Soundtracks chart and one of its tracks, “Husavik,” is a contender for an Oscar for best original song.)
The many eyeballs watching Eurovision offer an unrivaled chance to promote artists like Cantó internationally and build lasting careers, says Gonzalez. “This is going to be the most important milestone in his career,” he says.
Since 2016, the United Kingdom, which last won the competition in 1997, has selected its Eurovision entries via a televised singing competition, in line with many European nations. It changed tack after singer Michael Rice finished last in 2019.
Keen to avoid the same humiliation again, U.K. broadcaster the BBC asked a few labels to pitch them ideas for 2020. BMG won the tender process and put forward what they consider to be a game-changing heavyweight entry: BRIT Award-winning and Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter James Newman.
Newman — who has writing credits with Calvin Harris, Kesha, Toni Braxton and Rudimental, and sang vocals on Armin van Buuren’s 2018 hit “Therapy” — will perform his latest song, “Embers,” in Rotterdam.
“What the BBC asked us to do is deliver something that we can be proud of, that was credible and wouldn’t sit amiss alongside other U.K. music, and that’s what we have done,” says Alistair Norbury, president of repertoire and marketing at BMG U.K. “This is the first step in changing the perception [of Eurovision] in the U.K. and putting us back to where we were when we used to be consistently putting in great entries.”
Norbury says that before putting Newman forward for Eurovision, BMG already was plotting a solo artist career for the singer-songwriter. The competition, the label exec says, provides a fast-track to international markets through the TV broadcast and accompanying marketing opportunities that come with it. “I look at the promo schedule for James and it’s the sort of first-class plan that perhaps might come together on your second album, but he’s getting it on his first proper single,” Norbury says.
Notable prime-time spots include TV interviews on BBC News and popular U.K. breakfast shows Good Morning Britain (ITV) and BBC Breakfast, as well as the two Eurovision semi-finals, which are broadcast globally in the days leading up to the final. Newman and Cantó also teamed up for an English language version of Cantó’s “Voy a Quedarme,” which was released May 17.
That kind of international exposure, coupled with BMG’s commitment to the competition, is starting to have an impact among the label and publisher’s roster of artists and songwriters, says Norbury. “We’re already seeing people coming out of the woodwork, indicating that they would be interested [next year],” he says. “I think the appetite within the industry will now grow for this.”
One potential stumbling block could be the voting peculiarities of Eurovision, where the winner is determined by a mixture of viewer phone-in votes and music experts from each of the 39 countries taking part. In practice, that tends to mean that countries vote based on who their political, military or cultural allies are at the time, no matter how good an individual song or performance. Given the tensions between the U.K. and Europe due to Brexit, BMG says it is not anticipating victory for Newman and would consider finishing in the top half of the scoreboard a successful outcome.
As one of the so-called ‘big five’ countries participating, Spain goes straight through to the grand final on Saturday, where Cantó will perform “Voy a Quedarme,” an emotive Spanish-language ballad co-written by the singer. Other countries who qualify automatically for the final include the U.K., France, Germany and Italy. The Netherlands, as host and reigning champions, also skip qualifying. Competitors will perform in front of an audience of 3,500 people inside the Ahoy arena as part of a COVID-19 event trial by the Dutch government.
“Whatever happens, I feel so grateful to be here and to have the opportunity to perform before everybody and just to be in something so beautiful,” Cantó tells Billboard.
“What’s important is not finishing No. 1, it’s the quality of the performance and the quality of the song and the quality of the artist,” says Warner Music’s Gonzalez. “Once you have been in front of almost 200 million people, that’s probably the best trophy, right?”