πŸ‡¬πŸ‡§ Editorial: Up in space or crash back to earth?: What the UK can learn from the Netherlands and Germany

πŸ‡¬πŸ‡§ Editorial: Up in space or crash back to earth?: What the UK can learn from the Netherlands and Germany

Eurovision new year has come and gone, and the next National Final season is coming faster than you might think. Countries are confirming participation, submissions are open, National Finals are announced, and more! In between all this news is also the reveal of the UK’s plans for its Eurovision delegation. The UK had a great and surprising result in 2022, and many Eurovision fans from the UK and beyond hope they can harness that momentum and have the country send in good entries consistently. History might not repeat itself, but it does rhyme, so this article will examine two countries who also had sudden good results, and how they went down different paths after that. I’ll provide a year-by-year overview of the Dutch and German results from the 2010s. With a sprinkling of further historical context and a bit of analysis and speculation, this should create a complete picture of Eurovision do’s and don’ts for the UK. Space Man, after all, could be anything, from an “Anouk moment” to a “Schulte blip” or anything in between.

Netherlands 2013 or Germany 2018?

I am sure you don’t need me to tell you that a 2nd place in Eurovision is amazing. The UK got 12 jury points for the first time since 2017, top 10 for the first time since 2009, and recorded their best finish since 1998. Viewership went up considerably in the UK, and the press is even talking about Eurovision in a fairly positive tone. But how do you capitalize on this as a Eurovision delegation, and ensure that this amazing result creates the momentum that will lead to a win, or at least a string of good results?

Eurovision fans often talk about countries that need an “Anouk moment.” Anouk was the Dutch entry for Eurovision 2013, and her result with “Birds” broke the longest non-qualification streak in Eurovision history and has been credited as being the turning point the Netherlands needed to put effort into the contest again, to the point that the country won in 2019. There are lessons to be learned along the way, a statement that is perhaps even more true of a different Eurovision entry: Germany 2018.

Michael Schulte represented Germany in Eurovision 2018. “You Let Me Walk Alone” finished 4th. How good and shocking was that, compared to previous results? It was Germany’s first top 20 result since 2014, top 10 since 2012, and top 5 since their win in 2010. Last time before Lena that Germany finished in the top 5? Back in 2000! This could have been an Anouk moment, especially with the entry enjoying some level of commercial success at home following his win. And yet, three 25th places in the final followed it. A retooled National Final this year led to a last place, with the only change in fortune being exchanging the 0 televotes for 0 points from the juries.

An “Anouk moment,” then, doesn’t come easy. If the country of Space Man wants to fly like the Birds did, the right choices need to be made and some pitfalls must be avoided. To examine what they are, we will dive into how Anouk got to Eurovision, the stories behind the Dutch results post-2013, and try to weave it into a coherent narrative.

On top of the world, but bottom of the results

Even during the terrible 00s and early 10s for the Netherlands, the country had a proud Eurovision history to look back on. The country had won Eurovision an impressive four times and a large number of top 10 and midtable results as well. The introduction of semi-finals, however, had led to disastrous results. Since the introduction of semis in 2004, the Netherlands had only managed to qualify once: the first time. The Netherlands almost never got close to qualifying and even finished last in 2011, which hadn’t happened since 1968. The national selection format was changed constantly throughout this NQ streak, and even tried out internally selecting for the first time since 1980, but all to no success. There were calls for withdrawal, the contest seen as a graveyard for unknown or formerly big names. And then, a big name comes to the rescue. Anouk, who had success across Europe with her 1997 single “Nobody’s Wife,” submitted her song “Birds” to the Dutch broadcaster. She would love to go to Eurovision, under one condition: that there would be no National Final, and the broadcaster agreed.

In the Netherlands, excitement was low and cynicism high. While continually charting throughout her career, her last number one in the country at the time was back in 2009. Abroad, the response was better though. Anouk got as high as 3rd place in the betting odds, and in the end managed to finish 9th overall: the first top 10 finish since 1999. Besides performing well at Eurovision, “Birds” also charted across Europe.

Us Dutch people were back in Eurovision, and impressively so as well. So, what to do after the massive success of 2013? Copy the formula! A slow, heartfelt ballad written by the performer and some foreigners clearly was the way to go. But here is the twist: let’s send two singer-songwriters instead of one. The Common Linnets, consisting of the two successful Dutch country singers Ilse de Lange and Waylon, revealed their song “Calm After The Storm” with much fanfare, but to very mixed reactions. Come the contest, however, and most people agreed the song came alive. The Common Linnets finished second, with only the legendary Conchita Wurst beating them. Clearly, the Dutch broadcaster had found a formula that worked, and it was going to copy it forever.

Learning the right lessons: Eurovision 2015 and beyond

Eurovision 2015. Netherlands sends in popular singer Trijntje Oosterhuis. The song, “Walk Along,” was written by Anouk. Whether it was the song, questionable staging, the camera work or Trijntje’s performance (or, if you ask me, a bit of everything), something went wrong: the Netherlands failed to qualify, finishing 14th in a 16 country semi-final. A terrible result, but with a silver lining that would prove key to success. Instead of blaming Europe or the contest, the NQ was blamed on what we had sent in. Proof that the image of Eurovision had at least somewhat be fixed.

The Dutch broadcaster didn’t go back to the drawing board entirely. Songs would still be internally selected, and big names would still play a key role. There were some changes to the selection team, but perhaps the most notable change is that the Netherlands went full yee-haw. Anouk’s music was always American-inspired, but The Common Linnets brought country and a massive heap of points. So we sent in country, again and again. 80s country from Douwe Bob, the Wilson Phillips adjacent O’G3NE, and the country-rock of Waylon’s second participation cemented the Netherlands as the USA of Europe, with good results to show for it.

Come 2019. Ilse de Lange urges the Dutch broadcaster to pick Duncan Laurence, who she coached on The Voice of Holland. Reactions to his selection were mixed in the Dutch press, who were concerned about the Netherlands picking an unknown artist for the first time since 2012. The doubts were not necessary though: his song “Arcade” was tipped to win from the second it released and managed to win the contest. Jeangu Macrooy and S10 have kept up the quality of the Dutch Eurovision entries since, even if results have been more mixed. Between Jeangu’s soul music and Americans comparing De Diepte to folk-country, it seems the influences from the USA haven’t quite ended yet either, even if the country is moving away from yee-hawing in ESC.

The Michael Schulte Blip

So far, so Dutch. A potential road to long-term Eurovision success can be charted from it. But what if the Netherlands had fumbled along the way? What mistakes should the UK avoid? Good thing Germany is on the case. Germany faces similar issues to the UK. Former success but perennially last, auto-qualifies for the final which some see as a disadvantage, and a domestic music industry that has lost its enthusiasm for Eurovision. It is easy to forget that there was a time that things were looking up for Germany.

After a string of mediocre to poor results in the 00s that involved a number of different National Final formats and one internal selection that made Dita von Teese part of Eurovision history, broadcaster NDR decided a change was necessary. The public broadcaster teamed up with commercial broadcaster ProSieben and Stefan Raab, who had played a part in most of Germany’s recent top 10 finishes. And the result? Lena wins the 8 night long National Final/talent show, and wins Eurovision! NDR keeps the team up going for 2011 and 2012, with two more top 10 finishes to show for it.

In 2013 NDR took sole control over the Eurovision selection again. 3 of the 9 competitions since then saw Germany finish dead last, and a further 3 saw Germany finish second to last. Cascada (2013, 21st) and Elaiza (2014, 18th) almost seem like heady heights in comparison. And don’t even get me started on the National Finals themselves, which involved a level of drama (2015) and chaos (2013) and disastrous decision making (the first national final they planned in 2016) not seen before or since. You can read more about those in an upcoming editorial from me where I do a deeper dive into Germany at ESC.

Michael Schulte, at the time best known for finishing 3rd in The Voice of Germany 2012, won a National Final that saw the re-introduction of jury-voting for the first time since 2013 and also included a Eurovision-panel. Winning across all three, Michael won by a landslide. But no one could have predicted what would come next. Germany sent in an excellent, complete package with some standout staging to Lisbon. Scoring well with juries and the public, Michael Schulte got three times more points in one night than the other German Eurovision entries since 2013 combined.

2019 rolls around, and Germany has every possibility to capitalize on Schulte’s Eurovision and chart success. There is massive interest and 965 submitted entries. Despite all that, the German National Final ended up with a weak selection of songs. How weak? The winning song had been submitted to and rejected for the 2018 Swiss National Final. “Sister,” performed by the NDR-created duo S!sters, finished second to last at Eurovision with 0 points from the public.

Two futures, both alike in probability

So, what can the UK, and perhaps other countries, learn from this?

The UK has found a way to internally select entries that seems to work, thanks to working with TaP Music. What results come out of it remains to be seen, but there is every reason at this moment to trust in the process used this year. Sam Ryder’s amazing second place is a great starting point that can and should be used to improve the image of the contest in the music industry. Make big talent, be it performers, producers, or songwriters, excited for the possibility to compete in the contest.

The UK Eurovision delegation also has to remain steadfast yet flexible. No single result is decisive. Michael Schulte didn’t start a German Eurovision revival, Trijntje didn’t destroy the Dutch Eurovision momentum. Constantly changing up your process will not lead to success, as the German post-2012 downfall shows. But be willing to change or take risks as you learn more about what works for your country at Eurovision, as the Netherlands did in years such as 2016 and 2019. It seems like building a selection team with a passion for music and Eurovision is the key to success. The Dutch broadcaster has done a great job with this, recruiting people from different forms of media while also making sure the committee never grows stale by having members leave and adding new ones.

Don’t pull a Germany 2019 and send in a song that was already rejected for another country. After all, UK, you basically tried this in 2019 already when Michael Rice competed with a song co-written by fellow 2019 Eurovision contestant John Lundvik. If these songs had been good enough for Eurovision, they would’ve been a part of their respective National Finals.

And please, BBC, don’t listen to the regular press. In my experience, the Dutch press is the absolute worst thing the Dutch delegation could listen to. Each year, there is criticism of the song, the performer, or both and (almost) every year we do well. Arguably the most positive reception in recent years was to Waylon, who gave us one of our poorer results. The UK media are infamously bad when it comes to Eurovision, which means trying to ignore (certain parts of) the press while selecting the entry or preparing for Eurovision will be important.

In what can only be good news, TaP Music and BBC do seem to recognize the challenge ahead. The plans outlined for the 2023 selection are, as presented to the public, vague at best but definitely promising. TaP and BBC understand that following up with a 2nd place will be very difficult, but that the narrative around Eurovision is also changing in the UK. In exciting news, the press release even explicitly states that celebrating the diversity of the UK’s musical talent is part of the agenda, which opens up a whole new range of exciting possibilities.

Only time can tell whether the UK is in for a “Ryder ride” or “Post-Sam depression,” but some of the do’s and don’ts are clear for everyone to see. With smart, hard work and just a little bit of luck (will there be a host nation curse?), the UK could be on track for a strong decade and perhaps even a victory. After all, while Anouk is maybe the starkest example, it isn’t the only case of a nation changing their Eurovision fortunes. Lithuania, Greece, and Switzerland are some countries that have seen increased success in recent years, and Sweden’s successes in the 2010s can be traced back to the changes made after a rough patch of results between 2007 and 2010. Plenty of cases that TaP Music and the BBC can learn from then. Let’s hope they do.

Photo Credit: EBU / Andres Putting

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