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This is the man who could finally break the UK’s Eurovision curse – yes, really

Rob Holley
The UK's 2020 entry, James Newman, has written for Ed Sheeran and Rudimental among others: Twitter

In September last year, it was announced that record company BMG would take the lead in finding our entry for Eurovision, marking a significant change in how the BBC approaches the song contest.

After months of speculation and all sorts of names being fired out like confetti from a glitter cannon (Ronan Parke, Fleur East, Jane McDonald, Roachford, the return of Scooch?!), the Beeb finally revealed our artist for Rotterdam 2020.

With an impressive stack of writing credits to his name (including work for Ed Sheeran and Rudimental), James Newman will be flying the flag for the United Kingdom. He’ll perform the self-penned track “My Last Breath”, an anthemic ballad about faulty diving equipment a bold pitch given our propensity to sink to the bottom of the Eurovision leaderboard. But whether he’ll actually do well in the competition is another question.

I’ll let others analyse the song itself, but let’s take a step back and question why the UK has been scoring so poorly in recent times.

As much as I love hearing “they all hate us because of Brexit!” barked at me with the misplaced confidence of a coronavirus pensioner using Facebook Live, this simply isn’t true. The average teen in Tbilisi or granny in Gdansk has less of a clue about Brexit than even our own spectacularly confused mess of a government, and even if they did all hate us, this isn’t Big Brother and we’re not voting to evict countries. The UK cannot be voted down, we can only inspire people to vote us up the table.

To score any points on the night, a song needs to consistently finish in the average viewer or jury member’s top 10 out of the 42 competing songs. Think about it like your favourite NOW album: there were always chunks (mostly around the middle of disc two) that you’d skip through before you got to the bonkers tracks at the very end. If you were to illegally record that compilation onto a 60-minute cassette for a mate (I’m 38, OK?) you’d simply have to cut some songs.

At Eurovision, if you send something that provokes a divisive reaction like a BDSM techno art project (hello Iceland!) or an unchoreographed jazz singer (ola, Portugal!), you can rest assured that some people will love those acts so much they will vote for them. Send something that’s competent, well performed and sounds OK but doesn’t excite and motivate (sorry Michael Rice), and it won’t make the tape. It will tank in the competition.

“Safe” is the least safe option in this contest, and as the UK doesn’t have to qualify through the semi-final proving grounds (along with Spain, France, Germany and Italy), if we’re not worthy of winning points it really, really shows during the eight hours of voting.

So why do we keep sending forgettable, inoffensive entries? Well, let’s not be under any illusion, the BBC has no pressure to win the contest their focus is (quite rightly) to deliver quality programming, and the one thing the UK does exceptionally well when it comes to Eurovision is creating a fandom.

A couple of weeks back, the Brit Awards hit a peak audience of 4.8 million; however, last year Eurovision reached 7.7 million for a fraction of the cost of any other primetime TV output. Us Brits love to join in with Eurovision and the fact that UK viewers adore the contest regardless of whether we have a chance in hell of winning is a legitimate success for the BBC that we too often overlook.

But herein lies a challenge. As older viewers get snagged on their outdated ideas about the contest (Wogan! Bucks Fizz! Key changes!!), younger viewers who follow the competition all year round (thanks to high-quality national final streams and pre-qualifiers that can start as early as December) can find the BBC coverage a little, well... old fashioned. Particularly when the same old tropes are trotted out: “Making Your Mind Up” is nearly 40 years old and ABBA’s “Waterloo” feels a lot closer in time to the actual Battle of Waterloo than the 2020 Spotify charts.

According to the EBU, on average 45.3 per cent of 15-24-year-olds watching TV in the 40 competing countries last year watched the Eurovision Grand Final – that’s a huge youth audience. Curiously, the contest is appealing to Radio 1’s target audience and yet in previous years the BBC’s coverage and entries have remained very Radio 2.

There’s a disconnect there.

This is where BMG’s impact can be felt the most. The record company was tasked to find the act and manage the commercial aspects of our entry (promo and marketing) that the British broadcaster previously couldn’t get too involved with because of the way it operates. It looks like Newman might get in on the pre-contest international promo trail, which worked well for Blue and Jade Ewan – our most successful entries in the last decade or so.

Crucially, as independent record industry experts, BMG are best positioned to nag the BBC into looking at how best to reach a younger audience for their product, which means this year, for the first time, Radio 1 has been involved in the announcement of the UK entry. This is a very good call: if you genuinely want to compete at Eurovision, you’ve got to win over the home crowd first.

One final complaint I hear each winter is “why can’t the BBC take Eurovision seriously like Sweden does?” The answer is the same as when people moan about the UK shutting down after 5mm of snow: Sweden is already geared up for it. Melodifestivalen (their national selection process) is a six-week arena spectacular fully backed not only by broadcaster SVT but also the entire Swedish record industry.

All 28 Melfest contestants have secured funding for their staging and promotion before they reach the live shows because it’s a lucrative business. Therefore, unlike our previous attempts at selection shows, the ratio of bops to flops is much, much higher as Sweden looks to turn a profit from pop, making the performances inherently competitive should they reach Eurovision. Seeking support from a record company is the Swedish way and now (on a smaller scale) ours too.

Regardless of how well we do this year, one thing’s for sure: this is the direction the BBC needs to be going in. James might not win Eurovision but with his songwriting credentials, credibility and connections (plus a chance at some decent staging and pre-contest promo) will help to change local perceptions of the competition, which may open the door a little wider for the next act.

This feels like a long-term project and is exactly how the Netherlands began to approach the contest when they selected alt-rock singer/songwriter Anouk in 2013 after a decade of not qualifying. Three top-10 finishes later and they’re hosting for the first time in 40 years.

We live in a post-Loreen Eurovision epoch of sad-boi ballads and ferocious bangers backed by record label big bucks, and “My Last Breath” is the most competitive track we’ve sent for a long time. Douze points for effort.

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