Lessons From Copenhagen: How Estonia Can Rise Like a Phoenix Next Time (15)

Austria's Conchita Wurst holds the Eurovision trophy after winning the contest in Cophenhagen Saturday night. Columnist Stuart Garlick asks what Estonia needs to do to compete better next time. (Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)
5/12/2014 10:10 AM
Category: Main news

Stuart Garlick looks at reasons for Estonia's failure at Eurovision 2014, and ways the country could improve its standing at future editions of the contest.

1. Don't blame any one factor for Estonia's elimination

What makes Estonia's relative failure in Eurovision 2014 so complex is the very thing that makes the contest so intriguing for followers. Eurovision winners are selected for a variety of reasons, including the international standing of the competing nation, the performance, the choreography, how well the competitor has campaigned on social media in the preceding weeks, and, yes, the song. Estonia's entry, Tanja, was a regular presence on Facebook and Instagram during the run-in to Eurovision. The semi-final performance gathered a lot of positive energy on Twitter. During Eesti Laul, Eurovision correspondents of considerably more experience than this reporter were talking in terms of a "nailed-on top-10 finish" being in the bag if "Amazing" were chosen.

The performance at Eurovision was at least as strong as that which won Tanja selection in Estonia. Tanja, an established artist with six albums under her belt, is a true professional who worked tirelessly to promote Estonia internationally, even smiling through her disappointment and continuing to perform in Copenhagen after elimination. The vast majority of Eurovision viewers were impressed by the show they saw on stage from the Estonian entry. Hence the question is not so much "who fell short" as "what fell short".

One question arising from Eurovision 2014 is what international image Estonia wishes to convey and how effective the country has been in marketing itself to international voters. We may think of ourselves as thrusting tech-pioneers - Baltic Tigers - but is that how the public in the UK, France and Germany view us? Time for a massive PR campaign, orchestrated by brave young creative thinkers, to make sure everyone in Europe knows about what Estonia can offer - then watch the votes come in at Eurovision.

2. The Estonian public feel distant from the Eesti Laul choice

Since Laura's failure to secure a place in Eurovision 2009, in spite of having polled highest among televoters, there has been a tendency to blame the Eesti Laul judges for weak performances in May. It certainly felt that way in 2013, when Birgit Õigemeel beat Grete Paia in the Eesti Laul superfinal, in spite of Birgit's song finishing third in the televote behind Winny Puuh's effort, an act that generated a lot of international excitement. Given the chance to blow a rebellious raspberry at Eurovision (a move that drew plenty of positive attention to Finland when they entered Lordi), the assembled music industry experts sent a safe choice to Eurovision.

It's no wonder that no matter what acts wins Eesti Laul, there is invariably a damaging drip-drip of negativity from the Estonian public. "Amazing", for all its virtues, was a dance record close in spirit to the 2012 winner, Loreen's "Euphoria". The three prior Estonian entries, performed by Õigemeel, Ott Lepland and Getter Jaani, hadn't been revolutionary either. Music is being made in Estonia with a real "wow" factor. But, with a few exceptions, it's not making it through to Eesti Laul or Eurovision. What can be done to solve this?

3. Changes are needed in Eesti Laul to reconnect the public

Get rid of the split jury/televote system at Eesti Laul, and Estonia may see more varied and exciting Eurovision entries. Even if only for one year, ETV should experiment with having a true popular vote - a 100% public election, and if that means Estonia sends a death metal band to Vienna in 2015, so be it. At least the man and woman on the street won't have anyone else to blame when the winner is announced. How can Estonia hope to engage the people of Europe in its song submission, if it's a choice that did not poll most votes in its own domestic poll?

ETV's Eesti Laul show has, in any case, become too much about banter between presenters and assorted pundits, distracting from the music rather than throwing light on it. The BBC's current "Later... With Jools Holland" and UK Channel Four's "Popworld" show of a few years ago, presented by the knowledgeable but irreverent Simon Amstell, show how to combine humor with a genuine insight into the process of writing, recording and performing music. It's time the musicians were the stars, not the critics.

4. Widen the selection criteria, get a surprise winner

At the moment, to be selected for the final 20 songs in Estonia's Eurovision selection process, candidates have to go through a selection process, the results of which are not revealed to the public. Estonia is now one of Europe's leading e-states, so it would be short work to have a process whereby anyone who fits Eurovision's national eligibility criteria can submit their song on a special website, and be selected based on public "likes". YouTube and Soundcloud create stars democratically through view counts, likes and shares. If we want a representative of the length and breadth of musical talent in Estonia, let's have the widest possible search to find it. This democratization would also wipe away any suggestion of cliques and "old boys' networks" in the selection process.

5. Use the Eurovision brand to develop popular music in Estonia

In the early 2000s, the BBC developed a program called "Fame Academy", the aim of which was to develop singer-songwriters who would have long-term careers. Although, with the exception of R&B singer Lemar, the show did not produce any household names, a number of its graduates are respected for their work with top artists.

Estonia still takes Eurovision seriously, as it should. However, the contest should be a showcase for the cream of Estonian creative talent. Eesti Laul stakeholders should use the selection process as a way of scouring the entire nation for young people capable of writing that killer hook, of producing something that sounds truly, distinctively Estonian (whatever the language used in the lyrics). Estonia's thriving tech industry shows the country is at its best when it embraces change - so let's use that startup ethos, embodied by Garage 48's regular hackathons, and let's provide workshops so that every unsigned or underappreciated musical talent has the chance to suggest how Estonia can win Eurovision.

Stuart Garlick is a journalist and blogger based in Tallinn. Since 2012 his blog, Charm Offensive, has offered insight into Estonian music, fashion and food.


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