A Thousand Songs Become Fourteen, Inside The Ruthless Melodifestivalen Jury Room Written by on September 12, 2016 | 4 Comments

In the second part of Ben Robertson’s look back on his time on the Melodifestivalen selection jury for 2016 he reviews what actually happened in the depths of SVT, including the discussions, the debates and how the jury actually reached their final fourteen songs for the Contest. Read part one about how he got selected to the jury here first. 

On Tuesday 22nd September I arrived bright and early to SVT’s TV-Huset building to being my Melodifestivalen selection jury process. I think I was first to arrive and others continued arriving in dribs and drabs, some knowing each other and picking up conversations from months of not years ago, and some like me were the fresh meat. The sixteen members of the jury were met precisely at 08:59 for our nine o’clock start on day one (because, after all, this is Sweden).

We were greeted by both Anette Helenius, Project Leader for Melodifestivalen, and Mari Ryberger, our jury chairperson. It was all nice and congenial, but still accompanied with the awkward silences of the first day at school. Soon enough though we were whisked away through the maze of corridors past anonymous office workspaces to find the Galaxet Conference Room.

Galaxet is one of the greyest rooms known to man. One boardtable had been shoved into the back corner and dotted around the room were some identi-kit blue armchairs that really encouraged lounging. The front of the room had a few old-school laptops, even more dated speakers, and of course the grandmaster himself, Christer Björkman. He greeted us with a firm and positive handshake as we took to our seats.

He didn’t speak long. Armed with a blue marker pen and whiteboard he summarised for us his take on our mission for the week ahead. Aim one, was to find a song to win Eurovision. Aim two, select songs from a wide range of genres and original pieces of music. Lower down he mentioned about using Melodifestivalen to bring in other cultures, as well as to protect the Swedish language as well. I was at least heartened that these were secondary to the task of finding the best song.

Christer Björkman, Melodifestivalen's super-sub jurist (Photo: Janne Danielsson/SVT)

Christer Björkman, Melodifestivalen’s super-sub jurist (Photo: Janne Danielsson/SVT)

He ended his speech by revealing the numbers. We knew we had to pick fourteen songs, but our task was to choose 14 from a selection of just over 1,000. That seemed a miraculously low number, usually Melodifestivalen entries in the open submission side are well over 2,000 per year, sometimes approaching 4,000. 2,450 songs was the number officially received by SVT. Our number was lower because before the selection jury got their hands on the songs SVT had already done their own cut. More than half of the songs submitted were not going to reach us.

Let Melodifestivalen’s Real Round One Begin

Obviously 1,000 songs is still a lot to go through and it was a well-practiced SVT machine that got us started on the cull. We were split into 4 pre-arranged groups of 4. Each group went off to a different room, armed with a laptop-wielding SVT staff member, and awarded a different letter of the alphabet to start listening to. This was Round One.

We would gather round another set of average-at-best portable speakers and listen to just one minute of each song. If one of the four of us liked a song, it was put through into the next round. If it wasn’t, it was gone. Shortly after starting, Christer popped his head in the door to clarify that a ratio of one song in three would be what to expect for this round. There were runs of good and bad songs as you can imagine, and at one point we actually recorded a 25 song rejection list. I can confirm that every Melodifestivalen reject is not by default fabulous, and this part of the process was tiring and frustrating. And that was by mid-morning.

In terms of the styles of songs we heard, yes they did have the vast wide ranging variation that you come to expect with Melodifestivalen. However pop by far dominated what we were listening to, with seemingly one in every three submissions trying, and failing, to pick up where either Avicii or Zara Larsson had vacated in the September 2015 Swedish music scene. It was particularly disappointing how formulaic many of these types of entries were in that regard.

We could, and we did, go back to some borderline songs that we perhaps missed out during the process. However at all times the SVT member of staff was the one turning on and off the buttons.

A Message To Your Heart

At this point, it should be noted the only information we get about each song is the title. There certainly was a trend for the grandiose one word title, ‘Euphoria’ style. I might have sniggered when we heard two songs called ‘Glorious’, but my favourite of the genre was the mysterious ‘Exodus’.

Sometimes the lyrics told us more than we were perhaps meant to know. In that B-list rapper kind of way, a handful of entries included the name of the artist singing the song in the introduction. It’s as cringeworthy as it sounds. However it’s little surprise too – if at this stage knowing a name is behind a song might just be enough to get it over the line into the show. All acts using this method that I remember were people previously in the Melfest circuit, the kind of people who’ll know all the tricks of the trade to get selected.

After lunchtime we all reconvened in Galaxet. We hadn’t yet finished piling through all the songs, but we had between the four groups shortlisted enough to start Round Two. We would go back to round one again on Tuesday.

The rules to Round Two different. Here we would listen to two minutes of the song. After the two minutes if you liked the song you raised your hand. The number of hands in the air would indicate that song’s rating. After all Round Two songs were heard and voted on, the top 100 (roughly) would qualify to Round Three.

The extra fascination that was attached to Round Two of the jury service was that, after each song was voted on, Mari would reveal to us which artist it was who had submitted the song. Why we heard this information at this stage was never revealed, but it was tintilating information. Sometimes Mari would forget to say who the artist was and each time somebody would remind her to tell us. This was vital inside gossip as to who was sending in entries to Melodifestivalen that we couldn’t miss out on.

Not every song had an artist attached to the song, and they were sent in with just demo singers. These were the minority. However what also happened was that we heard the same artist names over and over again. It seems one reason for the high number of entries to Melodifestivalen is that record labels are seemingly submitting entire albums by their artists to increase the chance that one of them is selected. There were a few artist names we certainly started to groan at once we heard the same names over and over again.

It was a tiring first day, but we knew we would have two or three more days of the same routine. Listening to one minute clips and then two minute clips following. There were a small handful of songs getting full scores from all sixteen or close enough. Nice, well built pop songs on the whole, but without really being stunning. The voting system at this stage really lent itself to ‘Only Teardrops’ levels of ‘averageness-looking-fabulous’ as songs we all ‘liked’ did better than the some love and some hate types.

If You Think We’re Human

The excitement I certainly had on day one was certainly zapped by the time I arrived for day two. The smatterings of inspiration through the listenings of songs don’t outweigh the huge pile of bleh that we also had to sift through. There certainly wasn’t a song yet that appeared to have a chance of winning a normal Melodifestivalen, never mind Eurovision.

Christer greeted us in the morning in Galaxet. I was surprised by his presence, his introduction on day one sounded sufficient. He tells us how he’s meeting with Mari each night to go through the yay’s and nay’s. He wasn’t satisfied. I had no idea what we had done.

What we had now is a section that I’m calling Christer’s Choice. Basically it transpires there were some songs from Round One we missed as a jury, and Christer wasn’t happy about this. He wants them to get another play in the bigger room. There were certainly some catchy tunes in this section, but it must be said that the vast majority of these songs were ones that had big artist names attached to them as well. All the tunes I noted with artist shoutouts as well, however cringeworthy, got a second bite at the cherry through this route.

Later on after Christer’s cluster of tunes was dispatched with, we were sent back into new small groups to continue with Round One. The level of song had dropped again and we had another run of thirty or forty songs without success. Up came one pop song at the end of this run that was way off-kilter and all the better for it. After about forty seconds in we were all bopping away and Mari, who was chairing our mini-group, was enjoying the groove so much we definitely let more than one minute play on this one. It got thumbs up from all of us and a big exclamation mark next to it in Mari’s notes. It was my first ‘wow’ moment of the week. When Christer popped into the room a few minutes later Mari showed him the list and he expressed how fantastic he thought the song was as well. We felt like good little schoolchildren for picking out the correct answer to the headmaster, who had just came in to check his teacher was able to do her job properly.

I’ve had ‘Don’t Worry’ in my head ever since.

By the end of Day Two between the four mini-groups we have managed to complete all of Round One. Well almost. One group was mighty close to completing but didn’t, so some SVT staff did the honours of sorting that shortlist.

Just When You Think It Can’t Get Any Worse

When we hit day three it was high time to complete Round Two. We hearing the final sets of some albums, which, at least by the time this article gets published, still haven’t been released yet. Indeed one of the saddest things post-Jury room is that most of the songs we have heard have still not seen the light of day. Many are waiting to be album tracks or are waiting for another go at the Melodifestivalen hit list next year. The older heads on the jury could tell tales about some songs that always got close, but never quite had the legs to make it to the final cut.

One song, a very middle-of-the-road Swedish language number, was pleasant and I gave it a vote to go through from Round Two to Round Three. I was surprised when it got 13 votes and easily qualified – it didn’t stand out as being that brilliant. However the bombshell came when Mari revealed the artist was Krista Siegfrids.

For those of you who know, Krista holds a little special place in my heart, as she does for many who are in the Eurovision bubble. Her energy and love for the Contest is arguably the highest for any act this decade, and we all know how much a shot at Melfest would mean to her – it was this show after all she watched avidly growing up. Also on a personal level, one can extrapolate that Krista, and ‘Marry Me’, led to the fact that I got married one year later (the lady in question to this day still insists that her voting for Finland was not a hint, I disagree).

I had a huge moral dilemma. I really wanted Krista to be in Melodifestivalen, both for her and for me personally. I was a fan. However I knew deep in my heart that ‘Faller’ wouldn’t be a mega success and although I liked it I never had it near number one. By knowing the artist I was now horrendously conflicted, and I felt I could not be the impartial jury member that I truly wanted to be.

Christer was in the main room for all of today and had taken charge of most of the administration. As people were nipping out for toilet breaks and phone calls all the time, he was very diligent in making sure the number of people voting was always maintained, or noted down if it dropped below 16. Yes, that meant if one person left the room then Christer would step himself into a voting position.

I know what I write about Mr. Björkman can sound like he is an fictional mad scientist manipulating his data for his own personal greed and glory. He certainly has a lot of influence in what he says, but there was also a genuine will to use the knowledge and opinions from around the room as well. Thinking about it, our role seemed less like a subjective jury but more of a focus group. We were taken from a wide range of Melodifestivalen’s watching public to help SVT gauge what could work and what simply didn’t.

One bizarre highlight of day three comes from the fact our meeting room was double booked for a one hour meeting in the middle of the day, so we had to clear out all our things at lunchtime. The room we left our bags and stuff in was the Melodifestivalen’s office. This is the same office you’ve already seen if you are a big fan, it is exactly the same room Ylvis meet Christer Björkman in before their 2015 interval act begins. The Stonehenge book was still there if I remember correctly too.

It’s a cross between a workspace and memorabilia studio with all the paraphernalia from Contests gone by. There are copies of the CD’s, programmes and of course his Eurovision trophy. Only the one from Vienna was on display, perhaps he’s still disinfecting the Baku one I got my grips on in 2012…

A celebratory Ben Robertson and Christer Björkman at Arlanda Airport in May 2012 (Photo, Daniel Aragay)

A celebratory Ben Robertson and Christer Björkman at Arlanda Airport in May 2012 (Photo, Daniel Aragay)

A New Room, A New Mission

By the start of Day Four we were very almost complete with the whole round-down of Round Two. However we’d been moved for this morning away from the depths of SVT to a far more accessible venue. The Information Office was next to the main entrance, a 4 row lecture theatre actually equipped with a decent sound system for a change. It was bright, thank goodness, with luxuries like windows and fresh air. Those ground level windows though could probably give you a nosey from the road if you knew where to look, and the sound did leak across into the main reception area a little too much for pure secrecy. One half expected an Aftonbladet journalist to be lurking around with tape recordings and zoom camera lenses to prepare another who-is-entering exclusive

The biggest feature was the huge white board from one side of the room to the other; a teacher’s dream. The kind that I find in my favourite classrooms where I have enough space to write over the entire lesson without needing to rub anything out. By the time we came up to lunch we had chosen every song in Round 2. Our boundary was on 7 votes we were told. Any song that got more than 7 votes would go up onto the board, divided by genre. We would then whittle them down until the point when we were able to get down to enough entries to pick out which ones we wanted in the contest, although a few on the 6 vote borderline might have snuck in (Christer’s will perhaps to test the ground…again), and we were allowed to add one extra song each if we wanted to.

After lunch the whiteboard was completely covered, and was magnificently and beautifully written (Christer’s left-handed work). Lists of songs and artists covered the entire area, over 100 in the end, with the 5 amateur entries from the Allemanstävling shoved in as well. The new rules for 2016 meant that there was no longer a guaranteed place in the Melodifestivalen line-up for an amateur songwriter. SVT picked five that would be thrown into this stage of the jury process, to see if they could make the grade. They were written in blue to stand out a little more, so we knew which ones they were. Each of them, even the parody reggae track ‘Melodifestivalen’ that begged Christer Björkman to let the artist sing on stage, was voted out in the first time of asking. The new amateur songs on first listen were never going to be a match for songs that had already became people’s favourites.

The Melodifestivalen whiteboard looked a little like this before we started cutting down each section (Photo: Ben Robertson, ESC Insight)

The Melodifestivalen whiteboard looked a little like this before we started cutting down each section (Photo: Ben Robertson, ESC Insight)

The voting in Round Three did change for each genre section we were in. What happened was that we went around the board sections and listened to the list one at a time, each time picking our favourites from them. For example our most oversaturated section was the English language female pop. Here we had over thirty songs in our final shortlist. After listening again to just one minute of these, we each voted for ten of them. We had a clear top ten that were left on the board. Later on we made further cuts per genre, until when we had a manageable amount left to make some yes/no decisions. A big wide blank column was left on the right hand side of the board ready to add in fourteen tracks.

It was at this point in the competition when we were starting to kill off some legitimately good songs.

Awake To A Brand New Day

Saturday morning arrived to a surprisingly desolate TV-Huset. Obviously Swedish TV was still transmitting, but most of the workers had the weekend off and reception was all closed up. It was surprisingly eerie as some of the few people in the building. Christer Björkman’s assistant had to personally come and open the main entrance for us.

We had previously shortlisted five songs in the rock genre. We all agreed that two of them were fabulous and streets ahead of the others. The problem was our SVT leadership were nudging us away from selecting both rock songs to move on to the later stages of the final round. They wanted us to select just one of these just to be considered for the final shortlist, never mind actually making it to the final fourteen. It felt incredibly cruel. We voted on just those two songs, and we actually came to a completely even split, eight against eight. Still we had to pick just one song. In the end we picked one that was more different for Melfest, a little less schlager rock and without the screaming key change. We did echo a noise around the room to keep both for now, but that wasn’t heeded.

It moved on from that to the real schlager. We had to throw in some songs with less than seven Round Two votes into this section to get an eight-song shortlist. From this we were to pick one for consideration. If your wishes of a schlager Melodifestivalen semi final were to come true, I hope it wouldn’t be this nightmare. The schlager submitted for Melfest 2016 was a bit pants, but you probably guessed this already based on what happened in the show. We had probably our deepest discussion about whether we should even have a schlager song in the mix.

One track that I remember well had quite a dated production, but there were a few murmurs around the room of people saying it would do well if it was a bit more professional. It was a very old-fashioned schlager, submitted with a demo singer, which could have been submitted decades ago. I hadn’t heard it before though, and nobody else in the room had any recollection either.

Obviously the story must be that SVT remembered the song after being cut and kept hold of it in their back pocket. With new lyrics and production this song did reach Melfest through SVT’s back door. Sadly though this was the song that gave Anna Book all that controversy (but be thankful it wasn’t the other song she actually submitted, as we had to tell Christer how embarrassing that was repeatedly, but I guess they were absolutely determined to get her a comeback).

It was also at this level when we got wind of some information from Mari and Christer from outside the jury room. They’d told us that the night before they bumped into an artist and joked about all the songs they had entered. Oh no, the artist cried, because they only want one song to be considered for Melfest from that album. With quiet agreement, all the other submissions from that artist were erased from the board, and in the end it was no surprise to see that song selected after the nods, winks and nudges it was given. Indeed it felt so forced down my throat that I actively voted against it, even being the only one in the room, as the soft power manipulation of the jury process finally grated on me as one step too far.

The power of the artist was a big deal, but sometimes as you would imagine none of us knew all the names. For me, this moment came in the section for the Swedish language ballads. What SVT helpfully did in Round Three was to also pass around some hastily printed out pictures of each artist, if there was an artist attached to the song submitted. I remember in this grouping I was split in voting between two different yet ultimately very gentle Swedish guitar ballads. Was I meant to use this information to cast my vote for the prettier girl? Let’s face it Samir and Viktor wouldn’t have performed ‘Bada Nakna‘ in a Melodifestivalen final without their abs on display and testosterone oozing from every oiled-up pore. Looks do matter in this business, and this was a clear acknowledgement of this fact by the photos I possessed.

The choices were getting tougher and tougher. We had to listen to one minute of girl pop again, to cut our top ten into a top three. The four remaining ballads were knocked down to two, and we were left with one song representing a vague mish-mash genre called ‘World Outside’ where anything with a vague dose of culture got thrown in.

I think we got to around 25 songs before we started picking from there the 14. Let’s call this the Final Round.

For the Final Round we were further nudged by some extra data. Little coloured asterisks were put next to the entries in different colours. Green for Swedish language, blue for at least one female composer and red for being defined as kid-friendly. Swedish language needs to be considered in the final selection – no strict number, but ‘approximately 30%’ of the entries should be sung ‘mainly in Swedish’, according to the rules. More definite is the requirement that half the songs must have a female composer. The appeal for kid music is more for us to consider so that we keep the colleagues at the kids TV channel satisfied with the output.

Note that as we only pick half the songs there was no requirement for us as a jury to confirm to any of these stipulations to fulfil our requirements. However by providing the composer information and by making the language differences visually clear, it certainly encourages us to help that process along. Why do this? Well I guess it gives SVT even more freedom for their own fourteen song selection.

At this point we are open to picking our 14. We can shout out what we want to go through, and it will be moved to the right hand side of the board if we agree through a majority vote. Ace Wilder’s track was first across, with cries of ‘this could win’ from around the room. Somebody else mentioned Krista later on (as an alternative to the schlager category, but that juggernaunt managed to debate a song in at the end regardless). I raised my hand along with the others calling for her name and was quite shell shocked to see her name actually written up on the right hand side. It was tense but exciting, even when decisions went against me. The final place was cast by a five way vote, which thankfully went down to a simple majority. After all the days gone by, the deed was done quite quickly and effortlessly.

We had our fourteen, and amazingly we had finished over a day early. To celebrate our successes, we listened to our fourteen songs from first to last. Some awkward nobody-has-had-a-drink dancing took place, but it was a congenial if not congratulatory atmosphere. We were all quite drained of the music overload as you can imagine. Our final surprise was that after each song was played Mari would look in the Excel database and reveal to us who the composers were for each song. Many of the stalwarts you see each year did get through, but we were oblivious to whom the songwriters were throughout the entire process.

That people, was it. We were told to stay quiet as we left the building, just in case, and we handed in our notebooks one last time. We went our separate ways until we all met again in Friends Arena for the Final, where thanks to SVT we all were able to sit together. Sadly my fellow jurors weren’t quite the crazed flag-waving fans I was used to, but it was good to catch up nevertheless.

One missing link from our time in September was that only thirteen of our songs, not fourteen, were in the final selection. The one that was missing was to be performed by one of Sweden’s most beloved individuals, somebody whose appearance would tantalise the tabloids. We knew it was touch-and-go in the jury room if it would enter. Supposedly the artist has withdrew before, many times, but Christer had given us assurances (via some convoluted texting back and forth that September Saturday morning) that he would be up for the competition this year. I can only assume there was a change of heart. Technically the song was selected, not the artist, but in all honesty it was one of the many we chose where the attached artist name was the big draw that made the song have any special meaning.

In the end of the day, being on the jury was one incredible and unique world to experience the inner workings of Melodifestivalen. I certainly feel my experience and opinions helped shape the opinions in the room, albeit perhaps only slightly with a sixteen man jury. It was a long slog, but an experience I would take up again should stars align.

And if you didn’t like some of the Melfest songs this year…well I’m not sorry, no.

In the final part of this series, Ben Robertson will review all the parts of the Melodifestivalen jury process. He will reach out to explain where he believes it should be improved to ensure the integrity and quality of the competition are further improved. Don’t miss that review next week.

About The Author: Ben Robertson

Ben Robertson focuses on hot issues across the continent as well as piling through the minefield of statistics Eurovision creates. Ben moved from the UK to Sweden in 2011 and is the Stockholm Co-ordinator of Melodifestivalklubben and a Bureau Member of OGAE International.

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4 responses to “A Thousand Songs Become Fourteen, Inside The Ruthless Melodifestivalen Jury Room”

  1. Wow, it sounds like you’d have needed a week off to recover from that process!

    Obviously no ‘this could win Eurovision this year’ for you there – maybe that really only happens once in a blue moon…Euphoria, Fairytale, Only Teardrops… 😉

    I wonder if the OGAE jury for last year’s UK NF had a similar experience?

  2. Robyn says:

    This is fascinating! Thank you so much for sharing it, and in such detail.

  3. Whappy says:

    Let’s hope for not too many key changes next year…! :) And a good diversity of songs, not too many “cliches”. Some rock, alternative songs etc. Good luck! I like MF, but I feel it gets part to much attention, compared to other good NFs. Sometimes too much glamour. But indeed some great songs. Let’s hope for a musically interesting 2017. With some famous and credible names.

  4. Whappy says:

    Interesting article btw…nice to see how those “listening juries” work! Must be a dream job…but hard to let many good songs “die”

    A bit worrying there were more schlager than rock entereing…Esp. after the promise of “end of schlager” this year….! I hope there will be more rock in MF this year. only ONE this year..Let’s hope for maybe 1 or 2 in every semi)

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