While I was on the selection jury for Melodifestivalen at many times I felt conflicted. Some of those feelings were because of my own personal dilemmas trying to make the best judgement calls between different artists and songs, and some was because of the structures that the Melfest jury has to work with.
Melodifestivalen is such a big deal for SVT, for Sweden, and arguably for the Eurovision Song Contest that ensuring the best songs reach it to the final show is vital to ensure its integrity grows. With scandals like #appgate, voting robots and song disqualification in recent years the demand for integrity is more important now than ever before.
I do not think how our jury process worked was the best way to deliver that integrity, or to guarantee the highest quality of songs made it through to the TV show. The songwriters of Sweden deserve and require better transparency to inspire their time and effort. Only then will it continue to drive Melodifestivalen forward as the pinnacle TV production it is today and the true highlight of not just the TV calendar but the musical calendar as well.
A Squad Of Sixteen
In the jury room there were sixteen people from a wide cross-section of the Melodifestivalen community. Fan club members and dedicated journalists were matched by record label and radio station experts, as well as the more casual fans and music students. We were gender balanced and spread across the generations in ways few selection processes could dream of. This balance should be commended.
My issue though is that voting rights are also given to employees of SVT and Sveriges Radio, which in total had three and two members respectively. This does not include people outside but inside the inner workings of the competition, such as Edin Jusuframic who is now a regular house dancer for the series. The chairing of the panel was also run by an SVT member of staff, Mari Ryberger.
It is my opinion that no vote on the selection jury should be held by anybody from the TV station.
The selection jury process is not to be brushed over. In selecting these songs the jury dictate which songs have the head start to be the hits of the year in Sweden. The process needs to be as detached from the TV production as possible. Don’t forget that SVT fill the rest of the running order with its own choice of songs that can bring balance to the entertainment and variety side of the selection equation. Using SVT staff to control the votes and make sure the song files are protected is vital, but this should be a role without any voting power. In addition the persuasive and nudging abilities that a Chairperson can provide to the jury suggests the role should be staffed from a neutral body.
Having SVT staff so heavily involved also opens up the can of worms that is conflict of interest. One notes for example that chairperson Mari Ryberger was in charge of song presentations at Melodifestivalen this year, and also directly named in Ace Wilder’s team of choreographers for ‘Don’t Worry’. The latter two is a controversial enough combination, never mind the jury room’s ultimate selection of Ace’s track before any others in the jury process.
The Revelation Of Who
As we went through each round of the jury process one day at a time there was a drip feed of information given to us. It was just a song title at the start, then an artist name, and finally a picture of the artist in question. Each drip-drop of information was riveting. Certainly knowing a big name can carry a performance is a factor for Melodifestivalen, and for Eurovision beyond.
However this process diminished the role of the jury in critiquing the songs for what they were, and as I wrote before my judgement was affected by knowing who was performing or how pretty they were. I recall one fellow jury member saying that they would vote for one song if it could be guaranteed that the proposed artist would enter. This is not what the role of being in the jury room should be – it should be the pure graft of looking through the songs for what we hear audially. It also gave songs sent in with a demo song a distinct disadvantage by not allowing that visual connection. No demo submitted song reached our fourteen, or got particularly close. Instead some of them ended up qualifying to other National Finals across Scandinavia.
This was in contrast to the revelation of the selected composers, which were revealed to us at the very end of the process after the songs should be selected. One could argue that the artist information should also kept secret until this point. I would even go further to stress that zero artist information should be revealed. After all, SVT have a right to select whatever artist they wish according to their own rules in the rest of the running order.
The Power Of Christer
Christer Björkman is of course Mr. Melodifestivalen and is the person seen as responsible for the success of the expanded six-week format and to make it the production stalwart it is today. His introduction to the task on day one was informative and certainly helped to guide our judgement on what our role was in finding fourteen diverse songs for Melodifestivalen.
However as the week progressed he became more heavily involved in the process and this despite not being named officially in any way as a part of the jury. For example he brought songs back from the dead to get a second hearing, voting as an additional member when people left the room and basically acting as de facto chairperson for the final few sessions.
Much of what he had to say was positive but the amount of power that he possessed in the room was immense. There were a few artists, older, beloved names, who supposedly didn’t actually want their songs submitted into the submission pile by songwriters and production companies. As some of these songs got within half a chance of qualifying Christer’s sitting on the front row texting record labels and artists themselves letting them know, and asking if they would be interested. Furthermore he argued for the inclusion of one artist in particular, basically admitting it would be good for TV for this artist to be a part of the competition to continue a narrative from the year previous. When one of the younger members challenged him on leading the debate too much, and if it was that important then SVT could choose said artist directly, Christer’s response was decidedly unapologetic.
It isn’t that Christer is deliberately doing things to tarnish the competition, but his presence and his knowledge goes too far to be impartial and truly fair. He should not have been able to vote, to tell us his rendez-vous stories, to text other people, or to keep songs that were frankly embarrassing songs back from the dead again and again. I described in the previous part how it felt more like a focus group rather than a jury, but for the integrity of Sweden’s biggest music contest it must steer itself back in the other direction.
A Quota For Everything
When we approached the final rounds all the songs were divided up into different genres, and were systematically cut from each selection first before getting selected into our final fourteen. In my opinion the cutting was too strict within genres, without considering the apparent quality. We had to cut one of the two brilliant rock entries from consideration at the same time as gifting one of the weaker schlager songs through to the live TV show. In hindsight two rock songs were what we needed, with the schlager sent packing.
Our pre-arrival information gave us instructions that we should consider a wide variety of genres. However jury members should be trusted to consider and to throw that out of the window if the quality was sufficiently good enough. However SVT were controlling the genre split and they ensured that couldn’t happen.
In addition there is simply no need for a system where we are told if songs have female composers, as a 50% ratio is needed and can therefore be supplemented just by SVT’s quota. This is a controversial rule anyway and was mooted then rejected after protests in Iceland, and actually giving us that knowledge in the final segment let to us being nudged to select a gender balance. There is no need for us to know anything about the composers at any stage of the process.
The one place where I could argue for genre division would be in the early stages. We had to listen to the songs in alphabetical order, which mish-mashed genres galore as we listened through. A better option in my opinion would be to divide songs submitted by genre, which should be done by submitting composers anyway through the online system, and then have the small groups listen by genre. It is far easier to work out which ballad is best when listening to lots of ballads, and at this early stage comparison would be a good thing. Jurors can also split themselves off into groups they are more expert in too. In the latter stages this is where I would have less genre precision and allow more of a free-for-all for deciding which songs would make it into the final Melodifestivalen selection.
Every Song Is A Cry For Love
The most horrendous and shocking process of the entire week is to do with the songs that we heard, or didn’t hear. We were given just over 1000 songs to cut down to our selection, and I will be the first to say that the process was frustrating and the song quality lacking, especially in the early stages. However the number of songs submitted to Melodifestivalen 2016 was 2450. More than half of the songs were cut by SVT beforehand. Getting rid of the rubbish, or something equivalent, was what I was told.
One might have understood if they were just removing duplicates, but there were songs we had where we had English and Swedish versions of the same track, as well as male and female lead vocals. More than half the songs cut it appears were songs that SVT had just plucked from the scrapheap and stuck a big rejection label on it. In addition there were 468 amateur written entries of which SVT decided on a shortlist of five. 99% of the Public Contest submissions didn’t get heard by the jury. There was a time not so long ago all of these songs were heard by everybody through the Webbjoker competition, all publicly available, and for some kick-starting their musical journey. While not a success at least it had transparency at its core and the current ratio is saddening.
I realise our time was precious (and expensive with each external jury member collecting 5000 SEK for their time) but I find this completely unacceptable. That so many songs get thrown onto the trash heap without formal consideration, even when that is just one minute with poor quality speakers in an SVT back office, is really quite disgraceful. Each song submitted has to not just be given equal chance but has to be seen to get equal chance. In this respect Melodifestivalen is a victim of its own success but with the media bemoaning the same songwriters and the similar sounding tracks each and every year the process can not be anything but open to all.
Melodifestivalen is fabulous. End of discussion [err, really? – Ewan]. But learning more about how it worked on the inside actually made me less supportive and more critical of the inner circle that holds it together. Knowing there are songs with hours and hours of love that don’t get a hearing when others get such a different and biased treatment makes me sad; modern Melodifestivalen didn’t shake off its image of one big pop culture clique. It is little wonder some big and small songwriters in Sweden won’t touch the competition, even with the near-guaranteed domestic chart success it may bring.
The jury process needs to be as squeaky-clean as the selection for Sweden’s biggest pop music extravaganza deserves to be. I was far from impressed by that side of the equation. We still found some great songs, and I want to thank my colleagues greatly for all the input and discussions we had together, but it was altogether too controlling and too manipulative to be deserving of the name ‘jury’.
The discussion points in this final chapter were fed back to Anette Helenius, Executive Producer of Melodifestivalen after the jury dissolved last September. No news on any jury changes for this season’s Melodifestivalen have reached us here at ESC Insight. We wish everybody involved the best of luck for the new year ahead.