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How UMK Became The Must Watch National Final Written by on February 25, 2023

Over the past generation of the Eurovision Song Contest as a general rule we have looked at Melodifestivalen as leading the way in terms of National Final production and song quality. But not this year. While Melodifestivalen has struggled through lower and lower viewership the equivalent across the Baltic Sea is stronger than ever. By far this is the must-watch National Final of the year for the Eurovision community – but how did they find this success? Ben Robertson investigates from Turku. 

I was last at Uuden Musiikin Kilpailu, Finland’s selection for the Eurovision Song Contest, in 2017.

In a ten song, one night show at a half-full Espoo Metro Arena, attendance boosted significantly thanks to Marcus and Martinus turning up as the interval act and a free bus from Helsinki station, I witnessed a Eurovision National Final that was not amongst my highlights. Here the fan favourite Emma, a music teacher living in Stockholm, had a staging meltdown and lost time with the backing track, three considerably unfunny ‘joke acts’ made no one laugh and when all else failed a well performed but cold ballad came through to landslide jury and televote…only to stutter to a 12th place finish in the Eurovision Semi Final in Kyiv.

This was the sixth year of the UMK project, with the aim to focus on the success of new music rather than purely Eurovision. OGAE Finland President Jouni Pihkakorpi reminds me how in the early years “the broadcaster wanted to make something so new they didn’t use the word Eurovision at all.” It didn’t help Finland’s chances either way and results were on the way backwards. From six years of UMK there were just two qualifications to the Eurovision final and the last three years saw three comfortable misses. It was time for a Eurovision rethink, to try and get away from a time head producer Anssi Autio called “difficult years.”

The rethink was to separate the songs submitted from the artists who wanted to compete, and when Saara Aalto appeared fresh out of British X Factor the decision was made that UMK 2018 would feature three songs all performed by Saara. There was much hype and excitement with UMK producer Anssi Autio calling her “our secret weapon to success.” The success was a 24th place finish in Lisbon. Internally selected Darude the year after had similar pre song-release hype, but ended last place in the Eurovision Semi Final.

Worse than that, viewing figures for UMK were crashing, and the one artist format didn’t have the suspense, excitement, nor quality of acts to bring in viewers or results. But credit to the team at YLE for not giving up. That desire to be “constantly evolving” the brand, as producer Jyri Loikkanen told me in 2017, stuck with the team.

A New New Music Competition

When a five song, five artist National Final format came back in 2020, it might have still been called UMK but the direction was different. One of the fundamental changes was that now UMK was a partnership with YleX, the Finnish broadcaster’s radio station aimed at young adults. Tapio Hakanen, head of music at YleX, was the person given the responsibility to head the selection jury to find the songs that should compete.

Finnish Eurovision journalist Sami Luukela sees this as the turning point for UMK, with Tapio’s direction being more active to recruit stars for the show.

“Rather than just having an open selection, he [Tapio] also approached the record labels to submit the songs in.”

“UMK has always had a strong team behind it, but maybe this was also brought to the attention of the record labels, as now many of the people working in UMK are also working with some of the biggest Finnish artists.”

Tapio Hakanen, head of the UMK selection jury (Photo: Matti Pyykkö)

Another benefit Sami explains is that the songs in UMK were also getting radio airplay at the target audience that the record labels were aiming for. In recent years acts like Duncan Lawrence and Måneskin had mega hits that naturally felt at home on this radio station, and with that Sami believes “it is now easier than ever to convince the record labels that it could be worth taking part in Eurovision.” I recall in 2014 it was notable in that season’s UMK that eventual winners Softengine signed a record deal with Sony in the middle of their UMK journey. Such a state of affairs would be almost impossible in modern UMK, every artist taking part now in 2023 is signed to big labels, with Sony, Universal, Capitol and Warner amongst the finalists.

There was also a song that changed expectations in Finland as well, becoming the first truly viral sensation of UMK, Erika Vikman’s ‘Cicciolina’.

Cicciolina’ faltered with the international juries and missed out on a spot in the Eurovision Song Contest, but the cheeky feminist messaging, throwback disco vibes and one of the year’s most catchy melodies resulted in a top 5 hit in the Finnish charts. UMK became a huge platform for allowing songs to go viral, from artists who already had fame, in ways we hadn’t seen previously this generation.

And this might not have dared to happen if it was the old style UMK. Anssi Autio argued in 2022 that for people in his generation “they don’t like to lose at Eurovision and that is always the topic.” Instead the world of UMK today is a world where the agenda is set by the younger generation leaving a situation where, as Anssi believes, “the older fans are following the younger fans.” OGAE Finland President Jouni Pihkakorpi agrees, saying that “mentally the Finnish people have changed” and their expectations now less about worrying about Europe and more about being “proud” of what we are sending.

And the Finnish people have embraced UMK. That 2022 show had record viewing figures of over 1 million with a reach during the show of nearly 2 million. From the doldrums of half-empty arenas we now end up in Turku this year to a show that sold out of tickets within a day, and that was before any interval act or any artist name was known to the public.

The Release Hype

One of the unique parts about modern Uuden Musiikin Kilpailu compared to other National Finals is how the songs are presented. Each of the competing songs is released one day at a time, on the stroke of midnight, with a live broadcast music video that is watched by thousands. These music videos are big budget productions that show off the best work in the business. Not only are these videos a great way of generating hype but the timing is also part of the success formula.

By releasing the new music at midnight Finnish time that means all of the song’s streams in the first 24 hours can count towards the song’s chart placing on streaming and download platforms. With the fast pace of the modern music industry these daily rankings are an increasingly important part of the puzzle to achieve, and here the possible hype from a good day one placing is maximised.

Yes, releasing at midnight may squarely aim your target viewing audience for these releases to those young adults, but they are also the ones most likely to stream after release, and most likely to scream into the social media abyss if a killer track appears.

Over one month from when the songs were released five of this year’s seven tracks are still in the top 25 of the Spotify charts in Finland, with KUUMAA’s ‘Ylivoimainen’ still sitting at number one and Käärijä’s ‘Cha Cha Cha’ at number three. This is the type of domination of the domestic market that most broadcasters would dream of.

The YLE team are also experts on social media themselves, with plenty of content on each of the artists before the show that goes beyond stale interviews but gets us to know the acts in a fun way. Despite having around a quarter of the subscribers as neighbouring Melodifestivalen does on their channel, the promotional interviews and games with contestants have had a similar number of views in the tens of thousands this month. Their annual ‘have the artists listen blind to each other’s songs reaction video’ is now a Eurovision community favourite and, despite being in Finnish (with subtitles available in English) this video has a viewership in the hundreds of thousands of views, more than some of the competing entries themselves.

The commitment to English language subtitles and press releases on their UMK content is commendable of the YLE team, but their inclusivity goes far beyond making UMK accessible to international Eurovision fans. The show this year will not only have an English language commentary but also commentary in seven other languages, including this year Ukrainian and sign language, as well as being broadcast on Out TV from The Netherlands and Ten TV in Spain. Such diversity and spread of content internationally doesn’t happen for other National Finals. Except for one, that Swedish juggernaut Melodifestivalen now broadcasts on YLE on delay each Saturday evening.

The Show Itself

And while all of this is going on behind-the-scenes to produce content that reaches wider groups and access, it is the stage show that ultimately is the entertainment on offer. The visual production offered on stage is of a quality that any nation would be proud of, and in my little opinion YLE are as strong as anybody at creating diverse ‘look-and-feel’ for each of their acts as any other broadcaster in the business. It is not just the different props that are used or the genius ways the behemoth two-part sliding LED screen is utilised, but also the tender asthetics and colour palettes that make these numbers pop more than elsewhere. A personal highlight here would be or the tender projections that feature on Lxandra’s performance and create a truly organic flavour.

Producing quality staging each and every year is one of the other reasons for UMK’s success. Anssi Autio argues that this guaranteed show quality means the big names are no longer put off from taking part, arguing that nowadays “they don’t need to be afraid, we will take good care of them.”

And that is no exception this year. Robin Packalen opens UMK this year, one of the biggest names in modern Finnish pop history who finally after years of saying no to UMK decided this year was the year to throw his hat into the ring. When he asks how he would compare UMK to other shows he has been a part of he describes the production here as “outstanding”.

“Honestly, I said this to my promotion person, I have never been to anywhere in Finland that has been as well organised as this one so I am really happy to be part of this one.”

The organisation is not just a one-sided thing, but a collaboration. Staging each act is a piece of teamwork from the artist and record label on one side and the team from YLE on the other. Hot favourite Käärijä believes that the creation of his viral music video and stage show was filled with ideas that half came from his team and half from YLE.

There is also an attention to detail that the Finnish show has that beats its rivals, at least domestically. Keira Lundström competed in this very arena on The Voice of Finland last year, finishing 3rd. The biggest difference that the teenager feels is from the production last year is that in this performance she is “able to show my personality” and that the team “have trained so much with the whole show and more time on the choreography” to make it as perfect as possible.

Always Comparing To Their Neighbours

May I point out there are factors beyond the show that also show the attention to detail that every broadcaster can learn from. I love the concept here of the ‘UMK Street’ at the arena with pre-show activities, last year’s act Younghearted performing a gorgeous acoustic set in the bar with a drinks list themed with drinks for each of the acts taking part (yes you can order a piña colada for each hand). Yes, I’ve been around Melodifestivalen this month as well and the foyer there has a big buzz as well pre-show, but it’s filled with sponsors giving away freebies and the inspiration to innovate falls back on the sponsors and back to the past rather than focusing on the here and now, the modern show and the modern artists, not Carola wind machines.

I mention this comparison because there is a humorous section two-part section of tonight’s show that is mainly in Swedish, from a ‘Eurovision expert from Stockholm’ (no, not me). The part one is looking at Finland’s poor results compared to their big neighbour next door and how Sweden dominates the Eurovision Song Contest. However the second part takes a role reversal, looking with faux shock at how Finland beat Sweden comfortably in 2021 and how UMK has created a brand that is repeatedly called by our community as the best National Final of the year. And the Finnish fans will know this, because they can watch Melfest each week.

The show here in Finland is innovative, daring and youthful. The acts they are bringing in are how finally bringing in the country’s biggest music names who fancy a swing at the Eurovision bat. From on its deathbed Uuden Musiikin Kilpailu is now standing taller than ever and is the one we should all look up to. 

I asked Bess, last year’s 3rd place artist who opens today’s show with a medley including that record breaking radio hit ‘Ram Pam Pam’, how she would recommend UMK to other Finnish acts on a scale of 1-10.

“12,. It’s super, it’s the best experience you can get and you don’t get these kinds of experiences anywhere else.”

I can think of no greater compliment for this show that is the must-watch for anybody in the Eurovision community.

About The Author: Ben Robertson

Ben Robertson has attended 23 National Finals in the world of Eurovision. With that experience behind him he writes for ESC Insight with his analysis and opinions about anything and everything Eurovision Song Contest that is worth telling.

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