Come on, admit it: you watched it too, didn’t you? It wasn’t just me sitting slack-jawed with amazement at Germany’s extraordinary head creation. A considerable number of us were in front of TV screens with friends and family, gesticulating frantically with our wine glasses and jotting down our own unique scoring systems. Eurovision. It’s a big, silly, totally over-the-top delight of an evening, and I wouldn’t have missed said extraordinary head creation for the world. Even if it did look a bit like someone had accidentally created it whilst suffering a strange muscle spasm in the middle of making a rag rug.
This year, though – and I say this for the benefit of those unfortunate souls who were unable to experience the whole splendid affair – there was a fascinating twist to the marking. Fifty percent of Eurovision scores are determined by frantic phone calls, of course, as we all select our favourite acts and register our support. Fifty percent are allocated by national ‘professional juries’. (If you want to know more about these jurors, Eurovision have created a handy guide.) Usually, we shout at the telly all the way through the acts, and then watch with equal amounts of boredom and frustration as each country is contacted in turn (all 42 of them, including Australia – yes, that’s in Europe now, do keep up!) and requested to submit their combined jury/voting marks. But this year, we got to see the marks divided into their constituent parts. First we were told what the juries had awarded, country by country. And then the televotes were all piled together and announced to us as a series of totals.
It was fascinating for two reasons. First of all, the jury voting was far more evenly spread across the acts than had been apparent from previous years of combining their marks with the popular vote. Even the UK got points! Second of all, it became immediately apparent that the opinion of the jurors was in many cases not reflected in the televoting. Quite the reverse, in some cases. I had only just finished saying how delighted I was that the Polish entry (a very serious-looking man whose style and demeanour could perhaps best be summarised as ‘if D’Artagnan had been a clinically-depressed rock star’) had ended up at the bottom of the pile after the jury votes… when it became apparent that it was about to be awarded HUNDREDS of points by the popular vote. They ended up eighth overall. Eighth! I couldn’t believe it.
And, as the pizza and fizzy wine gradually wore off, it got me thinking. The Eurovision voting process is an impressive little microcosm of the ‘expert’ and ‘popular’ divide which has recently been picked up in debates about the purpose and necessary credentials of drama critics, the way in which BBC Young Musician of the Year is advertised and broadcast, and how people feel about live tweeting in opera rehearsals. How expert (or educated, or academic, or elite, or whatever particular degree of inflammatory vocabulary you prefer) does a critic need to be to pass judgement? How does the BBC expect to get better viewing figures for a competition that has been shunted entirely to a ‘specialist’ arts and culture channel rather than mixed in with more mainstream viewing? And how very dare San Francisco Opera offer free seats to live tweeters for an upcoming production of Carmen, and encourage audience members to bring their filthy digital devices into the auditorium to pollute the fresh air of high art?
It’s the third of these which interests me the most, because it seems to reflect an oft-repeated scenario in classical music which is getting increasingly wearing. It goes like this. The people who go to classical events say: ‘Why aren’t more people coming to this event? It’s amazing and life-changing! The audience should be bigger.’ The funding bodies say: ‘Quite right, you’ve got this big old theatre here and you’re not filling it up. That means you’re obviously not doing your job properly. Time to expand your outreach programme and demonstrate that you’re connecting with new audiences if you expect us to give you any more money.’ The organisation putting on those events starts to look at new ways of expanding its audience. It asks people why they do or don’t go to their performances. It explores the kind of publicity and marketing strategies that have proven most effective with particular demographics. It works as hard as it can so that it can keep the money from the funding bodies, not least so that it can continue making great art and the people who regularly come will still have events to attend. At long last, it comes to an important conclusion: there is an easy way to engage with new audiences that they would like to try. They’ll do it as a one-off, to see if it works. They’ll do it in a dress rehearsal, so that it has minimal impact on a formal show. They announce it. Here it is: this is a strategy that their hard work suggests might help. Let’s try it and see!
The regular attenders throw their hands up in horror. How could the venue think it’s a good idea?! It’s terrible! Dreadful! I mean, it’s… different! And they wouldn’t do it, so how could anyone think it’s a good idea?
That this is the point seems to pass them by entirely. It’s quite simple really: don’t ask someone to explain honestly why they don’t attend an event, if all you’re going to do is shout at them for not being the same as you. If you don’t want to experience a room full of live tweeters, don’t go to the dress rehearsal. Concerts and operas are supposed to be run for the benefit of everyone in the room – and sometimes it’s a very large room – which means that your opinions might not align with the status quo. And if you attend long enough, the status quo might shift. But you are one among many, so… get over it. I thought Poland’s Eurovision entry was boring and terrible. Which is why I didn’t vote for it. Many other people did, which tells me that I have a different opinion from them, and that they are equally entitled to theirs as I am to mine. If I choose to feel quietly superior because my opinion apparently aligned with the ‘experts’… then I probably need to get out more, because we’re talking about the Eurovision Song Contest, for goodness’ sake. But the point remains: Poland did something right, because they won an impressively large audience for their act. It was just an audience that I didn’t fancy being part of.
Anything that relies upon selling tickets relies upon all potential audiences for an event. This is not about letting standards slip to put bums on seats; it is not about the scourge of technology ruining our lives one smartphone at a time. It is about extending an invitation to someone who has never experienced a thing you love and asking them to come and try it, on terms they might find more comfortable. Maybe they’ll still find it hard work. Maybe you’ll decide that the adjustments necessary to help them are sufficiently extreme that a special performance scenario needs to be set up. Or maybe you’ll end up with a new fan, and a new status quo. The kind of tunnel vision that has a fixed idea of ‘the way we do things’ is both historically uninformed and ultimately culturally destructive. So don’t be that person. Be the person who says, ‘Live tweeting? Not really my thing, but I hope it ups their audience numbers. Think of all the great things the company could do with a bit of extra revenue and exposure.’ And if you do, I solemnly swear: next year, I’ll pay particular attention to the Polish entry. And the German one, come to that. Even if they are wearing a rag rug on their head.