“We know there is bloc voting in that sense, but we don’t regard this as political, we regard this as cultural,” he says. “We know that there are elements of political voting, we know that it’s a very difficult conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan and we see every year that they rank each other’s songs zero basically. And that is something we cannot do anything about.”
We must also adapt, in real time, to musical trends within the competition itself.
In purely historical terms, a Eurovision artist and song was uniquely kitschy. This is, after all, the competition which has put everything from dancing grannies to Celine Dion on its stage. But in more recent years commercial pop music has pushed prominently into the competition and the definition of a Eurovision-winning idea has evolved.
“If you look at the past 10 years and you line up all these artists, you’ll see it’s a variety of artists, songs, performances and they’re all very different. There is one common thing with all these entries and these artists: that they managed to create a moment on that stage that captured both the viewers and the jury,” Sand says.
For example, last year’s contest-winning performance from Duncan Laurence of the Netherlands came “with a very low-key performance, but really, really strong with a strong message,” Sand says.
“There was nothing fancy about it. There was nothing electric. He was sitting in front of an old piano in jeans but he created a moment. He created something that people believed in.”
It was a sharp contrast from the previous year in Lisbon where Israel’s Netta had won with an over-the-top performance. “She really stood out and it was a wow moment all over Europe,” Sand says. “So these two different acts managed to capture the hearts and minds of both the juries and the public.
“There is no Eurovision recipe as such,” Sand adds. “You just have to create a very special moment on that stage.”
While Sand’s background is in television production he is also something of a diplomat, in charge of an event which many in political circles see as a powerful tool of soft diplomacy; that is, something which can step into political complex spaces and bring people together under an apolitical charter.
The most substantial example of that was staging Eurovision in Israel last year, igniting conversation about the political realities in that part of the world. The move was not without controversy; many felt that the competition should not have been staged there, though organisers stood by Eurovision’s custom of hosting it in the country which had won the previous year.
There is no Eurovision recipe as such. You just have to create a very special moment on that stage.
“Yes, I do see myself as a diplomat, I have to be,” Sand says. “There are 41 or 42, 40-something different countries’ stakeholders involved in this. And they all have their different perspective on the song contest, [and a] different perspective on Europe. So you have to be a diplomat.
“Travelling and staging these enormous events in different countries cannot be done if you come in and just point with your finger and tell them what to do, you have to work with them, you have to make sure they understand our common goal,” he adds. “And when it comes to Eurovision as a [tool of soft diplomacy] I think that is something they are very proud of.”
Sand is heading to Australia to attend Eurovision: Australia Decides, a national music competition which determines the artist and song which will represent Australia at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. The artists performing and hoping to secure the nation’s vote include iOTA, Casey Donovan, Diana Rouvas, Jack Vidgen, Mitch Tambo and Vanessa Amorosi.
Sand believes the development of the pre-competition is a sign of Australia’s maturation as a Eurovision competitor. “It brings excitement, it strengthens the bond, it gives a feeling of the artist representing the country for real and not representing only the group of music executives or the jury who pick them,” he says.
For a time, Australia’s addition to the Europe-based competition was seen as a possible first step in expanding the event internationally. Each year there are persistent whispers that either China or the United States might be a logical next addition. But Sand does not believe either will enter the competition any time soon.
“The reason Australia came on board was the anniversary of airing it and sending commentators, and there is a lot of European connection to Australia,” Sand says. “The reason why we don’t open doors for other countries is first of all that you need to be a European Broadcasting Union member or an associate member [which both the ABC and SBS are]. But you also need to have a domestic audience. If you don’t have a domestic audience, why should you participate if no one cares?
“So although it’s a massive television brand, it’s not very well known in the US, it’s not very well known in China, or in Brazil, or anywhere else,” he adds. “There is no reason for us to invite any new countries into the competition. That might change in the future but … that is not on the agenda at the moment.”
Eurovision: Australia Decides will be held on Saturday, February 8, 2020; the Eurovision Song Contest will be held May 12-16 in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
Michael Idato is the culture editor-at-large of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.