VRT: ‘We’ve asked Stromae several times for Eurovision, but he always refuses gently’

‘There will be an internal selection,’ that’s the answer of both VRT and RTBF when talking about our Belgian Eurovision candidate. But how does that selection process exactly work and what are the experts looking for? A lot of questions, few answers. Time to talk with Gerrit Kerremans, as VRT music coordinator he’s the head of our selection committee. ‘If it was my choice, I would send Stromae! We’ve already asked him a few times. You never know.’

Gerrit has one of the most beautiful workplaces at VRT. A lot of space and light, but most important, a lot of LP’s. Hits of Trixie Whitley, teenage sensation #LikeMe and Junior Eurosong, the Belgian preselection for Junior Eurovision when Belgium was still competing.

Gerrit Kerremans immediately agreed with an interview about the VRT selection procedure. There is always a chance that in such an interview the most common answer is: ‘I can’t say anything about that.’ Luckily for us it was an open, honest and clarifying conversation. Our editor even got the single of What’s the Pressure? as a present.

Hi Gerrit! The selection and support of our Eurovision entries, is it one of the most important tasks in your job as VRT music coordinator?

Gerrit Kerremans: ‘It’s an important part of my job and it stays in our heads the entire year. We already started working at our selection for 2020 in January 2019. We want to continue working, even in the years that it’s not our turn to pick the entry. (Flemish broadcaster VRT and Walloon broadcaster RTBF alternate in participating at the contest, ed.) As Belgian, I don’t want to make a fool out of our country in front of the world. I want to win and organize Eurovision, that’s what I want to do!’

VRT refers to the A&R-group (artist & repertoire) when they’re talking about the selection committee. How do our readers have to see that committee?

‘With that group of people we selected Tom Dice in 2010. We got such a good result, Belgium even ended in sixth place! At that time I thought, that’s the way to go. But two years later it all went wrong again, and then again in 2014. In that same year we extended our team with professionals from outside. Because VRT-colleagues and myself are mainly radio- and television makers. But what goes on in the Eurovision Song Contest, is about so much more. It’s about finding the perfect artist to put on that stage and knowing what to bring, deciding on the right song … Our team takes the decision together, but the final responsibility comes to Birgit (Simal, head of delegation in Lisbon and returning this year, ed.) and myself.’

So who joined the team?

‘Christoffel Cocquyt is one of those new members. In my opinion he’s the best expert concerning A&R. In the music industry he’s well known as manager of Selah Sue, Gabriel Ríos, Milo Meskens and Novastar. It increased our credibility by miles. There is no way to convince big artists with a simple snap of your finger.’

What kind of platforms or TV shows gets attention from you and the selection committee?

‘I go to the final of The Voice Van Vlaanderen every year because artists from that show often put down a good result at Eurovision. There is also De Nieuwe Lichting by Studio Brussel (yearly radio show to discover new musical talent, ed.). Both Billie and Daan have a more alternative profile and are both interested in a Eurovision participation. Also, don’t forget MNM Rising Star or Marathonradio.(two talentshows on VRT’s teenradiostation MNM, ed.)

Belgian commentator Peter Van de Veire talked about ‘a longlist’ with preffered artists on it. Is it really that long?

‘Yes, that wasn’t a lie. (laughs) We sat down with the selection committee to develope our ultimate wish list. Everyone that can sing well, gets discussed. Especially if we think we could convince him or her to take their chance. It goes from very well known singers to singers no one ever heard of. After that we start to look at the pros and cons. Els Germonpré (also member of the selection committee, Ed.) helps us by making the most fantastic PowerPoint presentations about an artist. (laughs) We gather tons of information about those potential candidates, going from ‘How do they sing live?’ to ‘How do they come across?”

What if on the first approach someone immediately says ‘no’. What’s the most common reason for that?

‘In the past, artists didn’t feel like competing in a show such as Eurosong. ( the Belgian national final before picking internal, ed.) Even talented, young people said it’s a letdown. But nowadays? For certain artists there will always be an aversion for that camp and circus that Eurovision comes with. Luckily it’s starting to focus on the songs again. That makes that the contest gains back its seriousness it had back in the days. That’s why I’m so glad with Duncan as the winner last year. He succeeded to get his song from Eurovision mainstream. He already gave a concert at Pinkpop, that’s a real big achievement! Du jamais vu.’

Which artist are you trying to send to Eurovision for years, but couldn’t be  convinced?

‘Stromae! We’ve asked him a few times already. You never know. Actually you’re obliged to your country to ask him, you simply have to ask the artist with the most potential. Unfortunately Stromae always says no, but very friendly and he also very well explained why not.’

What about Angèle?

‘I hope that RTBF just asks her at one point, otherwise they are missing out on a big chance. But it’s not her time to take part right now. If you end up getting a bad result in Eurovision while trying to conquer Europe, it could be harmful for your career. But that factor will always be a risk. Playing at Rock Werchter is much easier than singing in a big competition like EurovisionYou have to expose yourself to about 200 million viewers.’

200 million, that’s right. So you do realize that our entries have to be very good?

‘Sure! I think it’s embarrassing how bad we did at Eurovision. This is like the Champions League for music shows, and you’re competing with your country. VRT, including myself, have underestimated Eurovision for years. I only realized it myself when I went to Stockholm in 2016. You have to experience the Eurovision Song Contest to understand what it’s all about. This festival is always super professional. I can imagine our artists and team gets to feel a lot of pressure.’

How many artists do you talk with before making a decision?

‘For the moment we’re talking with several people. But in 2018 we actually immediately asked Sennek. It honestly was the third time we asked her. She was interested from the beginning and that’s why we made her our priority last year. It wouldn’t make any sense trying to make five other artists keen to take part when you already have someone in mind.’

In 2018 both Natalia and Billie, popular singers in our country, showed interest in Eurovision. In the end you went for an unknown talent like Sennek. Didn’t you want to select Natalia?

‘Of course we do and still want! In 2018 we were talking with her manager. Nothing went wrong but we could only choose one person. We’re trying to make a difference with our entry. Some artists are interchangeable if you look at other countries. But don’t get me wrong: Natalia and Billie certainly can do our country proud at EurovisionOf course they can!’

What does an artist need to make a difference or impact at the contest?

‘First and formost it has to be a great singer, who is able to manage to do well under big pressure. Axel Hirsoux for example was way to nervous in Copenhagen and everyone could tell. Most ideal would be that the artist writes very good songs or is open to perform a song that gets proposed. Charisma and personality are very important too. What you really can’t underestimate: the pressure when it starts. You’re living in a bubble for fourteen days and everyone wants a piece of you. And then those millions of viewers. You simply can’t compare anything with that.’

Don’t you forget about the act? That didn’t do us justice in both 2018 and 2019.

‘That’s right, the act went wrong in Lisbon. We underestimated the whole staging-story. Sennek wanted to charm the public in a traditional way, with her voice. But we forgot that millions of people are watching this at home. We did realize that too late. It just didn’t work out that well, with the team for the staging. I would like to take the responsibility for that. On the other hand; we were convinced that we were surrounded by experienced people.’

So for 2020 there will be another approach?

‘Yes, we’re going to do it completely in a different way. The support has to be perfect. There will be other people involved for the staging. Oh, and rehearsing! Much more rehearsals. Last year, with Sennek, we didn’t have a rehearsal with a multicam for example. You have to train that.’

How do you, as selection committee, look up at the succes of The Netherlands?

‘It triggered us. Especially when they started to send big names like Anouk and Ilse DeLange. ‘I was wondering: ‘How do they do that?’. To be succesfull at the festival and manage to convince a big name at the same time. Best thing about this: it turned out they appointed Belgians to strenghten their Eurovision team. I thought: ‘What the heck, why don’t we got them working for us?’ In both 2016 and 2018 they did.’

The selection committee of The Netherlands changed their tactics last year: trying to find a hitsong in the first place. Is that something that could happen one day for the entry of Belgium?

‘If I would have the recipe of how to make a hitsong, then I wouldn’t be sitting here. It’s not that simple, I’m afraid. We receive several demos, but they are sometimes really disappointing. A lot of writers just send all the songs they ever wrote, hoping we would randomly choose them.’

So you prefer carte blanche?

‘In my opinion, a good artist that can survive the whole circus is equally important to the song. Look at the struggles Blanche had in Kiev. You cannot forget that we observe the songwriting process thoroughly. Sennek reflected with us about the songwriters she wanted to work with. We make suggestions too. We even sent her to Los Angeles to work on her song there. We never did that before! Laura wrote songs with big names there. But okay, the final song didn’t come from that writerscamp.’

I can only imagine the pressure you must feel this year, since we missed out on the final two years in a row. How is that?

‘I think the pressure to put down a good result is high every year. Now we’re kind of in a bad period again. You can compare it with the Red Devils (national footballteam of Belgium, ed.): heroes of the country, until they lose. It seemed natural for RTBF to do a good job every time. It’s not.’

Let’s hope Belgium is high on the scoreboard again in 2020! Thank you for talking with us for so long.

Earlier this week a news report was published in which Gerrit Kerremans was talking about our Eurovision Song Contest 2020 entry.