On the Ground and Behind the Scenes at the MTV Europe Awards

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Shakira

Host Eva Longoria, Jon Bon Jovi and Linkin Park's Chester Bennington discuss what it took to pull off MTV’s 17th annual Europe Music Awards.

MADRID -- It’s nightfall at Puerto De Alcala, Madrid’s historic 17th Century city gate. Above the impassive stone soldiers and carved lions, a camera on a 30-foot boom sweeps lazily over the rotunda, taking in a temporary stage constructed against the backdrop of the gate’s arches, a kaleidoscopic light show projected on the limestone pillars and the sight of 70,000 fans filling the entire half-mile length of the Calle Alcala.

Fans have been queuing from the early hours for a chance to catch the free concert, part of MTV’s 17th annual Europe Music Awards, waiting for hours to see Katy Perry, Linkin Park and LA rockers 30 Seconds to Mars.

When 30 Seconds take to the stage the crowd erupts into frenzy and Madrid falls hostage to the sounds of screaming fans. The crystal chords of “Escape” soar into the night sky like a love song to the city.

The Alcala Gate concert is just part one of the night’s entertainment. Across town at Madrid’s arena Caja Magica -- “The Magic Box” -- last-minute preparations are being made to Eva Longoria’s costume as she prepares to shimmy down the red carpet in a buttock-skimming black taffeta dress from Lebanese designer Georges Hobeika.

The star of Desperate Housewives is about to make a transformational segue from TV and movie actress to sassy multi-talented hostess, no small feat when you consider that her presenting debut will broadcast live to more than 600 million homes worldwide. “I was really, really excited when they asked me, I’m only the second non-musical host to get this gig, the first was Sacha Baron Cohen who did it as Borat, so I’m so glad they picked me, and I’m really happy because it’s in Spain.

Longoria has worked closely with her styling team to transition her look from the glamour of film and TV red carpets to something more in tune with the edginess of the music industry. She will showcase 10 wardrobe changes during the ceremony, with a series of outfits from Emilio Pucci, Viktor & Rolf, Gianfranco Ferre, Marchesa and Hobeika. And she promises that audiences who only know her as Gabriella from Desperate Housewives will be in for a surprise. “You saw a different side of me with the rap promo [a skit recorded with Dizzee Rascal] and there is going to be a lot of fun and exciting stuff. I get to play around a lot, which is fun.”

With an audience of 600 million households, the MTV EMAs are arguably the only event outside the U.S. capable of attracting acts like Shakira, Miley Cyrus, Kings of Leon, Kid Rock, Plan B, Rihanna and Bon Jovi. It’s the ability to offer an unparalleled opportunity to break into new markets that often entices artists and bands to perform.

“It’s my first time doing these awards and it’s a great step internationally, the scale is totally different to anything else,” says British rapper Dizzee Rascal. He is opening the show performing “Loka Waka Waka” with Shakira. “Just seeing the whole set up, the whole artists’ complex, everything backstage, seeing what an operation it is and how many people are everywhere. With so many people watching, I can’t think of a better way to be launched into their lives.”

But the mass-audience opportunity has to be balanced against the anxiety musicians can feel at having to compromise over creative control. 

“A lot of times [in a television performance] the artists don’t have much control over how the band is portrayed. The broadcaster has their own crews, directors and producers and their own idea about how they want it to look to fit with the rest of the show,” says Chester Bennington, frontman of Linkin Park.“With this performance in Spain [at the outdoor concert at Puerta de Alcala], we’ve worked really hard with MTV to create something beautiful. It suits our tastes more because it is being treated just as MTV would treat a gig, rather than something that is just a segue between an award and the commercials.”

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MTV talent and music boss Bruce Gillmer and his fellow EMA co-executive producer Richard Godfrey and Jane Fraser deploy enormous efforts to keeping their artists happy. A fully stocked artists’ village has been constructed to provide 34 exactly identical dressing rooms, catering, recreation and on-site entertainment, as well as an array of parties. Artists and presenters also have their own dedicated talent staffer to stay on top of the ever-changing detail, from timings, production updates and last-minute wardrobe, technical and ticket issues. "The key to keeping things relatively stable backstage is having an experienced and expert staff of talent coordinators armed with the most updated information around the production,” says Gillmer, who has 21 years with MTV under his belt.

“The EMAs bring performers and peers together for one night in a unique way,” says MTV Networks International president Bob Bakish. “They like it. We really show that we can do what no-one else can do.”

Bakish is keen to reposition the once solely European-focused awards as something much bigger: a showcase for talent with truly global appeal.

This year’s segue to Spain helps opens up the Hispanic and Latin American markets, and Bakish emphasizes that by showcasing all the key talent genres, everyone will find something in it that they want to watch. And that means getting bigger and better and more surprising every year. “Our mantra is Bigger, Better, Louder” he says. “Each year you have to try and outreach yourself,” he says.

To that end, in keeping with the “Caja Magica” theme, the producers of this year’s show have constructed a huge rotating steel cube 14 meters high, which provides the rotating centerpiece of the show and has four separate stages. Each of the cube’s faces provides a different backdrop. Kid Rock performed against a giant video screen with images of a wall of roaring flames to complement the pyrotechnics deployed on stage, while Kings of Leon played in against what Bakish described as “the Toblerone,” with a shower of light beams emerging through triangular holes cut into the dark backdrop. 

During Shakira’s set the cube provided nine neon-lit balconies for dancers to appear in high above the stage, and in perhaps most dramatic of all the performances, Rihanna performed “Only Girl (In the World)” in a fairytale garden of real flowers growing in a huge neon iris tunnelling into the side of the cube.

To provide a show at this level, there’s no way that MTV can’t cut corners. In fact, investing in innovation is ever more key. “You have to be creative in business and it isn’t as easy as it used to be,” says Bakish. “But it’s a solid piece of business for us from a financial point of view. There’s a lot of revenue against it. At the end of the day the numbers pencil out.”

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For all the complexity of staging and effects, the biggest crowd-pleasers of the night were Bon Jovi, who won the inaugural Global Icon award and closed the evening in tub-thumping fashion with a rendition of “It’s My Life.” “In the end, performance is still a huge part of the equation,” says Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora. After 27 years together the band finished their most recent tour playing a small 2000-seater venue the night before the EMAs to rapturous reception.

“The way the music industry is now, for any new artist the name of the game is survival. You have to write great music and then go out there and take it to the people,” he says.

It is striking that the likes of U2, REM, Dire Straits and Bon Jovi, have all honed their trade as performers and have all had long-term relationships with MTV. A new generation of performing talent including the likes of Shakira, Katy Perry and Kings of Leon could pick up that baton.

“I couldn’t lipsync. I wouldn’t be that good at dancing. And you’re not going to see me moonwalking,” says Jon Bon Jovi, who got the biggest ovation of the night. “But I think there’s a real return, you know, to people who can pick up a microphone and really scream and shout. I think that is true again. “

Pamela Rolfe in Madrid contributed to this report.

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