The MTV Europe Music Awards (EMAs) have come a long way. The fifteenth anniversary event in Liverpool on Thursday kicked off with a pout perfect Beyoncé power ballad, The Killers brought the rock and The Ting Tings the pop. Grace Jones’s presence added a little rock ‘n’ roll frisson but a spectacle of this scale is carefully orchestrated so that everything goes exactly to plan.
This wasn’t the case back in 1996 when the show took place in London’s Alexandra Palace. It was executive producer Richard Godfrey’s first EMAs and he has been in charge of the subsequent 12. He has been working on the Liverpool show for two years, and is already thinking about 2009. His colleagues say the EMAs is in “his DNA”.
He describes that first show as “a shambles”. “It was universally regarded as one of the worst award shows of all time, so it could only get better,” he says. Robbie Williams was the host, and Godfrey jokes it was so bad it could well have been responsible for the breakdown he suffered soon afterwards.
MTV was ashamed and got its act together for the following year, when the event took place in Rotterdam. “We changed everything for Rotterdam,” explains Godfrey, “but it was U2 that really took it to another level for us. They flew back from their US tour to perform and it has established itself as a great show ever since.”
U2 weren’t doing MTV a selfless favour by appearing. In the mid-nineties MTV was the only music channel most of the continent could tune into, and the awards presented a chance for artists to give their music a promotional push.
As well as working as a showcase for the artists, the event gives MTV an annual opportunity to position its brand in the music industry, within multi-channel television and for the viewers. “In many ways the EMAs personify the MTV brand,” says Godfrey. Our commercial partners and the music industry come to the event. It’s sort of the brand made real. This year it had all the ingredients that make MTV great – great music, attitude, stardust, glamour, cheekiness and humour, and all of those things in just two hours.” Most awards shows, he says, are dull. MTV tries to keep the momentum going with successive big name acts and by keeping the award-giving and the acceptance speeches short. “Nine gigs happened simultaneously last night,” he points out. “It’s very ambitious.”
The one person who was allowed to give an long speech was Bono, who appeared to present a special award to Paul McCartney – a fairly obvious opportunity given the event was in Liverpool, but Godfrey did not know until the last minute whether Macca would drop by or not.
Much of the cheekiness and humour was provided by the host, Katy Perry, deemed strong enough by MTV to carry the show on the back of the frenzy caused by her first release “I Kissed a Girl”. “It was a risk for us,” admits Godfrey. “Katy Perry is the modern, hungry, fast-moving media world personified, but everyone thought she had this incredibly alluring charm. She’s got her feet firmly on the ground. As she said, last year she was watching the show in her apartment, eating macaroni cheese. Now she’s hosting it.”
Perry is supposed to exemplify the idea that anyone can grab a piece of the MTV pie if they want it enough. X-Factor winner Leona Lewis was there, too, to accept an award. Another newcomer was gossip blogger Perez Hilton, who hosted the live webcast. Hilton is feared and revered for his acid keyboard so to give him freedom to chase down the stars who probably hate him was a playful dig at self-important musicians.
It always pays, certainly for MTV, to have a little scandal at these events, to ensure it hits the headlines. This way the glitter reaches that bit further, touching people who don’t watch MTV or haven’t heard of the awards. Two years ago in Copenhagen, Kanye West jumped on stage, outraged his video hadn’t won the Best Video Award. “He couldn’t believe it,” remembers Godfrey. “He just came on stage and said, ‘But I had Pamela Anderson in my video!’”
Godfrey’s personal favourite, though, was Edinburgh in 2003. The city didn’t have a suitable arena for the awards, so they built massive tents by Edinburgh’s docks, just for MTV. “There was a fantastic performance of “Seven Nation Army” from The White Stripes. The tents almost fell down it was such a ‘rock’ moment. It was one of those nights where you sit back and think, it’s actually my job to make this happen.”