Is there life after Eurovision? | Howard Keith Debono

Music producer (and Ira Losco’s manager) Howard Keith Debono counters criticism that the Eurovision Song Contest eclipses all other aspects of the music industry

Ira Losco and manager Howard Keith Debono
Ira Losco and manager Howard Keith Debono

The Eurovision Song Contest has come and gone, leaving the usual trail of controversy in its wake. Once again, high expectations for Ira Losco’s entry ‘Walk On Water’ foundered in the cold light of the geo-political realities that underpin this annual festival. And for the umpteenth time, conspiracy theories came oozing out of the woodwork, claiming (among other things) that the Labour government had seized on Eurovision fever to engineer a ‘feel-good factor’; that would propel it to victory in an early election.

Oh, and Ira Losco herself was dismissed as a ‘bitch’ by at least one of the people peddling the above-mentioned conspiracy theory.

Naturally, this only helped to make this year’s Eurovision Song Contest that much more entertaining… at least, to those among us who enjoy the spectacle from afar. To those actually involved in Ira Losco’s participation, however, all the extra attention may have seemed unnecessary.

Howard Keith Debono, of Jagged Edge studios, has been Ira’s manager for the past 14 years. It seems natural to ask him what he himself thought of the now infamous ‘bitch’ comment by Times of Malta blogger Andrew Borg Cardona. What was his own reaction at the time?

“I laughed,” comes the instant reply, “because if music really had that kind of political power, then we can easily say from now that music could topple a government. What these comments suggest is that two people – Joseph Calleja and Ira Losco – can between them topple a government. I don’t believe that at all. You’d have to be crazy to think that. But this is the message going out. Absurd, if you ask me…”

Absurd, but not entirely surprising. Howard points out that Malta’s Eurovision entries invariably attract controversy… it is part of a mindset he will go on to describe in some detail. 

“Having said this I’ll admit I was a bit taken aback by Andrew’s comment. He apologised immediately, so he must have realised it was in bad taste. But it wasn’t just that. People focused on the word ‘bitch’. What I focused on was something else – it was the weight this is being given in the political world, but also the fact that it was meant to be ‘private’. Why is that any different? If this is in our inner thought, that is what our mindset is, regardless of whether it’s public or private. Ultimately, this is just a reflection of a generation of people, and how they think. That’s why I laughed. Seriously? That’s how these people think…?”

But couldn’t the incident also be a reflection of the disproportionate attention commanded by the Eurovision Song Contest as a whole? Just for instance: it was recently pointed out that Malta, per capita, has considerably more Metal bands than most other European countries – the only European country with more is Norway: the European capital of metal by some distance. 

Yet all we ever seem to focus on is a competition that isn’t even highly regarded for its musical output…

“I think many people don’t realise that, for such a small country, the proportion of artists, musicians, studios – you name it, related to music – is ridiculously high in Malta. I get a hands-on indication of this, through the number of requests I get from people wanting to record. We have to refuse 90% of the requests. Musical subcultures have always been there: I call it the garage culture, going back to the days of Tigne. I think it became more visible through the social media, but it isn’t new. As for metal bands, the number has always been high. It doesn’t surprise me, either. A local metal act will get to play, what, five or six gigs a year locally? So they have to be on the lookout for international events. This already puts them in the right frame of mind: it’s a case of, ‘this is the platform we have, this is what we have to deal with’…”

However Howard is cautious not to conflate the number of bands with the musical standards across the board.

“I would say the numbers are high, but when it comes to quality – in any genre, not just metal: rock, blues, ska, reggae, punk… I say this from a managerial perspective, but at industry level you will be left with very few who can pull it off. It requires personality, commitment, a large repertoire… and a lot of other things. You have to back up claims with stats and facts. Reviews in international magazines, for instance. So I wouldn’t say we have a lot of talent in Malta. We have a lot of numbers. I think it might also be a reflection of small island mentality. Somehow, in a small society music is one way of voicing your own identity. Iceland is not too different from us in this respect. They have a lot of numbers, too. The difference is that their musical standard is higher than ours, in my opinion. Perhaps they are better taught…”

But this underscores a reality many in the local musical scene complain about. The subcultures we are talking about – be they metal, indie, punk, post-punk or whatnot – are arguably more successful, within their own humble aspirations, than Malta has been in its entire history of Eurovision participation. Yet while we seem to pump considerable amounts of money into the latter, the former is left to its own devices… to sink or swim, as it were.

This sentiment already existed, and was clearly inflamed when Ira Losco called on artists “not to snub the Eurovision…” One reaction came from musician Oliver Degabriele, who complained that the culture Eurovision forms part of – alongside The X-Factor, the Voice, Britain’s Got Talent – have distorted perceptions of musical culture.

To paraphrase his comment, these largescale glitzy TV events create the impression that success in the music world can be boiled down to a simple lottery… ignoring all the other dimensions, including musical education and climbing through the ranks of the live music circuit.

“I agree with Oliver’s assessment – he’s a friend of mine, and we speak the same language in a lot of spheres – however, I also believe Ira’s quote was taken out of context. What Ira Losco said in that interview was ‘don’t snub Eurovision… but there are other things you should be doing’. That is crucial to the whole equation. One of the ‘other things’ is musical education. Another is getting your hands dirty. When Ira was 15 she sang backing vocals for a metal band, and even contributed to a studio recording. That’s getting to know the ropes, familiarising yourself with the industry structure. On this point, I agree with Oliver: unfortunately a lot of people do come to the pop world from the X-factor angle. They think that success in this world is all down to winning a competition. That is complete rubbish… 

The real test is not whether one achieves success, but how long it lasts. “A long-standing career involves more factors. Can you build a repertoire? Can you engage an audience? Can you sustain interest from the audience you’ve built over the years? You have to pay your dues before you get to the stage where you can do other things. This, I think, is the point Oliver is making here. As someone who has studied music, it seems unfair to him that others might be fast-tracked to fame. But we also know that, if fame does come from something like Eurovision or Britain’s Got Talent… it won’t last. What Ira was saying is that shows like Eurovision are also part of the circuit. It would be wrong to immerse yourself totally in that bubble, and never look at anything else. But it would be just as wrong to ignore or dismiss Eurovision altogether…”

On another level, Howard Keith also points out that the Eurovision itself has changed over the years, and can no longer be ignored or resisted by the international music industry.

“I myself was originally one of the people who advocated that Eurovision is taboo: who advised my clients not to go there. When I started to manage Ira 14 years ago I asked her where she wanted to go with her career. She said she wanted to break into the industry, and I pitched her to record labels such as Universal, and the response at the time: ‘no, we can’t touch anyone associated with Eurovision’. That was the sort of stigma attached to it back then…

Things however started changing about five years ago. “Let’s be frank, it was absolute rubbish before. I saw all this starting to change, however. When Loreen won with ‘Euphoria’, and I saw her at the MTV awards… I said, if MTV are endorsing this, there must be something changing behind the scenes. Then I saw the industry endorsing it, too. Still, that’s not what I cared about. I started taking notice last year, when there were about 10 songs in the finals that – though maybe not everyone’s cup of tea – I thought would lend themselves well to the typical pop radio playlist. This had never been the case before …”

Meanwhile, endorsements continued apace. “Around last February, I told a friend that the one thing Eurovision needed was an international superstar to endorse it. Then, hey presto: Justin Timberlake came into the equation…”

It was in the context of this gradual transition that Ira Losco took the decision to compete this year. “But coming back to the earlier point about subcultures and non-mainstream music: these will never fit into this environment. It’s a completely different approach. And it should be completely different. I experience this with Earth Garden: interestingly, it is one of the only non-mainstream events that charges gate-money, and it attracts some 20,000 people. I think it’s an interesting stat: we are talking about ska, reggae, maybe some hip-hop, world music… at other times, each of those acts might perform to 50 or 60 people in a bar… or maybe 300 to maximum 600 at a concert. Earth Garden provides a platform where they can play to thousands….”

Are there enough opportunities, though? Inherent in Degabriele’s complaint is that attention to Eurovision comes at the expense of attention to other genres and niches. What sort of investment is there, for instance, in infrastructure to support artists looking to make a career in music?

“Apart from the one show we do each year ahead of Eurovision, there is no investment in local infrastructure at all,” he replies. “If you look at the Arts Council funds, you will see everyone getting helped apart from pop artists. That is a fact. So yes, I do share Oliver’s assessment on that…”

This brings us to another reason for the importance of local arts funding. One characteristic of today’s local band circuit in Malta is the sudden proliferation of acts which incorporate the Maltese language – in rap, in indie acts such as Brikkuni, in punk bands like Xtruppaw, BNI, etc. Nor is it just the language: the lyrical content, too, is becoming more noticeably Maltese in character. In brief, there seems to be a concern with infusing local music with an identity that makes it part of the national culture. 

But given that the market is so small, how realistic is it for this kind of subculture to thrive… without any of the assistance which is generously given to Eurovision artists (who arguably need it less)?

“I think it’s hard. One has to have a reality check. But it’s not impossible. But let’s not ignore the fact that there may be other people outside Malta who are intrigued by the language. Having our own language is undeniably something we should all be proud of. But it doesn’t mean it also has a value in the music industry…”

That doesn’t sound very encouraging to local artists who want to promote local music. How difficult is it, for instance, to get a record produced locally?

“To get a record produced? Totally doable. In fact I just did it, with The Travellers. It’s an interesting example, too. They originally came into the studio with a variety of songs written in English. I listened, but I didn’t ‘believe’ it. As a producer, I need to ‘believe’ what I’m hearing; it has to touch me in a certain way. In the English language, those songs were not telling the story as I felt it could be told. This was about three years ago. I suggested that they tried writing in Maltese instead. But even then, when they came back with new material it sounded too similar to other bands before them. The switch to Maltese brings out a certain rebelliousness, a certain political conscience, that is quite unique to us… but how many times have we heard it before?”

Following a second managerial suggestion, the band tried a more mainstream pop approach. “It became a challenge for me to get one of their songs played on the radio. Which isn’t easy, because radio stations have their own restrictions: the first question they’d ask is whether the track fits into their playlist, appeals to their audience demographic, etc. I’m pleased to say that the Travellers’ single became the first Maltese-language song played on Bay radio. And they played it a lot too…”

So there is a future for Maltese music outside of Eurovision, then?

“Yes, definitely, as long as you are aware of the realities involved. You can’t exclude any possibility, really. If you look at rap, for instance: for some time now Maltese artists have been rapping in Maltese. I am told that some international rap labels have expressed an interest, because it ‘sounds different’. You can never tell. What I can say is that if you choose that route, it will be harder. But ultimately, it’s not that different from pop culture. The pop circuit is almost impossible at the moment: it is too saturated. It would cost 2 million just to have a marketing plan in place to break into the American market. And just because you break in, it doesn’t mean you’re going to gather an audience… you’re just going to have a shot at the market, that’s all.”

Here, non-mainstream genres have an automatic advantage. “With a niche product, the marketing expenses are much lower. Subcultures also tend to have their own dedicated followings. A group like Etnika, for instance – I produced their album Zifna some years ago – incorporate the Maltese language into their music: but the music had a life of its own. The lyrical content did not overshadow the musical content: when that happens, your chances of appealing to a wider audience increase.” 

Etnika falls into the broader category of ‘world music’, which has its own inbuilt markets. “Countries like Turkey, Cyprus, Greece, Spain would find that very intriguing. It would interest other Mediterranean countries, as we have also seen with Tribali. But I very much doubt a country like Sweden would be very much interested, to be frank.  Ultimately, the band or artist has to decide: what story am I telling? Where do I see myself fitting into the market? If the story is a lyrical story – and Mario [Vella of Brikkuni]’s story is very much a lyrical one – then every lyric has its own weight. If the story is told only through the music, then the language doesn’t matter so much.”