How Melodifestivalen can boost Sweden’s small towns

How Melodifestivalen can boost Sweden's small towns
Melodifestivalen host Lina Hedlund at the competition in Luleå. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT
Ben Robertson travelled to the industrial town of Luleå to watch Melodifestivalen's third heat last week. But is it worth the while of small towns to host Sweden's hyped Eurovision Song Contest try-outs?

When I think youth centre I'm thinking hoodies, slang and chillin' out with mates.

When I walk into Navet, Luleå's youth centre just off the high street, I see exactly that – teenagers who are just hanging out somewhere warmer than the sub-zero temperatures outside. Except when I arrive there are half a dozen of them, all arm in arm, on a karaoke machine belting out 'Alla Flickor' by Linda Bengtzing.

I'm watching in disbelief.

This karaoke evening is one of many special highlights they have at Navet during Melodifestivalen week. I had just missed the quiz but there's also a bar with alcohol-free Melfest-themed cocktails and a huge selfie board being prepared for a dress up party. My preconception was that these teenagers would be the hardest-to-reach group for all things Melodifestivalen, but here they are embracing it as every other group in Sweden.

As I am leaving, all those who took part in the day's activities get a special treat. A free and very well appreciated ticket for the Friday night rehearsal.


Mariette, left, and Faith Kakembo one the Luleå competition and are through to the final in Stockholm. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

It's moments like this that make me love the atmosphere when Melodifestivalen turns up in smaller towns. The previous week in Gothenburg you would see the odd billboard here and there, but otherwise the Melodifestivalen bubble was just that – another event coming into town and then heading away again.

Yet this was only the third time that Melodifestivalen came to Luleå in its 19 years of travelling around Sweden for a series of competitions rather than one big event, and it transforms the town. The high street shops have special offers and window displays, the local gym Bodypump and spinning classes run to the beats of electro-pop group BWO. Even the local church choir runs a show of Melodifestivalen-themed music.

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What is more special though is how the Melodifestivalen becomes something for the local children.

As part of hosting Melodifestivalen the town was able to host a Welcome Party with free access to all. At the event in Luleå that included a short artist meet-and-greet as well as SVT's favourite children's characters and maze. Held in the 2,700-capacity Luleå Energy Arena, the building was packed with schoolchildren from all over town and that maze had a waiting time of over an hour.

It's wonderful to see Melodifestivalen take over a town. But for Luleå, with a population of around 75,000 in their council area, is hosting such an event financially worthwhile?


The welcome party featured popular children's characters. Photo: Ben Robertson/ESC Insight

To find out I spoke to Emma Aludden, the project leader from Luleå's municipality for hosting Melodifestivalen. From the council budget to host the show and the surrounding activities, she believes Luleå taxpayers have had to pay around 300,000 Swedish kronor (around $30,900) for their side of the deal.

They've used that budget in creative ways to get exposure, for example it's been the only stop on the tour so far with press goodie bags including plenty of useful gizmos for the winter weather.

This is a significant if not substantial sum to pay, equivalent to employing a newly qualified teacher or nurse. And this has to be considered as a part of Luleå's growth and strategy for hosting events, especially those associated with the winter season. Following Melodifestivalen Luleå will be hosting the final events of the KPN Grand Prix, the premier Dutch ice skating event and SM-Veckan, a multi-sport competition as varied as rally driving and arm wrestling, arrives the following month.


File photo of visitors arriving at Luleå Airport in summer. Photo: Helena Landstedt/TT

There's also a secondary impact economically which is harder to measure but will claw some money back into the town. That is the growth in the city due to visitors coming to the event. Hotels across Luleå were packed and able to charge premium rates for the weekend and much of that will indirectly translate into extra income for local residents that will filter slowly back into the local economy.

Plus there are some things that Luleå hasn't funded as a part of the events. Thursday night is a traditional welcome party for all acts, journalists and for everybody associated with the show. Both Linköping and Gothenburg held events that were ran by their local councils. Luleå's didn't include such support. Emma Aludden explained that “it's not the best thing for the municipality to use tax payers money for”.

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There is a huge cost that is not included in this list though. That of the arena. The convention is that the arenas need to be provided free as part of the hosting deal to Live Nation, Sweden's biggest concert and festival organisation company.

It may seem odd to hear therefore that actually it was Luleå Hockey, the owners of the Coop Norrbotten Arena, who were keen to host and it was them who asked the local council for support rather than the other way around. What would they benefit from hosting Melodifestivalen for free?


What the Coop Norrbotten Arena usually plays host to. Photo: Robert Nyholm/TT

The answer to this question comes from Ida Andersson. Ida is currently a Senior Lecturer in Economic Geography at Örebro University, and previously wrote the academic paper “Clamour for Glamour – City Competition for hosting the Swedish tryouts to the Eurovision Song Contest“.

Her conclusions suggest that the team behind Luleå Hockey would be keen to host Melodifestivalen for the extra opportunities it will provide them in the longer term. Building a good co-operation with Live Nation, for example, may lead to more of their shows coming up to Luleå in later months or years.

Ida explains that many towns like Luleå have a naturally small 'mobilisation capacity' – in effect the number of contacts available in order to make something happen. The appearance of Melodifestivalen on the scene breaks into the very set social circles of small towns where everybody already knows everybody. Suddenly a wider set of interactions, and therefore opportunities, are possible.


The Coop Norrbotten Arena, centre, in Luleå. Photo: Tortap/Wikimedia Commons

For an arena to feel the benefit to host, it needs to be able to see a long-term vision, and to be able to pick up more events in the future. For a city to feel a benefit, they need to have something they can give back to the community. Holding events like the welcome party and giving away free rehearsal tickets widened participation to all residents. After all, Melodifestivalen only comes to Luleå once in a childhood.

This conclusion reaches a very similar end to the recurring saga about which city will host the Eurovision Song Contest after we know who wins each May. Many cities can host, but those that do so successfully and economically viably already have the most important part – the arena.

Luleå's arena isn't huge, just 4,200 people could fit inside for its Melodifestivalen heat, but it only exists in Luleå because the hockey team have been so successful (they currently sit a comfortable 1st place in the Swedish league). Without an arena and the infrastructure to have the show, the show isn't worth fighting to have.

Hosting Melodifestivalen wouldn't help to put Luleå on the map. However it may have helped to put the Norrbotten Arena on there too.

Ben Robertson is covering Melodifestivalen 2020 for both The Local and ESC Insight.


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