by Jeff Hutter
What are the likes of Lady Gaga, Justin Beiber, and Selena Gomez doing in the small city of Belfast, Northern Ireland? Last Sunday, MTV set the stage for the 2011 European Music Awards in the smallest city to ever host the celebration of Europe’s most outstanding performers.
It may not seem like such a big deal to host a network television award show considering how many red carpets we are exposed to on a weekly basis every February. However, for Belfast and Northern Ireland, hosting the star-studded event represents the first major milestone in efforts to redefine the global public’s perception of the region. But, snagging the gig wasn’t easy.
MTV accepts bids from potential host cities throughout Europe before making its final selection among the candidate pool. Much like the Olympics, infrastructure and capacity to host the event are taken into consideration when making the final selection. Historically, larger cities like London, Rome, Madrid, and Berlin have been chosen because of the range of venues they offer, as well as their capacity to house visiting celebrities, presenters, and performers. In the end, Belfast impressed MTV enough to become host despite its size.
Belfast’s rationale for pursuing MTV to host the award program is well founded. Hosting large-scale athletic, musical, and cultural events can be very lucrative. Serving as the host venue for the Olympics, the FIFA World Cup, and the Miss World pageant serve as the ideal platform for cities and countries to showcase their diversity and attract international attention. Ask anyone from Salt Lake City how the 2002 Winter Olympics changed their city and the reaction will certainly be positive. Years later, the games are being thanked as a contributor to the city’s economic development and growth in the tourism industry.
For Northern Ireland, hosting the European Music Awards (or EMAs) represents the first big step toward becoming a globally recognized destination. Ruth Burns, Public Relations and Marketing Manager with the Northern Ireland Tourist Board shared with Northern Ireland’s UTV, “The past decade has seen Northern Ireland really develop its reputation as a top tourist destination and music plays a critical role in this.” Getting to this point has not been easy for the region.
While infrastructure destroyed and damaged during Northern Ireland’s thirty years of complex ethno-political conflict has since been replaced, the perception of the country remains a work-in-progress. For many bands and performers, Belfast was removed from many tour schedules over security concerns, and rightfully so. The warlike period of struggle, which spanned almost 40 years, when some groups fought for Northern Ireland to separate from the U.K. is known as the “Troubles.” During the “Troubles,” riots, assassination attempts, and bombings marred Northern Ireland’s public image enough to significantly affect its long-term recovery. Shortly after the Good Friday Agreement had been signed in 1998 and peace had been restored, Belfast and Northern Ireland became little more than a blip on the international media’s radar. But, this should not come as a shock. It isn’t the first time that the media have failed to follow-up on recovery efforts as conflict subsides (Where is Kosovo again?).
As Belfast has endeavored to improve infrastructure over the last decade, popular artists have taken notice. Elton John has campaigned to reintroduce performers and the international public to Northern Ireland. And while some artists, like U2’s Bono, have been more outspoken in efforts to promote peace, John has focused his efforts on bringing concert tours back to the region. His efforts to do so and the work of other artists seem to be working. In 2008, Kylie Minogue made a stop in the city during her Kylie X Tour and recently both Britney Spears and Rihanna included Northern Ireland in the European leg of their tours. Rihanna seems to have even taken a liking to Belfast; the video for her latest single, “We Found Love,” was shot there.
Northern Ireland’s campaign to re-establish itself as a peaceful and culturally vibrant country seems to be working well. Derry-Londonberry has been selected as the 2013 UK City of Culture and will host a series of events leading up to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. MTV will return in April for an outdoor music festival to coincide with the opening of the Titanic Belfast, a multi-purpose venue celebrating Belfast’s role in the construction of the historic vessel.
Fortunately, the 2011 EMAs went on without incident… other than the streaker who successfully breached security to join actress, Hayden Panettiere, while she presented an award on stage. If Northern Ireland continues to succeed in hosting international events, improving its reputation, and attracting tourism, it can serve as a model to other locales plagued by natural disaster, political crisis, and social unrest. If Belfast is able to continue to thrive in the spotlight, perhaps the U.S. has something to learn from it.
I eagerly await the Oscars’ red carpet rolling out on Bourbon Street and the Super Bowl-winning touchdown dance taking place in the Motor City.*
*Detroit has hosted two Super Bowls, including one in 1982 during a recession in the U.S. The last Super Bowl held in Detroit was in 2006, prior to the Great Recession and the current economic crisis.
(The photo is from the Belfast City Council, and as it is from a government entity, it is in the public domain. To see an interview with Belfast’s Snow Patrol from the MTV European Music Awards, please check below.)