A decade ago, Belfast played host to icons young and old when the MTV EMAs rolled into town. Maureen Coleman looks back at the day that cemented Belfast’s place on the music map
It was the night Belfast became Planet Pop and 1.2 billion viewers worldwide tuned in for the party.
Exactly 10 years ago today, the city was the setting for the MTV EMAs — one of the smallest to host the huge star-studded awards bash but with the biggest heart.
In the run-up to the event, which was three to four years in the making, international artists, their entourages and the world’s music press, began arriving in Belfast. There were sightings of Bruno Mars in Next, Justin Bieber at the Merchant Hotel and Lady Gaga at St George’s Market, though the latter turned out to be a lookalike backing dancer.
Music fans took back the city with a series of local showcases — 170 gigs across 45 venues featuring Northern Irish artists over six nights. Belfast Music Week culminated with three concerts on Sunday, November 6; Snow Patrol at the City Hall, Red Hot Chili Peppers at the Ulster Hall and the Odyssey Arena, as it was called then, where the main awards bash took place.
A hot pink carpet was rolled out for the high-profile acts, including Katy Perry, Queen, Coldplay, David Guetta, Jason Derulo, Jessie J, Snow Patrol, Mars, Bieber and his girlfriend at the time, Selena Gomez, who hosted the event.
Niall Ó’Donnghaile was Lord Mayor of Belfast in November 2011 and recalls meeting Bieber and Gomez at a pre-awards charity do. The Canadian pop-star was quite taken with the mayoral chain of office but wasn’t too bothered about trying it on.
“He seemed very interested in the chain but when I asked him if he’d like to wear it, he said he thought it looked a bit heavy for him,” said Niall.
“Without passing too much commentary, I thought he came across as very polite and humble, as did Selena Gomez. They were very respectful of Belfast. I do remember that.”
The Sinn Fein senator recalls bumping into Snow Patrol on the red carpet before the band’s quick dash to the City Hall, and having a bit of banter with Gary Lightbody, unaware that the cameras were rolling, and their exchange was being televised live. He was also invited along to the Odyssey on the morning of the MTV EMAs for a sneaky peek of the set-up and was there to hear Lady Gaga’s soundcheck.
And he says the staging of the MTV EMAs in Belfast was a huge coup.
“I took over as Lord Mayor in May 2011 and the event was in November, so all the groundwork had been done long before,” he said. “So many people worked hard to bring it all together and it was a fantastic event.
“The night itself was a whirlwind but it was so memorable, that people talked about it for ages afterwards.
“And the impact on Belfast was tremendous. MTV is a huge, global company, almost militarist in protecting its brand. It’s very careful about who it associates with, so this was a major coup for Belfast.
“Everyone worked collaboratively to ensure we all had a good time and that Belfast was represented positively as a young and dynamic city, emerging from conflict; a city that was up for a party and could compete on a global stage.”
Carolyn Mathers was working in cultural tourism for Belfast City Council at the time and had set up a monthly music group including promoters, venue owners and artists, with the aim of celebrating Belfast’s rich musical heritage.
One of her main objectives was to attract international music events to the city and the MTV EMAs was top of her wish list.
Working with the council’s City Events Manager back then, Gerry Copeland, they hosted numerous visits from MTV representatives, who were keen to check out Belfast’s music scene. Carolyn roped in the assistance of author, broadcaster and former Oh Yeah Music Centre CEO Stuart Bailie and broadcaster and DJ Joe Lindsay to act as guides and to facilitate music events for the MTV scouts. Carolyn was determined that if the event did go ahead, it would also be a chance for local artists to showcase their music. That was a prerequisite.
“We were determined that the event wouldn’t be parachuted in,” she said.
“We wanted something to showcase our own local music scene which was tricky enough to navigate as MTV wanted international artists only.
“But with the world’s music media and industry in town, this was the perfect opportunity for huge exposure for our local artists. In the end, we had 170 gigs across 45 venues over six nights. It was a collaborative process. Everyone came together, stepped up and made it work.”
Carolyn had been so caught up in enticing MTV to the city, she says it didn’t hit home just how significant an event it was until the day of the awards.
“I was running between the Limelight and the Ulster Hall, turned the corner and Snow Patrol were doing their sound check at the City Hall,” said Carolyn.
“Crowds of kids had already gathered, and I remember thinking ‘this is really going to happen’.
“I also remember the Bieber fans waiting in the cold outside the Merchant, hoping to see him. They’d queued overnight and the staff there brought them out pizzas, which was lovely.
“Also, before the event, we were hosting a Belfast Music Tour for a coach load of music journalists when about 40 Women’s Institute members turned up. They’d got their dates mixed up and arrived a week early.”
Belfast Music Week brought around 33,500 people into the city and generated £1.86m, but the exposure for Northern Ireland’s artists who took part was priceless.
Overall, the economic impact of the MTV EMAs was £22m with an additional tourism revenue of £10m. Eight thousand hotel rooms were booked across the city.
Carolyn, who now runs her own music events/promotion company Snow Water, says the week the world came to Belfast was a game-changer in terms of confidence.
“One of the big changes in the last 10 years is that now, the music industry and the music media come here regularly and take the artists seriously so more get signed,” she said.
“It used to be impossible to get someone from the music industry to set foot here but that’s all changed now.
“When a large-scale event of this kind comes to a city, it’s fantastic for confidence and for that belief that we can do this, so the perception of the people who live here has changed too. We know that we’re worthy of this.
“We have such a vibrant music scene here and for MTV, it’s as much about that as it is capacity.”
Carál Ní Chuilín was Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure when Belfast hosted the MTV EMAs. She said the event consolidated the city’s position as a place of culture and that the organising and staging of the event was ‘impressive’.
“It was great that there were so many positive images of Belfast all over the world, showing it as a place to be,” said Carál.
“It has a brilliant cultural history anyway in terms of music, theatre, the arts, but this was the biggest event of its kind we ever hosted. The fact we had so many huge names coming to Belfast and that we were able to simultaneously hold all these events was impressive.”
Carál said the event had been a huge economic boost with a positive long-term effect on tourism and that it was one of several ‘momentous’ events that put Belfast on the map, such as the World Police and Fire Games two years later and the Giro d’Italia in 2014.
“I was at the main MTV EMAs at the Odyssey in my official capacity, and it was a great night,” she said.
“But if I’m being totally honest, I would’ve rather been at the Red Hot Chili Peppers gig.”