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Five Things I Learned at Iceland Airwaves Festivals 2015 – Matt Brennan


Matt Brennan attended his first Airwaves Festival in Reykjavik, Iceland, in November of this year. He also went along to the industry “Nonference” daytime programme hosted by Iceland Music Export. He reports on what he learned from the experience below.

  1. The most impressive social network in Iceland is not online, but in the cafés, streets, and outdoor hot tubs of Reykjavik’s city centre. With over two thirds of Iceland’s population residing in the greater Reykjavik area (some 200,000 out of a national population of 330,000), it would be surprising if the Icelandic popular music scene wasn’t a tight knit community. But I was nevertheless surprised at just how often I kept meeting influential creative professionals on the street. I don’t know the scene well enough to recognize the faces of the key movers and shakers, but with a well-connected local music journalist (thanks Arnar Eggert Thoroddsen!), this invisible network was revealed to me in full. In my first 72 hours wandering around the city centre, Arnar had introduced me, completely via chance encounters, to the manager of the Airwaves Festival (Grimur Atlasson), Iceland’s biggest rock icon (Bubbi Morthens), the manager of Iceland’s most prominent record shop (Larus Jonsonn), Rolling Stone critic (and longtime Airwaves attendee) David Fricke, and more broadcasters, publishers, journalists, academics, and musicians than I could possibly list here, but which included the keyboard player from Sigur Rös and most of members of the Sugarcubes including Björk. Even more surprising was the city’s outdoor public hot tub culture, which is roughly analogous to the UK’s pub culture (without the booze, of course), insofar as, in Arnar’s words, “the great and the good of Iceland regularly meet to socialize and solve the world’s problems.”
  1. The Airwaves Festival was created by an airline company as a way to sell flights to Iceland. The founding sponsor of Airwaves is the airline IcelandAir, and the first Airwaves festival in 1999 took place in an airline hangar. As I buckled my seatbelt for the two-hour flight from Glasgow to Reykjavik, the in-flight entertainment display flashed the following marketing blurb: “The most amazing thing about Iceland is not that most Icelanders speak English. It is the fact that in 2014, Icelandic bands played about 1,200 gigs abroad. That’s about 3.2 Icelandic gigs per day.” I later discovered upon chatting at a gig with a Reykjavik city councillor and cultural convenor (just another one of the people you meet) that the airline supports a significant number of emerging Icelandic acts every year by providing free flights to international showcases and tours. In theory, the return on investment for the airline is that Iceland gains a reputation as a hotspring of hipness and music, leading young people to choose it as a tourist destination (particularly as a stopover stay on transatlantic journeys). Given that the Airwaves festival programme is dominated by local acts and yet the audience is mostly international, the theory seems to be working.
  1. When it comes to music, America may have given us Elvis but Iceland gave us elves. This is only half a joke: when the Vikings settled Iceland in the ninth century, they brought Norse mythology with them, and much of this mythology still has resonance in contemporary Iceland. My host explained to me that in his hometown the city council was forced to change the route of a proposed road to avoid disturbing what some locals to referred to as an “elf-hill.” Regardless of whether the locals actually believed was a dwelling for elves, the hill in question had sufficient mythic import for the community that care was taken (at additional cost to council) to leave it untouched by urban development. It is precisely this kind of stereotype that foreign journalists exploit to articulate what makes the best-selling Icelandic musical exports of the 1990s (Björk) and 2000s (Sigur Rös) culturally distinct. Other Icelandic acts whose image and sound do not conform to such the stereotype have struggled to successfully develop as export acts. In a talk titled “No elves allowed: Icelandic music beyond Björk and Sigur Rös,” Arnar Thoroddsen gave festival attendees an introduction to “non-exportable Iceland music” – the artists and songs which most Icelanders can sing along to, but which are completely unknown outside Iceland. Recent export successes like the band Of Monsters and Men are beginning to destabilize the country’s elfish and mystical musical branding, but such stereotypes continue to play an important role in selling Iceland and its music to foreigners.
  1. There is no rule book any longer for balancing the numerous revenue streams (e.g. live, recorded, radio, publishing, syncs, etc.) through which bands make money out of music: each new act requires a different strategy. Heather Kolker, manager of the folk-pop band Of Monsters and Men (who have enjoyed huge commercial success in the USA in recent years), put it this way: “you can’t say live is more important than recording or vice versa. It’s different for every band. You have to pay attention to all the signs in different areas of the industry and respond accordingly. In the case of Of Monsters and Men, I knew I wanted to launch their album at SXSW because I had a touring plan of what festivals they could play immediately afterwards. But if I was managing a developing superstar DJ then I might plan to launch an album at a completely different time of year to align with a different genre-specific calendar and promotion cycle. You can’t have one business model for how to make money from being a band, and you can’t rank any one element – live, recording, radio, syncs – as being more important than any other.” Meanwhile, María Rut Reynisdóttir, who manages another recent Icelandic international success Ásgeir, had this to say: “people like to say live is more important than recorded, but it’s not so simple. We could not have broken out of Iceland without our label (One Little Indian) offering us tour support. Touring internationally is expensive, and we had to have a record deal in place before we could even think about developing outside of Iceland.”
  1. Having grown dramatically in size and scope in the 2000s (with significant consequences for the rest of the music industries), the changing business of festivals shows no signs of stabilizing. Rob Challice, Director of the Coda Agency, noted that while “the big festivals are catching a cold because of a shortage of headliners,” a new generation of festival promoters is continuing to experiment and innovate. According to Zac Fox, Head of Operations at Kilimanjaro Live, “the new trend is that it’s less about the stage and acts and more about off-stage, the character of the festival as a whole – and those festivals that see it like that are doing well.” Small festivals are able to test new kinds of festival experiences that don’t rely on headliners to sell tickets, and the most successful of these ideas from the grassroots will inevitably be adopted (or co-opted, depending on how you look at it) by the larger-scale festivals. The timeline for planning festivals has also changed. “They never had a calendar for festivals ten years ago,” recalled Challice. “You used to put your UK festival bills together with bookers at Eurosonic every January, but now acts are booked by October for the following year.” Zac Fox similarly remarked that a more saturated market has led to a need to book both acts and infrastructure earlier than ever before; Kilimanjaro Live is “booking acts for festivals that we haven’t confirmed the trackway for yet – it’s the wrong way round.”

Overall the appeal of Iceland, its music, and the Airwaves festivals are due in no small part to their quirkiness – all of the geographical, social, and financial particularities that make Iceland special. But these idiosyncratic details also draw attention to how geographical, social, and financial particularities shape all of our live music experiences, no matter where we are – even though we sometimes take such factors for granted when attending festivals closer to home.

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  1. Great to read this – can’t wait to visit in person one of these years. A great read and advice for anyone in the music ( and indeed all creative) industries that one size does not fit all, and we need to diversify and listen to the audience.

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