Iceland's Vaunted Music Scene According to Iceland Airwaves

Iceland Airwaves 2019

Iceland Airwaves 2019

Reykjavík, Iceland

The hectic, sweaty, exhaustingly awesome Iceland Airwaves is officially underway as of today. For five days, the freshest and most creative acts from a broad spectrum of genres will be on display all over Reykjavík.

The whole city gets involved in the festival, with everything from book shops, bars and restaurants to clubs, theatres and concert halls hosting live music across all genres. 

Last year we caught up with then Iceland Airwaves director Grímur Atlason to shed some light the famed Icelandic music scene and his festival's relationship with it.

Iceland Airwaves has more of a relation to its location and country than maybe any festival in the world. What does this relationship mean to your festival?

Of course we think Icelandic music is exceptional, and it is. But one of our advantages is that this festival takes place on an island in the middle of the Atlantic ocean where you have mountains, harsh weather, volcanos, glaciers, etcetera.

A lot of festivals in the world have a great lineup. So, without offending anyone, if Iceland were just a mid-sized city in central Europe, why would anyone come? Why travel to that when you can see most of these bands anywhere?

Our lineup is great, but to have the festival in these surroundings, it's an essential role. It's obviously a destination for tourists, the media, you know, we are of interest.

You have a massive lineup, but the focus of the festival is on up-and-coming artists. Can you speak on the process of finding these young acts?

We are on the road for over a year scouting. We started for this year's edition before last year's had even happened. We're travelling all over the world, seeing talent, seeing music, getting pitched from people we trust, getting applications. That is how we do it.

We listen to everything and sometimes we are just amazed and we feel like we have to book it. We are really open-minded and really focussed because if our lineup is not good enough, people won't come. 

It needs to be fresh but also we need to have something for the broader audience. But we need to have something for people who are strictly coming here to discover stuff. So at least 80% of what we are doing are bands that most people have never heard of.

You must get this all the time, Iceland is a small country with a small population but it has a robust music scene that is really progressive and quite respected. What do you think it is about Icelandic culture that has led to such a great music scene? 

I'd probably give you a different answer if you'd ask me tomorrow. It's not a small country in terms of landmass, it's not a small country. It's a lot of nature, few people, you're really isolated and from that you have something. I don't want to be nationalist but it's a rather special mix.

We are really lousy bankers, we crashed the economy. I think it was two of the biggest bankruptcies in the history of the world that happened here in Iceland, so we aren't good at that but we are really good at culture. Even since the early days.

Our Icelandic sagas are our treasures, our pyramids. Our literature is strong, our music is really strong and it's always been like that. Probably because of the isolation, but who knows.

Am I right in thinking hip hop is the sound of Iceland right now?

Yeah, you could easily say that. Hip hop is really, really strong right now, it's a boom. But it's a boom everywhere right now. Obviously in the States it's the biggest genre but it's always localised when it's outside of the US. 

Even UK hip hop has been rather localised. A little bit of grime has gotten out, but yeah hip hop is the strong thing right now. Our most popular guys are 16 or 17. A lot of their songs have been streamed over a million times and they're all coming from Iceland. It's crazy.

Can you highlight someone of Iceland's most influential rappers for people who don't know?

It's difficult to say who's influential. But those who are booming right now, a few years ago it started with Emmsjé Gauti. He's been around for some years. He's not old but he's probably one of the biggest ones. Then you have another pair called Úlfur Úlfur. They also became big in 2014-15. Those are probably the stronger ones.

But there are also new ones like Joey Christ and JóiPé X Króli.

Probably the ones who've had the most success or are the ones who've gotten out of Iceland are Reykjavíkurdætur, otherwise known as The Daughters of Reykjavík. They're a 15 piece, feminist rap group.

What advice would you have for people heading to your festival for the first time?

Just absorb everything, discover stuff. Go to the smaller clubs. If you want to see something in particular, show up early and just stay in the venue.

In the day time you should definitely visit the local city swimming pools, that's what I do and what I think people should do. 

If you eat fish, definitely eat the fish. It is exceptionally good. If you have time, go and have a little trip in the nature, it's easy. Just enjoy yourselves! 

The Lagoon of the north is ridiculous. You have a lagoon in the middle of a lunar, volcano landscape. Being there on the plateau of Iceland in November is unlike anything you'll experience elsewhere.

There's so many festivals popping up these days, what do you think the festival scene will be like in five years?

Live is becoming very, very important for musicians and the industry as such because obviously records are down. Streaming's up but it doesn't pay the artist as it did. Although new talent are getting a really strong presence thanks to streaming and the internet, but still to generate money they need to do a lot of shows and festivals. 

But that's also too much in a way. We've never bought as many tickets to shows in the world at any time. There are so many shows happening all over the place and Iceland is no different.

Maybe there will be less festivals in five years but stronger ones. And I hope they won't all be bought up by the majors.

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