Published July 14, 2015
It’s Faktorý all over again.
The buildings that house downtown’s booming music scene—venues like Húrra, Gaukurinn, Paloma and Dubliner—will likely be renovated into “tourism-related businesses.” The news is reminiscent to the sad fate of Faktorý, a popular Reykjavík music venue that was shut down two years ago to make way for a new hotel.
Steindór Sigurgeirsson, who co-owns the real-estate company responsible for the possible changes, cited their desire to have businesses that are more similar to the tourist information and souvenir stores that saturate the nearby Austurvöllur area—though neither he nor his partner Jason Wittle would disclose any specific plans.
“We want more of such shops in our buildings, not bars,” Steindór told newspaper Stundin last week.
The power of music
The biggest names in Icelandic music have performed at these venues and the irony of these potential developments is that highly exported musicians—like Björk, Sigur Rós and GusGus—have been a big inspiration for Iceland’s thriving tourism activity.
Though operating under different names, Gaukurinn, for instance, has been hosting music and arts events in the city for more than three decades. When co-owners Starri Hauksson and Sólveig Johnsen took over the space three years ago, they broadened the rock venue to cater to all genres of music. It has since become a space for creative experimentation—just this weekend, a group of full-time jazz musicians played with hip-hop artists in a mind-blowing collaboration.
These businesses play a vital role within the ecosystem of Iceland’s music scene, which provides both cultural and economic benefits for the country. These venues have served as charming location alternatives to Harpa for the Iceland Airwaves festival, which brought a record 1.6 billion ISK (that’s billion with a “B”) of foreign capital into Reykjavík last year.
The news has understandably both frustrated and surprised a large community of locals and visitors. Thousands of people joined a Facebook event called “Save Icelandic Music Events” just days after the news broke. There, many are expressing their anger while others discuss and devise ways to protest the proposed changes.
“Thank you for the support, we’ll be here hosting concerts till they carry us out,” Starri wrote on the Facebook event page.
Creating real value
The uproar is warranted, of course, because these spaces are about more than just protecting bars or small venues. These businesses transcend economic value by sustaining a community of people ripe with creativity and entrepreneurial flair, crucial elements for sustaining the vibrancy and culture of the urban centre.
All of the threatened venues host events outside of the field of music, too: Tuesday evening poetry readings which are wall-to-wall packed, open mic nights, steampunk and entrepreneurship gatherings, and even daytime painting sessions. These spaces are necessary for a thriving society, a goal embedded in the planning and building act adopted in 2010 by the City of Reykjavík, which requires the city to ensure “the preservation of natural and cultural values” and “public participation” in its urban planning practises.
Moreover, these venues serve as meeting grounds for diverse groups of people to gather. Despite the rise of digital interconnectivity, it still requires great effort to build and maintain strong communities. Bringing people together to experience music and art doesn’t just make people feel good—it leads to healthier lives because it helps with cultivating positive relationships. This isn’t just about music; this is about public health.
Arguably, it’s the local government’s responsibility to keep art alive in Reykjavík and prevent the city from becoming flat and hostile to locals or foreigners that visit. A sensible idea that has been suggested is to impose stronger regulations on the number of hotels and tourist shops that can be built in the city centre.
“The people you vote for in elections, you want to make sure that they will ensure this city is livable,” Starri said. “I’m interested in living, not surviving.”
Playing the short game
The potential closures also speak to a larger problem that exists in Iceland, where the interests of the public are often undermined by shortsighted money-grabbing opportunities orchestrated by small groups of wealthy investors and developers. If the city chooses to not intervene or demand for accountability, it is essentially crony capitalism. By ignoring or neglecting the long-term social, environmental and economic consequences, these groups are able to walk away with profits at the expense of the public’s welfare. This kind of mentality is pervasive in today’s chase for the Shiny Object—this time, the boom in tourism—and has created several pressing issues in the country such as the destruction of neighbourhood identities and history, and irresponsible attitudes toward protecting Iceland’s culture and nature.
This toxic attitude was first spotted by Icelandic environmentalists who rallied against the construction of dams and geo-thermal plants, built by corporations whose primary interest was short-term financial gain despite the long-term consequences. Now, the chase for money has shifted to the tourism industry as well. Companies are irresponsibly shepherding hordes of visitors to natural sites even though it’s expediting the degradation of the land. Last week, for example, the owners of the private (yet traditionally open to the public) Hrunalaug hot spring in Flúðir told press they were unable to maintain the site, mostly due to frequent visitations by busloads of tour groups.
In the long-term, these venues are job creators, strengthening the local economy and supporting professionals working in an industry different than tourism. Recent Icelandic history is rife with examples of single-industry towns—primarily focused on fishing—which have completely unravelled after short-lived success. Supporting the arts and music creates a more sustainable multi-industry economy that provides diverse revenue sources for the city and country.
Converting these buildings into tourism-related businesses also ignores the cultural value that these venues provide for the community in the long run. Though there may be economic gain if the property is converted, it will likely be short-lived and at the expense of the livelihood of visitors and locals alike.
It could be argued that replacements will crop up, like the Nasa music venue, which is set to eventually re-open (however, running in a hotel will cause large constraints on how it operates).
The current climate between hotels and music venues remains mostly hostile, with scenarios like 101 Hótel trying to exert noise limits on Gamla Bíó, which was recently forced to cancel its Páll Óskar concert. Current noise levels for non-rock music shows at Gamla Bíó are capped at 95 decibels, which is 45 decibels less than the sound of jet engines.
Other alternatives like Harpa only serve as a forum for specific audiences and do not provide adequate opportunities for emerging artists that don’t yet have the fanbase to afford the costs of renting out the concert hall. As a result, shows at these venues are more affordable and accessible to the general public. These venues are also uniquely located outside of residential areas, which means they are the last standing sites in downtown Reykjavík to have the ability to host shows late into the night, something that would be lost if these venues are converted.
Obviously, it is fair for businesses to have power and choice in determining how they operate. Despite that ability, businesses also have an obligation to the communities they serve, and an obligation to promote a greater good. The city also has a duty to foster arts and music, and to engage the public’s opinions in its decisions related to planning. We, as public citizens, also have a responsibility to stay vigilant in the fight to protect these venues that provide cultural value. We can demonstrate this through voting in elected officials who also care about these issues. We can also demand accountability and transparency from the city and real estate developers.
This is about more than just saving Iceland’s local music scene. Advocating for these venues is taking a stand to protect the arts, music and culture in Iceland. It’s also about active citizenship: encouraging the City of Reykjavík and property developers to make decisions that also consider long-term consequences. These kinds of planning decisions impact the trajectory of Reykjavík’s future, so it only makes sense to allow the public to engage and participate in that evolving dialogue.
The accompanying photo is a cropped version of the cover from issue 12, 2013 (“HOTEL CITY!”), which featured an extensive look by reporter Parker Yamasaki at the problems faced by a growing Reykjavík that wants to accommodate both its culture and its visitors. The image was shot by Axel Sig and processed by Döðlur.