Published November 20, 2017
Sadly, two more music venues in downtown Reykjavík have had to close down recently. The long-established and popular blues bar Rosenberg on Klapparstígur, with its 20th century jazz feel and wooden panels on the walls, has closed its doors for the last time, as has the newer Green Room on Lækjargata.
The closures are very unfortunate for the local arts scene and it seems that these closures are part of a greater trend currently affecting Reykjavík. In 2012, locals were outraged when beloved music venue NASA shut down in order to make way for a new hotel. After much publicised public protest the decision was reversed, but instead of it opening up again it has been left boarded up and abandoned.
Reykjavík Music City
Fortunately, in a first for the city, the council is now starting to take action to at least identify the main issues befalling the local scene. María Rut Reynisdóttír, who has managed some of Reykjavík’s best local musicians, is heading up a new project at the City of Reykjavík entitled Reykjavík Music City.
“It’s a test project for the next three years in order to grow Reykjavík further as a music city,” María says. “We want to create a support system and favourable conditions for a lively music scene featuring music all around the city.”
A diverse music scene with venues of all sizes is very important for helping fledgling bands and artists launch their careers and grow as musicians. But Starri Hauksson, who co-owns live venue Gaukurinn with Sólveig Johnsen, says that the city’s smaller venues have been facing an uphill battle for a very long time–which could have serious implications.
“At the moment I think we are in danger of changing downtown Reykjavík into one of the dullest, most annoying places on earth,” he says.
Hope for the future
Starri says that it is vital for local culture to have venues for less known acts to perform, but that financially it can be difficult to ensure such places exist.
“It’s difficult to charge entry fees to concerts unless the bands are very successful; that’s just how it is. If you’re not Harpa, you can’t really charge a lot for entry,” Starry says. Adding that the dramatic increase in rent has also made the situation even more difficult.
“Plus, when you’re hosting a concert, a lot of other, more technical things come into play. It’s not like a disco where you just have a DJ playing—you have to have some sort of backline and keeping a sound system alive for a music venue is very expensive,” he says. “Even just getting the permit for a smoke machine for Gaukurinn and Húrra cost two million ISK.”
Starri worries that if more cultural venues close down, the centre of Reykjavík could lose its charm.
“Harpa is a magnificent music house, but it’s not exactly the epitome of grassroots,” he says. “When I travel I like to seek out dive bars and smaller places to see what’s going on. You don’t go to tourist cities where there are just hotels and spas and souvenir shops, you go to places where you have culture and a vibe; something alive. And like with any garden, you have to water it to keep it alive.”
Supporting the community
María says that the council does not have any financial backing for the Reykjavík Music City project currently, but one of her first tasks will be to conduct an in depth study on Reykjavík’s live venues.
“I will be mapping out the Music City from all sorts of different angles and one part is to take inventory of the venues,” she says. “What kind of venues do we have? How many live venues? How many are mainly focused on music and how many treat music as secondary?”
María also agrees with Starri that a range of differently-sized performance houses is important for helping Reykjavík’s music scene flourish.
“These are the places for our artists to kick off their career and develop and grow and then hopefully later shoot for the stars,” she says. “This requires a full range of live venues from tiny clubs to Harpa and everything in between. We want to know how can we support the venues if they are facing difficulties in their existence. Hopefully this can be done with different means [other than financial].”
Starri wants to do what he can to help the local scene as well. He, along with partner Sólveig, took over Gaukurinn in 2012 and since then it has grown into one of the city’s most popular venues.
“On this block alone we have Gaukurinn and Húrra that are run by people with decades of experience of running music venues. The people at Húrra are very, very good and we’ve been doing this for quite a while as well. I’m pretty sure we might have some pointers for any individuals running venues,” he says.
“But I think the first step has been taken with someone taking interest in the subject,” Starri continues. “We welcome any interest in the scene from the politicians.”
Meeting the locals
The Reykjavík Music City project is still very much in the early planning stages, but María is hopeful that it can have a positive impact.
“There are people who have been working on similar projects for a long time. I’ve been reading through different reports, notably one called ‘Mastering of the Music City’ written by Music Canada in 2015, which is great. There are many different examples from cities all over the world,” she says.
María says that she will be holding meetings with representatives from the different venues in the city to get their insights into the current situation.
“If the city, or myself as project manager, can do anything to help venues thrive in the city, we will do that. We will just have to see if that’s going to be with financial means or anything else,” she says.
Let’s hope that this is the start of something good to come.