In the late eighties, The Sugarcubes became closer to what can be called international stardom than any Icelandic band before them. The band wasn’t famous in the same way as U2 or Michael Jackson, but they gained respect from the major players in the industry as well as music enthusiasts.
For years Icelandic bands had tried and failed. The extremely popular sixties-band Hljómar called themselves Thor’s Hammer in their failed search of international fame. The late-seventies saw the much talked about disco installation, Change, but they never found the success they were looking for. Many others tried but most didn’t even get close. The ones who did, notably the fusion band Mezzoforte, didn’t get close enough.
After the breakthrough of Björk in the early nineties, Icelandic musicians realised that being from Iceland did not necessarily mean that it was harder to gain recognition. The mid- and late-nineties saw an innovative landscape of talented young men and women reaching out for the stars that had eluded them for so long. With Sigur Rós, the music scene of Iceland broke even further into the sphere of underground music and finally it was safe to say that Iceland was on the map. Others had some success; Múm and Bang Gang found their place in international markets and the same can be said of the popular techno band Gus Gus.
Looking to further the country’s reputation abroad in the new millennium, the music festival Iceland Airwaves became an important meeting point for everyone interested in the music the country has to offer. But what has happened since the early ‘00s? Is Icelandic music getting ahead the same way as it did before? Is the drive the same now as it was only a few years ago?
Iceland Airwaves: Serving Their Purpose
When taking part in a music festival like Iceland Airwaves, as someone who’s a part of the music industry, you realise that there are international journalists waiting for the next Björk to happen. Magazine writers, record executives and television crews are scouting the venues in their search for the next big thing. The city sizzles with people running between different locations, listening to music and interviewing anyone who they feel might be it. Many of the international artists that play at the festival have been successful. Some have played here as relatively unknown bands in October but by spring have become international stars. A good example is the band Hot Chip, but they enjoyed considerable popularity in Iceland before the rest of the world acknowledged them. Whether it’s because of Iceland Airwaves is not clear, but I feel confident that bands like Hot Chip would never have been picked to play here if there wasn’t a certain something to them.
The Icelandic bands are, however, not making particularly big waves now. Many of them are very skilled musicians, others have the look and the attitude, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Yes, I know, some of them get gigs in other countries, but let’s face it – they aren’t becoming the next Björk or anything close to her widespread popularity.
One of the bands that has gotten serious attention is Jakobínarína. They play fun rock and roll, not too complicated and never boring. They are certainly no innovators in music but they’re not trying to be. Many others have generated a buzz but their music never seems to reach the ears of the crowd that might embrace them properly. Mínus is a good example of this. A fantastic band with a strong presence but they never found the right market for their music – at least not the market that would buy their albums in the serious amounts I believe they are capable of selling.
The Professionals: In It for the Long Haul
Some bands have found a small market and chosen to stick to it. They are not looking to conquer the world in the same way a newcomer would. But if it happens – it’d be a great bonus. Nevertheless, they are not serious contenders to Björk’s throne – at least not for now. But all of them have something that has granted them longevity.
Gus Gus have been around for more than ten years. They’ve found their scene and therefore know where they can find their fans. They’ve toured religiously and have a strong fan base throughout Europe, even if they started out as a pop band – not a dance act. Gus Gus is a band that understands its limitations and doesn’t try to be anything other than a disco oriented techno band. That way they can survive as long as they care to cater to their fans as well as they do. Musically they are good, their sound is impeccable and most certainly their own despite a shift in style.
Bang Gang is another example of a band that knows its audience. Playing easy going chamber pop without letting current flavours interrupt the sound is working for the band. The same can be said about Singapore Sling and other bands that have embraced a strong but particular sound. They are not out for world domination; they’d rather play for their crowd without having to be something they are not.
Múm is one of the bands that has found the most success abroad, but they have changed a lot since their critically acclaimed Finally We Are No One (2002). Their sound has evolved with new members and their long awaited fourth studio album will be released this fall. What the new line-up has to offer is an unanswered question.
Where is the Original Sound?
While watching a newcomer on stage or listening to new music at home, I can’t help wondering where and when I get to hear a new original sound. An original sound was what Björk and Sigur Rós brought to the scene a few years back. The main reason for their notoriety is their originality. Björk’s success resulted in a period of blooming creative freedom and for a short while a window opened for bands that had just that. We saw artists like Emilianna Torrini, Sigur Rós, Gus Gus and Múm flourish because originality became popular.
The music business of today has become so money driven that only a few executives are connected to what should be an artistic exploration of sound. Many prefer to sell their certain 5000 copies and call it a day. Originality is not celebrated in the same way it was ten years ago. This is evident when looking at decent but unoriginal bands like Nylon, who are being groomed for international success, without any luck as of yet.
Thankfully, I’m convinced the cultural climate will change again, as it always does. One day some artist or a band will struggle against all odds and then burst on to the scene sounding like no one else before them. And we will give them the standing ovation they deserve – that is, if we’re keen enough to realise they’ve arrived.