As Van “The Man” Morrison once sagely noted: “Music is spiritual; the music industry is not”. We all know which side of the fence Icelandic music falls on (usually drunkenly), but last month in Reykjavik we’ve had both sides of the story. While Iceland Airwaves let loose its usual sonic juju, a music conference called You Are In Control took care of what we might call ‘the business end’.
But let’s rewind. Five years ago I published “Waking Up In Iceland,” a book that set out to explore Iceland’s unique and remarkable music scene. Back then it was all about bands like Trabant and Quarashi, Singapore Sling and The Leaves. Thule was the name of a record label (as well as a beer) and “Esja” was just a mountain, and not a musical project.
Trawling around Airwaves last month, devouring the dynamic and contrastive range of sounds – the roaring immensity of Reykjavík! vs. the feelgood post-disco of FM Belfast; the avant bricolage of Ghostigital vs. the soaring beauty of Ólafur Arnalds; the joyful noise of Hjaltalin and Retro Stefson, to name but a few – it occurred to me that the scene has totally remixed itself.
While the scene’s Old Masters are still around – Björk, Sigur Rós and múm are all still busy maintaining their heavyweight titles, buoyed by the inexorable rise of established acts like Mugison, Jóhann Jóhannson and Emiliana Torrini – many of the Class of ‘03 are now gone.
In their place is a new breed that adds greatly to the scene’s already famed diversity. They’re more confident, yet more insouciant too. Bands seem to be enjoying themselves more these days (a bit of a global trend perhaps) and a lot of the performances, from the in-yer-face antics of Ultra-Mega-Technoband-Stefán and Reykjavík! to the jaunty collectivism of Benni Hemm Hemm, FM Belfast and Retro-Stefson – are electrifying.
Folk have been getting their shit together on a business tip too. The uncompromising DIY ethic that the scene was built on still runs through it, but artists seem to enjoy further reach thanks to the internet and its myriad resources. More acts seem to be getting out on the road, hooking up deals and using the social-networking realm to promote themselves.
Five years ago there was talk of getting more funding for the music industry and perhaps professionalizing it – that also finally seems to be happening. The Kraumur Music Fund aims “to strengthen Icelandic musical life, primarily by supporting young musicians in performing and presenting their works…by providing direct grants, professional assistance and various forms of cooperation.” So far, Mugison, amiina, FM Belfast, Skakkamanage and Ólöf Arnalds – a fine and deserving selection by anyone’s standards – have been awarded handouts and hopefully more will benefit later this year.
In terms of promotion – often a sticking point for Icelandic bands – the scene has grown an ‘official’ mouthpiece in the shape of the Icelandic Music Export office (IMX for short), a “one-stop shop” for info on Icelandic music that I was happily recruited to edit and provide content for in 2007. In the space of a year we’ve managed to build a useful two-way portal between Icelandic music, it’s fans and interested professionals, where bands can upload profiles, songs, videos and contact info for free.
It was IMX that organised the two-day conference You Are In Control, held prior to Airwaves at the Saga Hotel, which brought together an international assembly of industry moguls, keynote speakers and local musicians in Reykjavik.
So yeah, things are moving. Yet the heart of the scene remains the same, still driven by the same dynamics: a need for competition and collaboration, for creative expression and experimentation, for external recognition; to believe in the spirituality of music. Oh yes – and the need to throw really fucking great parties and make some of the greatest music in the world for no reason other than…it’s fun.
Some things, hopefully, will never change.