“Nobody is born an artist. You need to practice, and have a venue to do so.” So says Ása Hauksdóttir in her calm and soothing voice, in between sips of a double cappuccino of her own making. Ása is the head of youth centre Hitt Húsið’s cultural department, and is in the middle of organising the upcoming Músiktilraunir (“Music Experiments”), Iceland’s annual Battle of the Bands competition.
The competition has been held every year since 1982 (except 1984, due to a teacher’s strike), and past winners have gone on to define Icelandic music. The 1994-5 winners, Maus and Botnleðja, were the frontrunners of the 90s punk scene. The 1999 winners Mínus gave hardcore a much-needed facelift, as did 2000’s winner, XXX Rottweiler Hundar, to Icelandic hip-hop. And many of today’s most popular homegrown bands, including Mammút, Agent Fresco, Of Monsters and Men, Samaris, and Úlfur Úlfur (then Bróðir Svartúlfs) are past winners.
In Ása’s mind, this empowering competition does more than highlight the future of Icelandic music: it’s the reason many of the bands start in the first place. The contest has become a staple of the music calendar, and sees some 40 new bands sign up each year, all drawn from the grassroots.
Ása has been a part of the competition since 2003, and in that time she’s seen many of the trends that have fed today’s scene. She mentions the shift from English to Icelandic lyrics, and the increased presence of women over the past decade. “Lately there have been a lot of singer-songwriter types like Axel Flóvent,” she continues, “and an increased number of electronic artists.”
Raising the next generation
The competition takes place in Harpa’s Norðurljós over five evenings, with the winners crowned on the final night. Ása explains that each night sees some ten to twelve bands take to the stage, before which they get a primer on STEF (“The Performing Rights Society of Iceland”), how to sound-check, and the importance of a good stage plan, as well as tips on how to protect their hearing and so on.
“Our goal for the past decade has been to give all of the contestants the opportunity to work in a professional environment with good stage hands, sound, lights, and organisation,” Ása tells us, “as well as offer them the chance to network with other up-and-coming artists. Most of the bands have never performed with stage monitors—we want to get them out of their garage and to a place where they can create good music.”
At each of the elimination rounds the judges pick one band and the audience another to progress to the final night. “Just advancing is recognition in itself,” Ása says.
On the final night, which is broadcast live on the radio station Rás 2, the panel picks the top three bands, as well as handing out prizes for best songwriting, guitar player, and so on. The top three winners get twenty hours in a studio with a sound engineer and a spot on the coveted Iceland Airwaves festival roster.
“Whether people win or not isn’t the point,” Ása emphasises. “It is, like my colleague says, more of an opportunity to test your flight feathers.”
Músiktilraunir is hosted on April 2-5, with the final competition on on April 9. Tickets are 1,500 ISK for the preliminary shows and 2,000 for the final night. Bands can register for the competition up until March 14 on musiktilraunir.is.