Published September 7, 2016
It’s 4:30 in the afternoon and Prikið is packed. Really packed—the bar lights are swinging, there are MCs on the counter, and you have to wait your turn on the one-way stairs. The smell of hamburgers drifts above a thickly bobbing crowd and people chew the free meat while leaning to the sounds of Logi Pedro, Cyber, and Emmsjé Gauti.
The occasion is the announcement of the final lineup for Iceland Airwaves 2016. Behind the live performers, a screen flashes up the names of 128 acts set to play this year. Stormzy is up when I walk in. He’s one of the foreign acts that Grímur Atlason, the festival’s booking manager, is most looking forward to, along with: “PJ Harvey, Santigold, Kano, Lush…” Grímur trails off. With close to 70 foreign acts coming in, it’s hard for him to focus on just a few.
It is no accident that every one of the 70 foreign acts scheduled to play this year is an Airwaves first-timer. “We really want to promote our local music, so what do we get by flying in these big names over and over?” he asks me. It’s hard to say. “We’ve made only three exceptions to this rule [in the past]: Hot Chip, Flaming Lips, and Beach House. John Grant doesn’t count, because he’s basically Icelandic. He has an Icelandic kennitala and all that.”
What’s even harder to tell is which Icelandic acts Grímur is most excited about. “I don’t know, there are so many. There are some new bands like RUGL that I’m really excited about, and Mammút, HAM…” Again he trails off. Emmsjé Gauti has gotten down from the bar downstairs and the crowd has made its way upstairs for chocolate cake and a 6pm afterparty. The noise drowns out his concentration. Or maybe it’s the swarming responsibilities of planning one of the world’s most respected music festivals.
“We have three major tenets we stick to in this festival,” Grímur tells me. “To create a festival that is recognised worldwide, to promote tourism during the off-season, and to export the Icelandic music scene.” While points one and two gain from having instantly recognisable names, it’s the third that the festival was really founded on, and one that Grímur holds most in mind when booking the lineup.
With a core dedication to promoting underrepresented acts to the world, Airwaves has always had an alternative spirit about it. Part of the draw is the underdog spirit. Over a quarter of this year’s lineup consists of all-female acts, not including mixed-gender acts. To some, that representation might not seem a big enough number to write home about. But consider this: an article published earlier this year in The Huffington Post examined gender representation at ten of the world’s major music festivals. San Francisco’s Outside Lands Festival came out on top, with a whopping 19%. When you compare Iceland’s 26% with the global representation of all-female acts, Iceland’s gem of a festival insists, in yet another way, that it has something to prove.