By Þórir Bogason
There are a lot of Icelandic acts performing at this year’s Iceland Airwaves festival. This in itself is of course nothing new. The festival does an admirable job year after year of presenting the Reykjavík music scene almost in its entirety. What’s remarkable though—as a festival that has through the years developed a reputation for showcasing some of the hottest indie bands from abroad—is that Icelandic artists have come to be its main attraction.
If you look at Iceland Airwaves line-ups from 2007 to 2009, it includes a who’s who of the indie rock world—Bloc Party, Of Montreal, Grizzly Bear, Vampire Weekend, Florence + the Machine, Kings of Convenience, and The Drums, and that’s just scratching the surface. Remember, this is a country that otherwise receives performances from artists of this pedigree maybe a couple times a year. Maybe.
However, with the arrival of the new decade it seems something began to change. Consensus, at least among my friends, was that the 2010 line-up was somewhat lacking, and rumour had it that we were now feeling the effects of the economic crash. Was it simply that the festival could no longer afford to import such musical decadence? Or did it simply mark a change of tides in the music world? Was indie going out? Was pop in, or simply a safe bet?
Come 2011, the festival would no longer flounder in ambiguity. Beach House and tUnE-yArDs would rep the indie, but only to be dwarfed by the legend of Icelandic music herself. Björk had just released a critically acclaimed new album, ‘Biophilia,’ and would be the de facto headliner.
This year, Sigur Rós—second only to Björk in the short story of homegrown legends—follows suit. Sigur Rós has just released a new album, ‘Valtari,’ and is the de facto headliner of this year’s festival. If the “sort by popularity” filter on the Iceland Airwaves schedule planner app is anything to go by, then an additional handful of Icelandic acts are garnering more attention from festival-goers than even the most popular acts from abroad. Of Monster and Men, GusGus, sóley and FM Belfast each have more festival-goers expressing interest than Dirty Projectors, Django Django and Purity Ring. Couple that with this fact: The festival sold out this year a record 82 days early. This all would seem to suggest an exploding interest in Icelandic music.
Which brings up the tired cliché: So what is it about Iceland that leads to such great music? Every time you ask this, PR agencies piss themselves with glee and half of the music scene vomits a little. And so are born the stories of being under the influence of unique Icelandic nature—the stories that will get written about (because that’s what this game is really about). You can hardly turn on the radio or TV in this country without being fed some news about Iceland being best (or at least second best) at something. And so Icelanders are constantly boasting. It’s a sign of national insecurity, but also a game of posturing. I can’t figure out whether it’s extremely naive or sinisterly clever. It perpetuates itself.
If you look at the newfound success of bands like Of Monsters And Men and sóley, there’s nothing particularly Icelandic about them. Any country could have created these acts.
Of Monsters And Men is extremely catchy “indie”-folk pastiche. It’s clear their inspiration comes from abroad, from the likes of Arcade Fire et al., repackaged with commercial gloss and major label backing.
Sóley is a YouTube phenomenon. Her success is largely organic, or algorithmic if you will. In the YouTube context, her song “Pretty Face” stands on its own with more than seven million views. There’s no PR fairytale to accompany it; it’s not even accompanied by a video, but rather just a still image of the album cover. It wasn’t until I listened to it in this context that I finally fully “got it.” It’s an exceptionally beautiful track.
Word has it that Iceland nonetheless produces a disproportionately large amount of noteworthy music for its small population. Most existing commentary on the matter is pure fluff. My sense is that the small size of the Iceland’s market forces musicians to appeal to more mainstream or widespread sensibilities.
There is also something particular about Icelanders themselves that I think has a lot less to do with the influence of barren lava fields and more to do with an ingrained professionalism, Scandinavian utilitarianism and hard work ethic. (This is the type of story that does not get written about, because it doesn’t fit the image we expect of musicians.)
Paradoxically, it’s also a cushier society here. For example, you can have a baby at age 18 without permanently derailing your life, and so lots of people do. You can also have a band without worrying too much about how to pay for it—you can get a grant to record your album or go on your debut tour abroad. And so lots of people do. And remember, everybody’s cheering for you, because if your song gets played even just once in New York, it’s front-page news. And if it doesn’t pan out, you can just re-enrol in the university.
Whatever the reasons may be, a vibrant and varied musical scene flourishes on a one-street strip of bars on this small island in the middle of the north Atlantic, and increasingly the world is taking notice. Whatever the other precipitants may be, ultimately it’s the appeal of their material that makes or breaks it for these artists. In the case of Of Monsters and Men, it’s commercial appeal. For sóley it’s viral. For Sigur Rós it’s their ingenious blend of shoegaze and post-rock—both established genres borrowed from abroad—combined with the romantic notion of taking inspiration from nature. Icelanders, either by design, predisposition, or luck, are figuring out how to present themselves for wider appeal. But don’t take the PR campaigns too seriously. If you look deeper, you may even find something richer.
Iceland Airwaves Festival make-up, by country:
8% United States
4% United Kingdom