From Iceland — Iceland Airwaves: The Unheard Festival

Iceland Airwaves: The Unheard Festival

Published October 11, 2021

Iceland Airwaves: The Unheard Festival

The pandemic silencing of Iceland Airwaves—for the second year running—has led to claims that the government isn’t listening to live music.

In the first week of November, Reykjavík will be a lot quieter than it should be. Iceland Airwaves— arguably the nation’s highest-profile music festival—has again become a COVID casualty after promoter Sena Live declared the event impossible under current pandemic restrictions

The cultural significance of this annual celebration of Icelandic music is undeniable. “Everything in the Icelandic music industry centres around Airwaves,” says Ísleifur Þórhallsson, the festival’s director. “All the new bands—and the established acts—have it in their calendar as the main event of the year.

“If you have new material you’ll release it just before the festival, and you’ll use your stage slot to premiere your new act. The eyes of the world are on Airwaves; it is the annual chance for Icelandic artists to show themselves on the global stage.”

The financial impact of Airwaves is also profound. In addition to ticket sales for the concerts themselves, the event provides brisk business for the venues, suppliers and staff that make it happen. And then there’s the cash injection administered to the Icelandic tourist industry. In a normal November Reykjavík’s hotels, bars and restaurants teem with attendees of Airwaves, all determined to spend money at an otherwise quiet time of year.

“Airwaves creates income to the economy of around one billion Icelandic krónur,” Ísleifur points out. “And then there are the side effects of around 5000 people flying to Iceland, talking on social media about how amazing it is, then going back and saying, ‘I’ve never been to a festival like this. Reykjavík is awesome and Iceland is incredible!’”

Director of Iceland Airwaves Ísleifur Þórhallsson – photo by Art Bicnick

A year is a long time in a pandemic

Ísleifur has no doubt that cancelling the festival in 2020, although a bitter pill to swallow at the time, was the correct course of action.

“The only thing to do in the beginning—before vaccines, and when we knew less about the virus—was to shut things down,” he says. “Everybody understood and respected the rules, and we were all working towards a common goal. And the government did a good job, particularly in supporting struggling businesses and individuals.”

As the Icelandic winter draws in we’re reaching for our comfy traditional lopapeysa sweaters, the beautiful woollen garments which have been keeping Icelanders warm for generations. They’re available for international delivery through our online shop, and ours are hand-knitted right here in Iceland from local wool.

But Ísleifur draws a distinction between Iceland’s pandemic situation in 2020 and the state of affairs this year, as Airwaves approached. The success of Iceland’s vaccination program presented an opportunity to move on from last year’s tight restrictions on public gatherings. And the experiences of concert and festival organisers elsewhere in the world have provided case studies to inform pandemic policy, and operational blueprints which could be followed.

However, three months out from the festival it was clear that Iceland’s gathering bans were not going anywhere. With only 200 people allowed to stand in a venue—and higher audience numbers constrained by measures like numbered seating, with everybody facing front—it became clear that it was going to be impossible to produce an event that would be recognisable as Airwaves.

Sit down and shut up

So Ísleifur assembled some allies—such as Iceland Music, the body responsible for promoting the export of Icelandic music— and in August they began to lobby the government.

“We were part of this letter that went to four ministers,” recalls Sigtryggur Baldursson, managing director of Iceland Music, “along with Sena and the music societies in Iceland, asking the government to seriously consider speed testing and vaccination proof as a way to make bigger events possible.

“They took it very well, and wanted to ‘give it a serious look’ as they put it. But they came back with a proposal that still required numbered seats and that sort of stuff. That’s really what pulled it for Airwaves.”

Of course, Airwaves is far from the only Icelandic event to suffer cancellation at the hands of the pandemic. Þjóðhátíð in the Westman Islands was pulled in July as a result of the gathering ban, around the same time as Reykjavík Pride was forced to abandon its usual parade. But these were decisions taken in midsummer, when the more worrying COVID-19 situation left less scope for creative approaches to planning public events.

Other music festivals—such as Reykjavík’s Extreme Chill, which was forced to cancel in 2020—are going ahead this year. However Extreme Chill curates a very particular vibe for its events, featuring small venues like Húrra and seated venues like Harpa’s Kaldalón, which work more easily within the pandemic restrictions.

The problem is in staging large-scale shows where punters stand, drink beer, jump up and down and breathe all over each other; in other words, rock ‘n’ roll.

Phones and fingers up – photo by Art Bicnick

Too little, too late

Given the apparent importance of Airwaves to the cultural and financial health of the nation, it might be expected that the government would be eager to help avert its cancellation. But Sigtryggur wasn’t too shocked by their conservative response, which delivered insufficient change too late in the day to save this year’s Airwaves.

“It didn’t come as a surprise to me, or I think anyone else in the game,” he says. “They were well within character; their reaction was very cautious.”

Nearly 90% of Icelanders over the age of 12 are now vaccinated, and festival organisers are able to deploy testing, mask use, proof of COVID-19 status and other contagion management measures in their plans. So what stood in the way of a more pragmatic, collaborative approach from the government? Ísleifur has some ideas.

“You would hope that maybe an upcoming election would open up the debate. What it actually seemed to do was close down the debate,” he says. “It looks like people in the government feel that debates about restrictions are such a hot potato, they’re better off saying absolutely nothing.

“But of course, at this point they have to have opinions on how to move forward. It is a political decision. But they were afraid to speak their minds, which is a shame because we elected them to run the country.”

Ísleifur points out that the intention was never to make Airwaves a special case; overly restrictive rules are a problem for the whole Icelandic event industry, and an across-the-board solution is required. He hopes that minds in parliament will be able to focus on the matter once the election is out of the way.

“We need to address the big picture. For this year Airwaves is gone, and we have to move on. But it’s really about ‘how did that happen? And how can we make sure it doesn’t happen again?’”

The Grapevine’s approaches to the Minister of Education, Science and Culture for comment remained unanswered at time of publishing.

Mammút play Airwaves in 2019 – photo by Art Bicnick

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