Since 1982 Iceland’s very own garage band music competition, Battle of the Bands (Icel. Músiktilraunir), has taken place annually. The competition has allowed young artists to gain more attention in the Icelandic music scene than they otherwise could have hoped for, as well as providing the top three bands with studio hours, industry connections and priceless attention. Instead of only playing small venues for their parents, teachers and friends, young musicians found an opportunity to play in front of music enthusiasts as well as to be heard on the radio and sometimes gain national fame. Many young musicians have competed during the 25 years or so in which the competition has been held. The once modest contest now admits about 50 bands every year and many others have to be turned away.
The competition should not be confused with The Global Battle of the Bands, or any other competition by that name. The Icelandic version has been running for almost fifteen years longer and has produced a few very popular acts, at least in Iceland.
Even in the first years of the competition the media paid attention. The all-girls band Dúkkulísurnar (Eng. The Paper Dolls) won in ’83 and got considerable radio play. In ’86 a band from Húsavík, Greifarnir (Eng. The Counts), exploded onto the Icelandic pop-music scene and enjoyed wide popularity for a couple of years. At the height of their fame the band received so much attention that it became a small time mania. Teenagers cut their hair to emulate their look and the trendsetting singer (his glasses also became a hit), Felix Bergson, became a national celebrity – today he’s a well known actor.
A couple of other borderline boy-bands followed in the late ’80s but in the ’90s the music scene changed and so did the bands that competed. Around 1990 rock ’n’ roll picked up where the new romantics had left off and the happy-golucky pop bands found that they didn’t have many voters among the crowd that once hailed them. Instead, death metal bands like Infusoria (later Sororicide) dominated the contest until finally the more intellectual alternative rock took over. Many of the winners in the ’90s became very popular in Iceland. 1992’s winners, Kolrassa Krókríðandi (Eng. Bellatrix), performed abroad, as did Botnleðja (Eng. Silt) and Mínus – both winners in the ’90s. Maus (’94) became a very well known name in Iceland as did Stjörnukisi and Yukatan.
In the year 2000 the hip-hop band 110 Rottweiler hundar (Eng. 110 Rottweiler dogs) won the competition and started a powerful wave of homemade hip-hop in Iceland. Árni Matthíasson, a music writer at Morgunblaðið, has led the panel of judges in the competition almost from the beginning and has seen different fads come and go. He points out that Battle of the Bands “serves as a glimpse into the garage and therefore a window into the future of the Icelandic music scene”. Rottweiler’s success is a good example of how freshness can move the scene because in the years that followed their victory Icelandic hip-hop became very popular. Countless rappers and producers gained fame and paved the way for a more innovative music scene in later years. In the years 2001-02, dozens of hip-hop albums came out in Iceland, which is a lot for a small market. Rottweiler shrewdly used Battle of the Bands to their benefit and their debut album went platinum.
Grass Roots Competition
It’s important to remember that the competition also serves as a breeding ground for young musicians. Members of well known bands such as Sigur Rós and Quarashi started out in Battle of the Bands and 2005’s winners, Jakobínarína, have gained favourable reviews in the international music press. The competition doesn’t only produce musicians but also movers and shakers in the industry such as concert promoters, music writers and editors as well as TV personalities.
The winning bands of the new millennium are different from each other but still a valuable part of the music scene – perhaps they represent the diversity we now face as more music genres co-exist than ten or 20 years ago. According to Árni Matthíasson, the professionalism of the judging process has become higher over the years. He adds that the competition is still an “important step for new bands to gain experience and a chance to step into the limelight”.
This year’s Músiktilraunir will take place in Austurbær, March 10-14, with the final night at the Reykjavík Art Museum, Hafnarhús, on March 15.