From Iceland — Reykjavík, a Music City (At a Respectable Volume)

Reykjavík, a Music City (At a Respectable Volume)

Published February 10, 2023

Reykjavík, a Music City (At a Respectable Volume)
Photo by
Art Bicnick

The past few months have been a headache for Tjarnarbíó. The cultural centre and theatre located in the heart of Reykjavík has been on the receiving end of a number of noise complaints from its neighbours, sparking rumours that it may have to close its doors. As we enter the venue on a crisp and sunny December day, the question on everyone’s minds is whether Tjarnarbíó will be able to find a solution to the noise issue and continue to serve as a vital hub for music and culture in the city.

The root of the issue

“No, that’s never gonna happen,” says Sara Martí Guðmundsdóttir, the director of Tjarnarbíó, when asked if the rumours about the theatre’s closure are true. “But we do have neighbours, there you can see them,” she says, pointing to the adjacent house. “They’re so close.” Not just close — Tjarnarbíó is directly attached to another building, so any loud sounds, including deep bass or subs, affect the neighbouring residential property.

Approximately 10 years ago, neighbours sued the theatre and, more recently, the venue has received multiple threats of a similar lawsuit.

“I understand their complaints,” says Sara. “I would not be happy if there was somebody constantly playing music that was disturbing me and my peace. But at the same time, I feel that this should be Reykjavík City’s issue, not ours.” She adds that Tjarnarbíó is currently the most used stage in Iceland: “Nobody is doing as many shows per week on one stage as we are.”

Photo: Art Bicnick

Ensuring compliance with loudness caps

According to the 2008 Noise Regulation Act, Tjarnarbíó and most venues in town (with the exception of Harpa and Laugardalshöll) have to adhere to a maximum loudness of 95 decibels. “That limits what we do here. Thankfully, not that much, because 95 decibels is quite high,” Sara says. “But rock concerts are kind of out of the question.”

“I feel very bad that I have to say ‘no’ to certain groups because of this,” she admits, while wondering aloud how aspiring artists are expected to make a living from their music without access to venues where they can showcase their art without limitations.

In Tjarnarbíó’s case, the only solution would be to completely dismantle the glass atrium connecting the theatre to the adjacent residential building. “This is a major operation and would cost so much money,” Sara laments. In fact, the cost would be too high for Tjarnabíó to carry, so their only hope is for the city to fund the renovation. “That’s not going to happen anytime soon. They prefer it to be our problem rather than theirs.”

Finding a win-win solution

“This building is a theatre. It’s not going to be anything else but a theatre — it would cost the city millions upon millions to do something else with this,” says Sara. “The perfect solution to our problem would be to do something about the noise problem.”

“I respect my neighbours,” she continues. “I don’t want to trouble them, but at the same time, they also need to understand that I’m just trying to run this cultural establishment. And it’s never been more important than right now to have a stage for artists.”

Sara believes that if the problem was affecting more people than residents of just three apartments, the city of Reykjavík would be more urgent in their response.

The authorities’ stance

The municipal department charged with probing noise complaints like those levied against Tjarnabíó is the Department of Health. “We receive quite a few noise complaints because of noise that comes from venues and events downtown,” says Helgi Guðjónsson, a project manager at the department’s environmental division. “When we receive these complaints, we investigate them and try to see if they have merit behind them.”

Throughout our conversation, Helgi refers to the aforementioned noise regulation act. The act sets the decibel level for different times of day and states that a venue or business is not allowed to impact the nearest building with noise that exceeds a certain decibel level.

“It’s always difficult when we have venues connected to another building,” Helgi says. Speaking of the Tjarnarbíó case, he adds: “In that instance, the only way to lower the nuisance is to just keep the sound levels fairly limited. If they would like to have an increase in the sound levels that they have, they would have to make the renovation. I haven’t heard of any intention of changing that. Until it is changed, they will just have to abide by the rules that have been set.”

“The issue with many of the venues and the bars in Reykjavík is that many of them are old buildings, made of wood and not very well insulated. They are not really suitable for having rock bands playing or having a dance club,” says Helgi. He also mentions that even though the insulation is better in newer buildings, leaving doors open and other actions result in higher noise levels. “We wouldn’t get that many complaints if the doors and the windows were kept closed.”

A widespread problem

Tjarnarbíó is not the sole Reykjavík venue with annoyed neighbours. Tóma Rýmið, a space managed by the Klúbburinn art collective, was forced to close its doors due to ongoing complaints from the neighbours. Downtown venues American Bar and Pablo Discobar also received notices from the City of Reykjavík about noise disturbances. Gamla Bíó, an old cinema that hosts various events, had to install a sound limiter since vibrations from the venue were impacting the neighbouring hotel.

“Tóma Rýmið is a very good example of the city’s vision of how to do art,” says Sara. “They give artists a space that is leaking, probably has mould, and now on top of it, they get noise complaints.” Sara believes that grassroot organisations need more venues to display their art and the recent closure of Tóma Rýmið demonstrates a lack of support for artists from those in charge of the city.

Helgi’s opinion differs. “They didn’t have a permit,” he says. “The soundproofing of the building wasn’t enough to be able to have a concert without it being a nuisance for the nearby residents — that’s the reason why they didn’t get the permit.”

The issue of noise complaints in the music industry is a complex and multifaceted problem that requires ongoing communication between promoters, the city and residents. Tjarnarbíó is currently the main stage for artists who receive government grants to perform and Sara hopes it will stay that way, with one change: “We want to be able to receive artists in whatever form or loudness that they choose.”

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