There has been much discussion within the Reykjavík City Council about how Iceland’s capital can become a true music city, and how that would benefit the city’s economy. But before such a policy decision is made, we must first understand what the term “music city” means. On the surface, Reykjavík is very much a music city—the city is home to thousands of artists, live music is performed nightly, children are provided with music education, and the city actively works to engage music and tourism aims, particularly through Iceland Airwaves and promoting Harpa’s programme. But if this was enough, than Reykjavík wouldn’t be seeing music venues closing, and artists frustrated with the opportunities presented to them, and we wouldn’t be discussing how this term, “music city,” could make Reykjavík a better place to live.
So let’s unpack this. A music city, in all it encompasses, is about how the needs of music—in terms of artists, listeners, aspiring businesspeople, and educators—are catered to in a particular place. This starts with how land is allocated, managed, supported and protected. Some cities, like San Francisco, London and Berlin, have placed safeguards around their built music infrastructure, to ensure that it can support musicians and music listeners of the future by ensuring they have the spaces and places to practice, perform and listen. When this isn’t a priority when a city regulates the use of land, music is often pushed to the back of the queue. This is because music is not the most lucrative usage for a particular piece of real estate—at least, in the short term. Hotels, residential units and other commercial properties are much more profitable, in the first three to five years. This is why we’ve seen a number of much-loved Reykjavík music venues, such as Faktorý and NASA, turn into hotels, bars and restaurants.
Legendary Icelandic musician Sigtryggur Baldursson, who took part in the creation of this policy, told us: “This is good for cultural tourism by, for example, placing more focus on music festivals, supporting music education, musicians and concert venues and so forth.”
Music, as a primary function of a piece of land, presents challenges. Music travels through walls, so people living in poorly insulated houses may not be as supportive of local music venues as those that are. For those wishing to sleep, a banging bassline is not welcome, and when more hotels exist, less music in the neighbourhood is often seen as desirable. And we lose venues as a result.
A music city understands these threats, and works to combat them. First, it’s important to understand how to value music in a particular place, both economically and culturally. And once it’s valued, we compare it against other land uses now—and in five, ten and twenty years. Often a successful venue increases house prices nearby, for example. Secondly, a music city looks at its existing planning and licensing regulations, and explores how to support music uses responsibly, rather than penalising them when certain residents complain. By doing so, a city learns where music shouldn’t be, in addition to where it should. Thirdly, a music city must communicate this vision in how it champions itself. Reykjavík is a music city, yes, but its policies have not caught up to its reputation. Lastly, and most importantly, a music city realises that this is a process, not a race. London audits its venues yearly. Berlin does the same. Some places call this an “asset inventory.” It requires budgeting, assembling stakeholders—often in a board or commission—and asking tough questions like “Why are venues closing?” and “How can we improve music education?”
It’s great that Reykjavík is exploring what it means to be a music city—but it’s also necessary to ensure that when this is explored, discussed, and decided, that the right questions are being asked.