As you may have heard, Icelandic music teachers recently ended a five-week long strike. The music teachers’ strike was caused by a wage dispute. It was resolved when Icelandic authorities promised music teachers wages equal to those enjoyed by other teachers in Iceland. Now that these demands have been met—even if only to certain degree—we music teachers ought to be able to continue our work, educating Iceland’s future crop of musicians.
But, are we? Not necessarily.
For instance, my school, Söngskóli Sigurðar Demetz (“The Vocal Academy of Sigurður Demetz”), can now prepare students for the upcoming Christmas concerts. However, if nothing changes in terms of our financing, the year 2015 will mark the end of our precious work. Several music schools in the City of Reykjavík are faced with the same problem, and will not be able to continue their operations for long under the current system.
This is a problem.
Where’s the left wing?
The financial stability of capital’s music school system has faced a great challenge for quite some time. Several years ago, an agreement was made between The Icelandic Association of Local Authorities (who are legally responsible for financing the schools) and the Ministry of Education, with the aims of enforcing music education in Iceland, and providing every Icelander with equal opportunity to study music. Ever since, the City of Reykjavík has used this agreement to rationalize a reduction of its legally mandated subsidies to the city’s music schools. Specifically, the City of Reykjavík has interpreted that agreement to maintain that financing advanced levels of music education is the State’s responsibility, despite the fact that none of it seems to support this reading. Indeed, no other municipality in Iceland has followed the city’s lead in this regard.
This situation is driving Reykjavík’s advanced-level music schools into severe financial difficulties, as funds from the State only cover around 75% of their total costs. Music schools have thus been forced to finance the rest via tuition fees, which are only meant to cover the basic costs of housing, equipment, utilities etc. After three and a half years of such expenditures, these schools now face bankruptcy and foreclosure. Adding to this, one side effect of the music teachers’ strike was that it rendered those very same schools unable to collect full student tuition, resulting in a dire situation wherein they were absolutely unable to cover their costs.
A look at the taxpayers’ share in the schools’ financing provides some interesting results. In 2008, Reykjavík taxpayers paid 8,751 ISK per person to maintain the music-school system, whereas the sum had gone down to 6,035 ISK in 2012. This is a cutback of 31%, more than any Icelandic municipality enforced.
It is also interesting to compare the model used by towns and communities outside of Reykjavík, who support their music-schools and offer them facilities suited to their needs. Meanwhile, the capital offers only privately run schools, which receive no assistance in terms of facilities. Indeed, Reykjanesbær spends 12,061 ISK per taxpayer on its music school system, and Reykjavík satellite Seltjarnarnes spends a whopping 22,768 per taxpayer. Both of these municipalities are run by Iceland’s conservatives, the Independence Party. Reykjavík, on the other hand, is run by left-wing parties. Does this disprove the myth that leftists always support culture better than conservatives?
A crumbling system
Icelandic musicians have garnered worldwide attention, deservedly so, in recent years. In light of this, it is deeply saddening to watch the Reykjavík music school system unnecessarily crumble because of simple political decisions.
When Icelandic music students complete their advanced-level studies at home, many of them go on to study at the best conservatories in Europe and the United States. We are now faced with the reality that such a trajectory could become impossible in the near future, as some of the schools that have prepared those students for future education might be closing in the coming months.
The music scene in Iceland is wonderfully dynamic, and we would like to keep it that way. The music school system in Iceland has been an active instigator of this dynamic music life, not the least in Reykjavík. In many cases, teaching provides the sole steady income for Icelandic musicians. We must therefore assume that as the music school system decays, Icelandic musicians will increasingly turn towards other sources of income to make a living, such as the growing tourism industry.
Icelandic music currently faces a crisis, one that will greatly influence its shape and size in the near future—and, of course, for years to come.
Gunnar Guðbjörnsson is an opera singer and principal of The Vocal Academy of Sigurður Demetz