From Iceland — Welcome to Hermigervill’s Record Corner

Welcome to Hermigervill’s Record Corner

Published May 10, 2024

Welcome to Hermigervill’s Record Corner
Photo by
Joana Fontinha

The many pitfalls of the streaming era for Icelandic music buffs

Towards the end of December, 2023, I found myself at 12 Tónar on a Thursday — a reliably good night to be there. A tenet of the Reykjavík music scene, the record shop/café/bar consistently hosts vinyl DJ nights, where one can expect obscure and exciting tracks being spun.

The 70s Icelandic synth record that never was

On that particular night, recognisable musician Sveinbjörn Thorarensen (a.k.a. Hermigervill), was behind the turntables. As he began his set, he announced to the room that he received a test vinyl of his latest record that very day which he wanted to share with us.

His record, Switched-On Iceland, comprises covers of classic Icelandic songs using 70s techniques and monophonic synth, featuring a consort of additional instrumentation such as drums, guitars, violins and flutes, performed by Sveinbjörn. The sleeve pays homage to the 1968 record Hljómar II, by the iconic and eponymous band.

These synth-forward covers of Icelandic classics are not a new concept for Hermigervill. In fact, Switched-On Iceland is the third in a series, the first two being Plays Icelandic Pop Classics from 2009 and Plays More Icelandic Pop Classics from 2011.

The masters are wrong, or they’re badly digitised… I’ve dedicated my life to this era of Icelandic music history. And I see it being misunderstood. I see it being misrepresented.

After hearing the record, I awaited word of the vinyl’s distribution, or upload to a music streaming site. Then on X, formerly Twitter, Hermigervill shared the following after the vinyl debut: “I’m trying to show a little defiance against Spotify, so it will be exclusively on SoundCloud for a while to begin with.”

However, by March had backed down, posting that, “My defiance disorder has given in to the facts of reality, so here is the new album on Spotify in all its glory.”

I was curious to know what changed.

There are definitely plenty of reasons to be hesitant towards releasing music on Spotify. Thom Yorke has been vocally resistant to Spotify because of low artist payment, while Neil Young publicly boycotted Spotify for two years in response to the service platforming Joe Rogan’s podcast. Upon his catalogue’s return, he also expressed firm discontent, as per a Pitchfork article, with the audio quality of Spotify.

Icelandic music on Spotify

Curious about his thoughts, I sat down with Sveinbjörn to discuss releasing music in today’s streaming-centric world.

“It ended up on Spotify, but you know, I’m trying to resist,” Sveinbjörn says. I was deeply curious about specifically hearing an Icelandic perspective about streaming music. If one is trying to gain listeners outside the country, it is exponentially easier to distribute music through streaming platforms.

In the end, not everything is on Spotify… these three big cases of Icelandic 7-inches, 45rpms, not even half of this is on Spotify.

On a personal note, being half-Icelandic and raised in the U.S., Spotify was instrumental in me finding and connecting with Icelandic music. It’s how things are trending — in 2019, Owen Tyrie for the Reykjavík Grapevine noted that “90% of music sales in Iceland [are] through Spotify”. But, there’s another side to the streamer that you perhaps only notice if you have a wildly extensive 1960-80s Icelandic record collection.

“I have deep problems with Spotify,” Sveinbjörn states. “Not only for my music, but for music that I listen to. Because, again, I listen to old stuff. And there’s problems with availability. Of course people say, ‘everything is on Spotify!’ But in the end, not everything is on Spotify.”

“The whole two top shelves, it’s all Icelandic stuff,” Sveinbjörn says, gesturing at his vinyl library. “And then these three big cases of Icelandic 7-inches, 45rpms. Not even half of this is on Spotify. And the material that is on Spotify? The masters are wrong or they’re badly digitised. We don’t have a massive back catalogue of old Icelandic stuff. And then people are listening to it, believing what they’re hearing is original — it’s not.”

“I’ve dedicated my life to this era of Icelandic music history. And I see it being misunderstood. I see it being misrepresented,” Sveinbjörn concludes emphatically.

The record corner

Luckily, Sveinbjörn has taken steps to remedy the problem. The YouTube channel “Hermigervill’s Record Corner” has 48 videos, all high-quality transfers of Icelandic records. “It’s letting people hear stuff that they are not able to hear. It’s a lot of private presses that are never going to be put on Spotify, ever.”

We later returned to discuss the test vinyl night at 12 Tónar, and the logistics of vinyl releases in Iceland. Sveinbjörn explains how he’s been able to create unique vinyl releases throughout his career. “There’s a guy called Úlfar, he runs a company called The difference in his production method is that these records are cut and not pressed. So you put on the needle, you play the song, it cuts the thing, and it takes the same amount of time as it does to listen to it.” Laughing, he continues “I really feel sorry for the guy, if you make 50 copies of an LP, he has to listen to the thing 50 times. But it really has enabled so many people here to create niche releases that never would have existed before that.”

For most audiophiles, vinyl will always be the reigning medium. Its significance cannot be understated, evident through its renewed international popularity, increased sales and further fixture into Reykjavík’s community by events such as Record Store Day and 12 Tónar’s vinyl DJ sets.

Concurrently, Spotify facilitates the discovery of music for global audiences. Although possible, it’s hard to envision the success of Icelandic artists like Laufey and Daði Freyr without the distribution of their music mainly through algorithmically beneficial tools. However, underground or legacy artists operating in smaller markets like Iceland are not obvious benefactors of streaming services’ global dominance. And so, here we are, at a meet-in-the-middle spot of Hermigervill’s Record Corner.

Listen to Switched-On Iceland on Soundcloud, or, you know, Spotify, Plays Icelandic Pop Classics and Plays More Icelandic Pop Classics are on Bandcamp. The Switched-On Iceland vinyl will be coming one day, stay informed with @Hermigervill on X and Instagram.

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