From Iceland — Making Airwaves Flow

Making Airwaves Flow

Published October 10, 2014

Egill Tómasson, on the evolution of the festival

Photo by
Hörður Sveinsson

Egill Tómasson, on the evolution of the festival

As the carnival of new music that is Iceland Airwaves approaches, the anticipation in the air is becoming palpable in Reykjavík. The festival pre-game is in full swing: there are posters all over town, the schedule and accompanying app have been launched, and the annual scramble for tickets that follows the inevitable “sold out!” announcement has begun. There’s a huge amount of behind-the-scenes work taking place in the final weeks before the festival kicks off.

Amongst the Airwaves organisers, one name will be particularly familiar to the production staff, venue owners, technicians and performers. Egill Tómasson is the longest-serving member of the team behind Iceland Airwaves, having started as an intern at the second Airwaves ever in the year 2000. Since then, his role has grown alongside the festival to include booking, Icelandic band relations and production. An unassuming, amiable guy peering from beneath the brim of a sports cap, Egill is an ever-present figure who helps turn the gears of the Airwaves machine.

The way it was

“When I started, Airwaves was in a big sports hall, with The Flaming Lips, Suede and some other big bands,” Egill says. “We had Faktorý [then known as Grand Rokk] and Gaukurinn and a few other venues. It was pretty much set up around that. But many of the venues we used back then no longer exist. That’s a big part of the Airwaves story—the venues that have come and gone.”

Several of Reykjavík’s most-loved music venues have controversially closed down in recent years, mostly to make way for new ventures that capitalise on Reykjavík’s well-documented tourism boom. But whilst these new business opportunities might be good news for Iceland’s economy, the closed venues leave gaping holes in the cultural fabric of the city.

“The loss of NASA was a big blow,” Egill laments. “It is a very, very sad loss in general for Reykjavík, and for the whole scene. Nothing is happening in that building now. They haven’t knocked it down, or managed to get anything done there. It’s been serving as a pop-up book market or something. It’s really weird, the state of that great space.”

One of the ever-present fixtures of the festival is the cavernous event hall of Hafnarhusið, the city centre art museum. But using that space doesn’t come without challenges. “Hafnarhúsið used to be our main stage, since 2001,” Egill says. “It was the biggest hall we had available. And while it’s a great venue, it’s very narrow, so the technical limitations affect who can be booked there—a lot of bands have minimum stage dimensions, and stuff like that.”

Enter Harpa

With these concerns in mind, the appearance of Harpa, with its modern, adaptable performance spaces, solved a lot of problems for the Airwaves team. “One of the great things about Harpa is that everything is up to international standards,” Egill says. “It’s super good for us in that respect.”

Using Harpa has opened up other new possibilities for the festival. One example is the eye-catching inclusion of Iceland’s Symphony Orchestra (see our feature on page 16) in the grand Eldborg Hall. “We feel like the Symphony Orchestra collaboration is a really nice addition to the festival,” Egill says. “We’ve always booked progressive composers at Airwaves, so it’s a great fit. Last year we had Ólafur Arnalds, this year we have Jóhann Jóhannsson—and we’re already talking about ideas for next year. The people managing the orchestra are very open-minded and open for suggestions.”

Down into the roots of Harpa, Kaldalón hall is also playing host to some interesting events in the Airwaves schedule, including the Airwords poetry event.

“We thought the poetry connection was great,” Egill says. “It didn’t take too long for us to make the decision to collaborate with those guys. If you think about these poets and writers we are working with, it’s sometimes not until they get nominated for international awards that they get recognition outside of the left-wing literary circle in Iceland. They kind of stay super underground. The general Icelandic public didn’t care too much about people like Sjón until they got international recognition. So for us to somehow participate in that, it’s an interesting step for us. I think it helps to give people a good insight into what’s happening in Icelandic literature.”

Despite the use of the grand, glittering Harpa building, one of the best aspects of Airwaves will always be the experience of running around between the atmospheric bars, shabby hole-in-the-wall music venues and creaky concert halls of Reykjavík’s downtown area.

At the heart of it

“We are always very focused on keeping Gaukurinn and Húrra and those places heavily involved,” Egill says, “which can get us in trouble. When we put in bands who require big set-ups, we’re asking the bands to down-scale their production to fit in those circumstances. But for me, that sometimes brings out the best performances. With the Icelandic bands, when you put someone who hasn’t played Gaukurinn for a long time on that tight stage, there’s something dynamic about that.”

And whilst other countries are investing in their cultural spaces from the public purse, small venues in Reykjavík receive no help from the city, despite facing high taxes and red tape. But with no help from the city, Egill worries that prized downtown venues will continue to disappear.

“It’s a struggle for some of them, staying open,” he says. “In many countries around us, culture venues are supported by a government system, to help keep those art houses up and running. Here, these people have to find it from the scraps. Let’s face it, nobody is making tons of money and living carefree lives when you’re running those venues. You have to be full on—dedication to the music scene. So, I take my hat off to those people.”

Egill thinks more should be done. “It’s really essential that both the City and the government start looking into what they’re doing in Denmark and places like that. The way things are developing here in Reykjavik, it’s often coming down to a battle between idealism and money—and money usually wins. Faktorý, NASA, and all those closed places… they’re gone or standing empty. They’re going to be fucking malls or hotels. None of the ideas on the table are geared towards sustaining the city’s culture, or fresh ideas. It’s all about the tourist development in Reykjavík and the concern for maximum growth per square metre and all that shit. Which is sad.”

It’s a far cry from the effective work being carried out in other areas of Iceland’s music culture, where organisations like Kraumur and Iceland Music Export offer support and development to Iceland’s musicians, with visible results.

“That side of things is very healthy,” says Egill. “Just look at the scene. This year, we have 40-something Icelandic bands playing their first Airwaves. We have 151 Icelandic bands on the bill and we had to say no to around 200, which is a hell of a number for a city of this size. In an average year we say no to around 100 bands. And for me, the quality of the applications is sky high—at least half of those bands could easily be on the bill, quality-wise. The grassroots music industry is getting significant support, and I think we can see it is paying off.”

A complete, foldable Iceland Airwaves schedule (great for your pocket!) will be distributed with the expanded version of Grapevine’s Airwaves special that will be distributed around Reykjavík and 101’s bars and venues by the end of October.

Note: an earlier version of this article erroneously stated that Kraumur was a government funded organisation. The article has been amended.

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