From Iceland — The Iceland Air-Slaves

The Iceland Air-Slaves

Published November 3, 2014

Money for mittens, and the music’s for free…

Photo by
Yasmin Nowak

Money for mittens, and the music’s for free…

I have a confession to make. I’m the asshole that ruined Airwaves this year.

I’m a local musician, and like any other self-respecting indie artist my age, I’ve been a participant in the Iceland Airwaves festival roughly since it started more than a decade ago. I’ve sometimes showcased my own projects, and sometimes performed with other bands and friends. It’s been a lot of fun, a lot of work, and I’ve made shitloads of money… No, wait. We’ll get to that.

It just so happens that another, less official festival has been growing alongside Iceland Airwaves in recent years, a venture usually referred to as the Iceland Airwaves off-venue programme. It’s not uncommon that festivals like Iceland Airwaves foster little siblings like this, and they’re usually kind of cool, too. They give visiting and local artists an opportunity to play a few extra shows, and underage kids and others who don’t have festival tickets a chance to partake in the festival atmosphere and see some great live music—for free.

I’ve been doing these gigs for years without a whimper, usually greatly enjoying myself. The off-venue spots are usually packed with cool people who have a genuine interest in what you’re doing—indeed, some of the off-venues shows I’ve played are among my all-time favourites.

Despite all this, playing those shows often leaves me with a nagging feeling. There is, for some reason, a tradition that dictates that the musicians don’t need to be paid for their contributions to that whole party. Doesn’t that sound weird? You have a music festival where promoters, equipment rentals and technicians are all getting paid—everyone but the artists that people come to see.


Early this fall something clicked; something changed in the way I look at this festival.

It happened when I was contacted by one of many of 101 Reykjavík’s knitwear shops. They offered me a “good” spot on their programme, without ever considering that I might want to get paid for my services.

Now, before I go on I have to say that I think that playing for free is often fine. There is, for instance, a fundamental difference between playing a tourist shop and playing a benefit show for a good cause.

Around the time that knitwear shop contacted me, me and my band were participating in a benefit concert for the family of a 7-year-old boy named Frosti who struggles with terminal illness. I knew the shop had no intention of paying any artists for their services, but decided to ask them anyway what kind of fee was on offer. Their response was that they “never pay for acts performing in their store.” As if it’s some sort of deeply held policy. Never pay musicians. If you pay one, then they’ll all wanna get paid… and then what?

I felt confused. Somebody must have forgotten to give me the memo of my profession being a source of free labour to be exploited by tourist shops. I got angry. I politely declined the offer, and with a magmatic eruption spewing from my ears I sat down and posted the following to my personal Facebook, tagging a few key players from the local music scene:

Music is hard work

“Once again, the off venue extravaganza has started and everyone thinks they can get fantastic musicians like me and you to play for free while they sell their mittens. We need to reset the standards here. We do benefit concerts for free, like the one for Frosti, but not for mittens!”

Needless to say, the post got a healthy response and sparked quite the debate. Most were positive and sympathetic to the cause, musicians tired of busting their asses for nothing. Some, however, were furious, accusing me of “ruining” the off-venue experience, in effect depriving young, lesser-known musicians of an opportunity to perform. In the aftermath, a few acts that had already agreed to perform at various off-venues for free contacted the venues and demanded payment for their services.

The media got interested. On live radio, over the phone, I was pressed to explain what I thought constituted fair payment for playing an off-venue gig in Reykjavík. I had a hard time answering. There are no easy answers. What’s a fair price for a mitten? I don’t know. It depends on what kind of mitten it is, doesn’t it?

There is also a difference between playing a free show for a place like Bar 11, that a musician will maintain a business relationship with throughout the year, or some Viking-themed tourist shop that’s not concerned with you except when they’re trying to lure in foreign customers during a music festival.

The average Icelandic musician is overbooked during Airwaves. If you play in, say, three projects—which isn’t unusual for somebody like me, who can play a few different instruments and has a lot of musician friends—you can expect to perform around four to eight times in the space of five days. Then you have the soundchecks, interviews, performances for various video-shoots, and so on. I’m not saying it’s not fun—it is! I’m just explaining that despite that, it’s still hard work.

You wouldn’t ask the Symphony Orchestra to play for free in your café, would you? You wouldn’t call up a plumber, ask him to fix your sink and be all weird when he wanted to get paid for the job. Then, why would you expect Sóley, Mammút, Mugison, Lay Low, Moses Hightower, Agent Fresco, Myrra Rós, Borko, Hazar, Bloodgroup, Snorri Helgason, Oyama or me to play your knitwear shop for free?

We are FANTASTIC! Where is my money?

My Facebook post also had a hidden incentive. In it, I refer to myself and my colleagues as FANTASTIC musicians. Artists are always struggling with self-esteem issues, which can really influence their output. In a way, that’s healthy, but we musicians should still harbour a colder view of our “product” (so to speak) when it comes to business. We tend to get buried in our issues to the extent that when some random coffeeshop owner asks us to play we get filled with gratitude that someone actually likes us. Well, maybe that coffeeshop guy doesn’t like you, or even know your music at all. Maybe he just heard that you could play the acoustic guitar and he has a small stage in his shop.

We are simply people who are trying to make a something of a living playing music, yet we always get stuck comparing ourselves with the Bob Dylans or The Aphex Twins, The Sonic Youths or the fucking Fleetwood Macs of the world. Let me tell you something right now: You don’t need to be Paul McCartney to earn the right to play in a coffee shop and get paid for it. That’s the way the world works. In every profession, people mostly do their jobs in an average kind of way, and they get paid for it. But the musicians I speak of, the musicians that comprise the Icelandic music scene, are far from average. They truly are fantastic at what they do. They are true artists. So, I think it’s time for a change, for the times they are a-changin’. Before we agree to play a free show for a total stranger, we need to muster up our inner Einar Örn and ask: “Where is my money?”

Pétur Ben is a musician and composer working out of Reykjavík, Iceland. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

You can catch Pétur Ben performing at Airwaves on the following dates:
November 5: Bunk Bar (off-venue) at 18:20
November 6: Harpa Kaldalón at 00:20
November 7: Evrópustofa (off-venue) at 17:00
November 9: Ion Luxury Adventure Hotel (off-venue) at 16:00

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