From Iceland — No Usual Suspects

No Usual Suspects

Published November 7, 2014

Atli Bollason


dj flugvél og geimskip
Júníus Meyvant
Low Roar
Tonik Ensemble
Young Karin

These are the eighteen Icelandic artists and bands confirmed for Eurosonic 2015, the Dutch ‘festival of festivals’ which happens in January every year and is attended by premier European festival bookers and booking agents. Next year, Iceland is in focus at the festival. The Iceland Music Export (IMX) unveiled the list today at a press conference and braced themselves for questions about what many perceive to be glaring omissions from the list such as indie favourites Hjaltalín and Mammút. Sure enough, made-for-radio names like Árstíðir, Kaleo, Skálmöld and Ylja also seem odd in this context.

We caught up with IMX Managing Director and ex-Sugarcube Sigtryggur Baldursson and heard what he had to say about the selection.

GV: Does IMX choose the bands or at least suggest a tentative list to Eurosonic?

SB: No. Robert Meijerink, the head booker for Eurosonic, chooses the bands who perform. He may ask for our opinion but our main role in the process is to green-light the acts he decides to book. I realize that the list will surprise some as many of the ‘usual suspects’ are missing from it; our biggest indie bands simply aren’t there. Robert says he has made the bookings according to which bands are currently being discussed in the European industry. We must understand that Eurosonic is not meant to be a forum for whatever happens be popular in Iceland. There are many young artists on the list who are working internationally but may not have a strong presence locally. I’m very pleased with the list. I think it’s great.

GV: Árstíðir, Kaleo, Skálmöld… At first sight these seem like bands that are exactly what you describe: bands who do well locally but it’s hard to imagine them doing much internationally whereas more ‘progressive’ acts like Hjaltalín and Mammút don’t make the list.

SB: Hjaltalín has performed at Eurosonic before and the festival pretty much runs a ‘no return policy’. Plus, there’s not much going on with Hjaltalín right now; Högni [Egilsson, vocalist] is away on tour with Gusgus and they haven’t been especially active as of late. Mammút have been playing showcases but lack someone working on the floor for them; they have no booking or label contacts. You might think that a festival like Eurosonic were the place to acquire such contacts but you still need someone doing that work. When deciding between two bands, Robert looks at whether the bands he books have representation, because for a festival like this, you need representation to reap the awards. He also looks at where bands are in the album cycle – have they released something recently? Is something coming out soon? I have seen too many bands attend a showcase like Eurosonic without someone on the job and not getting anything out of it in the end.

GV: So IMX doesn’t represent Icelandic bands at events like these?

SB: IMX is not a talent agency. We work on strengthening the grassroots movement and the local infrastructure, we try to establish contacts, we provide information. We don’t manage individual bands. But we’re trying to develop the managerial side of things in Iceland. We’re planning workshops at the end of this month. The musical community in Iceland is great, but there’s not much knowledge of the music business. And I think that’s actually part of its charm. We have to be careful not to ruin that. But we still need to build the business side of things from the inside.

I’m talking about this now because I think it’s a bit of a taboo. People find it stupid or silly to discuss the business side of things and they just wait around to be discovered instead of actively working to be. I’m not saying you have to ‘sell out to sell out’ – you can stay true to your own ideals while having success – but you have to connect with your environment. The Norwegians, for example, are very organized when it comes to music business and I think we can learn a lot from the other Nordic countries.

GV: Really? Is there anything remotely interesting going on in Norwegian or Danish or Finnish music as far as anglo-centric media and listeners are concerned?

SB: I hear what you’re saying. Creatively, we’re doing great here. But we can make the industry part run much more smoothly. If we can maintain Icelandic creativity and fuse it with Norwegian business chops, we have a monster on our hands.

We caught up with Sigtryggur just as he was setting up at Kaffibarinn for a show with President Bongo. This bureaucrat keeps busy!

We caught up with Sigtryggur just as he was setting up at Kaffibarinn for a show with President Bongo. This bureaucrat keeps busy!

GV: But won’t this mean that bands on the more ‘progressive’ end of the spectrum get left out?

SB: There are many opportunities for niche acts within a festival like Eurosonic. It’s attended by representatives from metal-fests, to name something, but the bulk are bookers from pop-leaning indie-fests.

I suggested to Robert that we represent the full breadth of the Icelandic scene, from viking-rock to electronic to folk to indie pop/rock to [avant-jazz band] ADHD, but he said ‘that’s where I draw the line, because there’s no one there representing a festival who would book an act like ADHD and you wouldn’t be doing them a favour by bringing them over.’

GV: That said, I don’t even know all of the names on the list.

SB: We’ve been criticized for green-lighting artists who have only released a song or two, like Júníus Meyvant. But how many singles did Of Monsters and Men have out when they blew up? Only one. Okay, they had a record out in Iceland, but he’s putting out an album in a couple of weeks. It’s not necessarily best to bet on the most experienced acts.

GV: Of Monsters and Men, some would say, is a bland and generic band that lacks the quirk and charm that many associate with Icelandic indie acts. Do we want to cultivate cult bands or homogenous radio rock?

SB: We want to support the grassroot activities and then have the market make its’ choice. We don’t want to create made-for-the-charts hit bands; we all remember the Nylon-fiasco, right? The music business associates ‘homegrown indie’ with the Icelandic scene and Of Monsters and Men are sort of an exception from that rule. But I want everyone to be working on their own terms. And we’re only here to help people do business, whatever their terms are.

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