From Iceland — Is Iceland Airwaves Past Its Prime?

Is Iceland Airwaves Past Its Prime?

Published November 7, 2023

Photo by
Joana Fontinha

The best festival we have. The only festival we have.

Strictly speaking, the Iceland Airwaves festival, which will turn 25 next year, is the only proper festival Iceland has. For one weekend, it turns Reykjavík into the best version of itself. We used to joke at the Grapevine that it gave the completely wrong impression of Reykjavik to people who only visited during Iceland Airwaves weekend. We’re a town posing as a city for one weekend a year. This feels true to this day and this past Airwaves weekend was no different.

But Iceland Airwaves has changed and it has evolved since its founding back in 1999. For the first decade it was primarily a festival where you could discover new and exciting music, both local and international. Bands past their prime were not on the schedule, neither local or international, even though such bands might draw more crowds and sell more tickets. The international music press showed up by the planeload and (rightfully or wrongfully) Reykjavik was made to look very hip and musically relevant on the world stage.

This approach proved financially unsustainable and by the early 2010s new management took over the festival and bigger international acts and older 80s and 90s Icelandic favourites would pop up on the schedule, while there was still focus on new and exciting local acts. By the end of the decade, however, yet another management team had taken over and the festival became somewhat more industry oriented, with heavy emphasis on industry meet and greets and less on foreign press, who might not, given the line-up, even be that interested in showing up. I don’t think I even remember seeing an Iceland Airwaves advertisement this year that emphasised an artist or a band. So maybe it is actually less about the music, consciously or subconsciously.

Headphone music doesn’t necessarily translate into a good festival live show.

Given the fact that the emphasis on new and upcoming acts was never financially viable, the festival had to change. And change it did. What seems to have gotten lost in translation — or wiped off the festival’s collective institutional memory database — are two other aspects of festival scheduling.

Number one. Music that is good and sounds good, may not translate into a good live act for a festival. Headphone music doesn’t necessarily translate into a good festival live show.

Number two. It is better to schedule artists in a way that holistically builds into a climax around the end of the night. Instead, acts seem to be sprinkled across the schedule at somewhat random. If the festival were a DJ set, it’s like the DJ put on Will Smith’s “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” only to follow it up with a random number off of Brian Eno’s Music For Airports.

Artists are looking over a mass of grey hair, while those stationed at the back of a venue are staring at a sea of bald spots.

The festival headliners now also tend to be indie has-beens, instead of something that is on the verge of getting big. Admittedly the latter category is much harder to book, because it requires both foresight and a seventh sense, but bands that peaked 15+ years ago are pretty much as far away from what sort of bands were headlining the festival in its first 10 years as anything imaginable.

These changes can also be glimpsed by observing the people who attend the festival. Very few people under 30 seem to show up. Artists are looking over a mass of grey hair, while those stationed at the back of a venue are staring at a sea of bald spots. Maybe this is because of the programming, maybe because the tourist season is now year-round and half these people are tourists. Maybe going to a festival is just a gen-x or elder millennial thing. Maybe the wristband price is too high for younger people. Who knows.

Still, this is the best festival we’ve got. And it is fun even with its shortcomings. But as with so many things, it’s not above criticism. It is my firm belief that it can be even better next year.

Follow along with the all the Grapevine’s Iceland Airwaves 2023 coverage here.

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