Iceland is a tiny Nordic island in North Atlantic — most people know that. In fact, plenty of young people, particularly on the east coast, have even visited this sliver of lush land to experience the magic of the Blue Lagoon, stay in quaint hostels, and captured the brilliance of the blinding landscapes of the isle. A friend of mine argued that Iceland is single-handedly the most Instagrammable location in the world, and I don’t think he’s wrong there. But something else that’s emerged on the island over the last several years may be even more unexpected — a passionate indie rock and music festival culture that has quietly blossomed into a tourism boom.
The trailblazer when it came to the new trend of Icelandic festivals is Iceland Airwaves, an international music event that began in an airplane hanger two decades ago and helped spark the wave of international music events that have popped up in its wake. Celebrating their twentieth anniversary this year, Airwaves is the oldest and largest international music festival in the country and has even become a major player in the national economy.
Iceland Airwaves will be hosting Uproxx for the first time this year, and to get a better sense of what’s in store for a visitor traveling to the fest, I spoke with the event’s Head Of Marketing Operations, Will Larnach-Jones, and the Booking & Program Manager, Sindri Àstmarsson, to learn about the event’s history, their take on the new trend of Iceland festivals, and how Airwaves stays fresh heading into its next decades as a showcase festival.
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Can you talk to me a little bit about the history of Iceland Airwaves and its connection with Icelandair? Also, I know the fest was bought this year, so I’d love to hear how that might impact its legacy, particularly on the 20 year anniversary.
Larnach-Jones: So this year, Sena Live bought Iceland Airwaves, and they are probably the most credible and established concert promoters in Iceland who do everything from comedy to classical performances to large-scale pop events. I think they did the biggest events ever to date in the country with Justin Bieber a couple of years back. There have been lots of great things about the festival in previous years, but, I think across twenty years the focus can kind of shift a little bit, and this year there’s been a really big effort to go back to what the heart of the festival is and what it represents.
Originally, the festival came about because Icelandic bands wanted the opportunity to showcase for some international A&Rs namely, American A&Rs. And funnily enough, I think a friend of theirs worked in Icelandair, or maybe a relative. It made more sense financially to just bring some people into Iceland, rather than taking all these bands over to the states. The first Airways took place in an aircraft hangar, and then subsequently, over the years, it became ostensibly a showcase festival. This is the first year in probably the last five or so that we’re really trying to return to energy. We’ll have some bigger names, of course, that people recognize, like Blood Orange and Soccer Mommy, but we’re also super excited about the local talent.
What makes Iceland Airwaves stand out to you, personally, in the festival landscape?
Àstmarsson: Well, this is my first year booking the festival, but I’ve been a part of it for many years now working as a band manager in Iceland. This is a really important event for Icelandic bands; it’s the only opportunity for Icelandic bands to get the [music] industry over. So that’s how I started thinking about booking bands, I wanted to attract the industry back to Iceland. And to do so, you have to have interesting bands and bands that are doing something new to bring it back to the showcase feel. In the end, it’s a showcase festival and you will see most of these names.
We think of it as a festival where you don’t see your favorite bands, you see your next favorite bands. And that’s really the feel we want to have. I go to all these showcase festivals all around the world and I try to find something that’s special. We don’t look too much into monthly listeners on Spotify or how many likes that act has on Facebook. We search for something that’s interesting, that sounds good and that we believe will grow and has the potential to wow our audience.
Larnach-Jones: The other thing I think really sets the festival apart in such a unique way is that it’s an amazing location experience, where you can kind of wander from venue to venue and come across some bands you’ve really wanted to see for a long time or heard a lot about. And then see some things that you just know nothing about. There’s such a strong musical community in Reykjavik; so many people are in bands and there are so many good bands, and so many take part in the festival. Every day of the festival you’re just kind of spoilt for choice. So if you wanted to see something from any genre or kind of any kind of space or venue, it’s all there for you to check out.
Right, that all makes sense. Along with that, what are your thoughts on this new trend of Iceland festivals? As someone who has been involved with the original one, how has that impacted things?
Larnach-Jones: I think that it’s in line with the accessibility of Iceland now. It’s perhaps inevitable that it’s going to be a lot more people’s radars. It used to be a place that I think you would really have to seek out to visit. And for many years, people traveling to Iceland would normally be looking at it primarily as a nature perspective. Because obviously, there’s all sort of stunning things to do when you’re there, there’s waterfalls, whale watching, hiking — any number of different things. But with the availability of flights and different options for accommodation, the way younger people are more savvy about making their own travel plans, it’s really opened up as a weekend getaway for people from Europe.
For the music scene more specifically, it’s definitely a great opportunity for the world market to have eyes on Iceland again. And also I think in a way that, kind of from a genre perspective, that obviously the two biggest emerging acts initially were Bjork and Sigur Ros. I think they are the ones that everyone is very familiar with on a global scale. But you know, subsequently the likes Of Monsters and Men, and now with this new bunch of talent that continues to come through, we’ll see perhaps maybe music that’s more or kind of working on a level that’s also about just reflective of kind of music in general worldwide, and not so specifically being inherently Icelandic or something in terms of the sound.
And why do you think Reykjavik is such a musical city?
Larnach-Jones: Well, Icelanders work very hard. When it’s next to no daylight outside for half the year, I think people have to find ways to entertain themselves. I’m Australian, I’m not Icelandic, but especially for the winter months, there’s not a lot else to do, so people are really invested in their hobbies. Because it’s a small market for people that are really serious about the music, people often play for other bands as well as their own, or often play different roles in different bands too. So there might be a featured vocalist in one band and the lead vocalist somewhere else. There’s all sorts of permutations and there’s kind of people that have appeared, there’s a band called Dr. Spock I think, they played at basically every single Iceland Airways for twenty years in different permutations. It’s quite amazing, and that’s an ongoing thing.
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This is more of a question for Sindri, but as someone new to the festival, what do you most hope to continue adding to the festival as it moves into the future?
Àstmarsson: I would say adding to the industry part of it. Vital music has been hosting a conference, actually called the Nonference for the last couple of years, and it’s a new part of the festival. I really like that, it’s supposed to be a really chilled atmosphere and not taken too seriously, which Icelandic people tend to do. I like the feel of the Nonference and we want to build that even more. And also just what we’ve done this year, having more international acts on the lineup than we’ve had before. We’re basically having more smaller acts, then having a couple of large headline acts, and we’re also accepting more applications than before, so more bands with absolutely no profile that we just liked the music from, we added more of them than the previous team did.
On the Icelandic side, I also really wanted to have bands that were doing something. Because a lot of bands that are big in Iceland and in the local market, they just play year after year, even if they don’t have anything new or not, don’t have an album coming or anything like that. I kind of sat down with most of them and asked point-blank: ‘Are you going to do something new? Is something new coming? Or are you just going to play the same stuff as last year?’ And we tried to really book bands that are actually doing something. Like it should be, like it’s anywhere else in the world.