In Norway, A Small Music Festival Thrives On Community

At the southernmost tip, Norway becomes slightly more hospitable than its northern region. Though a curtain of rain swirled, always at bay, on a recent November weekend, the driving snow and oppressive temperatures of the northern region were tempered in the coastal city of Kristiansand. This is the site where the small but formidable music festival Sørveiv has taken root since 2010, and in less than a decade established its presence on the international stage for curating a lineup that features strictly upcoming Scandinavian and European acts.

While the term “festival” in the US has become equated with “food and drink carnival featuring Chance The Rapper, Lorde, and The Killers,” this one hews closer to the original conception of the event. For instance, there were just over forty bands on the docket for the two-day event, and none of them were likely to be acts that the average US music journalist has heard before.

As I scoured the lineup on the festival brochure on my lengthy plane ride across the world for the brief event, it occurred to me that the last time I attended a music festival based so strictly on discovery was last summer up in Canada, at Sled Island Music & Arts Festival.

Perhaps the considerable rise of festival culture in America has stopped us from creating experiences that seek to elevate unknown bands, and simply re-promote those who are already the most well-known. A possible exception to this rule is Justin Vernon’s own Eaux Claires Festival in the Wisconsin city of the same name — but even that one wouldn’t earn national attention without the driving force of Bon Iver.

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In contrast to all that, Sørveiv gathered between thirty and fifty music industry professionals and journalists for a jam-packed 48 hours of panels, talks, and, of course, shows, highlighting the best young talent that Scandinavia had to offer, and importing some of the wisest international minds to help unpack the ever-shifting peaks and valleys of this particularly puzzling field.

One talk, by Alexandria Symonds of The New York Times, forged through the emerging prevalence of the all-powerful algorithm in music discovery and questioned whether or not these formulas can ever really replicate the taste and knowledge of a human curator. (Spoiler alert — it seems unlikely.) Afterward, a panel assembled to mull over who makes said algorithms, and how important diversity is from the creation of these building blocks all the way up to who employs them at the tech and editorial level.

A later panel, helmed by Phil Hebblethwaite the former editor of a now-defunct niche British music site, The Stool Pigeon, was another hand-wringing over the “state” of music journalism due to the fall of print staples and physical communities that formed between those waiting for these publications to show up on release day. While I seethed in the back row over his sweeping, stereotypical claims about the loss of excellent, critical writing and presumptive, narrow-minded concerns about the fall of print, a bolder young woman than I called his bluff, arguing for the increased inclusion of diverse voices, and similar small communities created digitally — and was met with mostly stammering. Still, the conversation never devolved, and the small size of the room led to more and better discussion of the matter than I’ve previously been present for.

Coincidentally, this panel took place on the same day that a number of journalists — many of them young women — weighed in on the new Taylor Swift album, Reputation, an artist that Hebblethwaite brought up derisively. Feelings about that album aside, perhaps his talk said more about the downfall of his personal preferences and aesthetics than the actual state of music journalism. Gathering around NME paper boxes may be a thing of the past, but online forums crawling with teen girls are more vividly alive than ever before and are probably incubating some of the most important young music journalists of the next two decades. I’m guessing they won’t be working in print, though.

Later, the artists booked for the fest reinforced what had already been established — women in music, both in pop and elsewhere, are making waves that many seek to discount. But the work holds up. Though there was plenty of commendable indie rock (particularly the Danish trio Nelson Can, who create sans guitars, just drums and bass), decent post-punk (The Modern Times), compelling harder stuff (SIBIIR), and even a poor attempt at hip-hop (Unge Beirut), it was Norway’s own Hanne Mjøen who left me absolutely smitten, the way I was early on for Tove Lo. Mjøen crafts icy songs about loss that build into crackling, glistening peaks, making the process of breaking down feel triumphant.

Later, Thea & The Wild followed up a set by The Switch, with both bands proving that the self-serious rock the early ’00s is easily eclipsed by a joyous smattering of generation-hopping medleys that split the difference between pop and rock. In their own way, each act helped further illustrate the collapse of traditional barriers between angsty (male) “rock” and silly (female) “pop,” further revealing major shifts in the industry, that has begun to dismantle its own rigid past. Neither of these bands would be categorized as “rock” or “pop” in the US, but each offered a look back into the long-lost fun that seems to be missing from Top 40s radio in America and beyond.

Looking back on the many, various reasons I chose to become a music journalist half a decade ago, I’d say this inherent sense of fun, and the more important precursor, community, were two of the primary forces that drove me down this path. Now, it seems those two elements come few and far between in the events I attend. But, instead of blaming this on the industry, I choose instead to take responsibility for my own role in that process, and actively seek out community and joy back home in my own sphere.

If Sørveiv could have this kind of international impact on everyone who attended, then perhaps we can kiss both algorithms — and outdated outrage about the way our industry is changing — goodbye. When it comes to preserving the best parts of an international community, sometimes, it takes a village first.