‘If It’s Something You Don’t Know, It’s Something You’re Bound To Enjoy’: A Look At Iceland Airwaves 2019

Vicky at Iceland Airwaves 2018
Sigurður Ástgeirsson
– Vicky at Iceland Airwaves 2018
The performance took place at Reykjavik’s designated rock venue, Gaukurinn.

Iceland is a fascinating place. It looks and feels both brutally harsh and beautiful at the same time. Unless you’re part of that small cross-section of humanity that hasn’t seen “Game of Thrones” yet, you’ll be quite familiar with the place, seeing that many of the hit series’ most spectacular locations where filmed in Iceland.
The last 20 years have seen a real broadening of music in Iceland, from a great neo-classical movement to R&B and soul-inspired pop to hip-hop, which is doing as great in Iceland, as it is in the rest of the world, and, of course, the guitar-heavy indie and hard rock sound, for which Iceland has long been known for – as it has been for producing stars like Björk, Kaleo,
Iceland Airwaves, which takes place in the capital Reykjavik, has been accompanying this development from the start. Now in its 21st year, the festival has been showcasing Icelandic alongside international talent, and is one of the first festivals to give artists like Florence + The Machine, Hot Chip, Sufjan Stevens, or Mac DeMarco their first plays outside their home countries. 
Florence + the Machine
Leó Stefánsson
– Florence + the Machine
Performing at the Reykjavík Art Museum during Airwaves 2008

For the first time, Iceland Airwaves is introducing a dedicated b2b program for music professionals, called Airwaves Pro.  The event’s location right between the U.S. and Europe may motivate professionals from either side of the pond to meet their partners and experience music from each other’s continents.
The festival’s managing director Will Larnach-Jones told Pollstar that the relatively small scale of Iceland Airwaves – he expects some 6,500 to 7,000 visitors, including 400 to 500 professional delegates – was another advantage. “We’re a boutique festival, and that really enables you to connect with musicians and other delegates,” he explained, adding, “the other thing that is important for the industry to remember is, because we’re in early November, if you’re a talent buyer, a festival or an agent, it gives you an amazing opportunity to come and see bands for 2020 and beyond before the year is out.”
Will Larnach-Jones
– Will Larnach-Jones
Managing director of Iceland Airwaves

Generating great outcomes for Icelandic and international bands is the main reason for Iceland Airwaves’ existence. Some highlights at this year’s edition, Nov. 6-9, include Une Misère, who have been making inroads internationally in the last year, or dark wave female trio Kælan Mikla, who were invited by The Cure‘s Robert Smith to perform at his London Southbank show last year. 

Iceland’s export hit Of Monsters And Men are playing their only Icelandic show at this year’s Airwaves after a triumphant international touring year 2019. Their recent U.S. run of their “Fever Dream” tour saw the band first sell out 5,598 tickets to the seem them at The Anthem in Washington, DC, Sept. 4, followed by a sold out Radio City Music Hall in New York, NY, the day after, grossing $279,759 with 5,598 tickets sold, according to Pollstar box office data.
From outside Iceland, Orville Peck should be one of the hottest shows at Airwaves 2019, seeing how he went through the roof since being booked by Larnach-Jones’ team earlier in the year. Georgia and Whitney will be playing some of the more coveted gigs, as will John Grant, who will be playing two intimate acoustic concerts at Fríkirkjan, a tiny 500-capacity church in Reykjavik. “Although these are highlights,” said Larnach-Jones, “the discovery is just as important as the highlights. We love the small bands that may be unfamiliar to people but are really worth uncovering.”
The man in charge of booking and program is Sindri Astmarsson. He said a lot of factors came into play when putting together the Iceland Airwaves line up: “We truly believe that Iceland Airwaves is one of the best places in the world to discover new music but at the same time we have to deliver the very best in Icelandic music for traveling fans. In the end it’s a mixture of the best new music from around the world, some proved and established Icelandic act’s and also a couple of familiar faces that Icelandic people would like to see.
“There are not many festivals in the world that share our broad spectrum of genres. You can slam your head to some pure Nordic Black Metal in a dive bar, get mesmerized by neo classical in a beautiful church and join a mosh pit at an all Icelandic Rap show in a club, all in the same hour. It’s important to us that people move around and discover new things. We try to book bands next to each that have similar energy rather then put them into a specific genre nights. The Icelandic music scene is so much bigger than you would expect from such a small nation and it’s really important to us to showcase a broad spectrum of it since we can’t book all of the great Icelandic bands.”
According to Astmarsson, there are different reasons for booking each band: “Some bands we book if they are pitched by an agent we trust, while others are booked with nothing behind them except the music they send with their applications. In today’s world it’s easy to get caught up in streaming numbers, Instagram followers and what other festivals is the band playing, but, without sounding cheesy, it’s really all about the music for us. We travel a lot and if we see a band we love, that triggers emotions while watching we will book it. We always try to listen to the music before looking at the profile. I would be lying if I said that the quality of music was the only thing we look for but it’s different for each act.”
Scene from Iceland Airwaves 2018
Sigurður Ástgeirsson
– Scene from Iceland Airwaves 2018
Högni at The National Theatre of Iceland

Making a final selection for the festival is tough. “Sometimes you have to let things go and you will regret them for months, I have a couple of those. Bands that I fall in love with, listen to all the time and then maybe are not available. Sometimes you want to book bands and think, we’ll just book them next year, but then they have grown out of our price range. You just have to stand by your choice, and we love all the bands we champion, and we believe they are ready for the rest of the world to discover,” Astmarsson explained.
Iceland Airwaves was acquired by Sena Events & Entertainment in the beginning of 2018, which is also when Larnach-Jones came on board. The new leadership wanted to take the festival back to its roots and got rid of many well-intentioned but way too complex program additions of the past years. One ticket now gets you into everything, and most of Iceland Airwaves can be explored walking.
L. Toshio Kishiyama
– Reykjavik
The capital and largest city of Iceland

According to Larnach-Jones, visitors of Iceland Airwaves will be spending a lot of time pounding the pavement. “[Last year,] I was doing above 20,000 steps each evening from one venue to another. It’s definitely a case of experiencing as much as you can within reason. If you really want to catch a band, be sure to go early to that show. But also, if you don’t get into the thing you want, be sure to head to something else, because we really have 100% belief in everything we’re doing on the band front. So, if it’s something you don’t know, it’s something you’re pretty much bound to enjoy.” 
Another focus for Larnach-Jones is working closely with the country’s music export office Iceland Music. Its managing director Sigtryggur Baldursson said there were still some challenges to overcome when exporting Icelandic artists: one was the fact, that “there are very few Icelandic companies working internationally, which means most artists are looking for collaborations abroad. Secondly, Iceland is an island so there are always high costs involved in getting started with touring or marketing internationally. Thirdly, this is a very DIY, artist-based, community, which is not always the best condition for business,” Baldursson explained.
The Daughters Of Iceland
Sigurður Ástgeirsson
– The Daughters Of Iceland
Reykjavíkurdætur performing at the Reykjavík Art Museum in 2018

Larnach-Jones confirmed the country’s can-do attitude, with “many musicians [working] in several bands at once,” and recalled one artist in particular, who was playing in 13 different bands performing at Iceland Airwaves 2018. While it’s not hard to see how such an approach could make it hard to build a meaningful career, it is also the reason why a country with just under 340,000 inhabitants is punching above its weight musically. 
“Sena has been working hard to produce more shows locally and develop a better cooperation and good relationships with international promoters. For example, the Ed Sheeran shows were outstandingly successful. One in seven of the Icelandic population were in attendance, which obviously shows that there’s a huge appetite for music. Where we’re hoping to see more growth is the 1,000 to 4,000 capacity attendance. There’s an appetite for music, but it’s also a small market, ticket sales don’t grow on trees here.”
María Rut Reynisdóttir, project manager at Reykjavík Music City, told Pollstar that Reykjavík, like most other cities in the world, has experienced the closing-down of small to medium sized venues in the recent years due to gentrification and tourism. 
“Small venues seem to pop up again but we definitely lack medium sized venues in the city right now as well as all-ages venues. Some of the venues that have closed in the past few years have left a real gap that hasn‘t really been filled since,” she explained. 
Reynisdóttir continued: “The project that I‘m spearheading, Reykjavík Music City, is actively working with venues in the city on mapping and assessing the situation but also exploring ways that the city could support venues both financially and with other valuable input. Just recently we launched the Venue Improvement Fund that is geared towards small and medium sized venues and financially supports housing, gear and accessibility related improvements.
“We just announced the first round of funding where nine venues in the city got generous support. But there‘s lot more to be done to support the live scene in the city – live music venues are one of the main pillars of a thriving music scene, they are vital for the development of new talent and they also play an important role in making the city an attractive place to live and work in and we have to show in action that they are appreciated.”
Judging by the lineup of this year’s Iceland Airwaves, great artists do seem to grow on threes. It will be impossible to catch every promising artist at each of the several venues in Downtown Reykjavik, which include the city’s Art Museum, the aforementioned church, where the acoustic sets are happening, and old Opera House called Gamla Bíó, and the festival’s designated rock venue Gaukurinn. 
According to Larnach-Jones, “it’s really about mixing it up, and going with the flow a little bit. And I would strongly advise to maybe take a minute out the following morning to head to one of local swimming pools in Reykjavik that are all thermal, and they’re amazing. I promise you, they’ll wash away any hangover you might have, and hopefully get you on your way for whatever you do next.”
The Northern Lights in Iceland
Mathieu Rivrin
– The Northern Lights in Iceland
Just one of many spectacles the country