Inside Live From Reykjavík: Iceland Airwaves Digital Edition 2020

– Ásgeir.
One of Iceland’s most well-known artists, he’s already started building a Pollstar boxoffice history.

Pollstar speaks with Will Larnach-Jones, director of Iceland Airwaves, the annual showcase festival in Reykjavik, which had to develop an alternative digital program this year in light of tight Covid restrictions in Europe.
Will Larnach-Jones
– Will Larnach-Jones
Managing Director of Iceland Airwaves.

For a long time, up until summer really, it looked as if Airwaves would to go ahead in its usual form. However, the developments in Europe made it impossible for an international audience to plan their travels to Reykjavik.

“Every year we have around 50% of artists and the general public coming from overseas to attend the festival,” Larnach-Jones explained, “Suddenly Iceland had a big spike in cases that were not traceable. We went from a place that was almost back to normal to huge limitations on gatherings, distancing measures back in place, fore planning was basically rendered impossible, so we had to pivot very quickly.”
After speaking to sponsors, stakeholders as well as the Icelandic government and the city of Reykjavik, Larnach-Jones and his team decided to present something different: professionally filmed concerts by Icelandic artists, performing in some of the spaces that would have also been utilized for a physical Airwaves edition.
The city loved the idea, seeing that it relies heavily on income from tourists, who didn’t come this year. A “well-curated, really well-shot and well-assembled” program could shine a positive light on Iceland and its capital, and encourage people to come again next year. The recorded footage would also be a promotion tool for all the Icelandic artists, who couldn’t tour this year, and “were excited to rehearse and perform again,” according to Larnach-Jones.
Airwaves collaborated with the country’s national broadcaster RÚV to make it happen.
“It was fairly ambitious,” said Larnach-Jones, “we wanted to create a lot of different looks, we wanted to have a lot of different feels, we wanted to work with a lot of the traditional Iceland Airwaves venues, as well as non-traditional ones, and we wanted to present visual and musical variety.
“And broader than that, try and capture a sense of community and spirit that are closely tied to Iceland and Reykjavik.”
Kælan Mikla.
– Kælan Mikla.

To achieve all of the above, the recordings couldn’t be done from the back of the room, in a vain attempt to recreate a festival view. Artists were therefore filmed in ways that would have never been possible during a regular Airwaves: up close and personal, fairly intimate, and in extraordinary setups. The collaboration with RÚV meant that each band could be filmed with seven cameras. A few artists decided to produce their own videos, too, for example  Emilíana Torrini, who was joined by the singers and songwriters from her “Emiliana and Friends” project.

Icelandic singer and songwriter Mugison wanted to do something more adventurous. He and his band started their set in a church, walked down the hill into Hafnarfjörður’s Bæjarbíó, the oldest running cinema in Iceland, where they did a song or two in the foyer with some ballroom dancers and then ran on stage, where they finished their set.
The crews, audio and lighting teams of individual artists got involved as well, making sure each artist got presented in the best light. “It was really nice to engage with the production and back-line crews, piano tuners, movers – people that hadn’t had an opportunity to work on shows for months. It was really nice,” said Larnach-Jones.
Perfomances were recorded professionally.
Martin Bagnol
– Perfomances were recorded professionally.
Thanks to a collaboration with Icelandic national broadcaster RÚV.

While the shows weren’t live live broadcasts, Larnach-Jones said they were all recorded in one take. “We wanted to capture the live essence as much as we could,” he said.

Recording and broadcasting 16 acts in a cinematic manner is no small task, Larnach-Jones praised RÚV for delivering on a high-standard. The streams were free to watch in Iceland, where it could be viewed on two of RÚV’s stations, as well as heard on radio. Outside of Iceland, Airwaves 2020 was a ticketed event. Ticket options, sold through DICE, included a two-day pass (£40/$50/AUD $70) and a one-day pass for Friday or Saturday (£30/$40/AUD $55).
Larnach-Jones didn’t want to volunteer a gross, but in terms of ticketing “it was quite similar to a normal Airwaves event in terms of international sales. We sold around 4,000 tickets, but with streams, for every person who buys a ticket, it’s two to three people at least that are watching.
“So, although it was in line with our normal ticket sales for the festival annually, the viewership would have been closer to 12,000. On top of that we had 400 [people from the] industry watching from around the world, which, of course, was important to us and the band. The viewership in Iceland was very healthy, with around 23% of the population on Friday and Saturday night, which is around 80,000,” Larnach-Jones explained, which brings the total viewership per night to an estimated 90,000.
Ólafur Arnalds.
Martin Bagnol
– Ólafur Arnalds.

The biggest appeal of showcase festivals for artists is, of course, the opportunity to perform in front of professionals, who can take careers to another level. Larnach-Jones was determined to facilitate this connection even if no physical exchange was possible. Iceland Music, the country’s music export office, already recontextualized the songs from the performances and presented them to industry pros in two online showcases for Europe and the U.S., respectively.

Taste of Iceland in the U.S. have also recontextualized some of the performances for their own free stream. “We’ll be presenting more content with some of our other broadcast partners, there’s been requests from the EBU to rebroadcast some of the audio for radio shows. I’ve even sent over two of the performances to Taiwan, where they want to showcase Icelandic music as part of a huge online festival,” Larnach-Jones said.
He explained that his team learned a lot from pivoting to a digital Airwaves in 2020. “I’d simplify the offering, moving ahead. Following the model of some other streams, I think, it may be better to do one stream and open it for 24 hours, rather than do staggered streams [according to time zones]. We learnt a lot about internet broadcasting, rights management, YouTube and all sorts of fun things.
“It’s been very useful for Airwaves, but also Sena Live, the larger company we work for. They’re now going 100% online and on-demand for their annual variety Christmas show,” he said.
People from 65 countries bought tickets for the virtual Airwaves. Larnach-Jones is aware that physically traveling to Iceland in November is a tough call for many. “We know that if we show something of a high standard with a lot of variety, there’s definitely going to be appetite for it,” he said, adding that (parts of) the conference bit of Airwaves will also be made available online going forward.
“We also may consider doing more of these kinds of events going forward, or, if we have headline acts coming to Iceland, possibly looking at hybrid events there, too. If you have a globally recognized artists that is coming to a place like Iceland, the audience for that show would normally be some 99% Icelandic. There’s a healthy number of non-Icelandic people that would love to see a show from Iceland,” Larnach-Jones concluded.