Tastemaker music festival Iceland Airwaves has come a long way since its humble beginnings in 1998 when three bands played in an aircraft hangar in Reykjavík. One revenue estimate for the forthcoming 2019 edition stands at over €40 million. Some leading lights of the Icelandic music scene reveal how one of the hottest music festivals on the planet kept its cool.
Iceland Airwaves managing director Will Larnach-Jones explains how the first event was born from pragmatism and lateral thinking. “Three Icelandic bands were due to perform showcases in the U.S. but hauling them to various destinations was proving to be expensive. It was easier to fly over the talent spotters to Reykjavík. There was a direct relationship between the performing bands and Icelandair which came from the close-knit community here, so the first collaboration was born in an aircraft hangar.”
The music tourism concept of matching tastemaker curation with quirky venues is relatively commonplace today, but 21 years ago it was largely unheard of. “Airwaves was definitely one of the first, in terms of that mix of discovering new music and also seeing familiar bands in an interesting locale.”
The Halo Effect Of Music Tourism
The Iceland Airwaves formula proved to be hugely popular with both music fans and music industry professionals. The event is a poster child for the financial impact of music tourism. A 2014 report by Iceland Music Export revealed that attendees added up to €20.3 million to the economy of Reykjavík. Larnach-Jones confides that, according to some estimates, these impressive figures are due to be superseded dramatically. “Given the average length of stay of international visitors during the festival period, and based on the current sales trends, we may come closer to double that figure.” For a city with a population of just 129,840, the effect of an additional €40 million can be transformational.
For Sigtryggur Baldursson, the economic halo effect is crystal clear, and he is well placed to see it. Baldursson is the managing director of Iceland Music and is also the former drummer from The Sugarcubes, the indie band from whom Björk went on to become a global superstar. “Iceland Airwaves has been the single most important showcase for the dynamic Icelandic music scene, and connects that scene with the international music industry in unparalleled ways. The Iceland Airwaves festival has a huge economic impact on the community in Iceland, creates a huge amount of jobs and imports thousands of tourists that need not only fares and lodging but food and drink. It has in the past affected the value of the Icelandic Krona over its one-week impact.”
María Rut Reynisdóttir, the project manager for Reykjavík Music City, reveals that the economic benefits are wide-reaching. “There are the direct and obvious things like ticket sales, hotel nights, flights and the daily spending of festival-goers, but there are also countless other indirect factors that contribute to the economic impact of the festival, such as the effect it has on the career development of Icelandic artists that use the festival as a springboard, and the role the festival has played in branding of Icelandic music in general, or even of Reykjavík and Iceland as an attractive place to visit, or live and work in. The total economic impact can’t really be measured.”
For Reynisdóttir, there is also an invaluable cultural dividend. “Through the years Iceland Airwaves has created a name for itself as THE festival to spot new and upcoming talent. It’s amazing to walk into a small and intimate venue in cold and dark Reykjavík in November to see an international band or an artist that shortly after blows up and becomes big. The festival also presents the most exciting roster of young Icelandic bands every year that attracts an international base of music fans and music professionals alike.”
The timing of the festival, this year from November 6-9, is significant. The placement helps to extend the tourist season beyond the peak months of June to August and sells the country as a year-round destination. Larnach-Jones estimates that up to 3,500 international visitors will come to Iceland Airwaves from over 50 countries. This is significant, given that tourism is now Iceland’s top source of income, now representing 8.3% of GDP having overtaken fishing in 2018.
For a city with a relatively modest size, Reykjavík punches well above its weight in terms of creative output. An average of 1,000 performances are given by Icelandic musicians on tour every year. Artists such as Björk, Sugarcubes, Sigur Rós and Of Monsters And Men have all found passionate fan bases around the world, while BDSM-techno-pop mavericks Hatari were arguably the most talked-about finalist of Eurovision 2019. Larnach-Jones admits that working with a compact but brilliant pool of talent is not without its idiosyncrasies. “Last year we met a keyboardist who was playing in 12 bands at Iceland Airwaves, so scheduling the festival to help him play every set was a challenge! The ‘can do’ attitude here is inspirational.”
The Best Festival In The World
Hatari is one of many highly acclaimed acts playing Iceland Airwaves this year, Larnach-Jones speaks with palpable excitement about the unique experiences coming up. “As an industry person of 20 plus years, I really think it’s the best festival in the world. Last year the Australian singer Stella Donnelly performed at Frikirkjan, the Lutheran Free Church by a lake in the center of town. She had a standing ovation and just burst into tears, and said it was the best gig of her life.”
Larnach-Jones advises that this year’s Frikirkjan performance by John Grant will be exceptional. “It’s such a beautiful venue, it has a balcony that’s a horseshoe shape for the choir and a capacity of just 500 people. John is going to do two shows there, just him and a piano. I’m getting shivers on my arm just talking about it.”
The unique juxtaposition of acts and venues is all part of Iceland Airwaves’ charm, he continues. “Mac DeMarco is playing at Hafnarhús this year. It’s an old dry dock where they used to bring boats in off the harbor to fix them up. It’s a very long narrow room with great sightlines, when the party really kicks in it’s incredible fun. Nowhere else in the world will we see Mac DeMarco in a 1,000 capacity venue like this. Of Monsters And Men will join us to play their only Icelandic show this year at Valshöllin. The band made the Billboard top ten and have been number one for weeks on American alternative radio. A homecoming show in a venue of just 3,500 will be incredible.”
This year the festival is launching the dedicated Iceland Pro music industry conference alongside the festival, with keynote speakers including Alison Donald from Kobalt/AWAL, Stephen O’Reilly from ie:music, Dr. Nelly Ben Hayoun Ph.D. and Tina Tallon. Entrepreneurs from Firestarter, Iceland’s first start-up accelerator for music, will be advised by MIT Bootcamps in a guided hackathon.
“The combination of the city itself the festival and the time of year it just makes for such a magical proposition,” concludes Larnach-Jones, “The sense of discovery and community is just so electric. It’s not just about who you know already, but it’s about finding the next favorite band.”
Originally published in Forbes.
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