Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

The importance of a music festival to Iceland’s economy

10 things we learned about Iceland Airwaves and the festival’s relationship with the country at last week’s Eurosonic

Having the crack at Iceland Airwaves 2014. Photo: Alexander Matukhno

Tue, Jan 20, 2015, 09:46


(1) It was all Iceland at Eurosonic in Groningen last week as the island was the focus country at the annual European showcase festival. This meant 18 bands in action all over the Dutch city (we hearted My Bubba, Mammúty, Ylja and Vök) and a few talks and discussions at the conference dedicated to the country and its music. All of which explains a full house at De Oosterpoort for the panel entitled “Iceland Airwaves – can a small city festival transform an entire country?” Many were there to see if and how Iceland Airwaves could provide a template for other city festivals keen to earn shekels from music and culture tourism.

(2) Iceland Airwaves began in 1999 in an aircraft hangar in Reykjavik. As a slide went up on the screen of that building, festival manager Grímur Atlason noted that half the country now claim to have been at that very first event. It’s Iceland’s GPO 1916 innit.

(3) It’s not every music festival panel which includes politicians, but the importance of Airwaves to the country can be judged by the presence of Reykjavik mayor Dagur B. Eggertsson and Iceland’s Minister for Industry & Commerce Ragnheiður Elín Árnadóttir. Their appearance on the panel is not just for window-dressing as it’s pointed out that the Icelandic creative industries now contribute as much to the country’s economic turnover as the aluminium industries. “Iceland is not all fish and aluminium any more”, the minister notes.

(4) It was a different matter in the beginning. Even though Iceland was noted for acts like The Sugarcubes, Bjork and Sigur Ros before the festival began, there was no channel for new talent to emerge or be showcased. What Iceland Airwaves has done, says Anna Hildur Hildibrandsdottir from NOMEX, is provide Icelandic and other Nordic acts with a way to come to the attention of the music industry outside Iceland.

(5) It’s not Icelandic bands on the bill, though. One of the reasons why the festival works is that mix of Icelandic talent and star bands from out foreign. If you live on an island, reasons Atlason, you have to import if you want to export because getting foreign bands to come gets local people interested in the event.

(6) Yet it’s clear that the festival attracts a very important growing foreign constituency. From the get-go, the festival attracted foreign media and talent buyers. As Atlason points out, there may only have been 20 music industry and media folks around in 1999 but they were the right 20 people and their rave reaction to the bands they saw helped the business to develop and build.

(7) The importance of Iceland Airwaves now goes beyond those tastemakers and media influencers. One of the initial aims behind Iceland Airwaves was to help the country extend its tourism season beyond the June to August peak months, thus why the festival takes place in October, and to sell the country as a year-round destination. It’s certainly done its job: minister Árnadóttir notes that the number of visitors to the country last year was just over one million, up from 300,000 a decade ago. “It’s beneficial for everyone beause it extends the tourism season and the revenue helps improve infrastructure”. The festival may have done its job too well on this score: Iceland Airwaves has now moved to November because the country is at peak transport and accommodation capacity in October.

(8) It’s well worth remembering, states Atlason, that the festival began as a collaboration between national airline Icelandair and the music industry and that the company are still involved. He calls it a good example of corporate sponsorship because it’s “respectful” and “good for all parties”, pointing to the increased number of routes which the airline has opened up in recent years.

(9) One of the areas now sending a lot of people and tourists to Iceland is the Pacific Northwest around Seattle, which happens to be home to radio station KEXP who’ve been involved with the festival for many years. The station’s programme director Kevin Cole talked enthusiastically about the importance of the tie-up to the station and how they’ve benefited from the collaboration. The station’s involvement has been huge in spreading the word about the event to that all-important NPR constituency, thus putting Iceland, the festival and the bands on that radar.

(10) Iceland Airwaves 2015 takes place from November 4 to 8. Tickets are now on sale.