Over the past week, Iceland's capital city of Reykjavík was taken over for five days by the 13th annual Iceland Airwaves festival, with Americans like Beach House, John Grant, LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy and Tuneyards playing alongside British up and comers like the Twilight Sad and Zun Zun Egui - along with continental European artistsand, of course, some 165 Icelandic acts. Yoko Ono too. The live music is accompanied by the shorter, digitally focused conference You Are In Control, which attracted an equally wide range of international delegates.
Just how international Iceland Airwaves is becomes clear as you leave your home country. Airline Icealandair is a founding sponsor, and its in-flight entertainment includes 61 albums by Icelandic artists and a radio channel devoted to the festival. The carrier advertised all-in packages for the festival and the industry types are supplemented by tickets-buyers from across Europe and America. Seattle is served, and music fans from Washington State figure in the crowds. Iceland needs people here after its 2008 economic meltdown.
Iceland though has a population of 318,000 - less than half that of Austin, Texas. And the parallels with that city's SXSW are clear: emerging talent, a heavy A&R and booking presence, hungry music fans, conferences and panels, off-festival shows at co-opted venues. The first two shows in of Björk's "Biophilia" residency coincided with the opening and closing days of the festival, the Wednesday and the Sunday. She figured high on the plane's entertainment menu. GusGus, Hjaltalin, Ólafur Arnalds, Ólöf Arnalds could also be sampled on the plane before their Airwaves shows. Obviously, the international impact of Iceland's music is disproportionate to the country's level of population.
That's partly due to how the music is supported and what surrounds it. It also helps that much of the local music is great.
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The Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of the week (leading into Iceland Airwaves) were taken up by the fifth You Are In Control, the now-annual conference on digital developments - not just in music, but in the media and arts generally. Gaming and design too. The parallels between the conference themes and Björk's multi-platform "Biophilia" are clear, especially as the first day of You Are In Control was also "Biophilia"'s release date.
You Are In Control was held at Harpa, Reykjavík 's new venue, and supported by Iceland Music Export, Promote Iceland, as well as a raft of other Icelandic organizations. The international profile of Iceland's music shows that locals already know awareness is key, but delegates from across Scandinavia, the UK, elsewhere in continental Europe, Australia, Canada were listening too. Delegates from cinema, gaming and theatre were in attendance too.
A key appearance for the conference organizers was that of Ralph Simon, of America's Mobilium International. Introducing him, Anna Hildur Hildibrandsdóttir of Iceland Music Export, said he was "one of the most inspiring people I've ever met. He pushed me to go into the creative industries and not just have YAIC as a music conference". Simon urged attendees to look for what's coming next, not just in the media overall, but especially in social media and cross-platform media. Saying "there's no such thing as genres any more, people [are] creating playlists and mash ups", he pointed to sites like Turntable FM. His thesis that "media technology is shaping human civilisation" is perhaps a bit over the top, but it's impossible to deny that increased access is reshaping and breaking down cultural barriers.
Just how much they've been broken down was underlined by Anita Fontaine and Geoffrey Lillemon of Champagne Valentine, who "make art for brands." Their commercial art roams across music, fashion and the interactive, with the "emphasis on…experiences with an emotional, human, romantic touch. It's our aim to create experiences that benefit and enrich humanity through fantasy, provocation." By seeking to bring brands into the creative experience, Champagne Valentine ultimately have to engage [with] the consumer, for whom Lillemon said the product "doesn't feel so branded".
But audiences are still going to hold a torch for particular brands. Icelandic band Sigur Rós are one of the most powerful local presences. Darren Webb from their web presence co-hosted a workshop with Jóhann Agust Jóhannsson of Reykjavík's non-profit music office Kraumur, where, although they stressed how important it was to stay on top of developments, it was engagement that would enrich the experience, make it stand out. Webb, who has also worked with the National, said it's about engendering commitment. He noted that Sigur Rós themselves are quite passive web-wise and focus on the music. The band members might have a low-to-nil Twitter presence, but there are other ways of bringing access. Webb said "Facebook engages fans the most. It's the real time aspect, you put something up and within minutes 100 people will have clicked. The mail outs get the most response. There are less people subscribing, but more click-throughs." And it's a two-way process. When "Heima" was issued, fans were encouraged to send in photos of themselves with the album to get a download link. Webb said "there's something valuable to that direct response".
It's clear that You are in Control isn't a hand-wringing exercise, but an event that seeks to engage with all aspects of the digital world, exploring how music takes from and fits in with that. Evening showcases at the conference included bands that would be seen at Iceland Airwaves, but also Room 408 (Icelandic web theatre) and Zombie Boy (a fashion/gaming collaboration between CCP Games and Nicola Formichetti).
Elsewhere, as Iceland Airwaves kicked off, things became more traditional. Reykjavík's narrow streets were swamped, and the demand to get into top-drawer shows like Tuneyards meant anyone turning up even 20 minutes before show time was not going to get in, whatever type of pass they had. Iceland's unpredictable weather (five-minute hailstorms, torrential showers and loads of wind) brought a special frisson to forward planning. Various evenings were themed. The Free Church had an evening take over by British label Fat Cat, with Germany's prepared piano maestro Haushcka and minimal orchestrator Jóhan Jóhansson. One of the halls at Harpa hosted acts from Bella Union's roster including Denmark's Treefight For Sunlight and John Grant (on Sub Pop in the U.S.). The UK's Clash magazine programmed a night at the NASA venue. Other strands - like Canada Blast - were sprinkled throughout the festival.
The state-of-the-art and brand-new Harpa was obviously a highlight as a venue. But so was the large hall of Reykjavík Art Museum which, despite its challenging acoustics, was a massive draw. A trio of smaller bars - Amsterdam, Gaukur Á Stöng and Glaumber - opposite the museum meant that Trygvagata buzzed all night, every night. A more sedate time could be had with acoustic-styled music at the cinema Tjarnabió. A charming place to see anyone was the off-festival lobby of the Reykjavík Downtown Hostel. Eymundsson's bookshop was a fine alternative too. Iceland Airwaves' acts cropped up all over the off-festival sites - daytime choices were there.
It's cliché to describe every city-centre festival/conference as such-and-such a place's SXSW. But it's a logical model, whether or not it's an influence or looked to. But Reykjavík - and Iceland as whole - can only accommodate so many people. Which is why, even if some shows are oversubscribed, Iceland Airwaves can only be on human scale. And if there's a choice, where would you rather see LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy doing a DJ set - Austin, New York or Reykjavík?