Today I found an interesting article on the booming Icelandic music scene. It also gives an illustation of my (musical) life, as it is spending a lot of money on trips to Iceland.
The Icelandic government and also the tourist board were ignoring the fact that a lot of (young) people were visiting the island because of the success of The Sugarcubes in the eighties, Björk in the neighties til now, followed by youngsters Sigur Ros a little bit later. Indeed these people were not spending LOTS of money (NOT staying in Hotel Borg or Hotel Saga but on the camping sites), but these days they have (finally) more money to spend on trips and music!
I am one of them, Icelandic music fanatic since 1987...
Iceland's Music Scene: Ready to Erupt Worldwide
Published in Grapevine Magazine Issue 10, July 2007
The Icelandic music industry may be small, but the local scene is vibrant. Icelandic artists have repeatedly proven that worldwide success is possible, the Sugarcubes, Björk, Sigur Rós, GusGus, Quarashi and múm are good examples. The scene, has grown steadily since the eighties, and an increasing number of bands play at international festivals and tour extensively around the world. Local music events are gaining worldwide attention. The environment is more favourable now than ever before and efforts have been made in recent years to strengthen the music trade. The Reykjavík Loftbrú travel fund, sponsored by the City of Reykjavík and Icelandair, and the establishment of the Icelandic State Music Fund in 2005 can be named as relatively new projects aimed at supporting the scene, locally as well as internationally. The Trade Counsel of Iceland has also increased its cooperation, most recently by establishing the Icelandic Music Export Agency. But, is there something still missing? If the goal is to create a thriving industry that can be profitable for the artists and the country’s economy, should we perhaps look inwards, instead of outwards? The Grapevine contacted several insiders to see what conditions need to be met to boost the industry and make Iceland a serious music exporter, and found out that while steps have been taken to help artists reach larger audience, less has been done to foster the grassroots.
Icelandic Music Export
“I think that there are plenty of opportunities in exporting Icelandic music. The Sugarcubes, Björk, Sigur Rós and Emilíana Torrini have all proved that in the past. We also have many fine producers that are quite successful and today there are about 20 to 30 bands and musicians that are succeeding in some way or another and are moving on to bigger territories. Here I can for example mention Trabant, Jakobínarína, Lay Low, Garðar Cortes, Sign, Amiina and Reykjavík!. The scene seems to be pretty strong and its fan base is steadily growing, which can be seen by how many individuals want to work with us and help promote Icelandic music,” says Anna Hildur Hildibrandsdóttir, the managing director of the Icelandic Music Export.
Established in November 2006, The Icelandic Music Export (IMX) is a newly founded partly governmentally funded body initiated by Samtónn (a joint copyright organisation for authors, performers and producers), the Trade Counsel of Iceland, privately sponsored by Landsbankinn Bank. Its goal is to be a service centre for musicians and industry members by providing investors and media personalities with access and information on the music scene. The office supports musicians with connections and resources and collaborates with event organisers, attends and hosts conferences and organises artist participation at international showcase festivals – all with the aim of promoting Icelandic music, festivals and music labels abroad.
Hildibrandsdóttir has copious experience working within the industry. She started as a manager for Bellatrix in 1998 and later became a PR representative for the Iceland Airwaves festival in Europe, set up and managed the UK branch of record label Smekkleysa (Bad Taste) as well as managing various music related projects in Reykjavík and London.
“When I started in the business, The Sugarcubes and Björk had been so popular that I was certain that the hype would soon decline, but the interest is massive and has only been increasing. […] Compared to ten years ago, there are more investors supporting musicians today, the private companies have increased its funding and artists today are provided with more information and contacts. The Reykjavík Loftbrú project has been successful and the State Music Fund has in many ways worked out well, but certain aspects could be scoped for development. No one said it would be easy. It all comes down to getting the right support at the right time, use the opportunities and strengthening the network.”
Here comes Iceland!
As a former Sugarcubes member, co-founder of record label Smekkleysa and one-half of the experimental electro band Ghostigital, Einar Örn Benediktsson has been a leading figure in the local music scene for much longer than most of his peers. When asked about the export of Icelandic music he replies:
“I have never been in the business of exporting Icelandic music. I have made music and I have performed in other countries. It has always been a basic element in Icelandic music that you need to go abroad to play to reach new audiences. I have nothing to say about the Icelandic Music Export in particular, but it is probably good to have an office that distributes information.”
He goes on to say that the environment today is completely different than when the Sugarcubes were branching out:
“A lot of pioneering work has been done to make it easier to play in foreign countries. It no longer requires the difficulties that it used to entail. Also, transportation is easier, people are not afraid to try to break new ground. It is a different culture; Icelandic musicians know they are on par with what is going on in other countries.”
Although newly established, the Icelandic Music Export has arranged trips and presentations at large showcase festivals and music markets in two continents, such as MIDEM in Cannes, Great Escape in Britain, SXSW in Austin, Texas, SPOT in Denmark, Eurosonic in Holland and ByLarm in Norway where Reykjavík!, Lay Low, Pétur Ben, Amiina, Jakobínarína and Benni Hemm Hemm have been among the performers. The next project is organising a country stand and an extensive promotion at the PopKomm industry fair taking place in Berlin in September, where Lay Low is already scheduled to play.
The purpose of these fairs is to present new talent with the hope of being discovered by promoters, distributors or booking agencies. Icelandic acts are well received, Hildibrandsdóttir tells me, but turning that into something fruitful requires patience and takes years of hard work.
“Of course it won’t happen with one showcase. But what I can say is that the bands are being noticed and we see a good turnout at the concerts most of the time. Afterwards, it’s a question of continuity, and that’s what this office is trying to do, to support the bands to move on and make one thing lead to another.”
Kári Sturluson, manager for Lay Low, Ampop and Mínus, has attended several of these trade festivals, in particular with Lay Low. He agrees that these showcases can be a good start for those reaching out for new opportunities. After Lay Low released her debut, Please Don’t Hate Me, last October, she played at the Iceland Airwaves festival. That led to an invite to MIDEM and from there to ByLarm and Great Escape, after which she played in the U.S. and was offered to tour Britain at the end of the year, fully sponsored by the Contemporary Music Network (CMN) in the UK.
“Opportunities like these come along because the artist has played on a regular basis. It isn’t enough to perform just once in a while. What is fortunate [with Lay Low] is that things have been going well in Iceland, not only in radio programs and record sales but also in ticket sales. The profits of sold concert tickets the artists use to invest in themselves and pay the expenses of touring abroad and keep the ball rolling. Usually there are no actual salaries to talk about though,” he explains.
Investing in Music
Few musicians can earn their living simply by creating music. Going abroad can be tough if you don’t have someone to back you up to begin with. Reykjavík Loftbrú and the State Music Fund aim to make that process easier. Established in 2005, the Music Fund has a yearly budget of 50 million ISK to support several projects. Jónatan Garðarsson, the Fund’s chairman, says that the counsel evaluates each project thoroughly before deciding who should get funding and how big the amount should be. He also explains that there are two application deadlines per year and the largest grant so far, 5 million ISK, was used to establish the Icelandic Music Export.
Sturluson, who has years of experience in the business both as a concert producer and manager, is still not satisfied with the environment musicians have to settle for today.
“In my opinion, the Reykjavík Loftbrú is a fine project. Musicians can apply for tickets on a monthly basis and the process is both fast and efficient. The same can’t be said about the State Music Fund though. There are only two deadlines each year and the maximum amount you can get is usually only about a million ISK. The Fund doesn’t make it much easier to pursue opportunities, which can sometimes happen almost unexpectedly. Personally, if we are thinking about exporting music, the State Music Fund is in my view totally useless. The 50 million ISK budget is ridiculous and small amounts are being offered to artists only so the government can pretend to be supporting the music scene. The budget also includes all parts of the scene, regardless of music style or the type of the projects. A small part of the budget is used in real music export and promotion of musicians abroad. What I would like to see is a new model similar to the Icelandic Film Centre, which provides decent financial support to finance film projects and promote Icelandic films internationally. The Film Centre, [which has around 400 million ISK budget to fund various projects] is an independent government sponsored body while the Music Fund is a small committee. The difference between the support given to the film industry and the music industry is simply outrageous.”
He adds: “I also see it as a certain anachronism that the fund is a part of the Ministry of Education and not a part of the Ministry of Industry. Music is simply an industry and should be respected as such. It is an investment and nothing less and has proved to be a profitable export. That can clearly be seen by the success of our national pride, Björk. Supporting music as culture but not as an industry isn’t inspirational for the artists. There needs to be a good institutional support if we are to go full force in exporting music and create a growing industry.”
Sturluson goes on to say how profitable it is for the economy to have a thriving music scene in the country:
“The scene has such great snowball effects. It’s quite embarrassing how obvious it is and easy to calculate how profitable it would be to invest greatly in the music industry. That investment will multiply itself and have great effects on other trades, most obviously, the tourism industry.”
Hyperactive Tourist Attraction
Many musicians and industry moguls share Sturlusons’s view and point out that when local acts set out to play internationally, exposure in global media hasn’t been lacking. The attention isn’t only an encouragement for the music scene but has proven to be a boost for the tourism industry.
It’s no overstatement that Icelandic musicians are drawing more positive attention to the country than most other industries nowadays and few deny that its cultural importance is significant. That can be seen by the turnout for recent festivals such as Aldrei fór ég suður (an annual music festival in small Westfjords town Ísafjörður) where IMX took ten international journalists to experience the two-day extravaganza, who returned to their homes with positive reviews, interviews and articles. Even greater publicity surrounds the annual Iceland Airwaves music festival, which always sees good coverage in international media. The growing number of tourists attending the festival as well as promoters and industry representatives, who arrive with the sole purpose of discovering new talent, is just one example. In 2006, 1700 of the party-thirsty audience were foreign attendees. This year’s festival is bound to be bigger than ever.
Svanhildur Konráðsdóttir, director of Culture and Tourism at Visit Reykjavík, says that it is hard to measure the effects of the music scene on the tourist industry in the country but adds that they know they are immense.
“In 2005, we participated in a Nordic survey where we examined the economic benefits and impacts certain events have on the economy. We chose to study the Airwaves festival, which is an event that attracts plenty of visitors who are active, go to museums, on excursions and visit the swimming pools, shops and restaurants for example. The result of the survey was that the festival alone injects about 300 million into the city’s economy,” Konráðsdóttir says, adding how important these concertgoers are for the tourism industry, especially as the festival is held off-season in one weekend in October.
The Constant Lack of Facilities
“The connection between Icelandic culture getting attention abroad and the increase in tourism is enormous,” says Viddi, bass player for the electronic-punkdance group Trabant, which recently returned home after touring Britain extensively. “Our tour will probably end up in 50 to 100 media reviews and interviews. And that’s just one band. Add Mínus, GusGus, múm, Björk, Sigur Rós and all the other ones on the road and you will have great publicity,” he adds.
When asked how he sees the musical environment today, he points to the fact that before talking about any government intervention in music export, there needs to be a strong domestic infrastructure and favourable working conditions for the artists to develop their sound.
“Today, musicians are creating their own music without being supported by a big body, but of course it would be good to have some sort of a system that would be encouraging, but that would have to be thoroughly thought through. What I would most like to see change is the possibility of getting good practice facilities. I’m getting tired of seeing only temporary solutions but no long term plans. It shouldn’t be a question about supporting that part of the process” he says, and points out that many bands that have been touring immensely in recent years have to settle for a lack of housing today.
“I would like to see the prices go down so bands will actually have a reasonable option to rent a practice space instead of having to pay the ridiculous amount Kaupþing Bank and Glitnir Bank have decided on. Today, I see Reykjavík moving in a totally different direction, heading towards becoming a business city instead of a cultural city. In 10 years, I can’t see many teenage bands renting a small practice space for 80,000 ISK. I will not be seeing any growth in the scene. […] If we are talking about building a music industry, we should start by creating a good environment for that industry to evolve.”
Benediktsson shares a similar view on the government intervention:
“I am not sure that people should necessarily be supported to make music. But the trend in tourism has been that culture sells vacation trips. Icelandair has noticed this, that is why it established Loftbrú. These parties know that there is a correlation between the music industry and the tourism industry. If there are people with fresh ideas, creating fresh music, there are many out there who are willing to support that. The image-industry and the money-industry go hand in hand. There are so many people who come to Iceland today because they heard the Sugarcubes as teenagers all those years ago. Today, these people have money and they want to travel.
He adds: “It is most important to take care of the infrastructure, and focus on what we are doing here. You can’t really just decide to export music like any other commodity. All you can really do is make information available. The main thing is that the music is good. Where there is good music being made, where there is a creative scene, I think people will always take notice.”
New Marketing Opportunities
When asked how she sees the future of the music industry, Hildibrandsdóttir is positive that things will turn out in favour of the scene.
“I think that the opportunities are plenty but they are also very sparse. The number of musicians making record deals is growing and the record companies have strengthened their position. Smekkleysa now has a worldwide distribution and 12 Tónar has expanded to Europe. Individual musicians have also succeeded in assigning contracts” she says.
“The opportunities also consist in understanding the breakthrough in technology we have witnessed, for example, distribution on the web and through mobile phones and how the digital world will change opportunities in an exciting way. As the situation is today, if you have the technical understanding and knowledge, you can reach out to an incredible number of listeners without having millions to back you up,” Hildibrandsdóttir adds.
The Iceland Music Export has several plans to tackle this new technology. “We are organising a conference where we will look into the possibility of Iceland becoming a test-market for a new business model in digital distribution. One of our biggest projects this year is also to establish a good web page for musicians and those working in the music sector” she explains, but the site already features Podcasts, downloads, music videos, information on musicians, producers and studios and a list of music events and festivals.
“All in all, I have expectations for the future,” Hildibrandsdóttir says. “But we shouldn’t forget that the industry is small in Iceland and we have less money than the neighbouring countries. […] There doesn’t necessarily have to be so much financial support to move the grassroots to a professional level, just the right support at the right time.”