Iceland's music scene looks set to erupt
Article in Music Week
27. January 2007
On the back of renewed investment from Iceland's business and Government, the international market has good reason to warm to the country's music scene, writes Olaf Furniss.
When representatives from Icelandair and Reykjavik City Council joined Airwaves festival co-founder Thorsteinn Stephensen to announce a four- year sponsorship deal last October, it marked an unprecedented level of support for the Icelandic music scene.
This long-term commitment reflects how far the festival has come since beginning in a hanger in 1997. And it also symbolises a growing awareness at government and business level, that supporting Icelandic music makes economic and cultural sense. Not only does Airwaves attract more visitors to the Icelandic capital than any other event, it is now a firm fixture on the international music industry calendar.
"There is a cross-party commitment to support culture," explains Visit Reykjavik marketing manager Dora Magnusdottir. "Björk and Sigur Ros have done more than most ambassadors - their influence is huge."
While several government ministries and Iceland's largest bank, Landsbanki, are funding 85% of the newly created Iceland Music Export , other investors are also looking for opportunities.
Among them is the recently created company Tonvis, backed by the FL Group investment company and headed by entrepreneur Tryggvi Jonsson. Its model is based on forming joint ventures to launch acts with international potential. These include girlband Nylon, platinum-selling Icelandic tenor Gardar Thor Cortes and indie act Bang Gang.
Jonsson believes that in addition to cash-rich companies taking an increasingly international outlook, the increase in private finance can also be attributed to many younger Icelandic CEOs being music lovers.
"For our generation, music has had a big impact on our lives," he says, citing a band formed by the CEO of Icelandair and the head of Iceland's Export Council which came together to entertain fellow members of the Round Table charity.
There are also signs that established players are beginning to develop the music-related divisions of their business. Iceland's largest media group, 365, owns the Sena label, which licenses most international repertoire signed to major labels. However, in 2002 it also acquired digital music company D3, a sign that it is embracing the potential of online music opportunities. D3 includes the country's only download service, Tonlist, as well as internet label Cod Music.
Founded by musician Stefan Hjorleifsson, who continues as its managing director, the company has been active in pushing domestic talent with an eye on international markets.
Cod Music is being used as an online incubator label and began life in 2005 when it gave 15 acts a day in the studio, to record a demo. Seven were selected to play showcases to gauge audience response, with sister company Sena picking up female singer Lay Low and controversial rock/electronica crossover band Dr Mister & Mr Handsome, for a physical album deal.
High sales of downloads and ringtones for each act paved the way for successful CD releases and helped build a local fanbase.
"Dr Mister would never have made a deal with Sena without Cod Music," says Hjorleifsson, who is active in pursuing sync opportunities for his acts as part off his promotional strategy.
Tonlist is also providing a useful means for marketing talent, with its popularity among consumers leading to the creation of a "singles" chart, in a market where the physical format has not existed.
Its current catalogue consists of some 60,000 tracks by Icelandic artists, but Tonlist is now negotiating directly with the majors to sell international repertoire and aims to have the deals concluded within the year.
Although it offers individual tracks for sale, 80% of its revenue comes from subscribers, of which 15% are from outside Iceland.
This has provided a useful addition to labels, generating both additional income and a means to gauging the international potential of an act.
"The internet makes it easier to test the market," explains Larus Johanneson, owner of the 12 Tonar record shop and the label of the same name. He cites the surprise popularity of Brynhildur Gudjonsdottir in South Korea, where her accordion-based covers of Blondie, Edith Piaf and Grace Jones songs, led to a licensing deal following healthy download sales.
Although the pioneering Smekkleysa label, co-owned by former members of the Sugarcubes, has done direct deals with key download services such as iTunes, Napster and eMusic, it has also experienced unexpected benefits from online distribution. Its signings Ske and Jaguar have proved particularly popular with iTunes customers.
"It goes to show that digital sales don't always follow the patter of physical sales," says Smekkleysa UK label manager Anna Hildur.
However, she is realistic when it comes to the commercial benefits of digital distribution. "At present, it offers a complementary income, rather than paying for the recording of the next album," she says.
With a diverse catalogue including punk act Minus, the first Sigur Ros album and even contemporary classical recordings, Smekkleysa has been at the forefront of pushing its repertoire outside Iceland.
Four years ago, it launched its Pinnacle-distributed UK label in order to guarantee its acts a British release. At the time, many Icelandic acts were looking to the US to break their artists, a tendency which in part was motivated by the large number of American A&Rs attending Airwaves.
However, the past two years have seen an increasing tendency to look to the UK and other European territories. Airwaves 2006 marked the first time that the majority of visitors came from Europe (over 60%) rather than North America. In fact, demand for flights from London was so high, that it could only be covered by other airlines after Icelandair sold out.
"The process of further exploitation starts in the UK, even for some US artists," says Asi Jonsson, head of Smekkleysa.
At 12 Tonar, Larus Johannesson has learned through bitter experience, after five Stateside tours by the Singapore Sling failed to lead to the expected breakthrough. "The Americans know how to express themselves, they say `it's great' and then you never hear from them again!" he says.
Now 12 Tonar is looking closer to home, having recently opened a store and distribution service in Copenhagen. "For us the next logical step is to go to Scandinavia," he says.
While there is increasing international focus within the Icelandic scene, there are signs that the acts which emerged in the late Nineties, are now proving to be the dominant influences on young bands. A case in point are keyboard-based punks Ultra Mega Technobandid Stefan, whose sound is reminiscent of Apparat Organ Quartet, while their stage show displays the energy of Minus.
According to Airwaves co-founder Stephensen, the recent rise of electronic bands is not surprising.
"Iceland has always liked electronic stuff, but the DJ scene here collapsed because the music also needs a face," he says.
In 2006, Stephensen launched the Rite Of Spring festival in Reykjavik, with a focus on folk, jazz and world music. Indicative of the broad tastes of Icelandic audiences, it also reflects a continuing tendency among musicians to experiment and combine different genres.
"You are seeing a lot of cross fertilisation among Icelandic musicians, they are always on the look out for a new sound," explains Icelandic Music Information Centre director Sigfridur Bjornsdottir.
Her views are echoed by Tomas R Einarsson, a veteran jazz musician whose past two albums were recorded in Cuba.
"Icelandic musicians have a much wider perspective, my guitarist started out in a punk band, is now in my band and also plays classical guitar. This is not atypical," he says.
There can be no doubt that Iceland's unique creative force remains intact. Moreover, new technology, more experience within the industry and increased backing from government and private investors, will inevitably give rise to more international success.
Nevertheless, the economic boom which has helped attract this financial backing might yet prove a double-edged sword. While Reykjavik will have a dedicated music and conference hall by 2009, one venue used during Airwaves is expected to be knocked down after being acquired by developers. Two more, Gaukurinn and Nasa, are under threat of closure, the former due to a rent hike and the latter because a hotel is being planned on the site. Both are regarded as the bedrock of the festival and the local scene, and have hosted many seminal gigs.
The loss would be a blow to Airwaves, which would be faced with the choice of moving gigs to the outskirts of Reykjavik, or reducing the number of tickets to ensure there are no queues.
It would be a cruel irony if the music event which has done so much to attract visitors to Reykjavik, is undermined in a bid to accommodate them.