As part of our Múm curated week, Vasilis Panagiotopoulos travelled to Iceland in order to see how the economic crisis and what followed has affected the music scene.
Last October’s collapse of the Icelandic economy is probably one of the worst in world economic history. Due the misdemeanours of the banking establishment, thousands of Icelanders lost all their life savings from one day to the next. The country’s three biggest banks were taken under state control, and in November inflation rocketed to 17.1%. Iceland witnessed unprecedented violent protests, complete with teargas and numerous arrests over Geir Haarde’s government’s bad handling of the crisis. For sixteen consecutive weeks people took to the streets. At the end of January the Prime Minister was finally forced to resign, which resulted in Iceland getting its first female and openly gay Prime Minister, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, followed by a general election held on 25th April, establishing a centre-left/green coalition. In the light of these events I travelled to Iceland in order to see how the economic crisis and what followed has affected the music scene.
Although Iceland is bigger than one might expect, its area being just a little smaller than England; it has only 300,000 inhabitants of which one third live in greater Reykjavík. The exact number of Icelandic bands is unknown, but it’s over three hundred. It is no secret (almost a cliché now) that music holds a central position in Icelandic society and daily life. Along with pretty much every music enthusiast that has been to Iceland, I took my chances and asked the locals for the reasons. I got back diverse answers, but most agree that there is a long tradition of hard work throughout the ages, which helped the country to thrive over the last 50 years. Stubbornness is considered a virtue, which is not irrelevant considering its not-so-friendly (by my Greek standards) weather and climate. Because Iceland is still a relatively young country (becoming a Republic in 1944), there seems to be some kind of creative freshness. Nobody is afraid of experimenting and music is one major outlet. Everything is possible. Sigur Rós singer, Jón (Jónsi) Þór Birgisson sums it up: “There is a lot of energy here and people simply want to do something creative”.
How did the crisis affect the music?
I met lots of people that were in one way or another involved in the music scene, and was eager to find out how they reflected upon the previous few months. I started with the record shops. 12 Tónar started in 1998. Apart from a record shop it’s also a label, responsible for the releases of many independent acts, such as Mugison and Ólöf Arnalds. Its co-owner Jóhannes Ágústsson told me that
“From a commercial point of view we had a very good Christmas period. We sold a lot of CDs, and that is because people started buying smaller things for Christmas presents. On the other hand the Icelandic Crown was in a free fall, which made it very difficult for us to import. There were financial restrictions. We couldn’t move money out of the country. Now the banks are running normally again, but the prices of imported CDs have gone up quite a lot. Thankfully the ones we import have maintained more or less the same price, but interest rates and living costs remain high. Looking at everything that has happened in the last few months, we are very fortunate to still be here.”
A few meters away is Smekkleysa (or “Bad Taste” in English). Smekkleysa is a point of reference in the Icelandic music scene, because apart from a record shop it is also the legendary label of The Sugarcubes. Its friendly shopkeeper, Kristian, confirmed:
“We continue importing and selling CDs, but on a much smaller scale. We just don’t take on many new projects right now. It will probably stay like this for the rest of this year but hopefully we can start moving a little bit faster in 2010.”
International music press’ favourite festival, Iceland Airwaves also took some knocks. Airwaves 2009 was almost cancelled. Mr. Destiny, the organising company, went through big financial difficulties. It was only until very recently that Iceland Airwaves 2009 was confirmed. I met Árni Einar Birgisson, the Airwaves press officer, in Kaffibarinn one of the most popular pubs in Reykjavík. He told me what happened with last year’s festival:
“First of all we were very affected by the exchange rate. The Icelandic Crown was in a free fall from May 2008 until the autumn. Our income is of course in Icelandic Crowns. The biggest problem was that three weeks before the festival the first bank was nationalised. A week later, two more banks followed. Society froze. We had to reassure all international bands that we’d be going ahead. A lot of work went into crisis management. Just getting the Euros to pay the fees was hard work. People were not picking up the phones. We were all glued to our computer screens, constantly pressing refresh. Thankfully the Icelandair sponsorship wasn’t affected. Airwaves 2008 was a great success.”
Árni concluded: “the festival had a great joy vibe. We were like, hey the world is collapsing… So what!”
Another Icelandic artistic institution is the 40-year-old Reykjavík Arts Festival. Its programme consists of a series of theatrical plays, concerts, opera and art exhibitions by Icelandic and international artists. In shock I heard its press officer Guðrún Kristjánsdóttir confessing: “All the big companies disappeared with the depression. The sponsors disappeared, literally. One of the biggest challenges for us is money. It is now more difficult to get international artists to come to the festival. It remains to be seen how we are going to keep our international character. “
The situation is similar at Iceland Music Export, a new initiative for promoting and informing about Icelandic music abroad. Haukur S Magnússon who works at IMX told me: “Getting state funding or corporate sponsorship became much harder with the crisis. We had to put some of our expensive plans on hold and be a little bit more selective with projects we intend to do.”
Árni Þór Árnason and Hildur Stefánsdóttir from the very ambitious folk-pop outfit Rökkurró see things in a much more positive light: “We weren’t really affected by the crisis because we don’t own anything and we don’t owe anybody anything. None of our parents has got like a huge debt. In our band there’s only one person that has got a full-time job right now. We have much more time now to just doing the music. Last year we were working all day. Now we are really enjoying the summertime.”
The odd exception aside, being in an Icelandic band doesn’t of course lead to instant wealth or stardom. The majority of Icelandic bands don’t earn much. Haukur from Iceland Music Export, who also plays the guitar in the band Reykjavík! explains:
“Music is severely underfunded by the government in terms of the other arts. If you take for example the film industry, the visual arts, even authors, they all have huge government funds to promote them, whereas similar money that goes into music is much lower. Especially proportionally, it’s not even comparable.”
Jóhannes from 12 Tónar agreed: “There is very little support from the State. Sometimes there are cheap flights to Europe available to bands, but now with the crisis this has changed. There is just a big rehearsal space that the city is sponsoring, but sponsorship could be better. If you take a look at Sweden or Denmark, everything is sponsored down to the last details. Here you have to do everything your self.”
But it’s not all black. This new situation provides some opportunities. Music tourism could become one of them. Jóhannes stressed: “We live off tourists. There is always a good flux of well-informed Germans. Many Americans come here as well and they are very open to new music. There is also a large number of Brits and Scandinavians. The stuff they buy here has got a multiple effect because they tell their friends about it. That will still keep on going.” Kristian from Smekkleysa agreed: “There are always opportunities in everything. Local people are buying less, but tourists are buying more. The store actually thrives from tourists. It evens out a bit for us, because it’s much cheaper now for them.” Also Árni, the Iceland Airwaves press officer, expects more visitors to this year’s festival.
Most importantly this electrified and full-of-rage atmosphere inflicted by the crisis is cultivating a very fertile environment for artistic creation. Jóhannes admitted:
“There’s a good vibe and a lot of creativity at the moment. I think this crisis is like watering the plants. It gives additional ideas to the artists. History has shown us that when something like this happens, it will out in some way. There is lot of anger still in society that will come out in some way. Music is one channel.”
Many think that such a shock was necessary in a society of luxury and wealth that was in desperate need of redefining its values. Sigur Rós singer, Jónsi is one of them. He thinks that the crisis “…brought everybody down to earth again. Everybody was buying jeeps before. It's really bad for some people who are losing houses and jobs, but in a way this is healthy in the long run.” Alex Somers, his partner and member of the band Parachutes, agreed: “Consumerism was getting out of control.” Jónsi added that the crisis is having a positive impact: “It moves people!” Guðrún, the Reykjavík Arts Festival press officer is very vocal too: “I think it will give us more than we lost. It will give more power to our creativity. I think we will become better people after this. Not everything comes down to the money anymore.”
Gradually new initiatives are rising from the ashes of the crisis. Baldvin Esra Einarsson, the man behind Kimi Records, one of the most active labels in Iceland right now, is proudly presenting his new project: Brak Hljómplötur, the first recession label in the world, the aim of which is to release a new CD every month. The budget is limited, the sound is often lo-fi and the manufacturing time from the album mastering to its release is very short. He is very dedicated to what he does: “We try to maintain high artistic standards and we hopefully manage that. We also try to sell our CDs only via internet and only in a few Reykjavík stores, so only those really interested in purchasing the music can do it. We don't want the albums falling into the wrong hands.”
But Icelanders don’t stop there. Apart from Brak Hljómplötur, another innovative and, indeed, very ambitious initiative is the recently launched Gogoyoko. Gogoyoko is a platform through which bands and labels, by bypassing the middleman and providing direct access to their fans, can promote and sell their music online. It’s creators say that they weren’t happy with the way music was being distributed and sold on the internet and they wanted to provide artists and record labels with a new way of distribution which secures a more equal revenue split while handing out 10% of their income to charity and environmental causes. At the same time Gogoyoko aspires to becoming a networking site for the like-minded, and even an online music magazine and a global concert guide.
No one in Iceland knows what is going to happen in the coming months. But one thing’s for sure, Icelanders don’t really seem to be too bothered. New ideas and initiatives pop up all the time, and new bands are always emerging. In the bars in Reykjavík city centre gigs can be found on a daily basis. Especially now in the summertime people are out partying until dawn. Most importantly they gradually seem to be realising that the formerly all encompassing consumerism was not all it was cracked up to be.
Words and Photos by Vasilis Panagiotopoulos www.vasbxl.com