Iceland’s Music Scene Continues To Punch Above Its Weight
In this piece we explore why Iceland – an island nation with only 360,000 residents – continues to deliver a truly impressive slew of talented and successful bands and artists year after year.
Guest post from AWAL
Jet to Reykjavik, mythical Iceland’s coastal hub, and your first airport music encounter will in all likelihood involve some timely mix of whatever stateside hip-hop heads are obsessing over at the moment. Joe and the Juice — a Danish health food chain that feels like it’s straiiiight outta Malibu — is omnipresent. By this writer’s count, no less than four of the shops hold court throughout the terminals. This means Joe and the Juice and its four sets of speaker systems soundtrack the entire arrival / departure experience. That means the kids behind the counter, mostly natives who could not possibly be any older than 25, are the would-be DJs playing the new Frank Ocean song that dropped just a few days ago. Welcome to a world both wonderful and strange, where aspiring artists drive by untouched glaciers with Rap Caviar on blast.
Iceland (country) is a hair smaller than Tennessee (modestly sized state). In fact, Iceland has a population totalling about five percent of Tennessee’s. Iceland’s 360,000 residents make it smaller than more than 800 cities. Iceland is so small that many locals use a special dating app to ensure late nights don’t turn into incest with cousins 30 times removed. Iceland is so small that a gold certification = 5000 units sold. Size isn’t everything, though. The land of blue lagoons and black-sand beaches and lava fields and Hidden People and really nice venue security guards is also home to some of the most talented singers, songwriters, producers and musicians in the world. How?
AWAL act Warmland onstage at Iceland Airwaves. Photo by Beth Crockatts.
- Isolation, because an islander’s self-reliance makes the impossible possible.
- Internet, because WiFi holds it down with mega-quick YouTube tutorial load times.
- Investment in art, because a music-loving government is good news for creators.
- Idols, because hometown heroes supercharge youthful ambition.
- International support, because the sum of the above deserves some extra eyes.
These factors helped turned the Atlantic-Arctic hotspot into a creative safe haven. Iceland’s become a promising talent source for scouts abroad and a launchpad in its own right for otherworldly exports like Sigur Ros, Bjork, and Of Monsters And Men. Recent years have seen hip-hop take center stage, pulling from pop, R&B, and the island’s rich history as a melting pot for punk and heavy metal. We witnessed the genre free-for-all firsthand at Iceland Airwaves, where we partnered with Icelandair — the founding partner behind the renowned music festival that hits Reykjavik every November — to spotlight local acts and fly out up-and-comers from abroad to perform and explore. The event was good fun, but we wanted to dig deeper and understand what’s going on there a bit better. We’ll do that now.
Everybody Plays With Everybody
Seriously. You hear it about 30 times over at Iceland Airwaves and it never grows old. You’ve got lead singers switching gears and holding down backing vocals for other groups. You’ve got instrumentalists gunning for Guinness records, sprinting from one set to the next to jam with different bands. Cross-pollination isn’t a buzzword in Iceland.
“There’s one guy, Magnus Johan, who is such an in-demand keyboard player that we’ve often had to change the schedule of the festival to fit around him performing with so many different acts,” says Will Larnach-Jones, the festival director for Iceland Airwaves and an alum of the PR team that helped push Sigur Ros’ landmark debut Agætis Byrjun.
Ania Kasperek, co-founder and managing partner of Chimes Agency, works with a number of Icelandic artists, including Magnus Johan and AWAL artist Hildur. She echoes Larnach-Jones’ comments, attributing some of the island’s success to open arms.
“Instagram and live shows alone have connected lots of dots in Iceland. You have these communities and pockets of collaborators that form from that. What’s special about it there is you have people really working together, regardless of what they make. Magnus, he’s a pianist, classically trained, making jazz music, and he’s out there working with different rappers, or arranging sets for pop artists like Hildur. That kind of attitude is everywhere, and I think that’s why things have developed so nicely.”
Into the wild. Photo by Beth Crockatts.
Music Tourism? Win-Win-Win
From the top down, every level of Icelandic government has arguably unrivalled commitment to removing barriers that could stand in music’s way. Iceland Music has helped set the tone.
Also known as ÚTÓN, or Útflutningsskrifstofa Íslenskrar Tónlistar, Iceland Music has done just about everything they can to export native art since setting up shop in 2006. The government office leverages contact databases, events, relationships with different music societies and marketing know-how to help identify opportunities overseas for local acts. Importing opportunities helps too. Just last month, Iceland Music announced its Record In Iceland program, which pledges a 25% rebate to all international artists who come and make music within the country’s borders. Yep. That includes travel, hotel, gear, all of it.
Meanwhile, websites like The Current and Naturally Iceland join forces with Iceland Airwaves and Iceland Music to help amplify what’s happening back home. Earlier this year, The Current helped bring multiple Iceland acts (and lots of food) to Minneapolis for a celebration in May. The institutional support both encourages and reflects music’s value in everyday life.
“There’s a culture in Reykjavik to go to the vinyl store with friends and browse what’s in there together and have conversations about the music,” Kasperek tells us. “There’s an old school admiration for that sort of thing. That helps music be appreciated as a real occupation on the island.”
In Reykjavik, where more than ⅓ of the nation resides, it’s hard to find a bar that never hosts a music night, akin to Nashville’s Honky Tonk Road. More than a dozen small festivals dot the countryside. Iceland Airwaves is the biggest, and even though the number of international attendees might seem small (roughly 3,500), the cultural and economic impact is massive. A 2014 government study found that the mass gathering in the capital had generated €20.3 million to the city’s economy. Larnach-Jones estimates that figure has doubled in 2019, and that says nothing of the visibility the event affords. Talent bookers, promoters, managers, music supervisors, and other artists from more than 60 countries come together to watch acts like our very own Warmland, Girl In Red, Millie Turner, Joesef, Yaeger, The Howl + The Hum, and Joipe X Kroli, among others. Everybody eats.
Team Joesef arrives in Reykjavik for our A World Artists Love showcase. Photo by Beth Crockatts.
Inspiration Is Turning Inward
The Iceland music community’s love for other cultures has not stopped fans and artists alike from prioritising their own. It’s been three years since a wave of mainland media coverage rightfully obsessed over the vapor wave cloud rap redefining the nation’s sound. Nowadays, hip-hop remains dominant, but native acts of all kinds command attention alongside global superstars.
Take a look at the Spotify Iceland Top 50 and you’ll find some names you know and some names you don’t. More than a quarter of the Top 10 belongs to homegrown acts. Spotify, Apple, YouTube and other streaming platforms have made it easier than ever to monetize abroad, but the island’s size does limit, to an extent, the financial prospects of artists largely operating inside its borders. The most played song on a given day in Iceland might have about 8000 streams on Spotify, compared to 1.4 million in the States. In other words, every resident on the island would need to stream a song three times just to hit the million stream mark. The flip side? Ardent fans and a small audience mean great songs rise to the top.
“We’re not saying it’s super easy to get exposure in Iceland,” Arni Kristmundsson, who co-manages Warmland and Jóipé x Króli for Klapp Management, tells us. “It’s just very different from bigger markets where you’d have to hire a PR company, radio plugger, tour promoter etc. At the beginning it’s all about building the hype, which is definitely easier than elsewhere but if the music isn’t good you’ll never keep the momentum.”
Joipe x Kroli command the crowd. Photo by Beth Crockatts.
Engaged local support and international listens have helped native acts to hold their own. Henny María Frímannsdóttir, who also works with Klapp Management and looks after Warmland and Jóipé x Króli, agrees that Icelanders are carving their own paths forward now.
“American hip-hop was a major influence to Icelandic rappers and producers,” he admits. “But instead of imitating it, they would take bits and pieces then make it their own. Now newer artists can look at proven local artists like XXX Rottweiler, Subterranean, and Quarashi. Our native language has become more and more dominant. Go look at how Joipe x Krole, Floni, Birnir, Cell and others are doing, and you will see the digital platforms have opened the audience up in a way that’s undeniable.”
“Some people thought Icelandic hip-hop wouldn’t export well, but acts like Reykjavíkurdætur and Úlfur Úlfur have proven otherwise,” Kristmundsson adds. “We have acts touring all over Europe rapping in their native tongues.”
“Most people in Iceland can speak English very well,” says Hildur’s manager Ania Kasperek. “We used to think it was an obstacle, performing in Icelandic, but I worked with a hip-hop group that only rapped in Icelandic and they toured Europe. They brought so much energy that it didn’t matter that nobody knew what they were saying. The language can actually be quite intriguing, the same way people get curious when you tell them an artist is from Iceland. Like, ‘Oh! Tell me more!’”
Radio, both at home and abroad, has helped diminish the need for Icelandic artists to assimilate. Seattle’s KEXP has regularly included them in programming and even does annual broadcasts from Iceland. Meanwhile, local stations like Rás2 and 101 Live (Útvarp 101) shed light on the talent popping up in their own backyard. Those spins help drive vinyl and merch sales, which supplement streaming revenue. Libraries have also done their part to help foster a connection to traditional records, maintaining collections of LPs and EPs to loan out.
Yaeger eyes the open road. Photo by Beth Crockatts.
To Tour Or Not to Tour
The economics that make international consumption so critical for Icelandic acts also make touring the region quite daunting to outsiders. It’s arguably easier to spread awareness in a small country with most of its people concentrated in one or two cities, but it’s difficult to convert enough of them to fill a room.
“Because the island is so small, hyped trendy stuff can lose steam quickly,” says Kasperek. “You can play everywhere on the island in a short period of time and become this talked-about act and then fade because it’s already happening again with someone else. There’s lots of private gigs and corporate events and school gigs, but most artists still need a ‘regular’ job to keep going, even if they’re doing pretty well.”
“Iceland is not a big country,” Will Larnach-Jones agrees. “If you pull in one direction it’s likely you will feel it somewhere else: Tickets and spending per person are not limitless. I think that seeing close to 15% of the Icelandic population attend Ed Sheeran this year is an example of how far you can reach if you have the drive, the global popularity and if the stars align.”
An alternative perspective exists here: Invest in Iceland early because few do. Safe travels.