The Iceland Airwaves Music Festival is the coolest discovery to many music lovers and one of the premier showcases and breakthrough opportunities for new musicians… yet it still registers as the most bizarre idea to many who haven’t gone. Talking to anyone who’s never been to Iceland about the festival first involves a dispelling of the myths that: 1) it’s freezing there all the time, and 2) Björk and Sigur Rós are the only musicians from there.
In reality, Iceland boasts more of a flourishing music industry than anywhere else in the world, not only because of its many talented musicians but also due to the strong emphasis placed on musical education in the Icelandic school system. Anyone attending this festival can expect to be outsmarted on music and music history by nearly any Icelander. Indeed, for visitors and music connoisseurs alike, there’s plenty to learn, see, do, and experience at this festival, and chances are most who go will return the following year.
This year, Airwaves took place from 13 to 17 October. It brought 3 Million Euro (half a billion ISK) to Europe and featured over 300 bands. Although the festival normally attracts many international bands (most of whom came from North America and Europe this time around), this year, there was a stronger Icelandic musical base to the festival. With how much new Icelandic music I discovered here, I reckon the festival could have featured only Icelandic bands and still have lasted just as long.
Over those five days of the festival, most performances were located in venues on or near the main street in Reykjavik (Laugarvegur), with some being held a short walk from there. There were also many free off-venue shows in music shops, cultural centers, and cafes/bars for those who’d missed their chance at getting a ticket. These off-venue shows were sometimes even more interesting than the bigger performances, as some of the same bands who’d be rocking out in large venues could also be seen playing smaller, more intimate shows, sometimes of a different genre.
Overall, I found the Icelanders living and working in Reykjavik to be a very welcoming and generous culture of people. It was especially easy to meet and talk with artists. One particular person who really helped me out a lot was George Holmes, manager of the restaurant Indian Mango, who was generous with Indian appetizers, dishes, delicious rum and yogurt cocktails, and such wonderful ambiance during my interviews with local artists throughout the festival.
Iceland is a special place on its own, but this festival week is, indeed, one of the most magical times to visit the country. The mutual love of music that exists here is so strong during that time that it creates an automatic sense of community that is more intimate than that found at other larger festivals.