Iceland is widely known and defined by its dramatic landscape consisting of glaciers and geysers, but when you really think about it, names like Björk and Sigur Rós also seem to encapsulate the Icelandic environment just as accurately.
Iceland sounds as good as it looks. Those native to this Nordic cultural hub, like said artists, streamline their creativity in order to both make unique soundscapes and to pay homage to their surroundings. But there's one catch: it's next to impossible for emerging artists to make money playing live shows in Iceland, namely because bands are 'paid' not with Icelandic kroná, but instead with the venue's available food and/or beer. For example, Harpa, Reykjavík's largest concert hall, although strikingly beautiful, is partly to blame, as its funding often dips into smaller pockets of emerging artists like Sóley's in order to cover costs.
I talked to Hafnarfjörður / Reykjavík-based musician Sóley about the topic, and she shed some light on the problematic currency of music in Iceland and why Iceland Airwaves is an essential asset to the music scene in Reykjavík.
Brontë Martin: So tell me about Iceland as a music-spawning location. What's the climate of the scene?
Sóley: I love living and creating music here, but you really can't live off of playing only in Iceland. I play here maybe once or twice a year (apart from Airwaves), since it's really not economically viable. Recently, I've also noticed that a lot of bars and venues have been closing down to be replaced by hotels instead, which is concerning. I mean tourists are always wanting to see live Icelandic music while they're here, so it's a bit ironic, but I guess people always find new places to go. It's always like "ah, the artists, they will find their way to do their stuff", but in reality we aren't ever getting money for what we do.
BM: Is it true that most bars/venues/restaurants around Reykjavik "pay" you in food/drinks instead of money for gigs? Does that feel like a fair method of compensation?
Sóley: Yeah, it's true. For example a venue called KEX Hostel will just give you food/beer and credit at their local pizza place as compensation. KEX is constantly asking for me to play shows there, which is great, but there's just never any money involved. They do have money, though. Another example is that I was playing this off-venue show for Iceland Air and they claimed to not have any money and were just offering me food/beer. I just remember thinking to myself like, "Icelandair is probably one of the richest companies in Iceland and even they can't pay me?"
BM: Lets talk about where Iceland Airwaves fits into all of this. What has your experience been with the festival?
Sóley: Airwaves is really, really cool. It's a crazy intense week of shows and meetings and interviews. It's great because it's like getting the tour life in your own city, so as an artist you're able to do everything but still go home to your family at the end of the night. You don't sleep, but it's fun. It's a big party that manages to showcase Icelandic music in a positive way.
BM: The biggest venue that Iceland Airwaves utilizes during the festival is Harpa, which is also home to Iceland's Symphony Orchestra. Some Icelanders I talked to during Airwaves view Harpa as a money pit that takes the cash out of smaller musicians' pockets since it's still being paid for/funded. What's your take? Has it done more good than harm?
Sóley: I do think it has done more good than harm in some ways. They started building back in 2007 but had to stop because of the financial crash in 2008. It was finished in 2011. I'm happy it was, but it just isn't possible for me to play a show there unless I sell the tickets for a fortune and it's a sold out show. For example, I was playing a show this past year for a concert series before Airwaves started at a really small venue in Reykjavík. It was really well attended and the ticket price was 3,500 krónas (which is really expensive for live music here). I got the numbers after the show, and if I remember correctly, Harpa took 65% of the profits, whereas I got 16%. That's what doesn't make any sense to me.
BM: You played five shows at Airwaves this past November. I particularly loved all of them. How was that experience for you?
Sóley: Most of my shows took place on the off-venue locations during Airwaves, which was cool. It was amazing for me to play songs off of my recent EP because they are really quiet and intimate, so it made 100 or more people shut up for a few minutes. It's really cool to hear silence sometimes, as if everyone is together in some sort of meditation zone. That's what makes it worth it to me.
Watch Sóley perform "Dreamers" during Iceland Airwaves at the KEX Hostel for KEXP below.