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Music

A peek inside Iceland's Airwaves Festival for up-and-coming bands

The atmosphere is what sets Airwaves apart from its competitors, say organizers and festival-goers. It's a down-to-earth and intimate affair in the land of fire and ice.

Dikta at the Airwaves Festival in Iceland

Dikta at the Airwaves Festival in Iceland

The Icelandic Airwaves Festival has become one of the world's top showcases for new music.

Alternative has always been mainstream at Airwaves, which got its start in 1999 in an airplane hangar at Reykjavik Airport. These days, with more than 150 artists performing at the event, it seems as if music comes from all corners of the city. It creates a space where the profit-driven laws of the music industry seem briefly suspended.

"We like to think that music business happens organically here, and that's what musicians, industry people and the media like about it. There's just something in the air, something magical happening," said Kamilla Ingibergsdottir, a spokesperson for the Airwaves Festival.

Equal footing

Icelandic singer Björk. Copyright: (C) 2011 Wellhart Ltd/One Little Indian Ltd.

Icelandic singer Björk

The mood Ingibergsdottir described might stem from the sense of equality that prevails at the festival. Fans and journalists sense that they are part of the same community with the artists, and the bands aren't just there to be heard. The musicians are ready to chat or even party with the festival-goers.

The artists, in turn, get energy back from the audience and usually also make sure to check out some gigs by other bands, at least those who are willing to absorb new influences.

"I just love this festival, and I'm here because I love good music. What makes this festival special and better then others is Iceland - this country is so fascinating," said a young woman from Norway, who said she was especially excited to hear Young Galaxy from Canada.

'Björk meets Tchaikovsky'

Alongside a number of lesser known indie performers, Airwaves Festival always includes some superstars. This year, Björk, Yoko Ono and Sinead O'Connor were set to take the stage in the brand new Harpa Concert Hall, a stunning building with a glass facade and striking acoustics. Icelanders are very proud of the new home of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and the Icelandic Opera. It's known locally as the place where Björk meets Tchaikovsky.

"Björk was absolutely brilliant last night. I listened to her new album several times before, but seeing her perform live was even more amazing. She truly is one of the most creative artists of our time," gushed one fan at the show.

Despite the presence of some big names, independent artists are the stars of the show at Airwaves. For those who haven't put out an album yet, taking part can make all the difference, and Icelandic post-rock band For a Minor Reflection is a case in point. They said they love the festival, which helped them land their first tour in 2008, and they returned for their fifth Airwaves appearance this year.

"This music festival is crucial for bands. Airwaves helps bands to get a global audience," said Kjartan Holm of For a Minor Reflection.

Yoko Ono at the Airwaves Festival in Iceland
Copyright: Deutsche Welle
Datum: 12.10.2011

Yoko Ono at the Airwaves Festival in Iceland

Multiple stages

The festival encompasses a main program as well as off-venue events that give newcomers a chance to be heard.

"We have an application process through Sonicbids that gets a lot of applications, and there's basically room for everyone to apply,"

Airwaves is for those who want to explore new music, to have fun, to dance and sing along. But the risks are evident: for some, it's hard to find the will to go home. Besides the great music, who can resist the Icelandic landscapes, cozy wool sweaters and the ash from Eyjafjallajökull, now sold as a souvenir?

Author: Jakov Leon, Reykjavik
Editor: Greg Wiser

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