The 2016 Iceland Airwaves Festival is almost underway, and that means it is almost time for the coolest indie festival on the planet! This festival is musically and culturally vast, so here are some of my experiences at the 2015 Iceland Airwaves Festival, that I hope offers some insight in making your musical journey to Iceland an ultimate experience!
1)What is the Iceland Airwaves Festival?
The Iceland Airwaves festival is an annual music festival held the first week of November, and is sponsored by the nations premier airline, IcelandAir which flies to the U.S. and Europe and are known for their free stopover in Iceland. The festival is oriented around Reykjavik’s prolific music scene. It’s a way that Iceland cleverly shares its culture and music with the rest of the world, in hosting this international music festival. Most of the artists performing in the festival are Icelandic singing in their native tongue or in English, and sometimes a mix of both. The festival is really about local musicians and artists, and while you will find some bands from other places around the world, you should expect to learn a lot about the Icelandic music scene at this festival. If you are looking for an opportunity to be introduced to artists you would otherwise never have the opportunity to hear among numerous genres, each artist touched by the hand of Icelandic culture and international influences, well then this is the festival for you! Festival attendees are a mix of locals and international travelers.
Over a period of five days, literally hundreds of bands and artists perform in and around Reykjavik at local bars, clubs, coffee shops, music halls, bookshops, record stores, hostels, you name it! Very innovative! You could literally grab a coffee and look across the street, and witness an Icelandic punk band playing, while listening to a dark wave show.
2)How to purchase tickets and where to pick them up, length of the festival, and price…
We purchased our tickets for 19,900 Icelandic Krona (careful not Swedish Krona, otherwise sticker price shock), which at the time was around $150! To be able to choose from a countless number of artists in such a wide array of venues over the span of five days, I was pretty floored by the low ticket price! We purchased the tickets 7 months in advance as well as our airfare, which was around $800 per person during the time of the festival. We had really hoped that Björk would perform at the festival and had gotten wind three times at least, of her scheduled performance only to find out a couple of days later, that it was canceled. I have heard with more certainty this year that she will be performing at the Icelandic Airwaves Festival 2016. I don’t know the logistics this year. Bear in mind that during 2015, in order to see her perform, a separate ticket would have to be purchased. I believe initially the performance was scheduled to be held at the Harpa, during the course of the five day music festival, which is a main venue for the festival and discussed more below.
3)Venues, Location, Hours and other Logistics
Tickets can be purchased online through the Iceland Airwaves Festival website. Don’t be intimidated, as the page will first load in Icelandic, but the page can be converted into English.
When you arrive in Iceland, head over to the Harpa to pickup your wristband, this is Iceland’s beautiful concert hall with an incredible facade and fantastic acoustics throughout. The earliest you can pick up your wristband is the day before the festival. The Harpa is located across from the downtown center, adjacent to the harbor. There is limited parking at the Harpa, so you may need to locate public parking and walk to the hall.
The Harpa- Iceland’s beautiful concert hall located right on the Atlantic, opened in 2011.
I recommend taking time to research the artists in the line up, since there are really so many and find those that you are most interested in seeing. It’s important once you arrive to take some time to map out your day and evening with other travel plans and the concert itineraries. The day’s are short at this time of year and time can really sneak up on you, so it helps to do a little planning at first, especially since the venues are somewhat scattered around downtown Reykjavik. Don’t worry, the downtown is small enough that you can easily get around on foot. However, remember to wear comfortable shoes (and preferably waterproof, as it rains a lot this time of year), also you will be standing for a long time while watching music and hoofing it from venue to venue. So far we have gone over quite a bit about taking time to think through logistics and planning for such a musically extensive festival, but don’t let that stop you from popping in unplanned to a random show, and changing your plans! You may discover a new band that you will fall in love with!
Once the festival started, we did some local excursions during the morning and early afternoon to make it back in time for the festival. We went horseback riding, sight seeing, visiting museums and churches, and we even saw the Northern Lights (read more here for some concrete tips on seeing the northern lights without the guessing games). One evening, on the way to a venue downtown, the aurora borealis flashed overhead. Everyone including the locals stopped to look and up and we heard exclaims and “ahhhhh”!
Because of the many artists performing daily over the course of the festival, that means there are also a ton of venues. Some are “main venues”, while others are “off venues”. Some off venue performances started as early as 14:00, but typically the festival would be underway around 16:00. Bigger venues were scheduled around 20:00 like the Harpa, NASA, and the Reykjavik Art Museum, where we saw a really lively show of all Iceland’s current hip hop artists featured all on one stage.
The biggest hip hop artist of the night performing at the Reykjavik Art Museum Hip Hop show, among many others!
The music dies down around 2:30 in the morning. Don’t forget to grab a hotdog after the shows!
Depending on your taste in music you have a plethora of options available to you like hip hop, pop, electronic, darkwave, punk, metal, etc. Our favorite venue was Dillon’s Whiskey Bar. The performances were upstairs, it was an intimate venue, not to mention the acoustics were better than most other venues as they had a good sound person, and of course some really cool artists performed. They had a dedicated dark wave post punk night, which we really loved. Did I mention how rare it is to have a whole night dedicated to this often ignored genre? Music diversity! Yeah! We loved it!
At Dillon’s, we saw Milkhouse, who gave an awesome performance; a young band that really knew their way around their instruments, and pulled from many influences like jazz, punk and goth, offering a really eclectic sound.
We also saw Kælan Mikla, who was by far our favorite band of the trip! Their best peformance was at Dillon’s Whiskey Bar, by far. Yes, that rhymes. Good vibes.
At NASA, we saw Vök, a synth pop group with an ephereal sound, who are better known in Iceland and Europe. They also played at the Harpa, which I enjoyed a little more. I should mention that NASA is a cool music venue that we struggled to find because it had been shut down for 10 years or more, and reopened for the first time in years for the festival. Apparently, it was one of the first music venues in Reykjavik that had inspired many Icelandic artists performing at the festival to pursue music.
A video of Vök performing at KEX hostel (yes, this is a real hostel in Reykjavik, paired up with KEX in Seattle with a hip bar and great beer! Try Einstök Pale Ale, it was recommended to me by locals who did not care for my appreciation of Gull, their nationally recognised lager, this pale is divine!)
We also saw a pretty raw-in-your-face feminist band of 15 called Reykjavíkurdætur. They were dressed in some rather unattractive women’s shape wear, and the audience really loved their performance!
A highlight was at the Reykjavik art museum. Apparently, this was a really exciting moment for Icelanders as this was the first time most of Iceland’s recognised hip hop artists were in one venue and one concert performing together. I had discovered an artist before arriving called Ulfur Ulfur (pronounced: ool-fuhr, ool-fuhr) and really loved their song Tarantular, one of the rap artists from the group guested on a song.
5) Well, what’s the take away??
It rocked! Not only was the festival unique, cultural, and very diverse, it opened my eyes up to an entirely new music scene, I had no idea was so prolific prior to visiting Iceland. Maybe you will be bopping your head to some Icelandic beats in the near future! The coolest part of the festival was to see the artists friends standing next to you in the audience cheering them on, and then seeing the artists on stage standing beside you at the next venue. One night at NASA, a pop female vocalist singing in a very innocent tone on stage, in a style more typical of early Icelandic folk, just wasn’t speaking to me. And to be brutally honest, I wasn’t the only one who didn’t understand her performance, but I got shot a pretty harsh glare from someone in the crowd standing next to me who obviously knew her better than I did. So remember this, you are a guest in Iceland – learning about their music and their culture. Don’t forget this and be aware before you vocalise any harsh criticism. It’s a small country and close knit! Also, Icelander’s are a humble, peaceful people and don’t care for arrogance and over assertive confidence. It is not apart of their culture! This cultural aspect is even reflected in Icelandic hip hop music, which is generally known for being a more boastful genre.
Bottom Line: Reykjavik, Iceland has THE most impressive music scene I have seen in Europe or the U.S. combined. There is so much art going in Iceland, it’s crazy! And what’s even cooler? The artists that we saw are not just featured in the annual festival, if you look them up, many of these same artists are found performing all year long and getting good coverage in the local media. I have never seen so many music venues in such a small radius! Now, that is a country dedicated to its art!