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Iceland Airwaves boss: ‘Our strategy is working’

Iceland Airwaves festival director Isleifur Thorhallsson has told IQ the decision to return the event to its roots has been vindicated by last year’s sellout comeback.

Its first event proper since the pandemic, the November 2022 edition featured 80 acts from more than 15 countries including Amyl & The Sniffers, Metronomy, Arlo Parks and a DJ set by Röyksopp, but its emphasis on emerging domestic talent – implemented following its acquisition by promoter Sena Live in 2018 – continued.

“Since we took over the festival five years ago, we have been working on a specific strategy that is mostly about taking the festival back to the roots, back to downtown Reykjavik, back to being about music discovery, and stopping chasing big bands,” says Sena Live MD Thorhallsson. “I look at last year’s edition as proof that the strategy is working.

“We could see other shows selling poorly after coming out of Covid, so we were understandably worried as the festival approached. But it was amazing to see the sales blow up in the week and it was pretty incredible to end up sold out for the first time in years. It shows that ticket buyers are making decisions closer to the event, probably because they have been disappointed by consistent cancellations and postponements.”

Iceland Airwaves, which held streaming event Live from Reykjavïk in 2020 and 2021 in lieu of the flagship festival, downsized from four days to three for its return and won Best Indoor Festival at last month’s European Festival Awards.

“We decided to simplify the festival, going down to three days and fewer bands and venues”

“We decided to simplify the festival, going down to three days and fewer bands and venues,” explains Thorhallsson. “However, it’s still an incredible amount of the best upcoming bands from around the world combined with the best Icelandic talent.

“We made a bet that no one would complain or that the guests would even enjoy the experience of more intimate festival, and that turned out to be correct. By making it more manageable for ourselves, it also became more accessible to the public, so we ended up selling more tickets than before, not less.”

Organisers will shortly unveil the line-up for Iceland Airwaves 2023, which is scheduled for 2-4 November.

“We want to build on the successes of the 2022 edition and all the goodwill and great feedback we are getting from guests, artists, agents and basically the entire industry,” says Thorhallsson. “So many exciting things are happening in the music scene locally and internationally, and we’re always looking to shine a light on new talent. We’re also talking with some breakout stars for headline slots, and are already working towards our first line-up announcement in the middle of February.

“We are excited that the festival is now in good shape. It seems that we now have a working formula for this complex project, so our time and effort can go into fine-tuning and making the festival even better. Our big lessons have not least been to learn what not to do, and to say no.”

“People need to realise the hardships the live industry has faced in the past few years are nowhere near over”

While the festival appears in rude health, Thorhallsson admits to harbouring concerns about the live music sector at large.

“People need to realise the hardships the live industry has faced in the past few years are nowhere near over,” he warns. “Despite small wins, we’re still rebuilding an industry that was left as a smoking ruin, and ticket buyers’ behaviour has changed a lot. It takes more effort to convince someone to go out there and see a show, costing more money. Live music is not a given, especially not for smaller festivals and artists.

“The more prominent players in the game will have an easier time returning to something similar to a pre-Covid situation. Still, smaller festivals and artists will need more time and more support. We’ve seen disastrous mental health effects and exhaustion across our industry. We need to support each other and not take live music and the ability to go to shows as a given.”

Where Iceland Airwaves is concerned, however, it is business as usual.

“We will keep going in the same direction, booking the best upcoming bands from Iceland and all over the world, playing in the same diverse venues in downtown Reykjavik,” he adds. “There is nothing like the Icelandic music scene, there is no downtown like Reykjavik, and when you are on top of that – in a position to pick all the most exciting new bands from around the world – it comes together and creates a very unique experience.”


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Grímur Atlason departs as Iceland Airwaves sold

Icelandic promoter Sena Live says it plans to take Iceland Airwaves back to its roots by showcasing emerging Icelandic talent, rather than booking big international names, following its recent purchase of the festival.

Speaking to Morgunblaðið, Sena Live CEO Ísleifur Þórhaldsson says it wants to “go back to basics. We don’t think Airwaves should be chasing the big acts, but should be a festival for up-and-coming and indie bands.”

The company announced last week it had bought Iceland Airwaves along with the Airwaves brand, which previously belonged to the festival’s main sponsor, Icelandair. According to the paper, Airwaves lost almost half a million euros in 2016, owing to declining ticket sales and rising costs. “We definitely have to make cuts here and there, but we’re still not talking about people feeling like the festival is downsizing,” says Ísleifur. “It’s not about booking as many [bands] as possible, but booking well.”

Mumford & Sons, Fleet Foxes, Michael Kiwanuka, Billy Bragg and Benjamin Clementine were among the high-profile international acts who played Airwaves 2017.

“We will not be the people who destroy Airwaves”

Sena Live’s acquisition of Airwaves coincides with the departure of long-serving festival director Grímur Atlason, who says that after eight years, “it’s time to move on”, adding: “It’s been a privilege and pleasure working for this great festival with all my marvellous co-workers over the years.”

Ísleifur says the festival’s renewed focus on showcasing Icelandic talent to foreign bookers has the full support of its sponsors. “We take these obligations seriously,” he explains. While bigger bands will still be booked, “they will always have to fit into the basic ideology of the festival,” he says.

“Airwaves is a deep-rooted cultural institution which we know and feel immediately that everyone cares about,” Ísleifur concludes. “We will not be the people who destroy Airwaves.”

Sena Live is one of Iceland’s biggest promoters, recently bringing artists such as Justin Timberlake, Justin Bieber, Iron & Wine and Tiësto to the Nordic island, which has a population of around 350,000.


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