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Trends: Using music to boost tourism, and tourism to showcase music – Iceland Airwaves

By | Published on Sunday 15 February 2015


Iceland was the music market under the spotlight at the Eurosonic conference in Groningen last month, and amongst the elements of the Icelandic industry up for discussion was Iceland Airwaves, the long-established five-day festival that takes place in the capital of Reykjavík each and every autumn.

Initiated in 1999 by the airline Icelandair as a way of extending Reykjavík’s tourist season, fifteen years on the annual event is interesting on a number of levels: that such a credible event grew out of a brand partnership, and that the brand continues to support it a decade and half on; how the festival survived its country’s financial crisis and the way it has since engaged the local political community; and how the festival has become a global showcase for Iceland’s prolific music scene.

After the event was dissected on the Eurosonic stage, we spoke to the festival’s manager Grímur Atlason and one of its key media partners, Kevin Cole of KEXP in Seattle, as well as the boss of Iceland Music Export (and one time Sugarcube) Sigtryggur Baldursson, and Anna Hildur Hildibrandsdóttir of Nomex, who played a key role in marketing the event in its early days, later establishing IMX and helping to bring the festival under its wing.

The original idea was almost too simple: stage a music event in Reykjavík at the very end of the summer season, in a week when tourist numbers traditionally dropped off, with the aim of driving more visitors to the city and in doing so selling more flights. And so Iceland Airwaves was born, out of the marketing department of Icelandair, the brand and sponsor cleverly concealed within the festival’s name. Iceland the country trading on Icelandic music to boost tourism.

“The initial focus for Iceland Airwaves was on the American market, but I was brought in to boost the event’s profile in Europe”, says Hildur, who began working with the festival in 2003. “Mr Destiny, the promoter who ran the festival for its first ten years, was keen to find an audience in other countries, so it wasn’t entirely reliant on American music fans, in case that market saw a downturn at some point”.

“In the US, Icelandair’s own marketing department knew how to sell the event, but the European office didn’t really know what to do with it”, she continues. “I encouraged both promoter and sponsor to think of the festival as a brand in itself, and to rely less on any one year’s specific line-up, because then you can get going much earlier with your marketing”.

And that meant in part trading on the back of Iceland itself, and especially Icelandic music, to build a standalone identity for Airwaves.

“Our message was very much, come to Iceland to see the country where the music you love originated, whether that be The Sugarcubes, Björk, Sigur Rós… visit Iceland in the context of its musical heritage. And to that end we initially forged relationships with music blogs, and the websites that were really growing at the time – like Drowned In Sound – where we knew we’d reach passionate young music fans”.

While in the early days Icelandair – as the sponsor – may have been relying on headliners to market their festival in the States, it learned the benefits of being associated with an event with a strong credible identity of its own, above and beyond its line-up.

“It’s about persuading the brand not to meddle, and to let the event build its own reputation”, says Hildur. “It helped that Mr Destiny, the promoter, was good at spotting and booking new bands just as they were breaking, a brand loves to be associated with new artists just as they are gaining traction, and that helped secure international media interest too, which in turn pleased the airline”.

And that trust in the festival’s management when it comes to talent remains to this day. Now in charge, Atlason says: “They never ask us about programming, because they trust us to get it right. Of course, they are a corporate entity and they have a different mind-set to those of us in the music community. It’s important we recognise that, and build a working relationship that accommodates that fact. But I think, while we continue to book great new bands, the trust will still be there”.

Which means that line-up is important, even if the brand has learned to keep its distance, and the festival is now well enough established, both locally and worldwide, that it can sell tickets without headliners being announced.

“But we mustn’t get complacent”, Atlason notes. “Our audience, like Icelandair, trust us because we get it right. But a couple of years getting it wrong and we’d lose that trust”.

The fact that Icelandair continues to back the event – given how notoriously short attention spans brands usually have when it comes to music sponsorship – is in itself impressive. “I think there’s still new things for them to discover, new ways for them to interact, which helps keep it fresh” says Atlason.

“It has become something of an annual celebration for them to be part of”, Hildur adds. “And they are very much part of it, their name is in the brand, but in a clever way that doesn’t stop it from being a really cool festival”.

Iceland Airwaves’ fifteen year history hasn’t been without its challenges though. After all, alongside great music, impressive geezers and intrusive volcanic ash, the Iceland of today is also known for the major financial crisis that occurred when the country’s banking system spectacularly crashed in the wake of the credit crunch. And Iceland Airwaves could have been one of its victims.

“By 2009 Iceland Airwaves had become a really important platform for promoting Icelandic music”, says Baldursson, who now leads the country’s music export office. “And when the festival ran into trouble we feared for its future.

So we – that is to say IMX – decided to step in and form a subsidiary company that could take on promoting the event. And that’s when we recruited Grimmur to run the festival”.

“After its 2009 edition, Iceland Airwaves was in a tricky situation”, Atlason recalls. “At the start of 2010, before I’d been hired to run the festival, I was here at Eurosonic and kept having people say to me, ‘It’s not looking good for Airwaves, is it?’ Then just a couple of months later I was on board, and charged with the task of putting together that year’s event!”

“I knew Iceland Airwaves was a really good brand”, he goes on. “But it was definitely a challenge getting that 2010 festival together. Fortunately I had some good contacts and people trusted me. I just knew that I had to do a really good festival that year, a big festival that would stand out, to help ensure its long-term future. And we did. And we had some great success stories, like with Of Monsters And Men garnering attention in America via our KEXP partnership, all of which helped Airwaves regain its lost momentum”.

A couple of years later the festival won funding from the Icelandic government for the first time, it joining the city of Reykjavík which had been a backer since very early on. Why the decision from government to provide funding after the crash?

“I think it was part of a wider decision” says Atlason. “When the new government took over in 2009, that was a horrible year for any government in Iceland, but one decision they made was to carry on building the Harpa venue in Reykjavík – which wasn’t a foregone conclusion, it was only half built at the time – but I think ministers recognised the value of investing in culture at that time. And that strategy extended to supporting big cultural events like Iceland Airwaves”.

It was a strategy that both IMX and Iceland Airwaves itself helped inform.

“I was running IMX when it took over the festival”, Hildur says. “And one thing I was keen to do was to discover the actual value of the event to Reykjavík and to Iceland, and to communicate that value in a language that would be embraced by government”.

Atlason notes that, in terms of the revenue Airwaves brings into the country, and the taxes the event generates, the financial contributions the city and country make are not massive. But that’s not really the point.

Hildur explains: “I wanted to demonstrate to government the value of the event – and IMX continues to do this – because festivals like Airwaves need some stability, to be able to weather future storms. So we don’t return back to where we were in 2009. And that’s where government can really help”.

Winning political support means credible stats, highlighting tangible financial benefits, and also tackling any misconceptions.

“A lot of the people coming to Iceland Airwaves from abroad are younger travellers, and some politicians might assume these people have less money to spend”, Hildur says.

“But our research showed that festival-goers were spending an average of €260 on their trip, which was the average amount spent by all tourists across the board. And we found our audience was much more likely to return to the country a second and a third time, and probably for longer time periods on subsequent visits. These are all important messages to communicate to political decision makers who need to know the tangible value of your event”.

Iceland Airwaves has become an important event for reasons beyond tourism. Indeed, whereas the festival initially traded on the back of the popularity of Icelandic music to generate tourism trade, it now also does the reverse. In that the festival has become an important showcase platform for the Icelandic music community. Key to that are the many international media partnerships the festival has always pursued.

“The media partners have always played an important role in this event”, says Atlason. “And that’s very much the case today. It ensures the festival’s profile continues to grow, and gives the event a real buzz, especially for the artists, when they see all the international media in our venues. And we make sure we monitor all the coverage, and share it with our supporters, and with government, because it further proves the impact of the event”.

One of the stand-out media alliances is with Seattle-based public radio station KEXP, and its Program Director Kevin Cole was also at Eurosonic to discuss the partnership.

“I personally had a real interest in Icelandic music”, Cole says of the origins of his station’s link-up with Airwaves. “And I think that Seattle and Reykjavík have more in common than you might think”.

“Both cities have a very vibrant music scene”, he explains. “Why is that? Well, we both have terrible weather, so spend a lot of time indoors, and music is a great way of coming together inside. Also, prior to the internet, both cities were pretty isolated, and I think that meant they developed a very independent mindset, which is very liberating culturally”.

KEXP – itself a media brand with a very independent mind – makes it its mission to find the best new bands for its new music hungry audience, and to that end had had a presence at both South By Southwest in Austin and the CMJ festival in New York before being invited to broadcast from Airwaves.

With his passion for Iceland’s music scene, and the parallels he saw between the two cities, Cole quickly accepted.

“Ultimately it’s the music”, he says about his station’s continued commitment to setting up shop at the festival. “Grimmur and his team book great new acts, from both Iceland and beyond, and a lot of these are bands that we are not likely to get to see in Seattle, for quite some time at least”.

“That makes the commitment of bringing our team to Reykjavík for a whole week really worthwhile. We have the freedom to select artists from the line-up – which is really important to us – and then to share those acts with our listeners in Seattle, and via our website and YouTube channel with new music fans across the world”.

That presence of KEXP, and other media and music professionals from across the globe, has turned Airwaves into Iceland’s showcase festival – sitting alongside the likes of Eurosonic, South By and The Great Escape – even though that wasn’t the original intent. Which is why it was so important for IMX for the event to survive in 2009.

Since then one of the export office’s main tasks has been helping the country’s artists get the most out of what the festival creates. “The Icelandic music community knew Airwaves had become this big showcase”, says Baldursson. “And that’s why it was a good place to play. Though many weren’t really capitalising on the opportunity. They’d play their set and just hope that the right people would be in the room. Which is totally understandable, I’ve been there myself. Most musicians are crappy at promoting themselves”.

“In recent years we’ve been trying to make Airwaves a much better opportunity for Icelandic artists”, he continues. “Both by ironing out any issues and listening to the community, and also by explaining how artists can and should interact, with each other, and with the media and the industry who are at the event”.

“We’ve put networking meetings into the festival”, he explains. “And we provide a little more education, so that more artists now properly embrace the event, and use it for shameless self-promotion, as they totally should!”

Which brings us back to where we started, and explains why Iceland Airwaves is an example of a great brand partnership. Icelandair simply wanted to sell more plane tickets. Icelandic artists, of course, have no interest in such things. But they do want to play to bigger audiences, and in front of potential new fans. In Airwaves you have a venture where both sides can reach their desired destination. And long may it prosper.

INFO: Iceland Airwaves 2015 takes place from 4-8 Nov. More information at

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