University of Iowa

Iceland Airwaves

December 5th, 2014

By Sam Rust

Here’s how it works: you buy a ticket online and then you wait. You wait for November to arrive, you wait in line to get your wrist band, you wait in line to get into venues, you wait in line to see a particular band and then you wait for the crowds to subside so you can wait in line for the next show. If you are an impatient soul who despises large numbers of people, Iceland Airwaves is not for you. If you’re a music enthusiast, avid reader, “orch-dork,” party-animal or all of the above, Iceland Airwaves will be one of the best weeks of your life.

Iceland Airwaves is a more than just a five-day musical festival in November. It’s an opportunity for budding musicians not only from Iceland but her neighbors from the UK, US, and various other European countries to showcase talent that would very possibly be confined to their motherlands. The 2014 edition of Iceland Airwaves boasted The War on Drugs and The Flaming Lips as their big headliners, and while the headliners are usually what consumers are paying for, the fact that there are 219 bands playing throughout five full days is a paradise for hipsters looking for ways to brag about the number of shows they’ve been to and all the bands that you “probably haven’t heard of” (myself included.)


I stood in this line that was originally out the door of Harpa to get my tickets for the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and the Flaming Lips concerts.

If paying money for shows isn’t your cup of tea, Iceland Airwaves consumes the entire city, and the energy itself makes just existing in Iceland during the festival an experience of its own. There are 13 certified venues that concert-goers get access to with their wristbands and they are located in various bars, theaters, and concert halls throughout the city. Yet off-venue sites provide non-festival goers opportunities to delve into the world of Icelandic music free of charge, and the various book stores, cafes, and record shops will begin the Airwaves festivities as early as noon, thus ensuring an incredibly long day of music – on the weekends, Reykjavikers can keep the party going as early as 6am without problems.

The sheer amount of people in the city during the weekend set the standard incredibly high for Reykjavik night-life. Every place is packed to capacity with Icelanders and foreigners alike – while in one of my many lines I heard a blend of American and United Kingdom English, French, German and Icelandic. I sincerely didn’t realize that magnitude of the situation I was getting myself into when I bought my ticket in August, but I would have been sorely disappointed come the beginning of October when all 8,000 tickets were sold out as Iceland Airwaves is the place to be in November.  

There are no existing demographic parameters for those who attend Iceland Airwaves. I saw students fresh out of classes excited to just be old enough to be at these shows while ten feet behind me two late-twenty-something artists (probably) stood silently drinking their beer and stroking their beards. My favorite characters were the high fashion Icelandic moms shamelessly grooving to their kids’ music in fur coats and pleather leggings and the middle aged men letting loose to an experimental Danish-Icelandic duo while the bottom half of a naked woman danced on the screen (the duo in question is called The Mansisters, if you’re into that sort of thing.) 

Although Iceland Airwaves sounds like a five-day party (which it easily is), there are some highly refined acts and experiences that are important to recognize as well. The 2014 Iceland Airwaves hosted the 2nd annual “Airwords” that integrated the idea of literary readings into the music scene during Airwaves. As Reykjavik is one of the seven UNESCO Cities of Literature, it seemed fitting to include poetry readings as an accompaniment to a music festival. Headlining Airwords both years was the poet and novelist, Sjón – one of the more notable Icelandic authors who has contributed significantly to musician, Björk’s, lyrics. My reluctance to queue for an hour resulted in me missing the opportunity to hear what Sjón and a few other authors had to say this year, but I can only imagine how inspiring and exciting Airwords was in 2014.


One of the only photos I took during this show. If you don't know Hozier, start listening!

Another notable addition this year was the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, who provided a comforting respite from the other acts during the festival. Although orchestral tones are nothing new to most Icelandic bands, the Iceland Symphony Orchestra coupled their performance of “The Miner’s Hymn” with a visual journey through the lives of miners in the UK throughout the 20th century. Due to limited seating for both the ISO and The War on Drugs/The Flaming Lips concerts, additional tickets were required thus resulting in arriving at Harpa (Reykjavík’s own convention center) two days prior to the actual show and standing in massive queues. I complain, but it was so worth the wait.

The concerts themselves were incredible. I attended a majority of them myself (due to my preferred method of festival-going – i.e. staying in one venue and blissfully absorbing the sounds from whoever happened to be on the stage next), and I think it was one of the better decisions in Iceland that I have made so far. I bought the tickets without having any friends who were also going, and although I’ve never attended a concert alone before, I think that it made my experience what it was. It allowed me to decide where I wanted to be and discover music new way that I wanted to.

Here are my highlights from the week:

-          Icelandic bands:  

o   Vök

o   Mammút

o   Samaris

o   Ásgeir

o   Icelandic Symphony Orchestra

-          As for everything that isn’t Icelandic…

o   Hozier (Ireland)

o   La Femme (France)

o   The War on Drugs (US)

Thinking of going to Reykjavík some day? Iceland Airwaves season is the time to go.

Samantha Rust is a senior from Ramsey, MN majoring in English at the University of Iowa. Sam is currently studying abroad on the University of Iceland Exchange program in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Author