The Air Up There: A Visitor’s Guide to the Iceland Airwaves Festival

Every year at the end of October, hundreds of journalists (around 600 this year) and thousands of international music lovers break out their heavy winter jackets, hats, and gloves and flood the city of Reykjavik, Iceland for the Iceland Airwaves music festival. Although Reykjavik is the capital city, the population hovers just under 200,000 people–which is actually 60% of the entire population of the country. (Compare that to the population of the island of Manhattan, over 1 million people.)

A view of the crowd at Reykjavik Art Museum, the main venue of the festival. (Click for larger image.)

Whereas some towns mildly loathe their annual music festival, filling their neighborhoods with unwanted congestion and unbearable lines to venues (Austin, TX for SXSW; NYC for CMJ), Reykjavik welcomes the annual event with open arms. Because the city is so small, the influx of extra bodies seems to nicely plump up, not overstuff, the venues and streets. Bands perform in every available space–coffee shops, cafes, and small shops; even the city’s art museum serves as a venue. Posters (this year designed by Sveinbjörn and monkeymama) touting the biggest bands playing the festival are plastered all along walls and bus stops and it seems as though every wrist I looked at was accessorized with the red wristband that served as the pass to all Airwaves events. Unlike CMJ, the Iceland Airwaves festival is not just an industry event–it’s actually attended by locals, who can purchase wristbands at a reasonable price, so the crowds are largely made up of fans with a sprinkling of professionals.

The main meeting place for those attending the festival is cafe Hressingarskalinn, or “Hresso” for short, the Airwaves Information Center. It’s a hop skip and a jump from where all the venues are so it’s very centrally located. This is the place where everyone checks in and picks up their passes, bands do interviews with journos, and where you can buy CDs, books, and t-shirts associated with the fest. There’s free wifi for all the customers to use, so it’s a highly recommended place to plunk down and get some emails written while you chow down on any of their great-tasting dishes.

By New York standards, the price of food is a bit steep, with a hamburger with fries running you 990 ISK, or just under 15 USD, but by Icelandic standards, that’s normal. In fact, anyone who visits Iceland will quickly realize that EVERYTHING is expensive there. After a while I didn’t even bother calculating how much money I was spending, out of fear that I might have thrown myself on top of a geysir when I realized how much dough I was blowing. The good news is that tipping is not necessary, service is included in the prices. Another place fashionable locals can be seen eating is Prikio, which has tasty sandwiches. But be warned, service is far from speedy at this location, so if you are in a rush to a gig, it might not be the best option.

During Airwaves live music can be found all around. In the early evenings bands schlep their gear through the streets, often suffering from jet lag and/or rough hangovers, to do off-venue in-stores at places like record store 12 Tonar (think Reykjavik’s answer to Other Music) or hip bars like Sirkus and Kaffibarinn all around the downtown area. Realizing the importance of mass exposure to the international cross section of tastemakers and concert-goers at the festival, some bands, like the British pop rockers Hot Club de Paris (below), seem to work overtime, doing no less than 2 in-stores the same night they play their main Airwaves gig.

Hot Club de Paris play inches away from spectators at 12 Tonar record shop. (Click for larger image.)

People pile into the often cramped spaces, standing inches away from the performers as the musicians do their best to impress the crowd. Those unable to get inside stand outdoors, listening to the music through open doors or peering through windows to get a better look at the action going on indoors. Short 25-minute-ish sets give everyone a sampling as to what the bands could do, and the groups hope that these informal gigs will lead to good word-of-mouth and draw out larger crowds to their big show.

The main shows start going around 8pm with up-and-coming bands, and the biggest draws going on around 10-12. Early on in the evening it is very easy to bounce to and from venues–lines are not long, or non-existent at that point. But come 11pm long lines form, sometimes stretching far down the block to get into even the largest of venues. But amazingly, it seemed as though everyone gets in. Usually by the time the band is on, everyone who wants to get in has been stuffed into the venue, fire marshal be damned.

Line outside Gaukurinn during Vice magazine’s party.

I was flabbergasted by all of the venue’s ability to run show schedules with punctual zeal. When the schedule says a band is supposed to go on at 10pm, they are going on at 10pm. The latest I saw a show go off schedule was by 10 minutes. I saw bands actually unplug their equipment at the very last second of the song and SPRINT off stage with their gear in order to keep to their allotted time.

Crowds in Reykjavik are attentive and very polite–perhaps even to a fault. During Kaiser Chiefs‘ set on Saturday night–arguably the biggest show of the entire festival, not a crowd surfer or mosh pit was to be found. In fact lead singer Ricky Wilson had to take it upon himself to get the crowd into a tizzy during “I Predict a Riot” by stage diving into the audience…twice. Yet I did see a couple crowd surfers during Go! Team–which was pretty dangerous considering there weren’t any security guards to catch them in the photo pit–so it’s beyond me to figure out what would get Icelandic kids excited.

The Icelandic crowds are pretty happy to pogo in their own little personal space, as well as do the most organized clapping rallies I’ve ever been a part of. Someone will start a clapping rally and quickly everyone will join in, maintaining a steady 4/4 time without getting faster or slower until the performers come back for an encore.

The lights have come up, and the cops are in van outside, but the crowd at Gaukurinn claps for an encore from The Whitest Boy Alive.

If you want to muscle your way up from the back of the crowd to the very front, it’s entirely possible–there’s usually a good deal of room in the front, especially in the largest venues–but you’ll have to put some elbow into it because once planted, the locals do not like to budge from their spot. There were times when I was leaving from the front of the stage to get out of the venue and people were hesitant to let me pass them. You just gotta push on by and not fret it.

For those of you who have gotten used to the smoking ban in NYC, you will understand immediately that they have no such law in Iceland, puffing on death sticks inside of the venue is permitted. So be forewarned, anything you wear will end up smelling like a dirty tube sock. On the bright side, look out for free coat check areas–available at places like the Reykjavik Art Museum, behind the men and women’s bathroom. There’s a wall full of hangers for you to use to hang up your coat at your own risk.

If you’re a studious little traveler like myself, you would have already read the “Insider Tips” to the festival on the official Iceland Airwaves site before leaving. But I have some clarifications to make to this list based on my experience this year. The first item in the list is to “always go up the stairs.” I stepped inside 4 of the venues participating in the festival, and to my knowledge, only one (the Reykjavik Art Museum) actually had an upstairs. The Art Museum has a limited seating area that directly faces the stage on the opposite side of the building (see the first photo of this post–it’s a view from the front of the stage, you can see the seated area way in the back). So basically anyone on stage will appear teeny teeny to you. The rest of the balcony, which runs along the sides of the building on either side of the stage is quarantined for press and guests of the artists only.

Another item says that you should save room in your bag to bring home loads of CDs. Well yes, you should save some extra room in your bag to bring back the wares you purchase in Iceland, but I do want to point out that the CDs are quite expensive there, running you somewhere in the ballpark of 25-30 dollars per disc. So unless you’ve got loads of cash to spend on music, I would suggest picking your very favorite bands in the festival and purchasing their CDs. Or, if you haven’t noticed, it’s the digital age, so you very well might be able to find free MP3s of the bands you like on their official web sites.

CDs for sale at 12 Tonar record shop.

Like everything else in Iceland, alcohol is very expensive in clubs and venues–costing around 9-12USD for a beer. Most locals get drunk at home before going out, so by the time 11pm rolls around you are surrounded by fully inebriated Icelanders. In Reykjavik the nights run long, with bars closing around 6am on weekends. As you walk down the main streets from 2-5 the mood is of jovial drunkenness. You will hear the sounds of a beer bottle being smashed to the ground ever so often and see crowds of drunk hipsters huddled around hot dog trucks parked by the harbour hoovering the oblong pieces of meat into their mouths (a Reykjavik rite of passage).

Although drinking on the street is officially illegal, the law is not enforced as long as you are not bothering anyone, so it’s a typical site to see folks swigging from bottles as they amble down the main stretch of Bankastraeti/ Laugavegur (nick-named “Pull Street” by the Brits).

Locals are happily drunk on Lagavegur street on Saturday night.

If you are too wasted to walk home, you can always hail a taxi along the main roads. They lurch by in the hopes of people giving up on the night and heading back to their hotel. Of course, taxis are expensive as well–in New York terms, a ride from the East Village to Chinatown would probably run around 20USD. Tipping is not required.

Although the festival runs from Wed-Sunday, the main nights are Thursday-Saturday–the same nights covered extensively by the English-language Icelandic free newspaper, Grapevine. It’s a snarky, alternative paper with young, opinionated writers in the vein of NYC’s Village Voice, and they do a daily publish reviewing the previous night’s concerts, as well as interesting commentary about the Reykjavik music scene and how it pertains to the festival. Copies are delivered to hotels and cafes in the area around 10am Friday-Sunday.

All of the parties happen Thurs-Sat as well. The scene at the airport is pure chaos on Sunday afternoon, so if you can stay an extra day, you’ll have a much more relaxing journey home if you leave on Monday afternoon instead, although you probably will not have as many musician sightings. Sunday usually has some low-key showcases and even movie screenings running in the evening, so it’s a nice way to pace down from the go-go-go atmosphere of the preceding days.

The Iceland Airwaves festival started out as a labor of love in 1999 and has garnered a reputation of being one of the premire concert series in the world just eight years later. According to those who have attended in the past, every passing year the festival gets bigger and better organized, continuing to draw big-name acts and providing a platform to some of the best homegrown talent. Right now the festival is somewhat of an unknown in America, so when you’re at Airwaves seeing bands, it really feels like you are discovering something new and exciting on your own, as opposed to watching a bunch of bands you’ve already heard the hype about with about 40 other people from NYC standing behind you. I’m sure as the concert series continues to grow in size and reputation, that might change, but in the meantime Iceland Airwaves is one of the most interesting and unique festivals around. Enjoy the magic.

For those of you in the US who are interested in attending the Iceland Airwaves Festival in the future, you can book all-inclusive packages (airfare, festival ticket, and hotel) via Icelandair. But if you want to save a little money and don’t mind doing some footwork of your own, you can book a flight on Icelandair (around 500 USD with taxes) and find a hotel on your own (travel services like Expedia or Yahoo! Travel contain listings in Reykjavik). Perhaps not as well known is the fact that you can buy a festival ticket a la carte via Icelandair for around 120 USD by calling up the airline, so if you will not be coming directly from Iceland, or you just don’t feel like giving Icelandair an extra few hundred dollars, that’s a viable option. Those flying in from the UK have the option of purchasing ONLY airfare + festival pass, or an all-inclusive package.

I would recommend a hotel that’s located in the 101 area code. The closer to Austurvollur square the better. Think Hotel Borg, Radisson Sas 1919 Hotel, or Hotel Reykjavik Centrum. That said, accommodations are far from cheap in the city, but you will be thankful when you are rolling out of a bar at 5am and your hotel is only a block or two away. If you cannot afford one of the pricey hotels in the center of it all, a hotel in the 105 or 107 area code would be close enough to walk (about 15-25 minutes). And although it’s a beautiful boutique hotel (complete with a Pizza Hut restaurant), the Icelandair Nordica Hotel is way too far out to be walking to late at night.

Press credentials must be requested about a month and a half in advance (AT THE LATEST) of the festival through the Mr. Destiny team. If you have been selected to cover the festival, they’ll send you a confirmation email toward the end of September and you will be given a press pass at check-in in Reykjavik. The pass allows you go to to all of the shows, access to the photo pit, and invitations to special parties, as well as a free trip to the Hangover Party on Saturday at the famous (and absolute Iceland must-see) Blue Lagoon geothermal pool near Keflavik Airport.

If you don’t mind missing some of the parties and in-stores during the day, I would highly suggest either going on a tour (Reykjavik Excursions is the main tour operator in the area) or renting a car and taking a day trip out to see some of the sights. The main thing that most people see while in Reykjavik is the Golden Circle, which is composed of seeing Gullfoss waterfall, Geysir, a hot spring that spouts out water up to 30m every 7-10 minutes, and the Thingvellir National Park where you will see the birthplace of the world’s first democratic parliament, Althing. You can book in advance through their web sites or have your hotel book it when you arrive. If you book a tour, remember to have your hotel re-confirm the pickup while you are in Reykjavik.

You basically only need one day or two half-days to see the entire city and all the tourist sites, so I would definitely recommend getting out of the city one day and looking at all the beautiful and otherworldly nature the country has to offer.

When you’re going to a country called “Iceland”, you figure it’s going to be pretty cold, right? The truth is that the weather in late October is almost identical to that of a typical day in New York during winter time. Bring a warm coat (I brought a North Face down jacket), a hat and gloves and you will be fine. You may choose to layer up, wearing thin layers of clothes (like a long-sleeved tee under your shirt, or leggings under your jeans) in order to keep extra warm when the wind starts to blow. Although the guidebook I bought (Best of Reykjavik by Lonely Planet) listed October as being one of the rainiest months of the year, I experienced nothing but blue skys and sunny weather. You’ll want to bring at least one pair of insulated hiking boots for any excursions you do that involves visiting glaciers or walking up hills/through rocky areas. Grassy areas near waterfalls can also get pretty muddy due to the exposure to moisture, so make sure to wear gear that is waterproof.

Published by Laura

I run The Modern

9 replies on “The Air Up There: A Visitor’s Guide to the Iceland Airwaves Festival”


    So glad you are back though.

    I saw the pic with Tuborg and got a sudden wave of nostalgia for Scandanavia. That is some good beer. Hope you drank (er sipped) some.

  2. Calling this post informative is an understatement. If I somehow have the cash next year, I may just use the money to go there now as opposed to Roskilde in the summer.

  3. nice blog – my girl and i went to the festival last year (where i took that art museum post-party shot you favorited on flickr).
    to all other commentors: GO! it’s fantastic… the vibe is so much better than the other big festivals; more like rock and roll summer camp than the industry circle-jerk at CMJ, etc.
    one tip to future festival-goers: i’d highly recommend renting a 4×4 and driving yourself and a few friends on the golden circle – you can set your own pace, get out whenever you want to take pictures and explore, and there are a lot 4×4 only roads that are a blast to drive and take you way up into the scenery.

Comments are closed.