Can Iceland's bands cope with economic meltdown?

Despite enduring a financial crash that nearly bankrupted the nation, musicians at Icleand's Airwaves festival seem to be surviving the slump unscathed

Iceland is nothing like you would imagine, and last weekend's Airwaves festival in Reykjavík dispelled two popular myths. For a start, there were no elves in Che Guevara T-shirts extolling the virtues of self-sustainable energy. Unlike other Nordic nations, Iceland is far from a left-wing utopia. You only have to notice Reykjavík's similarities to America, including diners, Ford pickups and a 1960s-style Pentecostal church to realise that. After all, it was arguably Iceland's belief in free market values that led it into the worst financial crash in its economic history a year ago.

And the second great fallacy is that Icelanders are gripped by anger as a result of the recession. This is simply not true. There were no punk bands at Airwaves screaming about dole queues. Indeed, the aggressive protests that have become a popular image of the fiscal gloom have mostly subsided, making way for subdued feelings of disorientation. Speaking to singer-songwriter Eliza Newman, this is due to exhaustion rather than apathy. "Can you imagine wanting to kill the people responsible for this for an entire year?" She suggested. "It's impossible. People are exhausted. No one knows what's going to happen any more."

Airwaves was dominated by this ambivalent mood. On the one hand, things are bad. Unemployment is at 6-7% and the government has taken ownership of the country's three major banks. On the other, most people still have a job and credit is surprisingly available on the high street from banks that were saved from going under because of bad lending policies. In the latter instance, this is a vital continuity for hard-up Icelandic musicians looking to record and play abroad.

One such group is For a Minor Reflection, who have just returned from mastering their second album in LA and are about to tour the UK. To do this, they have registered as a business and obtained a commercial loan. This convergence of the artistic and the economic is not exclusive, however. During the boom, bankers held private gigs and paid local acts lavish amounts. Even Björk has intervened and co-ordinated a project called the Venture Fund to stimulate growth in new businesses.

Her influence is important because many acts regard Björk's international success as a model for their own. According to Loa Hjalmtysdottir of synth-poppers FM Belfast, it's difficult for national acts to make it without American or British endorsement. Hopefully the UK release of her next album, How to Make Friends, should remedy that. However, there has never been a lot of money in Iceland's music scene due to its size, and it has therefore survived the slump unscathed.

But while musicians are as broke as ever, there is still hope. The fact that Airwaves boasted the same number of national and international acts as previous years proves this. And music's enduring popularity in Iceland has become a symbol of redemption from the failure of laissez-faire capitalism – a reminder that with talent and hard work, things can get better.

Huw Nesbitt

The GuardianTramp

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