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  • David Bentley

Iceland Airwaves 2020 cancelled – what does it mean for the future of live music?

Early in March the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas was cancelled just before the pandemic was called by the WHO. Coachella followed though it was rescheduled for September. At the time most people probably thought Glastonbury would get away with it.

But it wasn’t to be. One after another, festivals were cancelled and, worryingly, continue to be. I was lucky enough to attend what I believe to have been the last one in Europe, By: Larm in Oslo on the last weekend of February, before the shutters came down. The way things are going By: Larm will be the last one for a long time to come.

A while ago NMR published an article on three festivals which were still scheduled and which would involve Nordic artists – Reeperbahn (Hamburg) in September (and which has ‘partnered’ with Denmark this year), Iceland Airwaves (early November) and the next By: Larm, in the first week of March.

To its eternal credit Reeperbahn remains ‘on’ as this is written but its renowned conference sessions are now ‘virtual’ and there will be less than one third of the usual 600 gigs. All the big artists and bands have been shifted to 2021 although Tony Visconti (Bowie’s main producer) has just given it his seal of approval by agreeing to head up an award judging team again this year. How many music fans will bother to go? It remains to be seen but hopefully they will turn out in force.

Yesterday I received an email from Iceland Airwaves informing me that this year’s festival is cancelled. It said,

“Recently, to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic head on, Icelandic authorities implemented stricter measures around mass gatherings, social distancing, testing and arrival into the country.

The Iceland Airwaves team is committed to doing our part in stopping the spread of the virus. It's of the utmost importance that we ensure the health and safety of our guests and staff, and that we follow all regulations.

Unfortunately, these new measures make proceeding with this year’s festival impossible. We reviewed many scenarios: with social distancing; with breaking the audience into separated groups, with lower attendance; with fewer venues. We returned to the same answer: there was no feasible solution to deliver the festival for 2020.

2020 ticket holders can simply hold on to their ticket for 2021!  We would be truly grateful if you would hold onto your current ticket and thereby support the festival, and the Icelandic music industry, which, like many others, are currently going through a very difficult time.

They also announced ’25 new acts for 2021’ in addition to the 30 or so already notified on the website for this year. But that 2020 list had not been added to for months. They must have known this was coming.

So, don’t ask for a refund, just use your ticket next year and keep Icelandic musicians out of the dole queue. But will there be a festival then? The way things are I see no guarantee of that.

This thing is building a momentum of its own now, a reputation of mythical proportions. A biblical plague. You can see it in the empty supermarkets and pubs, everyone shopping online and drinking at home. And in the deserted city streets, as everyone works from home, too, where they are still in work. We are going back to a cave dwelling society. So what makes the organisers think there will be a festival next year? That people will be any more prepared then to put themselves “at risk” as the mainstream media almost wills us to be? There probably isn’t going to be a vaccine by then because all governments, apart from the loopy Russian one, will demand clinical trials that could possibly last for years to identify dangers and side effects.

And I have to say I am surprised this has happened in Iceland. The country is so small in population (a little over 300,000 people, the size of, say, Leicester), and most of them in one place (Greater Reykjavik), that the government was able to test more people per capita than any other country and very quickly, in March. So they rapidly got their outbreak under control. There were very few deaths.

Indeed they got so cocky that they reopened their borders early in June, well before other European countries, pleading with tourists to come back to a ‘safe country’.

Now the infection numbers have gone back up again and, yes, tourists may have pushed them back up as has been the case in other tourist-oriented countries which rushed to open their borders.

But is running away from this disease like this the answer? Life has to go on and there are risks around every corner. We wear masks both inside and outside now and make sure we don’t get too close to each other. We are constantly scrubbing our hands. Moreover, treatments are improving all the time; the medical profession, having been blindsided at first, is getting to grips with Covid now. And are higher numbers of infections actually indicative of more instances of the disease or better testing?

Iceland already has a comprehensive testing system on arrival at Keflavik Airport, the only international one. It is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean. You can’t just creep into the country unobserved.  

You only get one shot at life; better to live it to the full, pouring water down the vest of fear as Blackadder would say. Could this event not have gone ahead with, say, a 50% capacity limit on venues, doubling up on shows if necessary (yes, the musicians would have to work a little harder, bless them) with all attendees required to wear approved masks and venues chock full of sanitiser?

And some shows actually go ahead outdoors at this event despite the cold, as I can testify

Essentially that is what they have done in Hamburg and good luck to them.

There seems to be a tacit understanding amongst festival organisers that it’s okay, we’ll go ahead next year, you’ll just have to twiddle your thumbs. I’m waiting for the same to happen with By: Larm.

But it isn’t as simple as that, is it? It is a long, long, time to twiddle anything. People will find alternative things to do that are home-based. Reading, writing, painting, making their own music, origami, board games, you name it. They will lose the drive to travel any distance to do anything outside their secure comfort zone. (Football and other spectator sports will find this, too). YouTube and the occasional streamed gig will replace the live show, even if there is a charge imposed.

As for Iceland, it needs tourists desperately. The economy is now founded on it; fishing has dropped well down the employment league. Without them it could go bankrupt, again, and the few who are prepared to travel there will be priced out (again) by a soaring exchange rate.

Then there is Icelandair, the main airline serving the country, and the festival’s sponsor. It is in serious trouble. In the years 2017-2019 its turnover was in the range US$1.4 to 1.5 billion, with a net profit/loss varying between $38 million profit and $56 million loss. In the first half of this year its turnover is reduced by 59% despite it having continued to operate when most other airlines didn’t, and its net loss is $330 million. You can double that by the end of the year.

Recently, it sacked its entire staff and re-employed them on inferior contracts. There will be a new share offer, and the government has agreed a credit line, collectively worth about $250 million. But will it still be around to sponsor the festival next year? I wouldn’t bet on it. There is no Wall Street in Reykjavik.

Let’s have this right. I’m not blaming the festival organisers for the decision to cancel. It was forced on them by their government. But it isn’t only the Icelandic government which doesn’t seem to realise that its country’s live music scene is dying around it. And it isn’t only Icelandair that might not be there next year. I’ll wager most of the venues will have gone as well, along with the musicians, who will probably end up in a cod filleting factory. If they’re lucky.

Then there are the fans. Most people don’t live to work; they do so for their leisure pursuits. While they might find other outlets, as above, with very high unemployment forecast for most countries, global tensions rising, the threat of more viruses like this one, and winter looming, some people are going to lose the will to live. And I mean that.

My message is – governments, confront this now and let your citizens live their lives in the here and now, with all its attendant risks, rather than in some dystopian future with no guarantees of any improvement on their current lot.

Even in wartime you could go out to see a show.

This article represents the views of contributor David J Bentley and not necessarily of Nordic Music Review


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