This year in the most northerly capital of the world, residents celebrated the twentieth anniversary of their longest standing music festival: Iceland Airwaves. In a landscape of striking environmental juxtaposition and more soaking pools than we know what to do with, the independent music festival opens the doors of Reykjavik to showcase the-next-best-thing in music. Like that one diehard record store employee, who clutches their cassette tapes with white knuckles, Iceland Airwaves “listened to that band before everyone else did.” Okay, okay – a bit of an exaggeration considering how friendly Icelanders are. But, they do have good reason for taking their music industry leadership so seriously.
For starters, Iceland Airwaves extends a hospitable invite to people from all over the world who hope to claim they were among the few to catch [x band] before they made it big. In prioritizing strong international music relationships, networking has made the festival a valuable community builder and economic contributor in Iceland. Attracting thousands of festival attendees to Reykjavik establishments every November, Iceland Airwaves offhandedly boosts local tourism—a key economic contributor of Iceland surviving the blows of the 2008 banking crisis. (Because, why would you NOT go to Iceland, rent a car and drive as far as the limited daylight hours will take you?)
It’s also no secret that Iceland carries a reputable legacy of producing a considerable amount of unique, breakthrough musicians. From The Sugarcubes’ mid-80s entry, to Bjork’s 90s takeover, to the increasing 21st century presence of Icelandic influences such as Emiliana Torrini, Sigur Ros, and Mum, most of us arrive in 2018 privy to the strengths of the Icelandic music scene. Sharing in that growth since 1999, Iceland Airwaves has gone from “a one-off event in an airplane hangar” to a four day city-wide takeover of over 200 acts, a day of discussion panels, and nightly networking parties. Iceland Airwaves demonstrates that despite their sparsely populated and somewhat isolated location, they are undoubtedly an important resource for gauging the future of independent music.
However, it’s not just the promise of new music that brought She Shreds to Iceland this past November. Iceland Airwaves made international headlines last summer for meeting their pledge to prioritize 50% of their lineup for women acts. This achievement follows one year after the 2017 launch of the PRS Foundation’s Keychange initiative; a project Iceland Airwaves is a founding partner of. The Keychange initiative serves as an international call-to-action of music festivals to invest in “female artists” and pledge a 50:50 gender balance at their events by 2022.
This year, however, Iceland Airwaves took their pledge a step further than the scope of the Keychange pledge and reported that 50% of their festival staff were women. And it showed. While attending some pretty unforgettable shows—Stella Donnelly (AU), Madonna + Child (IS) , and Bedouine (US) to name a few—we were often greeted first by women presenting staff checking wristbands at venue entrances, managing sound, and providing security. We also caught the sets of Keychange partner musicians, like Tawiah (UK) and Mari Kalkun (EE), who are part of an international network of 60 women creators and innovators working with Keychange to create a series of programming, workshops, and showcases for music festivals in Europe and Canada.
With the aim of challenging exclusionary music industry practices and increasing the visibility and advocacy of women artists, Emiliana Torrini (IS) captures the spirit of this movement in her acceptance speech for the 2018 Keychange Inspiration Award:
“These voices bring changes and create spaces where once we were not welcome. We’re taking the credits we deserve, challenging the doubts within and supporting each other. Something like Keychange helps empower women within our industry and like with the beginning of change, in so many things in life, the arts have to take the lead.”
The Iceland Airwaves and Keychange partnership is a first step in the direction of revisioning the future of music festival practices. It’s important to remember though, that inclusive practices are only as good as the environment they operate in. Sure, have half of your lineup or staff be women, non-binary, and trans identifying artists. But if your “gender balance” work ends there, and no effort is put into creating a safe environment for these historically underrepresented artists to create in, then you are continuing to put them at risk of sexual assault and violence—an ongoing reality faced daily by their communities.
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At @icelandairwaves there are a team of collectives, organizations, venues and executives working together to ensure 50% women representation (achieved this year) amongst festival artists and ZERO tolerance for sexual harassment. Hopefully a great example set for the rest of the world. More info on this coming soon!
Iceland Airwaves online manager, Anna Ásthildur, shared during the Iceland Airwaves Lounge and Conference series that she realized the responsibility of the festival to create both an inclusive AND safe space and sought the help of experts. “I realized it’s really the responsibility of not only the guests there, to look out for each other but also, the venues, the musical festivals, and the promoters to say ‘this is the kind of vibe we want here, the kinds of guests we want here.’ And I don’t know how to create this vibe so, that’s when we reached out to Druslugangan.”
Druslugangan is a volunteer based crew who as of this year, mobilized close to 20,000 in downtown Reykjavik for Iceland’s 8th annual Slut Walk. When not organizing the masses and advocating for better legislation on behalf of women safety and livelihood, Druslugangan visits schools to educate young Icelanders on sexual violence, respecting both their own and other’s boundaries, and healthy sex communication skills. Closing out their already busy year, Druslugangan showed up strong to lead Iceland Airwaves in a Zero Tolerance policy of sexual harassment and violence at this year’s festival. A contribution that included social awareness, physical presence, and education.
Helga Lind Mar, a Druslugangan organizer and facilitator for the Sexual Harassment and Violence at Music Festivals panel at Iceland Airwaves, shared with She Shreds one of the impacts from Druslugangan’s contributions. “Our main thing was to get out the message of the festival having a zero tolerance policy. Letting people know that if something comes up, they will be listened to, they will be believed and measures will be taken. Often just the knowledge of that makes you feel safer.”
Druslugangan created a series of posters that adorned the bathrooms of many Reykjavik establishments with messages that read,
You have the right to dress however you want and to drink whatever you want without being harassed. You don’t have to deal with that shit alone. Please tell our friendly staff so they can help.
In addition, they developed a notification message that was sent out to all users of the Iceland Airwaves app, reminding them of the festival’s Zero Tolerance policy of sexual harassment and violence of any kind.
To ensure that the staff lived up to the promise of their message, Druslugangan asked nurse and head of emergency services for victims of sexual abuse, Hrönn Stefánsdóttir, to educate Iceland Airwaves staff on how to be proactive in eliminating incidents and respectfully handle victim reports. Knowing that cases of sexual harassment and violence can still happen even in a zero tolerance climate, having trained and knowledgeable staff could help to not make situations worse.
For example, staff were instructed to stop people who seemed incoherent, directly look them in their eyes, and ask questions like, “Do you know this person you are leaving with?” Helga shared during the Druslugangan festival panel, “It may not do something in the moment, but if you give an unconscious person a few seconds to try and connect, they might realize where they are and what’s going on.” Additionally, Druslugangan ensured that all participating venues had a working video surveillance system.
Helga and Druslugangan will continue working with Iceland Airwaves to improve next year’s festival. One area already under review are the contract terms made between the festival and artists in regards to the zero tolerance policy. “One of the bands playing has a member that is under active investigation for rape. What we found out is that Iceland Airwaves has no legal way to drop them as an artist. So, the issue of not giving the stage to sexual predators is something that will need to be improved and it’s well on its way. The festival should be a safe space for survivors; your perpetrator shouldn’t be on the stage in front of you.”