The Story within the Story
In February 2015, five Alberta musicians and Edmonton's Poet Laureate collaborated with Icelandic artists for the Reykjavik Winter Lights Festival. Iceland Calling is the video documentary of their journey.
Heavy Grain was brought along to capture the story and create the documentary. In riding from rehearsal space to rehearsal space, from the Hallgrímskirkja church to Harpa to 12 Tónar, another story emerged on video from the dialogues we were having.
In these outtakes and addendums we found strong parallels with the Icelandic culture and music industry, with particular relevance to musicians, artists, industry professionals and government officials in Canada, and particular to our story, in Edmonton and Alberta.
A Strong Music Scene
Being on an island has some obvious limitations. Artists in Reykjavik are primarily restricted to the city for developing their music and their fanbase. The entire industry is fixed - fixed population to gain as fans, fixed number of venues to gain performance experience, fixed number of musicians to collaborate with. To evolve as an artist, to grow in most every area, it requires leaving the island.
This clip features some prominent local artists, as well as industry professionals, speaking to the challenges of the Icelandic music scene, as well as the ways in which it has found strength and success.
In Edmonton and Alberta, as an artist, it is not uncommon to feel like we are on an island. The single center of the music industry in Canada exists in Toronto, which is an expensive flight or a 2-3 day drive away. Building a fan base requires driving for hours to the next major center in often harsh weather conditions. In Ontario a band can find venues and an audience for 14 nights between Windsor and Ottawa on the 401. While we continue to grow a fantastic grassroots music community, the bulk of the industry exists out east. We are in a continual struggle to keep succeeding artists from transplanting themselves to Toronto or Vancouver or Montreal.
Supporting the scene, creating a better support system with less competition between the artists, and finding support for not only artist development but professional industry development - with these things we can strengthen our scene and help us get off our island to compete on a national and global market.
Export Ready Music
"Export Ready" is a current language trend in the Canadian music industry and beyond, describing the status and evolution of a band or artist who has developed their career to a point where they can begin to leave the local scene and functionally compete in the global market.
Listening to the issues of the Icelandic music industry, it was apparent that they understood this concept even if they didn't use the language. Export readiness is more than the need for a band to "get on the road" - or in the case of Iceland, to "get off the island". That need applies to a band of any scale. For the artists we spoke with, there was a clear understanding of the need to build supports and an industry team outside of your own borders.
In western Canada, an association like Alberta Music is working hard to find opportunites for their export ready artists, putting them in front of industry pros and showcasing their talents on foreign soil. They need more support and funding from government to enable these endeavors and grow the industry. Tourism industries and government in Iceland have some unique methods to partner with arts & culture, and have been mutually benefitting each other for years.
Music as a Brand
It's not surprising that music forms a brand, and geographical locations influence their own brand inside of music. "Brit pop", or "Seattle grunge", etc. Speaking with the artists and professionals within tourism in Iceland, they have a strong sense of their brand, and of how popular it is in the global market. Understanding what has been said about their scene, how they answer the needs to get off the island, alongside their strong cultural identity, its not surprising they have such a great brand.
Does Alberta have a brand? Does Canada have a brand? As one artist remarks, its not about genres even, its beyond that when the artists really join together. How do we work together to form an honest reflection of ourselves and what we have to offer? Is it the job of the artist to create this, or the industry?
When a scene is being built from the inside (artists) and outside (industry/government) it becomes strong, and we produce more export-ready artists, and begin to compete on a global market. At that point, the construction of a brand becomes a tool for all involved. The term was used frequently in these videos - artists are "cultural ambassadors". In Iceland's booming tourism industry, they articulated clearly their use of culture to build this industry. Understanding the trends of social groups has taught them that people are attracted to destinations for much more than a handful of landmarks; they are attracted to culture. Iceland has a tourism campaign on currently in which they travel to various destinations around the world, currently working through North America, at the various stops on direct Icleandair flights. They spend a weekend called "Iceland Calling" promoting their culture, by bringing renowned chefs to showcase cuisine, and artists to showcase arts an culture. They have created an economy of culture by using cultural ambassadors, who can readily be used. When they invited us to exchange with them, they invited the artists. Are we self-aware and intentional enough to accomplish this or something like it for Alberta, for Canada?
Of course we are grateful on many levels to those who assisted and supported and participated in this journey. We would like to thank Einar Bárðarson of Visit Reykjavik for the invitation, facilitating us, and contributing in the documentary, along with Thorey Bjork Halldorsdottir and Eva Pandora Baldursdóttir for all their work in the office assisting us. We also thank Icelandair for the generous work in transporting us, their service is top notch. Also Davíð Samúelsson for the amazing tour and insight, and contributing on screen.
Special thanks to the Edmonton Arts Council, Alberta Foundation for the Arts, and Alberta Music, all outstanding arts organizations who worked together to make the event happen and believed in the need for our work alongside the artists.
Thank you to Larus Johannesson of 12 Tónar for being generous of your time and insight, and for running a great music shop.
Thanks of course to all of the artists from both nations: Sóley, Snorri Helgason, Pétur Ben and Lay Low (Lovisa) of Iceland. Post Script, Braden Gates, Cayley Thomas and Kris Ellestad from Alberta.
Beyond the music and message - we are grateful for the opportunity to have our lives made richer for knowing these artists better, for making new friends in new lands. For all the face time given to these videos, we could have been equally lost in the land. The people and the place appear woven together like few other places I have visited on this planet. If you have considered a trip to Iceland, I would suggest don't hesitate. The land is magic, the culture is endearing, and the people are so easy to love.