SOUNDS OF OUR TOWN
PRESERVING ICELANDIC POPULAR MUSIC HERITAGE: THE VIEW FROM REYKJAVÍK
For a small country with a population of approximately 350,000 people, Iceland has a significant popular music presence, including producing globally known artists such as Björk, Sigur Rós and Of Monsters and Men. Over the last thirty years Iceland has also experienced an increased focus on the heritagisation of its popular music history. This is evident in the production of popular music documentaries such as Screaming Masterpiece (2005) and Tónlist: Icelandic Music Documentary (2014); the publication of books including Blue Eyed Pop: The History of Popular Music in Iceland (2013); reissues of ‘classic’ albums from the SENA record label; and travelling exhibitions including Lobster or Fame (2003), which was a celebration of the Bad Taste label. An increase in the memorialisation of Iceland’s popular music past can also be observed in museums like Rokkheimur Rúnars Júlíussonar (est. 2009), Pönksafn Íslands (est. 2016), Rokksafnið (est. 2014) and Tónlistarsafn Íslands (est. 2009). There are also a number of national institutions that collect artefacts related to popular music.
A travel fellowship from the Australian Academy of the Humanities enabled Sarah to visit Reykjavík in late 2010, with a return visit in late 2011 funded by an Australian Research Council grant. During those visits she conducted 40 interviews with people engaged in a range of music activities including musicians from a range of genres, label and studio owners and managers, industry consultants, artist managers, music journalists and broadcasters, audio technicians and sound engineers, music producers, festival organisers, politicians and union officials, and people working in the heritage sector. In these interviews, Sarah explored perceptions and subjective experiences of popular music heritage sites (e.g. museums and exhibitions) and productions (e.g. documentaries and books) in Iceland with a view to understanding how the nation’s popular music history has come to be remembered, engaged with, interpreted and mobilised as heritage.
Once the interviews were analysed by the research team – Sarah, Zel and Bob – we discovered that despite the country’s rich history, there are many issues and challenges with how popular music has and is being preserved and displayed in Iceland. At the time of the interviews, the heritage practitioners we spoke with were struggling to document, preserve and exhibit popular music histories in ways they felt would most fully capture Iceland’s popular music past. Our interviewees described how popular music has often not been recognised as worthy of preservation by the country’s national institutions due to its ephemerality and recency. Even for those interviewees who had taken on the task of elevating popular music’s position as a legitimate heritage object, challenges were faced at every turn. What was considered worthy of heritagisation was contested and issues of access, copyright and preservation strategies impacted the ways in which Iceland’s popular music history could be represented – in exhibitions, in books, in documentaries.
PRESERVING ICELANDIC POPULAR MUSIC HERITAGE: ISSUES OF COLLECTION, ACCESS AND REPRESENTATION
Zelmarie Cantillon, Bob Buttigieg and Sarah Baker
The findings from Iceland are captured in a book chapter co-authored by Zel, Bob and Sarah that is included in the edited volume Remembering Popular Music’s Past. The chapter considers how heritage practitioners in Iceland experience hurdles regarding collection practices, preservation strategies, limited resources and public access, as well as the process of selection and exclusion associated with representing Iceland’s popular music history in exhibitions, documentaries and books.
If you are interested in learning more about the sounds of Iceland and its popular music past, check out the following resources. These are separated into scholarly sources and heritage initiatives in Iceland.
Cantillon, Z, Buttigieg, B & Baker, S 2019, ‘Preserving Icelandic popular music heritage: issues of collection, access and representation’, in L Istvandity, S Baker & Z Cantillon (eds), Remembering Popular Music’s Past: Memory–Heritage–History, Anthem Press, London, pp. 131–144.
Cannady, KD 2014, History on their shoulders: music and nation-building in Iceland, PhD thesis, University of Washington.
Hall, ÞD, Dibben, N, Ingólfsson, AH & Mitchell, T (eds) 2019, Sounds Icelandic: essays on Icelandic music in the 20th and 21st centuries, Equinox, Sheffield.
Laas, P 2009, Preserving the National Heritage: Audiovisual Collections in Iceland, Masters thesis, University of Iceland.
POPULAR MUSIC HERITAGE IN ICELAND
Dr. Gunni 2013, Blue Eyed Pop: The History of Popular Music in Iceland, Sögur útgáfa, Reykjavík.
Garðarsson, J & Eggert Thoroddsen, A 2009, 100 Best Icelandic Albums (100 Bestu Plötur Íslandssögunnar), Sena, Reykjavík.
Bevan, S (dir.) 2014, Tónlist: Icelandic Music Documentary, Ninth Balcony, London.
Friðriksson, F (dir.) 1982, Rokk i Reykjavík, Íslenska kvikmyndasamsteypan, Iceland.
Jakobsson, Á (dir.) 1998, Popp i Reykjavík, Blueeyes Productions, Reykjavík.
Jónasson, A (dir.) 2008, Electronica Reykjavík, Zik Zak Kvikmyndir, Reykjavík.
Magnússon, A (dir.) 2005, Screaming Masterpiece, Milan Records, Los Angeles.
Institutions and exhibitions
We acknowledge the support of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and the Australian Research Council (DP1092910) for providing the funding that made this project possible. Thanks also to the research participants who talked with us about the sounds of their town.