Music-making in a Northern Isle: Iceland and the “village” factor
Thoroddsen, Arnar Eggert
The thesis delves into the social dynamics of music-making in Iceland. It builds on this researcher’s twenty-year long career as a music journalist in his native country, making use of the knowledge, connections and insights accumulated therein. This research project has made use of participant observation, in-depth interviews, historical documents as well as ethnography. Thirty musicians from the current Icelandic pop/rock world were interviewed, focussing on how they manoeuvre themselves within a relatively small society. The thesis was inspired by Ruth Finnegan’s book, The Hidden Musicians – Music-Making in an English Town, similarly looking at the structure of a tightly knit music community, and how place shapes and informs its residents. Iceland’s small size (pop. 350,000) is a defining factor; its “village” feel feeds into the shaping of its music culture. My theoretical framework is built around classic socio-musicological theories (derived from Pierre Bourdieu and Howard Becker), more recent research carried out by Sara Cohen, Tia De Nora, and Nick Prior, as well as theories on the difference between professional and amateur music-making (based on the work of, among others, Canadian sociologist Robert A. Stebbins). A grounded theory arose from the interview data, confirming the impact of a “village” factor, which simultaneously liberates and restricts artistic work. The peculiarities of Iceland’s pop/rock world manifests themselves in interrelated aspects, such as its status as a micro-nation and this shapes much of the dynamism of its popular music culture. Co-operation across different genres is high, and a lack of formal bureaucracy in terms of doing things was significant. Support from institutions like the radio, music competitions and music offices is effective and strong, making for a relative easy market access domestically and facilitating an optimistic outlook from the interviewees towards their chosen field. The musicians’ inner need to make music, perform and release it was scrutinised and the small size of Iceland’s population – and therefore, the Icelandic popular music world - gives rise to a fuzzy distinction between amateur and professional. This fact underscores the aforementioned prolific levels of activity in Iceland’s musical community. Yet in spite of these positive elements, active Icelandic musicians also admitted to experiencing much precarity and unpredictability in terms of their creative work. All of these elements, detailed here, make for a vibrant and active music scene, with participants effectively “punching above their weight”.