Or… How Hjálmar became one of the most powerful bands in Iceland without you realising it….
So, as we approach the end of the slog of a year that’s been 2012, it’s fairly customary to look back at the people who were the main movers and shakers within the Icelandic music scene in the last 12 months. Now i could mention guys like dancing bear cubs Retro Stefson, or maybe even faux folk ferrets Of Monsters And Men. But if we’re being really honest, there was only one person who you could really say came to defining Icelandic music in 2012. Step forward Mr. Ásgeir Trausti Einarsson!
Man, to think that back in March he was toiling away unnoticed and unloved in the band The Lovely Lion at this year’s Musiktilraunir unsigned bands competition. But in the space of a little over 6 months, he’s become nearly omnipresent in Iceland. His first 2 singles, “Sumargestur,” and “Leyndarmál” received blanket radio coverage through the summer. His debut album ‘Dýrð Í Dauðaþögn’ was released in September and it all blew up as the Icelandic media went totally giddy over it (Local DJ Andrea “The White Witch” Jónsdottir, gave it 9.9 out of 10 for example), Comments like “Iceland’s Bon Iver,” “The new Mugison,” and “Voice of a generation,” were banded around with hushed reverence. His music has clogged up both the song and album charts in Iceland for weeks, has been nominated for the Nordic Music Prize, and has received SIX nominations in the upcoming Icelandic Music Awards. All the while, his songs are being translated into English by “Friend of the Icelandic music scene,” John Grant, and now it’s now looking as if ‘Dýrð Í Dauðaþögn’ will break the 20,000 sales mark before Christmas (Which apparently is a big fucking deal up here).
Wow! Even when he takes part in a frankly shitty TV collaboration with Blazroca, it still manages to rise up to near the top of the charts!
Now there’s no denying the guy does have talent, with a fine falsetto voice that makes some ladies go, “Aww, he must be so deep and brooding!” when he sings. The album’s production meanwhile feels bright, confident with a definite nod to what’s happening outside of Iceland, although for my taste his songs and persona feel pretty much like beta-bro pop that’s been formulated by a focus group (Rumours persist that he’s actually a first level Weyland-Yutani self sustaining android unit, and that if you cut him, he bleeds funny, milky white stuff). But it still begs the question – How in the hell did he get so big so quickly? Talent gets you far, but not THAT far, so fast.
As with everything in life and culture, if you want to see what lies at the heart of a good industry hype, then you look beyond the puppet to see who’s pulling the strings.
Lets see… Ásgeir Trausti’s general biog is that he’s from a musical family (His brother Þorsteinn Einarsson is from the band Hjálmar, and his dad Einar Georg Einarsson is a music teacher who wrote the lyrics for the album), and that he went with his demos to Guðmundur Kristinn Jónsson (Or Kiddi in Hjálmar), who was so impressed that he decided that he wanted to produce his album at Hljóðriti, the studio he runs in Hafnarfjörður.
But if we take a look at who are his managers, then things start to get interesting. Ásgeir has two managers, the first being … Kiddi in Hjálmar! OK, this isn’t necessarily hinky. I mean he loved this music so much that he decided to manage him, right? But when Asgeir Trausti received his first big break on the Icelandic TV show Hljómskalinn back in April (You can see it here. Ásgeir’s piece starts about 24m30s in), who is that short ginger bearded person who’s introducing him to fellow presenter Siggi Baldursson? That’s… Kiddi from Hjálmar! Yup, Ásgeir’s manager and producer is also a presenter in Iceland’s biggest music show (AKA the chummiest fucking show on Icelandic TV).
But Ásgeir also has a second manager, Kiddi’s wife Maria Rut Reynisdottir. She is (or has been) been involved in the Icelandic cultural scene heavily over the last few years working with Iceland Airwaves, Gogoyoko, the TV series LazyTown, and teaching Project Management at the Iceland Academy of the Arts. Right now she’s on the board of Gogoyoko… and also manages the Icelandic Music Awards.
So to recap, Asgeir Trausti has a management team who presents Iceland’s biggest TV show on music, who runs once of Iceland’s best and biggest recording studios, who is on the board of Iceland’s most well known music websites, and who also runs the nation’s annual music awards. With this much clout behind him, I’m amazed it actually took him so long to get so famous.
Now Bob, I’m sure many will cry. This is just blatant nastiness. Ásgeir is a lovely guy and his management team are good, hard working, professional people who are doing their best for Icelandic music and for their client the best way they know how. And here’s the thing – they’d be absolutely right. Everything I’ve told you is pretty much common knowledge amongst people in the Icelandic music scene or if it wasn’t, could easily be found by using Facebook and Google in 30 seconds. There is no cover up, or evil illuminati-style plot as such to take over Icelandic music just to put Ásgeir on top of the pile.
It’s all just business. This sort of thing happens all the time in record industries across the world.
Take my homeland, the UK. For a while now there’s been much commentary about class, privilege and access within the music industry and how it, as with the Political establishment, has effectively become a closed shop for people who hail from a heightened social strata. It’ll take too much time to go into with this post (You can read about it in more detail here, here and here), but as Alex Niven comments in the 2012 Wreath Lectures over at the Quietus;
Culture is still a worryingly top-down affair. For all that the neoliberal consensus initiated by Thatcher and continued by Blair and Cameron was supposed to “free up” society after the statism of the post-war years, cultural influence is now more centrally administered than ever. To take just one example, observe the rigid structures currently fencing-in British pop music like a monstrous Meccano set. Despite the best efforts of leftfield stalwarts (such as the present publication, natch), for a majority of people the “alternative” music scene is now more or less reducible to Zane Lowe,Nick ‘Friend to the Stars’ Grimshaw, the corporate festival circuit, Later… With Jools Holland, and the Barclaycard Mercury Prize. A few well-connected PR companies, A&Rs, record execs, and careerist (often privately educated) musicians treat the pop avant-garde as their birthright, while grassroots and bottom-up elements go largely unsupported in the mainstream. Modern pop music began as the ultimate expression of democratic populism in the post-war years, but it is now some way into its decadent, baronial phase. When things have become so damnably hierarchical, it’s no wonder there hasn’t been a society-wide countercultural upsurge in years.
Ouch! Mind you, when the Guardian made Adele the most powerful person in British music back in 2011, it wasn’t so much her as the record execs, pluggers, publishers and managers working behind the public persona.
Iceland of course doesn’t have such issues of class (Hierarchy, that’s a different story). Or a big music industry for that matter. But over the last several years, it’s been acknowledged that the Icelandic music industry has had to shape up, get organised, to get “Professional.” Groups such as IMX and You Are In Control were set up help bring out ideas such as brand awareness, marketing strategies, and digital synergy alignment with other agencies abroad to ensure that Iceland’s music culture can compete in the international marketplace. Well intentioned, highly organised and capable people were brought to run these entities (And others such as showcase festival Iceland Airwaves), use the resources they had to hand, and sought to sculpt the Icelandic music scene into something that had a confident, successful presence, that could be sellable to mass culture, allthewhile ensuring that Icelandic musicians also had the right attitude, to do what was needed to be successful, both inside, and outside of Iceland
But today, it seems that there’s a lack of a true cultural agenda in Iceland, or an agenda beyond ensuring the success of each individual artist, or getting as many tourists as possible to Iceland. And it seems that, as in the UK, a small, albeit well organised group of people now pretty much run the whole narrative that is Icelandic music from a centralised viewpoint. At the heart of all of this, without anyone realising it, seems to be a group centred around the Hjálmar/Hjómskalinn/Memfismafian clique who’ve manoeuvred themselves into a position where they now command a fair amount of clout and power, and get to pretty much do what they want. Check out for example, the way they co-opt most of today’s cool hip “indie” musical talent through their TV show, siphoning off their cultural capital to ensure their own relevance, like a bunch of crusty vampires (Except these guys don’t sparkle). Also worth noting for example that while many local bands are working their arses off to get the money for recording, or touring abroad (Often going cap in hand to some arts fund or another), Hjalmar’s Siggi G and the Memfismafian were able to swan off to Cuba to record ‘Okkur Menn Í Havana‘ and pretty much got to play at being colonial overlords while they were there.
And now they have Ásgeir Trausti as the newest member of their troop. In many ways Ásgeir Trausti is not so much the new Bon Iver, or even the new Mugison, but rather the new Mumfords, or the new Jessie J: He is a man with a fair amount of talent that, due to the privilege of who he is and the network of people he has available to him, has experienced a near effortless rise to the top of the Icelandic music heap in less time than it takes to write this blog down. He ‘s managed to go through his life and career without barely touching the sides of experience or hardship.
True, the Icelandic music scene has always been a festering pit of nepotism, favours and unwarranted back slapping. And yes, there has been many a hype been built with other bands in 2012 (Check out the rise of shoegazers Oyama for example). But with Ásgeir Trausti, there is a big difference – his hype has been fully formed from the very beginning and the sheer ruthless efficiency to which this hype has been exercised on the general cultural scene in Iceland has actually been a glorious sight to behold. When you speak with many Icelandic musicians over a pint, Ásgeir’s name occasionally crops up, to which you get a slight pause, then “Yeah…. he’s really well connected isn’t he?”
So for 2012 my prize for Icelandic musician of the year goes to Ásgeir Trausti – Or rather his well placed, capable management team. People, I salute you. You’ve earned it.
(To finish off i thought it would be good to hear something with a slightly stronger resonance on the pains of the human condition. More on these guys later…)