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Is Iceland The Best Place In The World To Be A Female Musician?

11/11/2016 10:47
Photography by Lubaib Gazir via Getty Images

I've just returned from Iceland Airwaves, an international music festival and industry meeting point I've long wanted to attend for its other-worldly location in far flung, volcanic Reykjavik and its increasingly broad music programme which embraces everything from contemporary classical, experimental, electronica and folk to hip hop, rock, metal and punk. Being passionate about the role of women in music, I've also wanted to see if Iceland's music industry mirrors the country's much talked about World Economic Forum status as the best place in the world to be a woman; a position it's held for the past 6 years.

Iceland Airwaves' programme suggests that its music industry is as progressive as its political and economic structures: according to Airwaves Manager Grímur Atlason, 40% of the overall programme and 23/36 of its headline acts are female artists or female fronted bands with over 50% of the festival's budget being paid to women, whether solo artists or in bands. This meant I was able to see a smorgasbord of female talent during my stay including strong, confident sets by UK artists Anna Meredith, Emily Hall, Hannah Lou Clark, Kate Tempest and Let's Eat Grandma, and independent Icelandic acts like aYia, Samaris, Soley, Mammút and the 16 strong female hip-hop collective Daughters of Reykjavik (Reykjavíkurdætur), who are on a mission to create a space for Icelandic women in rap. All of this was topped by headlining music icons PJ Harvey who provided a fitting finale to the festival on Sunday night in a hangar on the edge of town and Bjork who performed a magical, stripped down set on Saturday evening with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra at Harpa, Reykjavik's 1600 capacity concert hall.

But what happens if you scratch beyond the surface of this international event which takes place across 5 days every November? Evidence suggests that even in a country which boasts a parliament split equally between men and women and primary schools which work against gender stereotypes instilled early in childrens' education, gaining access to and credit within Iceland's music industry is still more difficult for women than it is for men.

Lára Rúnarsdóttir is an artist (Lára Rúnars) and Board director of KITON, Iceland's women in music organisation which was established as a movement in 2013 to raise awareness of the gender gap and to bring together the many Icelandic women who are active in music. Recent KITON campaigns have focused on the male dominated line-ups of other Icelandic festivals and nominations for the Icelandic Music Awards which featured 10% women in 2013 (hard to understand when you look at the Airwaves programme). KITON also organises monthly gigs featuring female artists which are filmed and shared online to help empower more women to make music their career.

Bjork - who finally spoke out about her own frustrations with the industry in 2015 - would recognise the motivations behind KITON's work:

"I want to support young girls who are in their 20s now and tell them: You're not just imagining things...It's tough. Everything that a guy says once, you have to say five times." (Guardian)

The music Foundation I lead in the UK, is responding to these challenges by working with Iceland Airwaves and 6 other festivals to set up a European network of female music creators and innovators which will give 60 women a chance to perform, collaborate and innovate through an international project which is backed by men as well as women in influential roles across the industry. The aim of our project is for these women to help shape an alternative future for the music industry; where the potential for women to make a larger creative and economic contribution to the industry is realised and where sustainable careers for women are as viable as they are for men.

Iceland Airwaves is a crucial partner for our network because they're showing that it is possible to present a more balanced and diverse soundtrack to our times, which is critically acclaimed, packed with talented female music creators and attracting visitors from across the world. So Iceland probably is the best place in the world to be a female music creator each November but for the rest of the year, the industry is still perceived as being dominated by men, with women receiving less pay and opportunities. Let's hope that Iceland Airwaves, KITON and the extraordinary range of role models emerging from Iceland's music scene can continue to push for change.

PRS for Music Foundation is working with Iceland Airwaves, Reeperbahn Festival, Talinn Music Week, BIME, The Great Escape, Musikcentrum, Way out West Festival and Mutek on an international project to support female music creators and industry professionals. More details will be released in 2017.

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