What Iceland can teach Ottawa about growing its local music scene

Iceland has become a popular destination for more than just eco-tourists: iIt's now a magnet for music fans from around the world. How can Ottawa learn from the Nordic island nation's experience?

Advice from from the director of the Iceland Airwaves music festival

Grimur Atlason has been in charge of Iceland Airwaves for the last eight years. (Jessa Runciman/CBC)

Iceland is known for its natural wonders — volcanoes, waterfalls, black sand beaches, geysers and stunning views of the northern lights. 

​But the Nordic island nation has become a popular destination for more than just eco-tourists: it's also a magnet for music fans. 

Culture is the core to anything, it's the key to anything.- Grimur Atlason

Grimur Atlason is director of Reykavik's Iceland Airwaves festival, which has grown significantly since it began in 1999 and now draws around 80,000 visitors each fall to a city of 120,000 people. 

The festival has attracted international acts such as Yoko Ono and Sinead O'Connor, and features plenty of indie artists from Iceland and around the world. 

Atlason was in Ottawa for the music conference and festival Megaphono, which wrapped up last weekend. 

He told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning that the motivation to hold Airwaves in October was to extend the country's tourist season beyond the summer months. But now even October has become a busy time for tourists in Iceland. 

"Six years ago we had to move the festival because October was not off-season anymore. We moved into November, and November, even now, is packed."

Visitors "think of Iceland as a cool place to discover great music," he said.

'Keep the small venues open' 

But how did Iceland get to where it is, and how can Ottawa get there too?

Atlason had a couple of suggestions based on his years of experience promoting bands and music. 

"There should be opportunity," he said. "Keep the small live venues open. All this underground has to be nurtured. The small cafés, the small everything.

"Culture is the core to anything, it's the key to anything. And if you do that, it might take 10 years or whatever, but if you do that in this manner, then things will go right."

Somewhat surprisingly, he also suggested letting young talent leave. It has to happen organically, even if it takes time. 

"The right way is to say go. Go, go, go. Especially with the young people... And if people go and come back with a degree or something, the society is going to be much better," Atlason said.

"You have to do it organically… It can't be forced. It can't be bought."

In the shadows of Toronto, Montreal 

The conundrum of Ottawa's geographical location between two cultural hubs, Toronto and Montreal, wasn't lost on Atlason. 

But Iceland has experienced something similar, he said: its history with Denmark has had an impact on how Icelanders see themselves under the shadow of a bigger country. 

"Sometimes ... Iceland is not too self-assured,"Atlason noted. "In comparison to Denmark and the rest of the world, we were always kind of different "

Ottawa is not Toronto and it isn't Montreal, Atlason said, and this is something the city should celebrate. 

"Use this in your advantage. That is even a better place to be. I feel so much better being here than in Austin, Texas," he said. "Even though the weather is terrible. It's cold here. This is how we were in the beginning. This is how we developed. Build on that."

Lessons from one of the people who put Iceland's music scene on the map. 5:51