We sit down to an interview with young Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds in his small studio right in the middle of Reykjavik, for a surprisingly open chat about making money through music and arts in general.
Ólafur: First of all, I don’t play the high school shows (laughs).
Kai: That would be funny to see.
Ólafur: I’ve been touring outside of Iceland for a while now, so I’m starting to play big shows, where I’m no longer struggling to get paid just the gas to get to the next show. But this is just because I spent a year doing exactly that, playing small shows. Money-wise, Iceland is really good for me in album sales, because the retail price is pretty high, and the deals with the record labels are generally good. A standard deal here is 30-40 % for the artist. Some indie labels actually give 50-50 deals. And the labels don’t have to pay much for promotion.
Marcel: But Icelanders still buy CD’s, so there not much in digital sales or downloads?
Ólafur: Revenues from music in Iceland are actually going up, for Icelandic music, while foreign music sales have dropped significantly. One thing is that you most probably know someone in the band, so you want to buy the CD, and bands that are only big in Iceland would not get onto big global download-sites because they are only big in Iceland.
Marcel: What do you think about Gogoyoko, the Icelandic platform?
Ólafur: I love it. I do have a problem though with streaming full albums, on Spotify for example – Spotify is not paying. I mean they pay, but only a few Dollars for thousands of plays.
Marcel: People are just lazy – so why download an album when you can stream it.
Ólafur: And the place where most people listen to music is at home, on their computers. Even more than on an iPod, I think. I think that’s not a good thing, unless they figure out a way to pay people for it.
Marcel: I think it makes sense to stream and offer your music for free for small bands, just for promotion, but once you reach a certain level of proficiency and want to see an income for your art, then it starts to get problematic.
Kai: But then you hear that artists make their money going on tour, selling merchandise, not actually by selling music.
Ólafur: I actually make my money from projects, like this (points to the computer screen behind him, where a still from an animated movie is showing ), writing for film. I’m lucky to make the kind of music that fits with that stuff. I’m busy. And one-off shows, like government-shows or festivals, that’s where I make my living. Normal touring, I don’t make any money off it. I don’t loose money anymore, but it’s not really fruitful. In here is where I make money (laughs).
Marcel: For these projects, would you score something new or use some of your own songs?
Ólafur: For this it’s completely new, it depends. To be honest, it also depends on how much they pay. Am I going to spend three days to figure out something new, or will I take what I have and just adjust it. I still strive to be creative, so that’s also good for me, to keep going. I usually try to make something new. And if it’s an old piece I still adjust it and that is a learning experience as well.
Ólafur started of as a member of Icelandic hardcore bands when he was 14, and first made an name for himself as the composer of multiple intros and outros for German metalcore-band Heaven Shall Burn.
Marcel: The first time I heard stuff from you was on the Heaven Shall Burn-albums. Was this the same kind of thing, did they just ask you? They toured Iceland at some stage, didn’t they?
Ólafur: I was opening for them with a band I had at the time, I Adapt, on a cool show in an old cinema. But they took the first rows out so there could be a mosh pit, haha. I was doing this project, really cheesy classical prog rock. I gave the guitar player a demo when we were chatting backstage, and a few months later they emailed me and asked me to make an intro for their album. But I thought if I do an intro for them , I can’t do the prog rock, so I took out guitars and drums and left only piano and synths. That was actually when I started doing the music that I’m doing now. I took all the cheesy stuff out ! (laughs). And the guitar player of Heaven Shall Burn started the label that signed me first, actually. I wasn’t actually planning on doing this , I just made the intro and the outro, but then he asked me if I want to make an album. So I said, yeah I can try, and that became my first album. So I didn’t expect any of this and wasn’t even planning to do this. I also did the intros for their last album, which is currently in the top ten in Gerrmany, which is huge for this kind of music. You have to sell a lot to be in the top ten in Germany. Here, I’m always in the top ten (laughs). I sell 20-30 albums a week and I’m in the top ten, haha. If you want to go to the top five in Iceland you have so sell around 50 CD’s a week. I had the release concert last week and we made it into the top five because I was selling CD’s.
Marcel: If we had known this, we should have moved our bands here when we were still making music, haha.
Ólafur: I mean, selling that many in Iceland is not easy.
Kai: Well, you sell to all your friends and cousins.
Marcel: Speaking of metal and hardcore, as I’ve visited the Fighting Shit and I Adapt MySpace-pages (both former hardcore-bands of Ólafur), is this something that you still listen to and that influences you?
Ólafur: I don’t think it influences me really, but I do listen to hardcore-stuff, the punk-side of it rather than the metal-side. It’s more the other way round: the classical stuff influenced the hardcore stuff. In Fighting Shit I wrote most of the songs, and some of the songs were originally written on piano. I think my classical education helped me write original hardcore-music.
“It’s about communication and to reach people and to affect them in some way, on an emotional level.”As with other artists before, we try to find out if musical education is connected to the enormous output of Icelandic musicians.
Marcel: What’s really interesting for us is the musical education of children here in Iceland – was it a private music school you went to? Or state-owned?
Ólafur: State-owned. At first, and when I was 13 the teachers there wanted to send me to a private conservatory, but I was studying drums at the time and was not interested. It was when I started doing the work for Heaven Shall Burn that I got interested in the whole classical thing. It was not until then that I went to another private school just to study the classical theory.
Marcel: What does the classic world say about your music? Are you recognised?
Ólafur: I’m kind of in between, I think. A lot of people in the classical scene dislike me (laughs). I’ve had some classical press in the UK, and they thought that my music was amateur-ish. I don’t think they get it. The point is not to be educated and to make high-brow arts, the point is to reach the people who like it. So it’s entertainment, in a way, sure. Just for people to listen to music to feel inspired. It’s about communication and to reach people and to affect them in some way, on an emotional level.
This interview belongs to Chapter 8 – It was a good day.