Business, Finance & Economics

Musician Olafur Arnalds Explains How Iceland's Financial Crisis Helped the Arts

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Olafur Arnalds Twitter Profile Photo

Iceland holds a national parliamentary election on Saturday.

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The last one was in 2009, right after the collapse of Iceland's banking industry.

The country was an early victim of the global financial crisis and Icelanders are still grappling with the aftermath of a very deep recession.

Politically, that means voters are leaning toward big change — again.

In 2009, they threw out the party that had ruled Iceland for almost two decades.

Now, it's estimated that about one in two voters are planning to switch party affiliation from how they voted four years ago.

There is something, though, that Icelanders have discovered they largely agree on.

Icelandic musician Olafur Arnalds told me a story recently that illustrates that.

"We were building a concert hall in the middle of the economy bubble, and then everything crashed and construction came to a halt and then nothing happened for like two years," he says. "They realized it was more expensive to tear it down than to finish it, actually. But by finishing it they started putting more focus on the art itself, and how much money it was going to make. It actually saved it from becoming a mall — seriously."

Olafur Arnalds says it wasn't just that concert hall. The banking crisis changed attitudes in Iceland.

"The banking crisis has actually helped the arts. People have been forced to realize that money isn't everything. And we have to enjoy non-material things in our lives when we don't have as much money," he says. "Those are actually better than the material things in our lives, so they're more important."

Arnalds has a new recording out, "For Now I Am Winter."

He says it wasn't directly influenced by the banking crisis but he does feel his muse now benefits from a fresh wave of support for the arts in Iceland.

"The Icelandic government and a lot of government institutions have realized that the flow of money into Iceland is directly related to the output of music and the arts from Iceland.

"Really?" I asked him.

"Yeah, yeah. they actually did this research about, actually with Americans coming to Iceland, there was just a question, 'Where did you hear about Iceland first?' Or, 'Why did you originally want to go to Iceland?' And the most common answer, which was more common than the nature and the landscape was 'music,'" says Arnalds.

So they've actually started to try to help the country build from its ruins, in a way they've put more money into music and the arts than before because they realized what they put into it they get tenfold back.