‘People don’t have to be dead for 300 years to be liked for their music!’

On the official first day of Airwaves 2015, Wednesday the 4th of November, Hans van Wijk had an interview with Lárus Jóhannesson about 12 Tónar: probably the most well known record store in Iceland and far beyond!

When was the label founded and why?

In 1998 by me and Jóhannes Ágústsson; we started at the Barónsstígur and held a store for two years on that spot. We did want to start a business together, a special type of record store. One with a more relaxed atmosphere and import some music from America and Europe to Iceland where the people here were interested in. We also wanted to focus on the newborn stars that showed up like Sigur Rós and múm. So, in 2000 we bought this place at the Skólavörðustígur. We didn’t want a shop in the main shopping street, Laugavegur, but just a little bit out of the centre. Why? Because this will get the real music lovers to us: those people who will take the extra effort to take a little walk. And, it’s a well proved concept after all those years, i might say!

12 Tonar HansWhere does the name come from?

The name ’12 Tónar’ (twelve tones) refers to the twelve-tone technique music, the atonal scale from Arnold Schoenberg. He is been very important for the contemporary music in the classical range. Keep this in mind: ‘People don’t have to be dead for 300 years to be liked for their music!’.

Do you follow the Do It Yourself ethics?

Of course, we are following that. It’s an organic business. We have a shop, a popular shop I might say, and with the money we earn, we put that in young Icelandic musicians: a kind of sustainability. The values stay inside the music system and therefore the music scene in Iceland will evolute in the near future because of us <smiles>.

And, every task as a label or business office what has the to be done, is done by us: no hire, no outsourcing at all. Some artists want to work with other people on specific disciplines, but it’s our way to run this business – as a family – and you can get the whole package or nothing.

12 Tonar duoWhich artists do/did you sign on the label? Only Icelandic musicians?

Well… mostly Icelandic. If an artist is coming from abroad then they have to live here in Iceland, like Eivør and Low Roar. Great names we had or have as a member of this ‘family’ are Mugison, KK and Jóhann Jóhannsson. Also a special place in our hart have Apparat Organ Quartet, Rökkurró, Samaris, Skúli Sverrisson and Ólöf Arnalds (I hope I didn’t forget anyone… If so: sorry for that!). And one album by The Brian Jonestown Massacre: a very big name for this type of rockmusic and we’re very proud of!

Is it possible to mention some interesting upcoming releases?

We only release a very few albums nowadays. Yes, we are very picky… There will be some re-releases on vinyl because in Iceland there’s a growing interest in the old fashioned way of listening to music. Most of our albums are pressed on cd, so yes, there is some work to do. By the way, this vinyl is pressed in Germany and UK because it is far too expensive to do this job in Iceland.

12 Tónar in 2015: what are the chances and threatens in the near future?

It is a very tough business at this moment, city sales in general (and global) are going down, but this kind of shops will keep open in the future! And we, as 12 Tónar, expand our brand with more merchandise related to the Icelandic music and this beautiful shop. But yes, there are a lot of threatens and the most relevant is the fact that the digital sales like Spotify are not making enough money for the label and the artists. It’s a problem for the musicians and all the music lovers too. For 12 Tónar is this not a actual problem because of the type of customers we have and the cup of espresso they want <smiles again>.

And we have our webshop with an increasing activity – some stuff is hard to get and people buy it from all over the world like Japan, US, Australian, The Netherlands and Belgium. iTunes, Amazon, Bandcamp, Spotify: yes, it’s possible, all the releases are available.

Which artist do you really want to have at the label in five years from now?

There is a new generation knocking on the door in Iceland! I like Fufanu very much, but the singer is a son of Einar Örn, the owner of Smekkleysa so that will be very difficult… Hjaltalín is really on our wish list.

12 Tonar Mr SillaWhich Icelandic band / artist is underestimated in the rest of Europe? And why?

Oh, that’s easy to mention: Low Roar for sure, because the people are transfixed to his music. Mr. Silla has the potential too. But it’s very expensive to touring with a band and all the gear so it’s hard for us, Icelandic musicians, to travel to Europe and the USA and earn some money.

The interview was interrupted. Lárus had to give a short speech for a group of Japanese visitors. Customers from Japan are very important to the store for years now and they keep on returning to Airwaves and 12 Tónar.

Those people are great collectors and interested in the music scene in Iceland.

We ended with an important statement: the people who are making the money, are not putting it back in the industry, especially the phone companies! We have to try to find any ways to make it more fare for us! It’s a general observation of a global situation…

“People spend a lot of money to rent a car but don’t want to pay for music” I resumed…. Happy Airwaves!

- Hans van Wijk 12 Tonar12 Tónar Shop & Label

Skólavörðustígur 15

101 Reykjavík, IJsland

Tel. +354 511 5656