Insomnia Festival must have the highest latitude of any electronic music event in the world. It takes place about 500 klicks north of the Arctic Circle in Tromsø, a Norwegian city surrounded by fjords and a very arctic-looking mountain landscape. You definitely feel like you're at the end of the earth out there, and you are—as one local pointed out to me, the city is about as far north from Oslo as Oslo is from Milan, Italy.
When I flew in one evening in October, they already had a heavy blanket of snow, with more coming down every minute. I mentioned to my cab driver that it seemed early in the season for this kind of thing. "Really?" he said. "This is late—usually gets started in early September." A minute later we calmly spun out on the icy road—"oops! hah-hah"—before descending into a network of Bat Cave-esque tunnels, complete with roundabouts and traffic lights, which eventually dropped us off in the center of Tromsø, five minutes from the festival, my hotel and most of the rest of the city.
Insomnia Festival is a bit of a funny one. It's part of ICAS (International Cities of Advanced Sound), a network of non-profit, cross-disciplinary festivals that also includes Mutek, Communikey, Decibel and Unsound, plus a dozen or so others around the world. It's much smaller than those events, but shares their programming style—concerts and club parties combined with panels, seminars, art installations, etc.—as well as their ethos. The official website says: "Tromsø is renowned for breeding innovative artists within the electronic music field," most famously Biosphere and Röyksopp. "Insomnia Festival seeks to evolve the creative energy this has given rise to by creating a platform for new electronic music and techno culture."
Photo credit: Sara Orstadius
A fine goal to be sure, though it's hard to say how much creative energy really gets evolved at Insomnia. For most of the weekend I felt like I was at a series of student club nights, not an innovation retreat. The main venue is Driv, a three-story student center with two stages. On my first night there, I saw a metal band from Oslo called Next Life, a Danish electro house DJ named Julius Sylvest (whose set included Benny Benassi's "Satisfaction") and Swedish house DJ Axel Boman. Things were a bit more adventurous upstairs, thanks to two groups called Rochite and Kitkaliitto, though neither act drew much of a crowd. This turned out to be a theme throughout the weekend: the biggest attractions were fairly straight-forward crowd-pleasers, while the more daring acts, who were supposedly the focus of the event, played for smaller crowds on smaller stages.
There were exceptions to this. The Norwegian artist Mathias Stube was easily the best act of the weekend, playing an improvised hybrid of live and electronic instruments that was upbeat, loose and jazzy. Though their flute-laden broken beat felt a bit much at times, Desto & Jimi Tenor held a big crowd with very left-field sounds. Emika was like a Lars von Trier film: dark, heavy-handed and completely divisive (half the people I talked to dismissed her as "goth pop," the other half, including me, thought she was brilliant). Jori Hulkkonen and Portable were great too, though their crowds were largely stolen by Gus Gus and Röyksopp, who played at the same time downstairs.
Watching the latter duo drop Trentemøller's huge room remix of their 2005 track "What Else Is There," I got to thinking—how much does this crowd really want "innovative electronic music"? I stepped out into the frozen rain and asked a few locals what they thought. One of them said Insomnia definitely brings a lot of artists to Tromsø that wouldn't be there otherwise, and that he and his friends attend every year, but he saw it mostly as a party and wasn't aware of any events aside from the club nights at Driv (which isn't exactly surprising—when I saw the Danish ambient artist Thomas Knak play at a cinema across town, it was to an audience of seven people). Another felt that after so many years (eight, to be precise), the festival could set its sights higher, booking bigger artists in bigger venues, and he wasn't sure why they didn't. Everyone seemed to be there simply because it was what's going on this weekend, not because it was presenting cutting edge music.
Photo credit: Sara Orstadius
Meanwhile, the industry-facing part of the event felt a bit half-baked. Insomnia had flown in many of us specifically for the event, and while we were very well taken care of—fed, transported and brought on a tour of the Norwegian fjords—the panels, while interesting and enjoyable at the time, were disjointed, prosaic and probably not that insightful to many of the attendees (I sat in for a panel about record distribution, a general discussion of the Norwegian music industry, and an autobiographical lecture by former MTV presenter Steve Blame). Finally, the fact that there were a total of 20 delegates (as opposed to the hundreds or thousands at events like ADE or Unsound) made it all feel a bit strange. As one of the artists put it to me: "Who is this for, exactly? We could have all just gone out for dinner together instead."
In a way it seems unfair to compare a small operation like Insomnia to something like ADE or Unsound, but the festival invites this comparison by positioning itself as a globally-facing event. In reality, it's a relatively local project—two thirds of the artists come from Nordic countries—that seems primarily concerned with putting on fun events and giving local acts a good gig. This is a fine enough goal on its own, so why should it dress itself up as an international meeting of the minds? Lots of festivals present themselves as "multimedia electronic music and arts conferences" these days, but the tag doesn't always fit. In this case, it falls on deaf ears for much of the audience, and creates a false context for some of the acts, from lesser-knowns like F.A.C.E. to Tromsø's exalted hometown heroes, Röyksopp. Like Insomnia itself, these groups seem more interested in making people dance than rewriting the rules of electronic music, and there's nothing wrong with that.