the legend of 12 Tonar

located  at skólavörðustígur 15, reykjavik’s art and design street, 12 Tonar has had the uncanny ability to preserve the spirit of independence in the local icelandic music scene all these years

– 12 tonar sits pretty at skolavorðustíg 15, at the heart of reykjavik’s savviest art and design street

<interview by persis shanker>

iceland may be a small country huddled far up north with the occasional arctic iceberg floating about its coasts but it’s no small voice when producing some of the biggest musical artistes of the last few decades.

skip your icelandic music compilation CD past bjork and sigur ros and you’ll find a nation churning acts out at a rate frank zappa used to release albums.

of monsters and men, solstafir, jóhann jóhannsson, tilbury, mugison, trabant, singapore sling, asonat, dream central station – the list goes on and sitting like a rock solid crater in the middle of all these volcanic eruptions of music is the legendary 12 Tonar record label and store.

– browse the hundreds of album releases from icelandic musicians at 12 tonar –

my friend and i were lucky enough to stop by this place during our recent trip there and i have to say, the service was par excellence; you get espressos served to you personally by one of the owners, jóhannes agústsson himself while you listen to your CDs on a cozy couch and decide whether they’re worth the buy or not. (hear that tower records?)

– enjoy a free espresso on a comfy couch while you listen to your music of choice –

a quick click to their website reveals 12 Tónar is an independent label and a legendary record shop in the heart of reykjavík founded in 1998 by jóhannes agústsson and járus jóhannesson who wanted to put a different take on the local music scene.

– founders of 12 tonar, jóhannes agústsson and járus jóhannesson –

indeed, they have and as one delves into the history of this label, you’ll find that many interesting legends abound around this humble and inviting record shop.

located  at skólavörðustígur 15, reykjavik’s art and design street, 12 Tonar has had the uncanny ability to preserve the spirit of independence in the local icelandic music scene all these years, which explains why the store quickly became a meeting point for musicians like björk, sigur rós, múm, and the core of classical composers and performers since day one.

quite a feat considering 12 Tonar has been at it only 14 years and we, at ice cold land got the opportunity recently to find out just how and why the music industry in iceland is creating an international revolution when we snagged an interview with one-half of 12 Tonar, johannes agústsson.

what’s the appeal, you think of 12 Tonar, not just among local musicians, as a place to hang out but also for music lovers all over the world?
i think we have something special going here – or at least that’s what our guests say – with our small but focused and specially chosen selection of icelandic stuff, jazz, world music and classical music in particular. it’s all music we like and we do feel especially privileged to be working in the icelandic music scene, which is incredibly rich in styles, sounds and flavours. plus the very comfortable sofas guests can sit down and listen to all the CD’s in the shop, our free espresso, and the warm soul and atmosphere of our old house. we like it very much when our foreign guests are ready to explore and spend time in our shop, simply because there is so much good icelandic music on offer.

– so many choices, so little time –

what’s the secret to iceland’s musical success and how does 12 Tonar fit into that whole scene?
i always have difficulties answering the first part of your question. perhaps i don’t want to know the secret. perhaps i don’t want to try to analyze it too much. what i can say is this: there is a willingness from the icelandic musicians to experiment and if it doesn’t work out you simply try again. also, there is a very open minded attitude to music here. everything is free flowing and natural. many musicians do play in a couple of bands or more, and they can be playing completely different styles, be it rock or classical or whatever. 12 Tonar has a place in all this. we participate by releasing albums and promoting our artists and we do have many live shows in the shop. we’ve also worked with the reykjavik theater company on a couple of releases, as it’s also our duty to support that side of the culture here.

what are the things you look for when signing on new talent?
it’s simple: if we passionately like the music, we’ll release it. provided the artist or the band wants to work with us!

what’s the best part of working at 12 Tonar?
we just like to be around all this music and to share and exchange views and opinions. some of our most loyal guests have been coming to the shop since we opened in 1998. it’s very rewarding when a guest finds a good album in the shop; an album that can have a strong effect. i always remember when i heard joy division’s “unknown pleasures” for the first time in a record shop here in 1980, it was like having an electric stream running through the body – a definitive life-changing moment. and sometimes our guests have this experience here too which always makes our day.

what are the current artistes from your label making big waves in Iceland/Europe?
we have for the last few years only been focusing on the icelandic market. jóhann jóhannsson is definitely our best known artist abroad. we’ve been working with him since 2004. he’s now released eight solo albums on many quality labels like Touch, 4AD, etc., while we do his releases for the icelandic market. (see video below for “sun’s gone dim”) 

olöf arnalds released her first album on 12 Tonar and now she’s signed to One Little Indian and doing very well. (see video entitled “surrender” with guest bjork below) apparat organ quartet and rökkurró have also done quite well and sold a lot of albums, so has ragnheidur gröndal.

12 Tonar has experienced a lot of success in iceland. do you have plans to expand your retail and record label globally?
we opened a shop in denmark in 2006 but it didn’t work out. the danes didn’t get the concept of the shop. what we learned from that experience is to stick to the things you do well, and that’s what we have been doing here. home is where the heart is. we did open a new shop in the new concert hall, Harpa (, that was quite logical since we have been working with the icelandic symphony orchestra since 2000 and we wanted to keep doing this, while also taking part in the whole adventure that beautiful Harpa is for icelandic music life. as for the european markets, we did have distribution for our releases but again, our experience taught us to focus at things at home. 

what is 12 Tonar planning for the future?
currently we are just glad to get our latest release out, stafnbúi, an album/book of rímur, our oldest musical heritage, from steindór andersen and hilmar örn hilmarsson, two former collaborators of sigur rós. that one was six years in the making and we are very, very proud of that one. as for the future? we’ll see what sounds it will bring. 

– the book and CD cover of steindór andersen & hilmar orn hilmarsson’s stafnbúi –

12 Tonar HQ:

Skólavörðustígur 15,
101 Reykjavík, Iceland etc.

12 Tonar Branch:
Harpa – Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Centre
Ingólfsgarður Austurbakki 2
101 Reykjavik, Iceland


One response to “the legend of 12 Tonar

  1. Pingback: the legend of 12 Tonar | iceland |·

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