The Sounds of the Fjords: Where to Hear the Best Live Music in Oslo

Who could have seen it coming? Norway, a small Scandinavian country in Northern Europe that sits on the opposite side of the North Sea from the United Kingdom, has had an undeniable influence on the English-speaking West over the past several years. 

From the unexpected international success of low-budget indie teen drama Skam, which was filmed in Oslo and ran from 2015 to 2017, to the massive popularity of Nordic roasteries, it is evident that something about the Norwegian way of life (and certainly its media) is alluring.

Over the past year of on-again, off-again lockdowns, we’ve all learned to slow down and appreciate the simple things. Yet the Norwegian and Danish concept of hygge (defined, rather vaguely, as “a quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being”) has been increasingly popular in North America since The Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking was released in September 2016.

It’s very possible that, pre-pandemic, the hygge lifestyle was simply appealing to Westerners because it was so contrary to what we are accustomed to. Against the fast-paced, chaotic backbeat of most modern North American cities, a backdrop of simple coziness and the permission to simply slow down sounds inexplicably tantalizing.

Nowhere is the hygge element stronger than in Norwegian music, which has historically relied on a certain level of melancholy to capture listeners’ attention. It is this quality, presumably, that drove the sudden and unexpected spike in international streams in the year 2016. 

From EDM to bedroom pop to folk, Nordic music was being heard, reaching the masses at unprecedented levels. Spotify’s Nordic Director of Artist and Label Services, Eva Lægdsgaard Madsen, released a statement at the end of 2016 regarding the uptick in diverse streams: “[N]ever before has Nordic music been played as much on Spotify outside the region as this year.”

In many reputable music critics’ opinions, Oslo has emerged as the city to watch, with music high in quality and deeply in demand. While in the past, Scandinavian artists typically packed their bags and headed across the North Sea to take their talents to the more populous city of London, today Oslo provides more than enough avenues for commercial success in all genres. Though some Londoners may respectfully disagree, Oslo is arguably becoming the new music capital of Europe.

Music tourism in Oslo began to increase, bolstered by the city’s lively, flourishing industry. More than 5,000 festivals are hosted annually in Oslo, including Øyafestivalen, which draws crowds numbering approximately 60,000 every August, and ranks as Norway’s largest music festival.

The sheer size and cultural prominence of Øyafestivalen inevitably means that some of the larger international acts receive higher billing and greater acclaim, which may not be particularly appealing to foreigners seeking an authentically Norwegian music experience on their trip.

The iconic venues scattered throughout the city centre are architecturally and sonically luxurious, providing an unforgettable live music experience. Oslo Concert Hall, which opened in 1977, has become one of the most beloved venues in the city, showcasing live acts in a moody and atmospheric theatre with the low, low capacity of only 1,500. This venue carries an air of exclusivity despite its hip and edgy reputation. 

If you’re not so fooled by aesthetics and want some actual edginess to your experience, there is no shortage of small, gritty, underground venues in Oslo. You’ll find a good dive-bar ambience, with a soundtrack of truly incredible local music, on any given night. 

Take the uber-trendy Blå, for instance: a surreal, psychedelic night club in Oslo’s hippest neighbourhood of Grünerløkka. This place is prime real estate. Not only does it offer a young and lively atmosphere, it’s situated at a quiet intersection of natural and urban: only a block away from the picturesque Akerselva River, which snakes its way through many neighbourhoods in Oslo. 

It goes without saying that certain Nordic artists, particularly in the EDM and pop space, have found massive success in the rest of Europe and North America, and this is in part due to the rise in music tourism. 

Almost overnight, Oslo became a cool vacation destination. Amid the success of artists as diverse as Kings of Convenience, Highasakite, Susanne Sundfør, and Girl in Red, Norwegian music seemed poised to dominate international markets for the foreseeable future. 

Then came the coronavirus pandemic, which shook up the music industry in ways no one could have possibly seen coming. As global travel is indefinitely on hold for the first time in modern history, it will certainly be interesting to see how Spotify and other music streaming platforms provide an alternative to the old standard.

However, there is always hope on the horizon, and few music fans are convinced they will be forced to watch livestreamed concerts or raw living-room performances on IGTV for the rest of eternity. 

If all goes according to plan, by August 2021, crowds of locals and tourists alike will pack into the leafy Tøyenparken on Oslo’s east side for another Øya Festival season, and twenty-somethings in Doc Martens will sip whiskey sours at Blå when their favourite artist rolls into town.

Carly Bush is a nomadic writer and editor whose adventurous mentality and passion for travel began at an early age. Her explorations of North America over the past several years contributed to her desire to write about travel in a new and accessible way. She strives to write engaging, uplifting, and challenging content.