The festival spans five days (Wednesday - Sunday) and its main focus is showcasing new music, both Icelandic and international. The festival's main sponsors are Icelandair and the City of Reykjavík.
The first show was held in 1999 as a one-off event in an airplane hangar at Reykjavík Airport. Subsequently, it has become one of the premier showcases for new music in the world, with hundreds of journalists and industry people in attendance.
Airwaves has become known for its intimacy and party spirit. The festival has been called "the hippest long weekend on the annual music-festival calendar" (David Fricke, Rolling Stone) and an "unbelievable zest for music and celebration" (Jonah Flicker, Pitchforkmedia).
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (played Airwaves in 2004), The Bravery (2004) and The Rapture (2002) are among artists who played Iceland Airwaves before their careers kicked off - in each case the groups were playing their first shows outside their hometown, New York. Among other artists who have played Iceland Airwaves are Crystal Castles, Thievery Corporation, Sparta, Flaming Lips, Fatboy Slim, The Kills, The Stills, TV on the Radio, Keane, Hot Chip, Ratatat, Architecture in Helsinki, Klaxons, Wolf Parade, Kaiser Chiefs and local bands Sigur Rós, GusGus, múm, Singapore Sling, FM Belfast, Of Monsters and Men, Seabear, sóley, Sin Fang and Retro Stefson.
In 2009, the festival was held from 14 to 18 October, featuring about 150 artists including Nina Kinert, The Cocknbullkid, Casiokids, Megaphonic thrift, Micachu and the Shapes, The Golden Filter, Metronomy, Golden Silvers, James Yuill, Postelles and Alaska in winter.
The 2010 edition of Iceland Airwaves took place on 13-17 October. The performers included jj, Robyn, Junip, Toro Y Moi, Timber Timbre, Rolo Tomassi, Bombay Bicycle Club, Hurts, Tunng, Alex Metric, Everything Everything, Mount Kimbie, Joy Formidable, Efterklang, Slagsmalsklubben, Oh No Ono, The Antlers and Hercules and Love Affair. 
In 2011, Iceland Airwaves was held from 12 to 17 October. The performers included Björk, Sinéad O'Connor, Yoko Ono, Ólafur Arnalds, Of Monsters and Men, We Were Promised Jetpacks, 22-Pistepirkko, Tune-Yards, Beach House, Other Lives and Ólöf Arnalds. 
In 2012, Iceland Airwaves took place from October 31st to November 4th. Sigur Rós headlined the 2012 edition which included For A Minor Reflection, Kwes, Ghostpoet, Dirty Projectors, The Vaccines, Doldrums, Half Moon Run, Blouse, BOY, Sóley, Retro Stefson, Prins Póló, Samaris, Sin Fang, GusGus, Mugison and Ólöf Arnalds. Django Django and Swans were both scheduled but were forced to cancel.
In the year 2013, Iceland Airwaves Music Festival started October 30 and ended with the final concert of Kraftwerk at November 03. Other lineup artists: For A Minor Reflection, Retro Stefson, Prins Póló, Jon Hopkins, Gold Panda, Agent Fresco, Yo La Tengo, FM Belfast, and Sykur.
- History, Iceland Airwaves. Retrieved 2010-12-20.
- "The 11th Iceland Airwaves Festival will be held 14th – 18th October: First names announced". Iceland Airwaves. 25 June 2009. Retrieved 2009-07-09.
- "Lineup of Iceland Airwaves 2010". Retrieved 2010-06-04.
- "Iceland Airwaves 2010 announces first acts". Retrieved 2010-06-04.
- "Iceland Airwaves: The line-up so far". Retrieved 2010-08-10.
- "Lineup of Iceland Airwaves 2011". Retrieved 2011-11-28.
- "Lineup of Iceland Airwaves 2013". Retrieved 2013-11-04.
- "Iceland Music Events:". Retrieved 2010-06-04.
Leon, Jakov A peek inside Iceland's Airwaves Festival for up-and-coming bands, dw-world.de, (14. October 2011.)