Carl Cox
Magazine Feature

Have Ibiza's Glory Days as a Dance Music Mecca Come to an End?

Long revered as the world's premier dance music destination, Ibiza faces a reckoning as top DJs exit their residencies, prices hit dizzying heights, government regulations mount and decadent tourist-clubbers usher in a new corporate era.

At 3:30 a.m. on June 15, a long metallic snare roll marks a significant moment in the history of the Ibiza club scene. It's the first track in the first set of British techno DJ Carl Cox's 15th and final Revolution residency at the vast five-room venue Space. After 27 years, the lease, held by Space's 79-year-old owner, Pepe Roselló, is up. In October, arguably the world's most famous club will close its doors.

As Cox plays his first record, roughly 2,000 clubbers in Space's main room surge forward in a blaze of dry ice and red lasers. Like the club itself, he is an Ibiza institution. "He has all the ­virtues: ­knowledge, dignity, honor and ­temperance," says Roselló. A new owner will relaunch the venue next summer, but Cox will not be working for him. "It's not open for discussion," he says. "I couldn't carry on with the same heart and soul that I had with Pepe. This is it. I can walk away a happy man, knowing that I gave it my all."

The end of one club will not change Ibiza, but the handover dramatizes two very different visions of clubbing on the Spanish island. If Space ­represents the scene's freewheeling past, then its new ­owners are riding a different wave -- higher prices, more VIPs, more government regulations -- that is ­causing some veterans to wonder if Ibiza has changed for the worse, and driving many clubbers to such ­alternative destinations as Malta, Mykonos and Croatia. "There's definitely an energy and an ­adrenalin in Space that you don't experience at other clubs on the island," says promoter Simon Dunmore, whose Defected in the House night relocated to Croatia in 2016 after 13 years in Ibiza. "It does signify a change."

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From Space's rooftop bar you can see the pristine white walls and flashing billboards of the Ushuaia Ibiza Beach Hotel. It is run by the Palladium Hotel Group, owned by the Matutes, the ­powerful dynasty that Spanish newspaper El Mundo once called "the Kennedys of Ibiza": 84-year-old ­patriarch Abel Matutes is a former mayor of Ibiza and Spanish ­minister of foreign affairs. Outside, a fleet of branded white-and-gold Mercedes-Benzes bears the ­slogan "The hotel that loves VIPs." Ushuaia's daytime pool parties attract an older, richer crowd to see such EDM superstars as David Guetta and Avicii. Longtime Space devotees fear that the venue will become Ushuaia on steroids.

Courtesy of UshuaIa Ibiza Beach Hotel
The Ushuaia Ibiza Beach Hotel in 2011, during a Guetta DJ set. 

Beneath the camouflage netting that covers Space's Sunset Terrace I meet Darren, a 31-year-old gas engineer from London who has been coming to Ibiza since 2002. He gestures toward Ushuaia. "If they take over Ibiza they'll ruin it," he says. "Hopefully enough people on the island appreciate what it should be to keep it that way."

Ibiza belongs to the Balearic Islands, an autonomous archipelago that lies off the east coast of Spain. After the Spanish Civil War left it an impoverished ­backwater, it rebuilt itself as a carefree tourist ­destination. First came Hollywood stars in search of privacy, including Errol Flynn and Laurence Olivier. Then came the hippies, ­followed by rock stars like Pink Floyd and Robert Plant; three of the island's biggest clubs -- Pacha, Amnesia and Privilege -- date back to the 1970s. During the early 1980s, it was a hit with Europe's jet set: the place where Freddie Mercury threw an epic ­birthday party and Wham filmed the video for "Club Tropicana."

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Ibiza owes its current status to four British DJs -- Paul Oakenfold, Danny Rampling, Johnny Walker and Nicky Holloway -- who took a ­vacation there in the summer of 1987. They discovered Amnesia's DJ Alfredo, who played the joyful, eclectic style that became known as Balearic, and the drug ecstasy, which had infiltrated the island via the Bhagwan Rajneesh cult. On their return to London, the galvanized DJs founded the clubs that established house and techno music in the United Kingdom and gave birth to rave culture. "You were dancing with an international jet-setting crowd in open-air clubs, music all night long, looking up at the stars," says Oakenfold, 52. "It had this special energy. We came back waving the flag."

PYMCA/UIG via Getty Images   
Rampling DJ’d at Clockwork Orange at Es Paradis San Antonio Ibiza in 2000. 

Cox first visited Ibiza even earlier, in 1985, with so little money he had to sleep in his car. A few years later, he visited Space when it would close at 7 a.m. and reopen an hour later for daytime ­clubbing, a ­phenomenon unheard of in the United Kingdom. "It was unique," says Cox, a fast-talking, ­amiable 54-year-old who routinely is named one of the world's top techno DJs. "You walked in there ­thinking, 'There is no one else in the world doing what I'm doing.' "

For many old hands, Ibiza is now a paradise ­transformed. Never cheap, it has become eye-­poppingly expensive. A ticket to one of the big clubs averages $55 in advance, rising to $77 at the door. A small beer can cost as much as $14, six times the price in a local bar, and spirits even more. Clubbers typically budget around $2,200 for a week in Ibiza. "I've been going for 30 years, and I've seen the change firsthand," says Oakenfold. "I think the island is a total and utter rip-off now."

The worldwide explosion of EDM has made Ibiza less singular but more enticing. Even ­clubbers with ample options in Miami or Las Vegas want to see the island for themselves. In August 2015, a record-breaking 1.3 million travelers passed through Ibiza Airport, and this summer is expected to be the island's biggest ever. "You've got people making songs about Ibiza," says Steve Martinez of Bronx duo The Martinez Brothers, citing Mike Posner's top five hit "I Took a Pill in Ibiza." "People know about it, even Americans. Once the Americans start ­coming, it's happening."

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The Americans are part of a VIP invasion that has transformed Ibiza. In 2003, Ibiza's ­government felt that the island's reputation was suffering from the hit British documentary series Ibiza Uncovered, which depicted sunburned Brits ­fighting, ­screwing and puking in the West End of San Antonio, a beachfront Pottersville. It decided to attract an older, more affluent clientele accustomed to summering in St. Tropez by hiking prices and overhauling the island's infrastructure. That was the year Sean "Diddy" Combs' yacht first docked at San Antonio.

"In the early 2000s, we banged our chests and told everybody we met that Ibiza was the coolest place on the planet," says Pete Tong, the veteran DJ-broadcaster who hosts BBC Radio 1's Ibiza coverage. "Everybody got very excited about the big money arriving. But then it was like, 'Be careful what you wish for.' " Says Ben Turner, cofounder of Ibiza's International Music Summit: "P. Diddy came, Paris Hilton came, and that was it. Everything changed."

Iconic/All/Getty Images
Hilton at her Foam & Diamonds residency at Amnesia Ibiza in 2015.

Big spenders rent luxury villas in the hills and ­frequent such deluxe venues as Ushuaia, Blue Marlin and Sublimotion, a molecular gastronomy restaurant where a meal costs north of $2,000 per person. (Earlier in July, TMZ reported that police in Ibiza evicted Chris Brown from a rented villa after the singer and his entourage urinated, vomited and damaged walls throughout the house.) One well-­connected British expat tells me that some of his clients burn through more than $30,000 in a single day. All the big clubs have VIP areas with ­bottle service and tables that cost thousands of euros, although Cox is proud that Space's ­velvet-rope enclosure is relatively small. "These high rollers enjoy being in the same room as the public, but they remove themselves from the public," he says. "I look over sometimes and half of them are on their mobile phones. I don't ­understand how the music has become secondary in a nightclub."

Another consequence of Ibiza's growth is the proliferation of new regulations. The open-air venues and all-day afterparties that used to make the island unique have been steadily curtailed due to noise. "The big obstacle always has been the administration," says Roselló. "They don't value how we contribute to tourism on the island and what our industry represents." (Meanwhile, Spanish tax authorities recently have conducted raids on dozens of clubs, including Amnesia, Privilege and Space, although only the search of Amnesia, where more than $2 ­million in euros was found hidden, resulted in arrests.)

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In summer 2015, closing times were brought ­forward one hour to 6:30 a.m., and the police shut down several free beach parties, including Israeli DJ Guy Gerber's popular Rumors. "It feels like the government is not connected to the actual life of the island during the summer," says Gerber. "They are doing their best to kill the vibe."

"We're very proud of our music scene," says Irantzu Fernandez, an earnest young woman who works for Rafael Ruiz, Ibiza Town's new socialist mayor. She rebuts the allegation that her colleagues are joyless bureaucrats. "We know we are the most important place in the world for house music. We want that. We also want this not to be a bad thing for our neighbors."

Frank Griffin/LFI/Photoshot
George Michael with extras from Wham’s 1983 video for “Club Tropicana,” filmed at Pikes Hotel in Ibiza.

Directly or indirectly, Ibiza's economy almost entirely relies on tourism. But it comes at a price. During the 1990s, the influx of ­clubbers ­overwhelmed the island's infrastructure and caused havoc on the roads, where intoxicated Brits would forget to drive on the right. (By ­summer's end in 1999, 32 tourists were killed, many just ­attempting to cross one of the main thoroughfares at night.) Such subsequent ­projects as the motorways linking Ibiza Town to the ­airport and San Antonio have outraged locals. The island's winter ­population of around 130,000 more than triples during the summer months when the government is besieged with complaints about noise and disruption; hence the new closing time. "You don't want to see drunk people coming out of nightclubs when kids are on their way to school," says Cox. "It had to change."

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"The Ibiza government begins their four-year tenure and they shut everything down and make everybody go to bed early," says Turner. "Right now the new government is very ­aggressive."

Nonetheless, Ibiza's popularity is at a peak. For the government, the island's biggest ­problem is the opposite of decline. It is ­anticipating water ­shortages in August due to excessive demand. "It's a small island," says Fernandez. "We want ­tourists, but it cannot grow every year. One day it will be too much."

Gary Taylor/Alamy Stock Photo
The marina in Ibiza’s old town, Dalt Vila.

DC10 is situated at the end of an airport runway. Every five minutes a plane descends loudly through the warm night air, and the crowd on the tree-lined ­terrace cheers the arrival of another ­planeload of revelers.

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It's Monday, and Circoloco, DC10's ­founding night, is celebrating its 18th year in Ibiza. It opened in 1999 as an anarchic after-hours venue. "The DJ was playing on milk crates," Jamie Jones, the Welsh techno DJ who now hosts Paradise at DC10, ­remembers fondly. "The toilets were filthy, with drug wrappers all over the floor. It was a ­madhouse." Underground music also thrives like never before at such nights as Luciano & Friends, Marco Carola's Music On, Solomun's +1, Sven Väth's ­pioneering Cocoon and, up until this year, Richie Hawtin's ENTER. "Ibiza is probably the only place in the world where the underground scene is neck and neck with mainstream EDM," says Turner. "The music's different, but I think it holds the original spirit of Ibiza."

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The following evening I visit Ushuaia for a very different experience. Tanned, well-dressed tourists sip top-dollar vodka and champagne in the VIP area or dance around the pool as DJs Sick Individuals play hyperactive EDM remixes of Moby and Adele from a festival-style stage, ­punctuating their set with cannon bursts of flame and glitter.

Ushuaia's founder and artistic director is Yann Pissenem, an uninterruptibly ­enthusiastic ­42-year-old Frenchman who moved to Ibiza in 2008. "I called it Ushuaia [after the world's ­southernmost city] because this beach was the end of the world," he says. "Everybody told me, 'Don't do anything there. It will be a fiasco.' " Pissenem's game-changing inspiration was to target older ­clubbers. "The world of electronic music has grown a lot," he says. "The kids who were clubbers 20 years ago are now clubbers with money. They don't want to wait till five o'clock in the morning in a dark club full of kids to see their kind of DJ."

Gtres/Fameflynet Pictures
NBA players Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James (from left) on a yacht off Ibiza in July. 

Pissenem will be taking over Space next ­summer. "It's a big responsibility," he says. "It's not going to be an EDM club" like Ushuaia, he insists, but he promises big changes. "We're going to transform the club for sure, because it's a new generation and a new era, no?"

For repeat visitors, whether they have been ­coming for five years or 30, Ibiza is never as ­liberated, as affordable or as special as it used to be, yet they keep coming back, because a changed Ibiza is still Ibiza. "I can't see it slowing down ­anytime soon," says Cox. "I don't know many people who have been to Ibiza and been upset. I've known many people who have gone to Ibiza and had the best time of their life."

At Space, I ask Darren if he would consider ­choosing somewhere like Croatia next year. He laughs dismissively. "There's so many places where they say 'This is the next Ibiza.' Nothing's ever the next f­--ing Ibiza."

This article originally appeared in the July 30 issue of Billboard.