BARCELONA— Juan Arnau Sr. casts his showman’s eye on the crowd from behind the DJ booth, a towering, brightly colored structure that resembles a house in a comic book. A parade of giant puppets on stilts stride through the door, past where a festival-size version of Twister has been going on since 11 a.m., some three hours ago. Elrow’s ninth anniversary party is thumping at the global entertainment brand’s flagship venue, an outdoor-indoor compound with a ramshackle veneer that has mushroomed on a strip of dusty nowhere, not far from the airport here.
Spanish Party Company Elrow Pushes the Limits of EDM by Leaning on the Absurd
From desert raves in the Spanish heartland to a residency in Las Vegas, the Arnau family has turned a day rave event into a global touring business.
The wiry, 60-year-old Arnau, elrow’s current family patriarch, darts around backstage, talking over the beat of techno music with members of the production crew. He hands out sandwiches among a relaxed group that includes his wife, Mari Cruz, and some long-time friends who’ve come to share in the couple’s Sunday morning routine.
About 30 actors costumed as goofy characters mix with dancers in red clown wigs and party hats. By closing time, at 11 p.m., the site will have swelled to about 6,000 people, who’ve paid 55 euros each (about $62) to experience elrow’s meticulously produced brand of nonsense, which combines dance music with -- in a word -- fun.
“We added what the music needed -- joy and color,” says Arnau.
“The music is just the soundtrack to the spectacle,” he adds, before leaning in to reveal the secret of the brand’s global attraction: “Did you ever notice how children all over the world play the same way? Child’s play is universal. So if you treat the adults like children, their entertainment becomes universal too.”
At a time when the modern-day raves that propelled the rise of EDM over the past decade have become increasingly formulaic, Arnau’s Spanish company is cutting against the grain with day and night extravaganzas built around an immersive theatrical experience that doesn’t take itself too seriously. As musical tastes have shifted, elrow is also capitalizing on a growing thirst for underground music that Las Vegas, in particular, is turning to, as casino owners re-program nightclubs away from once-trendy progressive and big room house sounds. With a partnership with electronic music visionary James Barton’s Superstruct Entertainment fueling its growth -- and an entry into China in the works -- elrow is primed to expand its global footprint even further over the next year.
“Elrow has really come along at a time when maybe we needed a bit of a more fun element being installed into a very serious music culture,” says Ben Turner, the co-founder of International Music Summit, the electronic music conference held annually in Ibiza.
Vicenc Marti, the elrow president who has shepherded the company from a family operation into a global enterprise, likes to compare elrow’s parties to Cirque du Soleil’s now ubiquitous brand of spectacle. “Instead of creating awe in your audience by watching incredible shows, you’re doing it through audience participation and a sense of humor,” he says.
Marti was in nearby Ibiza that weekend for another elrow party at the dance club Amnesia. Across the Atlantic, another was taking place in Las Vegas. They were among the 175 events the company plans to put on by the end of 2019, including 20 shows this summer in places as far-flung as the New York, London and Taipei. They include “Rowllywood,” a Bollywood-themed production at Brooklyn’s Mirage on July 27; parties in Ibiza; and the elrow Town Festival in London in August, with a line-up of 50 DJs.
Elrow management says their shows in 2018 brought in more than $30 million in revenue, up 35 percent from 2017.
Much like EDM before it, elrow’s guiding principles of inclusiveness and participation have been the keys to its ability to attract newcomers to electronic music. They “now feel that this is a sound that they love because of the experience,” says Alex Cordova, Wynn Las Vegas’ Executive VP of Nightlife.
While dressing up in costumes at electronic festivals is hardly new, Elrow’s attitude is about looking absurd, not sexy. The crowd is more come as you are than fashion forward; ironically worn Hawaiian shirts are a thing. With its bombardment of playful distractions, elrow has plugged into the need of the digitally drained to interact rather than observe. “If we try something new and the first reaction is to hold a cell phone to take a picture, forget it, we don’t want it,” says Juan Arnau Jr., the company’s CEO.
Arnau and his sister, Cruz Arnau, represent the new generation of the Spanish family of café and theater owners, and club promoters, whose history dates to the late 19th century.
Elrow is thriving even as electronic dance music -- which rose to historic heights only five years ago at the peak of the EDM craze -- has lately taken a step back in popularity. The genre’s share of the U.S. recorded music market has reflected losses for three years in a row, according to numbers from a recent IMS report. The estimated earnings of the 10 highest-paid DJs have also tumbled to their lowest total since 2013, according to figures in Forbes. Globally, the electronic music business —- spanning sales, DJ earnings, clubs, festivals and branding — slipped last year by 1 percent to $7.2 billion, the IMS reported.
“The elrow concept,” by contrast, “has been working in every single country we go to,” says Arnau Jr., 37, during an interview in the company’s offices, a modern mansion in an upscale Barcelona neighborhood. The family transformed the house into a sort of Pee Wee’s Playhouse with props from the parties, including the ubiquitous elrow mascot, Rowgelia, a plush chicken.
Elrow has booked many big-name DJs, including Carl Cox and Fatboy Slim. “But in the end what we want is that they play fun music,” Arnau says. “We are not in the industry to teach people what to listen to. We are here to entertain them and to make them part of the show.”
If the elrow concept is “easy,” as Juan Arnau Jr. describes it, production for the events is not. “We make everything ourselves and there is a lot of potential for logistical headaches,” he says. Sets and props are created in the company’s warehouse studio in Barcelona and shipped to an array of shows with themes like “Sambowdromo” (Brazilian carnival), “Enchanted Forest,” and “Psychorowdelic Trip,” all with different production specifications.
Arnau ticks off some numbers with his fingers: 51 sets, 4,000 costumes, and 255 containers that traveled in 2018 to Brazil, Chile, Peru, Paraguay, Uruguay, Lebanon and Israel, among other countries. “It’s a barrier to entry to whoever is going to try and do another elrow,” he says with a laugh. “Who would be crazy enough to do it?”
From Disco to Techno in the Spanish Heartland
The Arnau family has certainly never let a wild idea stop them. A quixotic attraction to the seemingly impossible is part of the pedigree of the family. Their legacy as entertainment impresarios began in Fraga, a small town in Aragon, Spain, where Arnau Sr.’s great-grandfather opened a café in 1870 that his grandfather later converted into a cinema and dance hall. In the late 1940s, his other grandfather created his own outdoor dance space to host orchestras of the day.
In the 1970s, Arnau Sr.’s father, who was also named Juan, brought disco to the Spanish heartland at the Florida, a dance club that mimicked the style of Studio 54. Like their forbearers, when Arnau Sr. and Cruz opened their first club they struggled to make it work, and did it on the cheap, cajoling and convincing DJs to travel to perform at what became a cult venue in the middle of nowhere. They debuted their next endeavor, the summer Monegros Desert Festival, in 1994. The festival attracted 45,000 people at its height in 2014, marking a milestone for dance music in Spain.
After nights out clubbing, the family would talk about their experiences over lunch, Arnau Jr. recalls. “How was the DJ? How was the music? How were the customers? And then we’d go have a nap.”
After a stint in the U.S., where he completed an M.B.A. in San Francisco, Arnau returned to Barcelona, where the family had moved some years earlier. They rode the waves of the nightlife business with a series of clubs there, leading a decade ago to Row 14, the site of the current elrow parties.
During the first two years of Row 14, the Arnaus lost 2 million euros, the younger Arnau recalls. Juan Sr. turned to his son for help in turning it around, suggesting they open on Sunday morning. “I am tired of seeing every single DJ playing at every single place,” Arnau recalls telling his father. “The industry has become boring.”
The resulting concept was a brunch-time event for friends and industry contacts, and an impulse to throw some stuff from the dollar store out of the DJ booth and into the crowd. “It was me going and buying toys and seeing how people were interacting,” Juan Jr. says. By the time they were attracting 1,000 people to the parties, Juan Sr. was ready to break new ground.
Father and son didn’t immediately agree over Juan Sr.’s ambitions for elrow. “I remember we had a lot of family fights,” says Juan Jr. “I said the public is not ready, they are listening to EDM. They will not understand the product yet.”
But his father “kept insisting insisting, insisting.”
In the summer of 2010, the Arnaus held their first show in Ibiza. The company remained a family enterprise until 2014, when Marti, who helped take Vueling Airlines public when he was the company’s Chief Commercial Officer, came on board to build elrow into a brand. He and Juan Sr. had met at the gym.
The company had six full-time employees, compared to the current 120, and was operating out of what Marti describes as “basically a garage.” With the Ibiza shows as a calling card, by 2015 the family was fielding requests to stage elrow shows in Europe in collaboration with other promoters.
Then in 2017, festival company Superstruct invested in elrow to back its global expansion. The partnership is one of a series of deals that Barton, the co-founder of pioneering UK festival brand Creamfields, and the former president of electronic music at Live Nation, has made for private equity-backed Superstruct to build a network of festivals throughout Europe. Last year, Superstruct bought a majority stake in Barcelona-based Advanced Music, the producer of Sonar. Barton declined to comment on elrow.
As the era of the “DJ event” has faded in importance somewhat, the Arnaus are finally realizing a decades-old dream first sowed by the elder Arnau’s grandfather: to crack Las Vegas. This year elrow is staging a residency of 10 shows at the Encore Beach Club at Wynn Las Vegas, which extends into December. The next party is set for July 20.
Playing Vegas is a family “obsession” that began in the 1960s when Juan Arnau Sr.’s grandfather set out to lure bandleader Xavier Cugat, who was playing the casino at Caesars Palace, to perform in Fraga. He succeeded, but tragically Arnau died of a heart attack the day before Cugat’s triumphant concert in 1964.
“Elrow is made for Vegas,” says Arnau Jr. “It’s that entertaining.”