Will the Coronavirus Dim Ibiza's Music Scene?

ibiza-market-global-bb8-2020-billboard-1548-1587655045
Wren Mcdonald

With clubs still hoping to open, one becomes a face-mask factory, and Carl Cox declares 2020 'a write-off' for DJs.

BARCELONA — For over four decades, the Spanish island of Ibiza has captured the imaginations -- and wallets -- of international clubbers who have headed there to hear the masters of dance music take them on hourslong musical journeys in a beachfront bacchanalia.

Back in the late 1980s, Paul Oakenfold and other British DJs famously took the island’s iconic music style to London and branded it “Balearic beat.” David Guetta turbocharged his 2000s EDM popularity with his fuchsia-decorated F*** Me I’m Famous party at Pacha, a club that opened in the ’70s as a hedonistic escape from the conservative Franco dictatorship. British techno legend Carl Cox, who famously spun a nine-hour set at a closing party for the club Space, hasn’t missed a season since 1984.

Until now. The chances that Ibiza’s tourist season will open as usual in May are dropping fast as Spanish officials wrestle with when -- and how -- to reopen a country in coronavirus lockdown.

The island’s clubs are prepared to open if the government lets them, says José Luis Benitez, president of the Spain Nightlife Association, which represents club owners. But other European countries are dimming the lights on raving this summer. France has extended its ban on public gatherings until mid-July, while major events in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands are barred until at least Aug. 31. The U.K. Foreign Office is advising British nationals -- who make up the majority of Ibiza clubbers -- to forego all but essential international travel to anywhere in the world, indefinitely. Spain is expected to continue mandatory confinement through May 9 and Ibiza club owners have considered shortening the season by opening later in the summer and only allowing in Spanish citizens, or even holding a mini-season in November.

Another nightclub association, Spain at Night, has promoted some of the measures now being used at reopened clubs in China, including disinfecting venues, asking attendees to wear face masks, checking clubbers’ temperatures at the door and using smartphone apps to track health data. Ramón Mas, the association’s president, tells Billboard the organization plans to present such proposals to Spain’s Ministry of Health in the next few days. But Benitez, who worries about the challenge of maintaining social distancing in clubs, says he’s not confident about that system.

Artists are already turning down the volume. “It ain’t going to happen,” says Cox, who is booked for seven shows in 2020. “There is no one going to Ibiza. This year is a write-off. And I am going to shed enough tears for everybody about not performing there this year.”

Says Olivia Nervo, half of Australian EDM duo NERVO, which is booked for four Ibiza shows: “I am gutted. Really sad.”

A total shutdown of Ibiza would be yet another blow to the dance music business, as well as to the island’s economy. Entertainment is a 770 million-euro business there, representing over half of all seasonal jobs, according to a study by an economist at the University of the Balearic Islands. The Ibiza music season is massive: over a 22-week season, DJs spin seven days a week at eight main clubs -- including Amnesia, Privilege and DC10, with average capacities of 5,000 people each -- along with dozens of sunset bars and after-party spots. All told, music artists perform more than 10,000 gigs on the island over a summer, says Pete Tong, a DJ who also is president of label Three Six Zero Recordings.

And while the economic importance of Ibiza to dance music has declined compared with Las Vegas -- artists tend to be paid less there than in Las Vegas -- it’s still important to many DJs’ earnings. Artists with long residencies can make over half of their yearly income on the island, Tong and other DJs say. Beyond the money, “it’s the profile and the visibility that playing in Ibiza gives you, which then leads to other secondary bookings and festivals that take their cue from Ibiza,” says Roger Sanchez, a house music DJ who has performed there since 1995.

An Ibiza shutdown would add to the challenges facing dance DJs who are struggling to draw income and have no easy, reliable way to monetize livestreams. Some DJs are making money on the livestreaming service Twitch, but that tends to bring in thousands a month, not the hundreds of thousands of dollars top DJs earn for a single nightclub gig.

“Right now, we are giving away free shows,” says Cox, who is livestreaming on Instagram, Twitch and Facebook, mostly to stay connected with fans and to raise money for charities. “But somewhere along the line we are artists and I don’t want to end up being a starving artist.”

With no gigs to play, Cox is chilling at his home in Australia, where he spends the European winters. He’s working on remixes, writing an autobiography and cooking banana bread. He’s even starting a vegetable patch and herb garden. But his thoughts often drift back to the Spanish island, which he calls his “second home” in Europe.

Unlike Las Vegas, which tends to spotlight already established talent, Ibiza is a creative hotbed -- a place where dance artists can test records and build reputations. Many of its 40-plus clubs are family-owned and -operated, including the Palladium Hotel Group, which owns Ushuaïa Ibiza Beach Hotel (where Guetta has a residency) and the former Space, which was rebranded Hï Ibiza in 2017.

Despite the financial pain, some on Ibiza say that shuttering this summer could give the island a needed break. In recent years, owners have extended the season by some six weeks and added Latin stars like Bad Bunny and Natti Natasha to a scene long dominated by electronic music. The longer season has exacerbated Ibiza’s struggles with low levels of drinking water. A rave-less summer “could be a really good chance for the island to heal itself,” says Maria May, senior agent at Creative Artists Agency, who represents Guetta.

It could also give promoters a chance to reconsider their priorities. Over the years, Ibiza clubs gradually have embraced the bottle-service set, including influencers like the Kardashians and billionaires with megayachts. The shift has alienated the rite-of-passage teens who traditionally made up the majority of clubgoers.

In light of potentially huge losses for the island’s economy, clubs and DJs are showing solidarity. The owners of Pacha have turned the venue into a face-mask factory. So far, DJs aren’t griping about lost fees -- at least not publicly. “They are saying, ‘If we can’t go this year, it’s OK. We’ll go next year,’” says Benitez. “If you’re not performing, you’re not going to be paid.” Adds Tong: “Anyone that demands their fees from a club will probably be writing their death sentence in terms of getting booked in Ibiza again.”

If clubs remain closed until November, it would represent a historic change. Cox says he wouldn’t go because he doubts enough clubbers could be coaxed to travel to the island and be subjected to social-distancing rules without the allure of sunnier weather. But Nervo says she and her bandmate and sister, Miriam, who normally tour in Asia and the U.S. at that time, would be up for it. "Hell, yeah!” she says. “If Ibiza opens up, we are all going to want a piece."

A version of this article originally appeared in the April 25, 2020 issue of Billboard.

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