Spanish Nightlife Still Fighting to Save the Summer

Pablo López
Josune Ordoñez Lopez

Pablo López performs at Palacio Vistalegre in 2019.

Industry associations are releasing guides to reopening, but the future of large theatres and arenas remains uncertain.

While many in the music industry expect Europe’s nightclubs and concert halls to remain shuttered this summer, Spain’s nightlife industry isn’t giving up just yet.

This week some of Spain biggest live music industry associations say they are joining the government in releasing guides to hygienic and sanitary measures for live music venues to follow to prevent the spread of the coronavirus as they open back up for business. The guides come as the Spanish government has created a window of opportunity for some music venues to resume limited operations as of June 8.

Yet while the new rules apply to bars and smaller nightclubs, they don’t provide a path to reopening arenas and large theatres that host the likes of Latin superstars like Shakira. And some industry officials say that complying with capacity reductions will be economically unfeasible, even as they plan to follow strict sanitary guidelines to ensure patrons’ health.

Under rules set out on April 28, cities and regions in Spain will have to comply with outbreak-related health targets to move through four reopening phases ranging from zero to three, with a minimum of 15 days between phases.

Reaching Phase Two will allow the opening of indoor clubs with up to 50 people and outdoor venues of up to 400 people. Advancing to Phase Three will mean indoor venues could operate with up to 80 people, and outdoor clubs could allow in up to 800 people. In all scenarios, capacity will be restricted to one-third of the venue’s total, and there won’t be any bodies leaping into the air — all patrons will be required to be seated at all times and maintain social distance of six feet.

On Sunday, Italy’s government followed suit, declaring it would allow indoor shows at concert halls, theatres and cinemas of up to 200 people starting on June 15, and outdoor concerts of up to 1,000 people. Like Spain, the rules will require seated fans and pre-assigned seating and strict social distancing. But unlike Spain, retail sales and consumption of food and beverage in Italy will be prohibited.

While restrictive, the rules provide at least a glimmer of hope that Ibiza’s vaunted summer music scene, a 770 million-euro ($830 million) business, could attempt to operate in a limited capacity for part of the summer or early fall. The Balearic Islands, of which Ibiza is one, have already achieved Phase One status, which allowed the government to lift restrictions on May 11 for local commercial air travel between the Balearic Islands and the Canary Islands. (Madrid and Barcelona, which have suffered many of Spain’s more than 27,700 COVID-19 fatalities, are still rated Phase Zero.)

One way that clubs could reopen amid the restrictions: promote the VIP areas.

"They could open back up if they decide to do it in another format, for example if instead of making a designated VIP area, they make the entire club a VIP area," Joaquim Boadas, the Secretary General of the International Nightlife Association, which represents nightclubs in Spain and several other countries including the United States, tells Billboard. But social distancing on a dance floor "will be more complicated."

For the general admission crowd, Spain’s phased reopening would severely limit major venues in Ibiza like Privilege, which has a capacity of 10,000, and Ushuaïa Club — an outdoor venue that packs up to 4,000 people for EDM stars like David Guetta and Calvin Harris, and recently started adding Latin artists like Natti Natasha. The island also has many smaller beach bars and indoor-outdoor clubs that could conceivably reopen within the rules.

Boadas estimates that about half of Spain’s nightlife locations are at risk of "disappearing." Most imperiled is Ibiza's music scene, he says, which employs some 50,000 people during the summer season — about 35% of the island's workers. Ushuaïa alone employs about 800 people.

New Rules Ignore Large Theatres and Arenas

The government's rules fall short, however, of charting a way back for concerts at venues with capacities of between 14,500 and 18,000 people in Madrid, including Palacio Vistalegre (a former bullfighting ring), says the arena's managing director Daniela Bosé, who has begun hosting video interviews with music industry figures to highlight the problems facing the industry. Nor would they allow the reopening of venues most frequently used for Spanish and international artists, which range in capacity from 6,000 to 12,000.

Courtesy Photo
Daniela Bose

Rebooting the nightclub scene with international artists — and fans — would require restarting international air travel, which remains highly restricted throughout Europe, as countries seek to isolate their citizens from reinfections from abroad. "The concern over how the opening of the borders will take place is what will determine the future of this summer," says Vicente Pizcueta, a spokesperson for Spain at Night, another nightclub association.

For some in the industry, the economics don’t add up. "The events scheduled for the next few months were planned to be carried out at full capacity," says Olga García, the director of web content at Spain’s Association of Music Promoters (APM), which represents 80% of the country’s private promoters. "It's not economically feasible to have them. And there are many events with capacities of more than 800 people that have already sold out tickets."

García says that most Spanish promoters are still waiting for the government to declare force majeure so they can cancel or postpone events programmed before Spain declared a State of Alarm on March 13 — as well as refund ticketholders.

Bosé says that theatre and arena operators could agree to follow "strict protocols" for security, hygiene and sanitation, including requiring masks to be worn. But the government-mandated reductions in venue capacity are "not feasible in the private sector, since we have to cover expenses and generate profits, which is not always possible in such a risky business."

Nightlife associations are introducing their own sanitary guides. The International Nightlife Association, the umbrella group over Spain Nightlife and the American Nightlife Association, is offering a "Sanitized Venue Seal" for clubs and bars that meet the guidelines of a 10-page document. Requirements include contact-free payment and ordering mechanisms; laser thermometers at the entrance of clubs; radiometric cameras; monthly disinfection of the entire venue with “chemical fogging"; providing masks and gloves for workers and clients; and removal of bar items such as straws, napkins and coasters.

On the health front, signs of progress have emerged in recent days among the European countries most affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. Over the weekend (March 16-17) Spain and Italy both recorded their lowest single-day death totals – 87 and 145 – since early March, when both countries enacted lockdowns to try to contain the virus spread.

Some industry executives insist that despite their concerns, they are sensitive to the precarious nature of restarting the live music economy amid the ongoing uncertainties about the pandemic.

"We aren't insensitive to the tragedy," says Bosé. "Artists and the [live music] sector have shown our support with music during the entire lockdown, with free concerts, and we are also not oblivious to wanting to return tomorrow to what we had before March."

But, she adds, "we have to assume that there will be no work in 2020, and at this rate we don't even know if 2021 is possible."

Yet for Boadas, the latest figures have renewed hope that by August Spain's live music scene could return to "normal activity" with up to 5,000 people allowed at venues.

To get there will require discipline, luck and overcoming the greatest challenge the live music industry faces: winning back the confidence of people that are still fearful of catching the virus — and are less-than-enthusiastic about partying with masks and observing strict social distancing.

Some artists remain skeptical. Veteran British DJ Carl Cox told Billboard last month that social distancing would kill the nightclub vibe. He declared 2020 “a write off” for the live music industry and dismissed the possibility that he would participate if promoters tried to mount a delayed Ibiza scene in November, one idea they have been floating.

"We want to go raging, we want to get back on that dance floor," Cox said. "We want to high-five each other. We want to hug each other and laugh and smile. And social distancing is going to ruin all of that."

Additional reporting by Leila Cobo.