MADRID — With Ibiza’s famous nightclubs shuttered by the ongoing pandemic, several hundred people instead boarded a fleet of mini-buses last month and headed to the Can Soleil estate formerly owned by Guy Laliberté, the billionaire Canadian founder of Cirque du Soleil, for a long night of semi-secret raving.
While a DJ spun to a packed dance floor, as videos shared on social media showed, the throng partied around one of three swimming pools at the 64-acre property, which is set on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and dotted with palm trees and outdoor sculptures topped with gold leaf.
As night turned to day police officers showed up to shut down the party, whose booming music was violating local noise restrictions, the Periódico de Ibiza reported. (Anne Dongois, a spokesperson for Laliberté, said he sold the property last year, so “questions should be addressed to the new owner,” whom she would not identify.)
Such private partying has emerged as the featured attraction this summer in Ibiza — normally a global destination for dance music-loving tourists —as local authorities have kept the clubs shuttered to contain a soaring caseload of COVID-19 infections.
For Ibiza’s club owners, who are coping with a second consecutive summer of forced closures, the private parties have added insult to injury. Many feel their plans to reopen clubs in late July, after a successful trial concert, were partly dashed because authorities failed to enforce restrictions on private-party organizers. If anything, some venue operators suggest, the club closures led illegal private parties to mushroom in number.
“The [COVID-19)] numbers are now bad in Ibiza, but we have not been part of the problem, since the clubs have been closed while the high quantity of private parties allowed infections to spread,” says José Luis Benítez, the vice president of Spain Nightlife, an association of Spanish club owners. “We could have been part of the solution, by opening with very strict controls, but we were not even given this option.”
In a sign of how the illegal partying has spiraled out of control, local authorities recently announced plans to hire private detectives to put an end to unsanctioned private gatherings, which they blame, in large part, for making Ibiza Spain’s new COVID-19 hotspot. The island’s infection rate rose more than sixfold in July.
Seth Troxler, a techno DJ who has been a resident at Ibiza’s DC10 club for a decade, says many DJs, struggling from the loss of income from the island’s shuttered clubs, have agreed to spin at private parties. “When a DJ gets offered $20,000 in cash to play for a couple of hours at a private party,” Troxler tells Billboard from the island, “there’s very few people who are saying ‘no’ to that.”
Troxler blames authorities rather than fellow artists for allowing private events to go ahead relatively unchecked.
“They’re really trying to turn Ibiza into this like VIP-focused island, and they’re turning the blind eye to things that shouldn’t be happening,” the DJ says. “You can’t have a club, but you can have like 700 people at your villa party, which doesn’t make sense to me.”
A group from the U.K. calling themselves Ibiza Underground Movement on Instagram has thrown at least one rave at an Ibiza mansion, on the weekend of July 3-4, according to posts on Twitter and Instagram and a story in Diario de Ibiza. The publication said the party provided van service for guests and displayed a flyer featuring British DJs Jamie Roy, Ben Sterling, Skream and Hannah Wants. (The party organizers have since deleted at least two posts from before Aug. 3 and any that dealt with Ibiza parties.)
Ibiza authorities, who did not respond to interview requests, have given few details about their attempts to clamp down on illegal house parties. After meeting with police officers on July 28, Mariano Juan, a government official in charge of tourism, said the force felt “overwhelmed” and did not have enough officers to scout private parties, according to media reports. So police also backed the idea of hiring outside detectives to help locate private party venues and monitor social media for parties being planned.
(When he gave an update in mid-August, Juan said some detectives had already helped shut down illegal parties. He did not specify the number of detectives nor how many parties.)
Some club executives consider the detective initiative to be little more than a publicity stunt by local authorities. “It’s all nonsense… to make it look like they are keeping the island open and clubs closed,” says Neil Evans, the artistic director at Amnesia Ibiza and director of Electric Ibiza, an artist and concert management company. “We could have 1,500 (people) in a nightclub COVID-free, with testing, but they prefer to allow villa events to happen with no control,” he says.
Evans says local authorities were “systematically killing this island’s music heritage,” by undermining clubs that have been the backbone of its electronic music scene, while allowing partying on private grounds.
Local officials, for their part, have expressed concern and say they are scrambling to find solutions.
Illegal parties “represent a clear risk for people’s health,” Juan said in an interview this month with Períodico de Ibiza. “In these parties we have identified not only tourists but also residents and seasonal workers who then get into contact with the rest of the population and can create a problem if there have been infections.”
Until the COVID-19 caseload started soaring again, Ibiza applied only loose rules to private parties. So long as they did not charge participants to attend and their number did not exceed 500, the gatherings were considered legal at first. But as of July 24, Ibiza reintroduced a nighttime curfew on gatherings — from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m. — and far-tighter capacity limits on any private event held before the curfew. The maximum is now 50 if indoors and 120 if outdoors. Officials also set harsher fines for anybody found organizing an illegal party, reaching up to 300,000 euros for the worst offenders.
Since June, Spain has struggled with another wave of COVID-19, attributed by politicians and health experts mostly to gatherings of younger unvaccinated people. Overall, however, the country has managed to accelerate its vaccination rollout at one of the highest paces in Europe, with about 67% of its population fully vaccinated as of Aug. 24, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Spain’s COVID-19 numbers have improved slightly in August, but several countries have maintained travel restrictions for Ibiza and other parts of Spain.
The Balearic Islands had been the only Spanish destination on Britain’s “green” list of safe destinations. But the U.K. government put the Spanish archipelago back on its amber list in early July, forcing unvaccinated tourists to quarantine when they return to Britain.
For Clubs, It Was A Summer That Never Was
Clubs in Ibiza — including Ushuaïa Ibiza Beach Hotel, Hï, Privilege, Pacha and Amnesia — had hoped to kickstart their season after the island hosted a trial outdoor event in June at Ibiza’s Hard Rock Hotel. Benítez says the trial proved successful, with not a single known positive case among the 1,263 people who attended.
But that event was soon overshadowed by another virus spike in Ibiza and the rest of the Balearic Islands. The archipelago’s 14-day infection rate reached almost 1,000 registered cases per 100,000 inhabitants at the end of July, compared with 161 registered cases on July 1, according to the local health authorities. The rate fell back down to 415 on Aug. 24, in line with a general improvement in the pandemic situation in Spain.
Benítez says the forced closure of clubs would leave venue owners with “very high [financial] losses,” although he would not quantify them. Entertainment is a 770-million-euro business on the island, representing over half of all seasonal jobs, according to a study by an economist at the University of the Balearic Islands.
And the Ibiza music season is massive: over a 22-week season, DJs spin seven days a week at eight main clubs — with average capacities of 5,000 people each — along with dozens of sunset bars and after-party spots.
The final tally of losses, Benítez says, will depend on whether clubs can negotiate to receive additional subsidies from the Spanish government — though he says there is “little hope” that such funds would be granted. The clubs are also negotiating to keep their employees furloughed until May of 2022, ahead of the next summer season.
For now, at least, venue owners are not expressing concerns about permanent club closures.
Ibiza’s biggest clubs are not solely dependent on their own revenues, since several belong to larger corporations that also own hotels, restaurants and other assets. Most notably, Abel Matutes, a former Spanish politician who was mayor of Ibiza in the early 1970s, also built up a family property empire: their Palladium Hotel Group owns Ushuaïa — normally the site of shows from major dance artists like Calvin Harris and David Guetta — and Hï Ibiza (the former Space).
Financial firms have also invested in the island. In 2017, Pacha founder Ricardo Urgell sold the club’s holding group for 350 million euros to a private equity firm, Trilantic Capital Partners.
Some clubs have also expanded beyond the island. Amnesia, owned by the Martin Ferrer family, has promoted non-Ibiza events this summer, including in Croatia, and has held seated music events in a smaller Ibiza venue, Cova Santa, while its main club remained shuttered.
Seated events at Ushuaïa and Cova Santa have taken place with reduced capacity, social distancing and face masks — in a setting and on a scale that bears little resemblance to the experience of a packed dance floor.
Troxler worries that COVID-19 restrictions and illegal villa parties are adding fuel to a multi-year campaign by local officials to tame the island’s hedonistic club culture and make the island a more family-friendly destination for tourists.
“The typical kind of clubbing spirit that embodied Ibiza for so long based on music and freedom, that’s the thing that’s really being kind of suppressed,” he says. “This is devastating for club culture as a whole.”
Additional reporting by Alexei Barrionuevo