Originally published in Mixmag
Ibiza’s love affair with house music has made it the dance capital of the world – and turned a sleepy Mediterranean island into one of the hottest tourist spots on the planet. This year, though, things are different. The Spanish government has passed strict new laws banning after-hours parties; the police are on high alert to clamp down on private villa parties; Ibiza’s most revered underground club, DC10, has been shut by authorities for reasons which are frustratingly opaque and the tourist board seems bent on discouraging clubbing. Is this the beginning of the end for the Mecca of electronic music?
It is 5AM. The terrace at Amnesia – once an open-air haven for barefoot hippies – is packed tighter than the Northern Line at rush hour. Luciano and Ricardo Villalobos are whooping it up in the booth as lasers strafe the room. At the bar a raver, pouring sweat, orders a round: six drinks, €90. He hands over his credit card without even blinking. Even in San An, the traditional haven of cut-price package holiday makers, kids get sticker shock as they pay €12 for a Jack and Coke. In the El Divino VIP mini-bottles of cava are a cool €25. At Pacha, Privilege and Amnesia tickets are up to €60 on the door. Ibiza, at peak season, is a study in raw capitalism.
The island hasn’t always been so money-driven. For centuries it was a haven for those who live slightly outside the law, a place where wits mattered more than wallets. Pirates came in search of plunder, as the watchtowers dotting the coastline attest. Smugglers stashed their wares in the caves at Sant Miquel. Jews built secret synagogues here and Nazis skulked in after the war. Ibiza’s benign indifference absorbed them all. Throughout the 20th century a Moulin Rouge cast of Bohemians, painters, poets, musicians and chancers drifted to Ibiza, lulled by the whisper of the turquoise Mediterranean and embraced by the red earth of its hills.
Over the centuries Ibiza was an imperial outpost for the Moors, Romans, Carthegenians and Catalans but none left as indelible a mark as the foot soldiers of rave culture. Hippies were the first to drum and dance beneath the stars but it was the arrival of house music, in the 1980s, that forever changed Ibiza. As the cocktail of ecstasy and electronica melded in the Spanish sun legions of kids fled the cold grey of Thacherite England to look for a new life on a magic island. From that moment, the fate of Ibiza has been intertwined with the rave culture. Clubs fuel Ibiza’s economy, spread its fame and draw millions of visitors who might never otherwise visit.
“Ibiza was incredibly important to acid house. It wasn’t a huge number of people who went there but those who did – like Oakenfold and Danny Rampling – had a huge influence. The knock-on effect was phenomenal. Now, Ibiza season is like the World Cup Finals, every summer. Whether you’re a DJ, promoter or run a record label it dominates your year, it provides an infrastructure to the whole scene,” says Pete Tong.
However, twenty years on from the original Summer of Love music is playing second fiddle as the island lies in the grip of a summer of suspicion. “The government is trying to get rid of the clubbers,” DC10 resident Clive Henry says emphatically. “The mood isn’t good. People are feeling down.”
It isn’t just twitchy, post-rave paranoia either. Ibiza’s tourist council publicly takes a dim view of ravers. “There are different kinds of clubbers. Some have good jobs back home and appreciate the beauty of the island. But others come and want to party for a week. That isn’t an image we want,” says Ramon Balanzat, a spokesman for the tourism board. It’s the “some have good jobs” attitude that particularly rankles.
“I lived hand to mouth my first seasons here, surviving on nothing. I was on the verge of having to go home when I finally got a break,” recalls Bora Bora resident Oliver Lang, who has spent 10 summers in Ibiza. Like many DJs and island faces his first visit wasn’t to a swanky villa, but to a grotty San An hotel with a bunch of mates. “I was the kind of person they want to get rid of,” he says.
DC10 resident Clive Henry echoes Lang’s words. “I was an ‘undesirable’… running around with no money, trying to get in everywhere for free,” he chuckles. Henry, too, has spent a decade on the island, pouring his heart and soul into the scene. He understands how essential it is to the pulse of the island to make a space for those who don’t come with a platinum card in the pocket of their designer jeans. “DC10 is for the workers. A lot of them can’t afford to do anything else. Rich people might come for the casino but they aren’t interested in the majority of the island. Our whole economy and livelihood is based around the clubbing fraternity.”
It isn’t just adventurous music buffs who come to Ibiza to scrape a living from the club scene. Some of the island’s most famous high rollers started off with nothing. Anthony Pike – whose eponymous hotel is a watchword for jet-set glamour – says he arrived “basically broke,” while Es Vive and Rock Bar owner Jason Bull worked as a bartender and PR before becoming one of the island’s legendary success stories.
It has never been exactly easy to survive in Ibiza but plenty of people found the lifestyle compensated for little money and less sleep. “I came here and found a freedom I didn’t have in Britain,” says Nick Fry, owner of Underground, one of the last free entry clubs on the island. “I always intended Underground to be a place for workers and locals, people who couldn’t afford to go to the big clubs. Now we’re being squeezed,” he says, as new licensing laws mean the club shuts at the same time as the bars in town.
This – along with DC10’s closure – means workers are running out of ways to enjoy the island. “I thought it was going to be 24/7 parties, but there’s nothing. By the time I finish work I have a choice of paying €50 to go to a club for an hour, or going to sleep,” says Adam Steedman, a waiter who lives outside Ibiza Town. Across the island in San An money – and fun – are in equally short supply. Tracy Jones runs Shipwrecked, a Wednesday morning boat party which is the last legal after-hours option on the island. Their 230-capacity vessel is always sold out and disconsolate late-comers shuffle home from the pier as it sets sail. “A lot of them work six or seven days a week, this is their one chance to party,” she says.
It is a safe bet Shipwrecked’s high-seas antics would curl the hair of any passing member of the Ibiza tourist board, but the stubborn fact remains these pie-eyed kids with their Ray-Bans and bottle-blond hair are essential to the island economy. Danny Whittle knows better than most how a trip to Ibiza can change a life. He was a fire-fighter in Stoke-on-Trent when he discovered raving and it was a cheap holiday to the island that set him on the path to becoming manager of Pacha, Ibiza’s most glamorous club. “Pricing young people off the island is the worst thing that could happen. Sure, they stay in San An and don’t spend any money the first couple years, but they fall in love with the place. They get better jobs, get a credit card, then return to stay in good hotels and go nice bars and restaurants. They come back, year after year,” he says.
There is little indication the tourist board understands this dynamic of rave culture, or appreciates clubber’s fierce loyalty to the island. The recently launched official tourist web site Ibiza Travel doesn’t mention clubbing at all on the home page. Keep trawling and you’ll find “nightlife” buried beneath items about sport, beaches and conference facilities on the “what to do” page. Notably, there is no mention of DC10 in their list of clubs – further fuel for conspiracy theorists. This reluctance to even acknowledge Ibiza’s biggest tourist draw smacks of stubbornness. It is like Paris refusing to talk about the Eiffel Tower or London banning any mention of Beefeaters. Even Balanzat thinks the tourist board is in danger of alienating its friends. “Officially, our stance is nightlife has enough publicity so we don’t talk about it. Personally, I feel if you want to communicate about Ibiza your first target should be the group that’s coming now, and that’s clubbers,” he says.
Pete Tong has had a front row seat to Ibiza’s evolution and he suggests the government’s approach is less to do with malice and more to do with misunderstanding. “I don’t think they realise how important daytime clubbing is to people’s perception of Ibiza, around the world. Or take Café del Mar – the most iconic image of the island. Why invest millions of euros in reinventing San An then not allow them to play music for sunset? That’s mad,” he says.
Not all the blame should be laid on the government’s doorstep though. While they are openly favouring other types of tourism and making life difficult for some clubs they certainly aren’t the ones setting outrageous ticket prices or charging €10 for a small bottle of water. If clubbers are being priced off the island it is at least partially the fault of the money-grubbing tactics of its most powerful venues. But who sets the prices? Who decides whether a bottle of beer is €7 or €12? DJs, according to Danny Whittle: “you have to cover the cost of your talent.” It is a rather glib argument though. DJs in Ibiza demand huge fixed fees in part because they don’t get a cut of the bar proceeds. The more money a club makes on the bar the more DJs can ask for, creating a price spiral where the only losers are ordinary clubbers.
In the past, when the pound was strong, British ravers were happy to pay the price. Everyone moaned, but most thought it worthwhile for a once or twice a year blow-out. Some still do, like the lad queuing for Tiesto who lost his original ticket and bought another. “I’ve paid €100 to get in tonight but fuck it, I’m on holiday,” he grins. That attitude is becoming rarer as the credit crunch bites harder, though, and clubs are nervous. Tourist numbers for June are down 8% on last year, according to official figures, and promoters are fighting tooth and nail over every last punter. The promoter of SuperMartXe, which has taken Manumission’s old Friday night slot at Privilege, went into restaurant kitchens the day before their opening party, giving out wristbands to dishwashers and waiters. While even nights headlined by big name stars like Danny Tenaglia are offering generous free entry.
Ravers who take advantage of the freebies will save a bit, but “in before midnight” usually means an few extra drinks at the bar, which easily makes up the cost of a ticket. As in gambling, the house always wins. “People built the clubs over the last 20 years and made the rules as they went along. It’s a bit backstabbing. They all try to bend the rules in different ways,” says Tong. The major clubs are locked in bitter turf wars and just how far they go to undercut their rivals is a matter for endless speculation. Some are perceived to be more favourably enmeshed in Spanish politics than others and it is clear outsiders like DC10 and Underground are leaned on by everyone. “I feel demonised. Circoloco is treated like a monster,” says Circoloco promoter Andrea Pelino.
One thing is very clear: the egalitarian, tolerant spirit which made Ibiza famous – which drew dreamers, crooks, idealists, refuges, hippies and finally ravers – is in danger of disappearing into a maelstrom of opportunism. The clubs, in their panic to protect profit margins, and the government, in its understandable desire to give the world a broader picture of the island, are in danger of colluding to drive out the people who love Ibiza best, those who are here for the long run. High-rolling VIPs may come and drop €100,000 in a few days, but the next week they’ll have vanished back to Knightsbridge, Monaco or St Tropez. Workers sharing roach-riddled apartments and sitting on the beach swigging San Miguel don’t offer an immediate cash boost, but they are the ones who will return. Some to visit, year after year; others to make a life in Ibiza.
They are people like Oscar Casu, who started off flyering and now owns ultra-hip bar Noctambula. Or Emilie Antigny, who came to work a season and fell so in love she opened Ibiza Town’s favourite coffee spot, Chill Café. There are countless like them, scattered across the island, running bars, restaurants, hotels and record shops. They don’t have mountains of cash to flash, like some do. (“In a recession the wealthiest are the least affected. They might only have €9 million instead of €10 million – but they still have millions,” points out Whittle.) However, unlike easily bored celebrities or the idle rich, ravers who have come to Ibiza to dance and found a way of life that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world, won’t flit away when the weather turns, their future is the island’s future. Drive them away and some of Ibiza’s magic will be gone forever.