Who stole the music
“At the end of the last decade it was really exciting to go out in Barcelona,” said Scottish producer and DJ Funk DVoid (real name Lars Sandberg). “[Now] it’s really sad....There’s not enough diversity in the city.”
Plenty of clubbers will be familiar with his complaint. Although Barcelona has an impressive and ever-expanding selection of festivals focusing on everything from Brazilian music to Catalan jazz, a trip to any of the city’s big clubs at the weekend invariably means listening to the sparse, thudding sounds of minimal house and techno.
These two niches of dance music overlap at many points and, to all but devoted fans, are more or less indistinguishable. Both based on a heavy, 4/4 rhythm at a medium tempo, they’re as unadorned as the name suggests: variation is added through looped chord sequences, glitchy sound effects, or through the DJ adding sounds or taking them away. It’s not the sort of music you can hum in the shower.
Thousands enjoy Barcelona’s minimal boom every weekend, but plenty of others—especially foreign residents, who are often used to a little more variety—find the dominance of this music alienating. Christian Vogel, another British producer and DJ, moved to Barcelona six years ago, and no longer performs here. “When I first came here things were a bit more varied and interesting, but now I DJ mostly in Germany, because that’s where they’re interested in the vanguard, in new sounds, rather than in straightforward, drinking-cubata music. I mean, there’s a time and a place for that, and luckily we get to choose. But is there much choice here? No. If you want to check out music and bands here you go to the festivals. I haven’t performed regularly as a DJ here for the past two years.”
Even industry bosses are starting to feel that things in Barcelona have grown a little monotonous. “We’re hoping that we can get past this minimal house and minimal techno boom that, although it’s been fun for the past few years, is starting to get a little bit boring,” said Iñaky Bau, head of dance music importers and distributors Decoder Muzique. “Perhaps we’d like something a bit less electronic, a bit more melodic. Something that’s not so hard, so minimalist, something a little more friendly.”
But how has the clubbing scene become so musically homogenous? Bau thinks that Spain’s comparatively late arrival onto the dance music scene could help explain this single-mindedness. “It was only a few years ago that we entered into this new electronic music scene.”
Others suggest that the causes are more complicated. Global Souljah, a British DJ (real name James Barrie), believes that ethnic makeup is significant: Spain doesn’t have a long-established Afro-Caribbean community, unlike Britain and America, where the black community was central to the development of hip hop, reggae, drum ‘n’ bass, breakbeat and much more besides.
Barrie also suggests that club organisers are largely responsible: “The clubbers here are quite open-minded, but club owners here are a bit more stuck in their ways, they’re very conservative. It’s not even like they’re exploring new trends or pushing the envelope, they’re just plodding along. For a supposedly cutting-edge city it’s ridiculous: Sónar’s warmly greeted each year with all its far-out stuff, but none of it gets carried on to the rest of the year.”
Barrie, Christian Vogel, Lars Sandberg and Iñaky Bau all agree that the Ajuntament has played a large role in the homogenising of Barcelona’s club scene. Over the past few years, the Ajuntament has clamped down on noisy clubs and bars in the densely-populated streets of the old quarter, traditionally the hub of the city’s nightlife. Aimed at making life more pleasant for residents, the restrictions have caused the closure of dozens of smaller bars, and placed economic constraints on those that have remained open. “The government is slowly killing the scene with all these restrictive laws on clubs and sound systems,” said Sandberg.
Christian Vogel said that this economic pressure has stifled diversity. “If I wanted to open a venue that gave you a choice, where you could go if you wanted to see something a bit different and challenging, I wouldn’t dare to do it because the council would put so many restrictions down that it’d be too difficult, you’d have to be making money [to pay for soundproofing and licences] and to do that you have to play something mainstream. How do you expect any music scene to grow when you shut places down if they put speakers in?”
Barrie pointed out that in the past the smaller bars were vital to the city’s musical scene. “A lot of DJs first found their feet playing tiny sets in bars. The guys who run Nitsa [a successful night at Apolo] started off doing nights for 30 people in a tiny bar in L’Hospitalet or somewhere, and look at them now. But the Ajuntament has closed down so many of those bars now, and the clubs are coming under pressure too.”
Still, people are upbeat about the chances of change in the near future. Lars Sandberg said: “It’s been much, much better here before, but with such a beautiful city to live in, it would be a shame to give up hope. We have to re-group. The whole minimal explosion has made all the clubs slightly lethargic, so the scene will slow down and some other music will take over, hopefully something a bit more entertaining and visceral this time.”
Iñaky Bau said that Spain’s homegrown dance music scene is growing rapidly: “We started off as importers because here, really, you couldn’t find anybody to work with. But in the past few years there’s been a lot more raw material, a new generation of very interesting producers have come forward: it’s an important moment for the music here.”
Meanwhile, people are getting proactive, organising fanzines, websites and club nights, laying the groundwork for a more varied future. Sandberg said that he is currently planning to open a venue. James Barrie feels that the ‘backwater’ nature of the local club scene has led to a slight change in his career. He organises a weekly event, Contraflow, which started in September, and aims to bring an eclectic mix of sounds to the weekends. “It’s forced me to become more of a promoter. I’m liking the challenge. You can either sit and moan, or you can do something about it.”