Photo by Tori Sparks
In September 2015, a small cultural centre in the Raval called Arco de la Virgen presented its last concert, after being ordered to stop all musical presentations and clear all music equipment from the premises. At the time it had over 7,000 members. Since then, Arco de la Virgen’s founder, Sergio Marcovich, has collected over 20,000 signatures in an online petition to make the laws regulating cultural associations more flexible, thereby allowing them to reopen. It remains closed.
In January 2016, a tiny but historic bar in Gràcia, Heliogàbal, closed its doors after receiving over €18,000 in fines for staging small concerts—something the bar had been doing for two decades, but without an official licence. In May 2016, it hosted a huge fundraising concert in Razzmatazz called Pagar la Multa (‘Pay the Fine’) to help raise money to offset the debt. It, too, remains closed.
Since March 2016, there has been talk in the press and on the street about a new law that will allow any bar in Barcelona to legally host live music—something that sounds like utopia to live music fans, and anathema to neighbours who fear being disturbed at all hours of the day and night.
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Photo by Jo Tapi
Arco de la Virgen, a small cultural centre in the Raval, had 7,000 members when it was forced to close its doors
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Photo by Tori Sparks
Gràcia bar, Heliogabal, organised a fundraising concert at Razzmatazz in May to help pay off some €18,000 worth of fines
What Does the Law Actually Say?
In short, there is no new law, but a new interpretation by the city council (the Ajuntament) of the existing law relating to live music performances (Decret 112/2010). In March this year, the Institut de Cultura de Barcelona (ICUB, Ajuntament of Barcelona) issued an amendment to the previous interpretation of the law, as set out in a 2011 'circular' (084/2011). This amended circular was finally signed by members of the Ajuntament on May 11th, technically permitting live music to be performed in any place with a bar, restaurant or café licence. In the past, only places with a specific and narrowly defined entertainment licence could schedule concerts—hosting an open-mic night in a neighbourhood bar was actually illegal. The law has, until recently, been inconsistently enforced, as obtaining one of these licences was close to impossible for small spaces under the previous interpretation.
The new interpretation sounds like good news for live music, but the situation is complicated. The fine print says that any venue wishing to host concerts must also comply with stringent noise and security requirements, including the installation of sound limiters, sound-proofing, a fire exit—the list goes on.
The people involved: Governmental and cultural organisations
Dani Granados is the Coordinator of Cultural Planning for the ICUB, as well as a musician, producer and professor. He has been instrumental in shaping the circular amendment and other cultural initiatives under mayor Ada Colau, and is on a mission to transform the relationship between cultural and political entities in Barcelona. Granados indicated that the new interpretation was never intended as a quick solution to the issue of live music venues in Barcelona; rather, it is one critical step in the process of nurturing culture in the city, and there is still a lot of work to be done.
“Historically, culture has been relegated to large spaces, segregated from the day-to-day life of the average citizen. We want to make it more accessible to the people. In order to do that, we need to put legal measures in place that will encourage this kind of system, and reeducate both the government and the public so that they perceive local culture as a normal part of their lives,” Granados said. “Music is a social phenomenon that belongs to the people. We have to stop seeing it only in financial and political terms, and start seeing it as a tool to unite the community.”
Carmen Zapata is the head of the Asociación de Salas de Conciertos de Cataluña (ASACC), whose objective is to defend the interests of Catalunya's music venues, and facilitate communication between them and the administration. The ASACC has also been heavily involved in the thinking behind the new interpretation. In the past, the live music discussion has often ignored the issue of small venues entirely, something Zapata regards as “a travesty in a city that has four prestigious music schools, a rich local music scene, and important festivals that attract people from all over the world.”
Zapata believes that the various branches of government involved in the decision-making process do not have a coherent vision of how to deal with this issue. While the ASACC’s relationship with the Department of Culture is “fluid and cooperative”, the Department of the Interior is “only concerned with security measures—the question of culture is not perceived as relevant to their goals for the community”. According to Zapata, the circular amendment is a useful step in the right direction. “While it doesn’t come close to solving the many problems facing small music venues in Barcelona, it allows them to breathe again without living in constant fear of huge fines and other unfair repercussions.”
The media’s role in the debate
Nando Cruz is a journalist for El Periódico, amongst other publications, and has been deeply involved in covering the local music scene since 1989. He feels that being a music journalist comes with an unspoken responsibility to cover the issues that affect the local scene. Cruz has written in detail about the issues facing live music venues in Barcelona since the debate began—not for any personal or political motivation, but because he is also an avid music fan. “I simply believe that 100 more musical bars in Barcelona would make the city happier and healthier,” said Cruz. “A city with a more diverse music scene is also a city more attuned to diversity, justice and social consciousness.”
Cruz has interviewed members of the government, cultural entities, musicians and more on this subject, and his conclusion is that there is still a long way to go. “To this day, we are constricted by laws from Franco’s era that considered music to be a nuisance. Changing the laws will be difficult, but before this can happen, we have to change the public perception of music from being a noise problem to playing an important role in local culture.”
The change in the interpretation of the law means a bar like Heliogàbal is technically allowed to host concerts. Whilst this may seem like good news, Heliogàbal has a maximum capacity of 39 people, which makes it difficult to make ends meet as a music venue. If the venue extended its space, it could double its legal capacity. However, in order to do so, the owners would have to obtain a permit, which can’t legally be granted until the new interpretation is put into operation. “Until these things actually happen, we can’t be sure of what the future holds,” said Miguel Cabal, the bar’s manager. “There’s no point spending a huge sum of money on renovations until the laws are clearer.” Now that the circular amendment has been approved, they hope to reopen in October, but are currently unable to make concrete plans.
Sergio Markovich, founder of Arco de la Virgen, is a tireless activist in the debate over live music in Barcelona. He has been interviewed countless times, attends meetings with government and cultural organisations, organises petitions and grassroots efforts, has a constant social media presence, and even made a documentary about closing Arco de la Virgen—yet he is still trying to find a solution for non-profit cultural associations. “We can tell that the current government is trying to make a difference, but while the new interpretation’s main objective is to stimulate culture, it doesn’t propose viable solutions to the issues at hand,” said Markovich. “The main problem is that it still obliges small spaces to conform to the same regulations as a nightclub, which is impossible.”
The new interpretation of the law does not address the issue of neighbourhood associations that do not have a bar or restaurant licence. “At the moment, we are in legal limbo,” Markovich said. “The law doesn’t protect small non-profit organisations like ours. It doesn’t technically prohibit our existence—it simply doesn’t mention us at all. There is no legal framework that allows us to exist.” He hopes to be able to press the issue at roundtable discussions this summer, but there is no clear road towards reopening in sight.
Photo by Bianca Bijan
Local musician Marc Curcio believes that it has become increasingly difficult to find a location and audience interested in homegrown music
…and the musicians who play them
Originally from Washington DC, Marc Curcio is a local musician and self-proclaimed political junkie who has been living in Barcelona for 13 years. “In recent years, the city has concentrated on catering for tourists, which has turned it into an expensive city where money is the first priority,” observed Curcio. He believes that, as a result, it has become increasingly difficult to find a location and audience interested in local, original music, as tourists tend towards cover bands.
Curcio says that the circular amendment, and other efforts by Colau’s city council are helping, but that unless she is able to stay in office for longer than four years, the effects are likely to be reversed.
“I see things possibly getting better, but they’re not better yet. If Colau gets voted out, things will go back to the way they were, forcing bars to buy noise limiters manufactured by the cousin of a politician, systemic corruption, that kind of thing.”
Curcio laments the loss of Arco de la Virgen and Heliogàbal, saying that their closure was a huge blow to the local music community. He hopes that grassroots efforts will put them back on their feet.
Several public forums reflect the reactions of local residents to the announcement and subsequent signing of the circular modification, ranging from enraged to enthusiastic to largely indifferent. On El Periódico’s online forum, Entre Todos, Ángel López of Hospitalet posted, “Yes to music, no to music venues,” and suggested that the government only allow live music venues to be located outside of the city centre to control noise pollution. According to Mercedes Rodríguez, from Barcelona, the new interpretation “will make it insufferable to be in your own home!”
On the other end of the spectrum are residents like Carlos Lopez, who lives on the same street as Arco de la Virgen. He wrote a passionate letter to the Ajuntament, pleading for the rights of small venues and emphasising their value to the community. In the case of Arco de la Virgen, he said that its presence transformed what was a poorly-lit and abandoned street in the Raval into a safer, happier place to live, and that its current absence is a huge loss to the neighbourhood.
Other members of the general public, like Ramon Burniol, take a moderate position. In Entre Todos, he said that as long as the local venues adapt to and follow the laws regarding sound restrictions, and make a reasonable effort to control the noise outside, he has no problem with live music venues near his home.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Everyone—from cultural associations, bar owners and musicians to members of the general public and representatives of the Ajuntament—is ultimately left wondering what the future holds for Barcelona's live music scene. Will the city be bursting with original music? Or will it be impossible to live in peace? The most likely scenario is neither; rather, a city that continues to struggle with issues of zoning, noise pollution, overpopulation and the perceived conflict of interest between participating parties. The impact of the new interpretation of the law will be shaped by the way in which all parties act and react in the coming months. Will there be a spirit of collaboration in an effort to renew Barcelona’s local live music culture, while still protecting the rights of the residents? Or will the antagonism that currently exists between certain parties tank the good intentions of the ICUB, ASACC and grassroots activists?
For now, Dani Granados and the ICUB are planning initiatives to run in parallel with the signing of the circular amendment, such as roundtable mediation, to resolve any issues that arise. The first sessions will take place this summer, and will include government members from the Ajuntament’s Departments of Culture, Urban Planning and Ecology, representatives of neighbourhood groups, the police, members of the music industry and cultural organisations. This measure is designed to monitor the enforcement of the law, measuring how well the new interpretation is working, and to ensure good practice is demonstrated by all involved.
The ICUB is also working towards making ‘live music space’ an official legal term for small venues that are neither concert halls or nightclubs. This category is yet to be defined, but it would offer recognition to those currently in legal limbo, such as cultural organisations, thereby making them eligible for official assistance and protection.
WHAT THE CIRCULAR COVERS
- Any venue with a bar, restaurant or cafe licence may host live music. This is a change from the previous interpretation of the law, which required venues to acquire a specific licence designating them as a ‘musical bar, concert hall, dance hall or discotheque’.
- The venue must take appropriate measures to insulate the infrastructure so that the resulting noise level is no more than 45 decibels on the street. If the venue is adjacent to housing, the noise level shall not exceed the maximum of 30 decibels in the bedroom(s) of the home between 7am and 11pm, and 25 decibels between 11pm and 7am.
- Venues in the more densely populated districts of Ciutat Vella, Gràcia, Eixample and Sants-Montjuïc may only programme live music until 11pm.
- Venues located in other neighbourhoods in Barcelona may do so throughout their normal hours of operation.
- Authorised sound limiters must be installed where possible.The Ajuntament will allot €400,000 to help venues install sound insulation, provided that the venue meets safety and other requirements, and complies with all other aspects of the law.
WHAT THE CIRCULAR LEFT OUT
- Non-profit neighbourhood cultural associations that do not have a bar licence to operate a bar are not mentioned anywhere in the new interpretation of the law. These organisations are currently in legal limbo.
SMALL MUSIC VENUES IN BARCELONA
- Arco de la Virgen. Verge 10. (Closed until further notice)
- Big Bang Bar. Botella 7.
- Cronopios. Ferlandina 16.
- Freedonia. Lleialtat 6.
- Jazz Sí. Requesens 2.
- Pastis. Santa Mònica 4.
- 23 Robadors. Robador 23.
- Astrolabi. Martínez de la Rosa 14.
- Cafe Rock and Roll. Torrent de l'Olla 48.
- La Caja Fuerte. Bruniquer 57.
- Cara B. Torrent de les Flors 36.
- El Col.leccionista. Torrent de les Flors 46.
- La Finestra. Balmes 224.
- Heliogàbal. Ramon y Cajal 80. (Closed until further notice)
- Soda Acustic. Guilleries 6.
- La Sonora de Gracia. Riera de Sant Miquel 5.
L'Hospitalet de Llobregat.
- L’Oncle Jack. Roselles 32.
- Sala Slow. París 186.