Keeping it live
Some people equate it with drunken revellers depriving hard-working citizens of their sleep. Others hold that it’s an art form as sophisticated and worthy of respect (and subsidy) as a play at the Teatre Goya or an exhibition at the CaixaForum. In other words, live music in Barcelona is a topic similar to Catalan language, politics or the state of the beaches: it is nearly impossible for two opposing parties to find enough common ground to have a discussion.
The two sides have become more entrenched since the Ajuntament and the police started closing down venues, either for not complying with their licences or because of neighbours’ complaints. “They [the Ajuntament] will eventually destroy all the smaller live music venues and DJ bars in this town,” said Roger Cowell, who has been DJing in Barcelona for four years (out of a 20-year career) and organises the Sunday Joint sessions at Dos Trece. “All the spontaneity of somebody picking up a guitar in a bar and playing some songs has already gone. Most of the original venues that hosted jazz jams in the city are gone. They can’t afford the huge licence fees.”
The outlook may not actually be that bleak, but licensing laws—or rather, a lack of clear regulation—pose a major problem to live music in Barcelona. “Our licensing system is outdated,” a spokesperson from the Institut de Cultura de Barcelona (ICUB), a government body, said. “Every district has a usage plan and decides on a case-by-case basis. It’s really complicated. I get lost in the legal details.”
It seems that, until a few years ago, nobody really checked licences. And when they started, it became clear that there were hundreds of venues that did not comply with some part of their licence, be it noise levels or the location of the fire extinguisher. Now, nobody—not the Ajuntament, nor the bar owners—seems to know what it takes to get a new live music licence; the only thing they agree on is that it’s nearly impossible.
On July 1st, 2009, the Catalan Parliament ratified the new Ley de Espectáculos, the first change to that law in 19 years. The law gives more powers to local governments when it comes to granting licences and establishes fines, ranging from €300 for not having complaint forms up to €150,000 for not having a licence or not complying with stated opening hours. The law also claims to simplify licensing procedures, but the actual effect remains to be seen.
One of the main problems for live music venues continues to be neighbours. Many places, like Luz de Gas, go to great lengths to maintain cordial relationships with their neighbours—no surprise after La Paloma was closed down in 2006 due to neighbours’ complaints. Recently, LugAr on Carrer Abaixadors and Red Lounge on Passeig Joan de Borbó suffered the same fate. “Most problems are caused by the people in the street, not by the music coming from the venue,” said Carmen Zapata, of the Associació de Sales de Concerts de Catalunya (ASACC). “We can’t tell people to leave, since it’s a public space and people can do whatever they want. The venues are responsible but have no authority. We ask the authorities to send police, but they hardly ever respond.”
Antonio Requela of the recently opened Marula Café on Carrer Escudellers agreed. “Our bouncers have orders to tell people to leave, but it’s problematic because they have no authority. There are people selling beer everywhere, and people drink in the streets. Then the neighbours tend to focus their complaints on the venue, simply because it’s there.”
Still, the opening of the Marula Café in June is interpreted by many as a silver lining on the dark cloud hanging over Barcelona’s live music scene. The venue already had a discoteca licence, and the Marula Café will start programming live concerts this month. And, there is more good news: the London Bar on Carrer Hospital will reinstate live music around the end of the year, thanks to reforms financed by the Ajuntament. In 2008, the city decided to dedicate €1 million in subsidies to reform and improve Barcelona’s concert venues. The subsidies are given out by the ICUB and managed by ASACC, and have been channelled to venues like Apolo, which improved its sound system, Sala Bikini, where it was used to reduce noise levels by changing the access to the venue, Sidecar and the London Bar, which is currently improving its soundproofing. “We understand that these are cultural centres,” the ICUB spokesperson explained.
One could argue that all these are large venues that don’t need any more subsidies, but there is no denying that they offer quality: Sala Bikini boasts Barcelona’s best sound system, and Apolo has an eclectic and independent programme. Plus, not even the behemoths are free from threats: with Sinnamon having entered bankruptcy proceedings in March and their venue located inside the area designated for the 22@ project, nobody knows what is to become of Razzmatazz.
Live music does not equal a party. Not everybody who picks up a guitar can be heard in a 10-kilometre radius, like AC/DC during their concert in June. And there are plenty of smaller, independent live music venues left in Barcelona. “My favourite is the Heliogàbal,” said Aleix Ibars, editor of the cultural agenda ‘le cool’ and the music blog ‘Indiespot’, and a regular contributor to music magazines GO and Rockzone. “The place is super authentic, the programme is always great and they feature a lot of local bands.”
Other bars with a rather underground rock and jazz live-music programme include Big Bang on Carrer Botella, Bar Só-Ló on Carrer Margarit and Bar Eléctric on Travessera de Gràcia. But what with the city’s inspectors and police on the prowl, people have let their imaginations fly, especially when it comes to electronic music and DJs (who also, by some interpretations, fall under ‘live music’): Miscelänea sometimes features cutting-edge DJs until 11pm—by agreement with the neighbours—while Espais Actuals, an artist’s studio in Poblenou, Bar Fantástico on Carrer Escudellers and the Club Náutico de la Mar Bella close for ‘private functions’ when they feature DJs.
What the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve. And what the neighbours don’t hear, the police don’t care about. (Keep that in mind next time you leave a venue at 4am.)
Barcelona’s best independent live music venues
Bar Gusto; Francisco Giner 24
Tiny and minimalistic, Gusto cultivates the intimate-yet-boiling atmosphere that you can find at house parties gone out of hand. The live music is eclectic and includes a lot of DJ sets, which differentiates this venue from its more acoustic-oriented Gràcia neighbours.
Heliogàbal; Ramón y Cajal 80
A welcoming venue with indie bands that you want to turn into a compilation and give to the girl you were in love with at high school—if only you could pronounce their names. They also organise exhibitions and other activities.
Bar Só-Ló; Margarit 18
A world music programme from gypsy swing over bluegrass to traditional Senegalese song makes sure you always learn something new here.
Big Bang Bar; Botella 7
A lot of swing, jazz and rock’n’roll, always authentic but never outdated. And absolutely no dress code.
Miscelänea; Guardia 10
Once a month this art gallery, shop and bar stages the kind of concert you can only miss if you plan on not participating in any conversations with your friends the week after.