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¡España, por favor! How the good times returned to Spain

Following a deep and protracted depression, Spain's live entertainment sector is thriving, with public demand for shows and festivals breaking records year on year

By Adam Woods on 29 Nov 2019

Underworld were one of the main acts at this year's Sónar Barcelona

Underworld were one of the main acts at this year's Sónar Barcelona

This summer’s Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona, subtitled ‘the New Normal’, made two important points: First, that it’s perfectly feasible for a mainstream festival to create a bill that’s at least 50% female; and second, that reggaeton, hip hop, R&B, pop and flamenco-flavoured urbano can all successfully coexist with traditional indie-rock festival favourites.

“This year felt different in general,” says Primavera booker Pau Cristòful, one of IQ’s New Bosses 2019. “Everyone felt represented somehow on stage; people felt really respectful and grateful. It was a special year – not only the gender balance but also in terms of getting new genres to play. It is better to have something challenging than something that is boring.”

Colombian star J Balvin was the festival’s first-ever Latin urban headliner, appearing on the Saturday night and prompting a distinct pre-event backlash from defenders of the old indie ways. “There’s a stigma against reggaeton in Spain still – people are always complaining about it,” says Cristòful. But the day became Primavera’s busiest ever, drawing a crowd of 63,000.

Primavera Sound 2019 was a game-changing success, and the positive mood is shared across the Spanish live business. Festivals are booming, the world-conquering urban music that passed Spain by for years is finally making an impression, and Spain even has its own global superstar in Catalonia’s Rosalía.

The market has posted five consecutive years of growth, culminating in a record-breaking 2018 in which the business saw an annual turnover of €334 million – a 24% increase on 2017 – powered by an incredible summer featuring stadium shows from Guns N’ Roses and Iron Maiden, and tours from Luis Miguel, Shakira and Alejandro Fernández.

There are those who say this year may yet prove to be better still. “We’ll have a better perspective at the end of the year, but for now we can say live is the fastest-growing sector within the music industry,” says Albert Salmeron of Producciones Animadas, who is also president of Spanish promoters’ association APM. “We’ve seen it in the last few years and it’s unstoppable.”

“live is the fastest-growing sector within the music industry”

Memories of the Great Spanish Depression of 2008–14 – and of a particularly disastrous 2012, when a relatively short-lived 21% cultural tax, on top of the 10% PRS charge, helped to wipe 27.5% off the value of the Spanish live industry at a stroke – ensure that Spanish promoters enjoy the good times all the more.

“Spain had its financial crisis, and now it is as strong as it has ever been,” says Barnaby Harrod, director of the Madrid-based, Live Nation-owned promoter Mercury Wheels.

There are several reasons for the ongoing upward shift, Salmeron suggests, including a broader transformation of the nation’s leisure habits. “People are now more focused on the search for unique experiences,” he says. “At the same time, we have extraordinary weather, which makes Spain an attractive country for artists and fans, especially in the festival environment.”

The cultural tax was cut back down to 10% in 2017, mending much of the damage it had caused. Festivals, particularly those with international appeal, have been identified as major wealth creators and receive substantial local government support.

It is a fact that Spain missed out on the formative years of the live business – it was still a dictatorship under General Franco until 1975 – but on current form it appears to have found its rhythm (providing we conveniently set aside the impassioned breakaway attempts by Catalonia, which rumble on).

Industrious indies abound, and in addition to Live Nation – which has numerous promoting irons in the fire, and whose Ticketmaster division is the leading ticketer in Spain – global players in the Spanish market include Eventim, which owns Entradas.com, and Ticketea owner Eventbrite.

“People are now more focused on the search for unique experiences”

Spain has a broad selection of both hardworking indies and heavyweight corporates. The former camp includes Doctor Music, Concert Studio, Producciones Animadas, Primavera, Houston Party and the Project in Barcelona; RLM and Ground Control in Madrid; Valencia’s Serious Fan Music; Last Tour in Bilbao; and Murcia rock specialist Madness Live!.

In the latter camp is Live Nation, of course, which, since February, also holds a majority stake in leading Latin promoter Planet Events, which retains Spanish-language media group Prisa as a minority shareholder. As well as its joint venture with Mercury Wheels, Live Nation operates a strategic partnership with Andalusian promoter Riff Producciones aimed at growing Spanish acts in overseas markets. And with offices in Barcelona and Madrid, Live Nation has also done good promoting business of its own in 2019.

“The most satisfying projects and shows have been the biggest show in Spain ever for Metallica last May, at the Valdebebas site in Madrid,” says Live Nation Spain president Robert Grima. “Also our stadium shows with Muse and Bruno Mars; the consolidation of both the Mad Cool and Dcode festivals; plus our positioning in the market as promoters for top Spanish artists like Fito and Fitipaldis, Manuel Carrasco and Malu.”

Grima reinforces the message of good times in the Spanish market. “It is for us,” he says. “There is a strong growth projection with both local and international talent, and people seem more eager than ever to see live shows.”

Storied independent Doctor Music had a thumping disappointment this year in its thwarted attempt to resurrect its highly influential festival of the same name (of which more in a minute) but otherwise, founder and CEO Neo Sala is philosophical.

“2018 was the best year for the live industry in Spain, and I hope 2019 will be even better”

“2019 has generally been a good year, with major sell-out shows by Rammstein, Alejandro Sanz and Mark Knopfler,” says Sala. “I think the live market in Spain is better than ever, with plenty of shows and festivals doing really well.”

Another veteran, Serious Fan’s Julio Martí, reckons these are some of the best times he has had in 40 years. “To me, from 2011 to when it started to come back in 2015 – those years were the worst ever. ’17, ’18, ’19: excellent,” he says.

A jazz, blues and rock promoter who has brought Miles Davis, BB King and Prince to Spain, Martí attributes his successes to his strong principles. “I have always done things that I love. I am a passionate guy. I don’t like anything bigger than a sport palace or a bullring. Every show I see in a stadium, I wonder why I came, so I quit doing those in 1989.

“2018 was the best year for the live industry in Spain, and I hope 2019 will be even better,” he adds. “The best thing is if nobody gets over-excited and everyone keeps professional and keeps on doing work that can be sustained over time.”

As in many other countries, the globalisation of the business has turned the screws on independents, and rock promoter Juan Antonio Muñoz of Madness Live!, which has promoted acts including Iron Maiden, Alter Bridge and Steven Wilson, attests to the challenge. “It is very difficult when [Live Nation] are involved in everything in the business, from ticketing to venues to worldwide tours,” he says. “We should probably be getting worried, but we are working hard and doing well, and that is the only way to survive.”


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