Ibiza clubbing and COVID-19: how the White Isle has adapted during the pandemic
The world's best-known party island, Ibiza has been heavily impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Frequent restriction changes, extortionate fines and bans on dancing, parties and smoking have affected the music and hospitality industries hugely. But while it's hit locals hard, the pause in summer season has also given time for a reset and for the White Isle to regenerate. Anu Shukla travels to Ibiza to investigate
The sun is shining as we zip through the Ibizan countryside. The forested hills, spotted with white villas, pulse with the sound of deep house. Sadly, the only party happening right now is the one in our car, with a radio show as the soundtrack. The bassline hums as local DJ, Elia Alquimia, drives us above the salt flats of Las Salinas, just as the watercolour washes of the sunset deepen.
When we’re 200 metres above sea level, we pull up to take in the view. Even though we’re in a secluded spot, the music from our radio draws in a passer-by, who briefly joins us. Irene is a nurse from Valencia. She moved to Ibiza for the first time a month ago from Madagascar. “Anywhere you go in the world, people will always say ‘things were better before’, but I think I’ve found my own Ibiza,” she says.
“In Spain, we say ‘la Isla o te acoge o te rechace’ — which means the ‘island will either accept you or spit you out’.” She feels “lucky” that there are jobs for medical professionals here right now. “Ibiza has been giving me gifts since I arrived. I didn’t expect to meet you guys, yet here we are, enjoying this amazing view with beautiful music.”
Elsewhere on the White Isle, that lucky feeling ebbs away. Like party capitals everywhere, Ibiza is facing a crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Frequent restriction changes, extortionate fines and bans on dancing, parties and smoking have affected the music and hospitality industries here. According to Spain’s Office of National Statistics, there are currently 11,492 people registered unemployed in Ibiza. In 2018, that figure was 6,927.
“[Jose Padilla] said that Ibiza has always been a rich man’s playground, but [in the '70s] people drove around in Fiats and saw conspicuous consumption as distasteful. They wanted to be part of something more spiritual. Jose came here for that” — Andy Wilson, Jose Padilla's former manager
The island’s super clubs may well survive the pandemic, but the vast supply chain network of people who depend on summer trading have been hit hard. Worst affected are Ibiza’s 12,402 self-employed (autónomo) workers. Not everybody qualifies for the Spanish government’s pandemic support measures, like low interest loans and eviction bans, because they don’t trade year-round and so don’t hit the required tax thresholds. When a government scheme allocated €11.6m to 153 entities in Ibiza, only 1.2% of those who qualified were local business owners and autónomos.
Freelance art director Joanne Heywood, who moved to Ibiza 20 years ago, falls into this category. The 38-year-old has designed costumes, shows and concepts for events like Zoo Project, Clockwork Orange, Storytellers, Cosmic Pineapple and Oceanic. She and many other autónomos “depend on the work we get in summer to survive the rest of the year,” she says bluntly. “My money ran out in March and I’ve been getting help from family and friends. I’m also lucky to have a landlady who understands the situation I’m in, otherwise I don’t know how I would have done it.”
Not everyone is as fortunate. Ibiza Food Bank is one of several charities witnessing an influx in demand this year, as the island’s GDP has plummeted from 90 percent to 46 percent. Tina Browning is the charity’s coordinator. “Many people haven’t earned anything since October 2019. The group of food banks we work with are feeding between six to seven thousand people a week, and it’s rising all the time,” she says. “We’re expecting to hit the 10,000 mark soon. People are having to choose between paying rent or buying food.” The charity has joined forces with Carl Cox, Bushwacka, Syreeta and Mark Greene for a livestream fundraiser on 12th December, which you can learn more about here.
There is a growing sentiment that the restrictions are too severe. In the Balearic Islands, there have been 26,574 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and 426 deaths. Malin Friskman moved to Ibiza from Marbella 15 years ago. She says the number of cases don’t justify the restrictions. “These crazy measures are killing the whole economy and leaving people starving in the street,” she says. “The island is empty and they’re telling us we can’t leave our homes late at night, as if the virus only comes out then.”
Danny Gould is a promoter for the Clockwork Orange parties. He says that ticket reimbursements for this year’s cancelled season have led to profit losses of up to 70 percent on some events — with the remainder of ticket funds sitting untouched until events can proceed. “Frustration is not the word when there’s been 27 years of event organising,” he admits.
“The only people who are going to survive this are the super rich. Cleaners, suppliers and everyday small business owners working 15-hour days for next to zero profits won’t exist anymore.” He’s not hopeful about restriction-compliant events making a difference, either. “Who wants to do socially distanced sit-down events? I’d rather cut my leg off with a spoon, to be honest.”
The domino effect is being felt by venues. Marian Escandell, the manager for Benimussa Park, says that because Clockwork Orange parties were cancelled, “compared to 2019, we lost 100 percent of our normal year. We even spent an extra 30 percent this year trying something new, with a three-day Zoo Project Dinner and Showcase, but we couldn’t make it work.” Game Over, the crew behind some of Carl Cox’s historic Ibizan gigs, lost 80 percent of their operational income this year. Co-founder Eoin Smyth remains hopeful, though: “Resilience is key in moving forward, and I believe those who continue to create and adapt will come out on top.”
Phil Mandelbaum CEO of Ibiza’s newest nightclub Octan is also hopeful: “What saves us is that we own the building and have no rent to pay... This is the case with most nightclubs in Ibiza so the scene here should be able to survive.”
In San Antonio, Tomas Siver, founder of Señor Events, tells us how he’s joined forces with Zoo Project. He wants to work with the island’s concierge companies to hire out clusters of charter boats, with up to ten people per vessel: each person will wear wireless headphones linked to a “mothership,” from which a DJ will broadcast the tunes. “It’s an experience rather than a party,” he tells us. “We did the pilot in September, so we should be ready for next year.”
They had the idea after the government banned pool and boat parties in The Balearics. “I was thinking, ‘fucking hell, what are we going to do now?’ So we came up with this, for people who want to enjoy Ibiza safely in this crazy climate.” He says that since “venues are banned from playing music without serving food,” he and other organisers are teaming up to better navigate the rules together.
One of those organisers is Jean Francois Laujier, who owns the venue Enigma. For Laujier, the pandemic has actually been “good” for business. “It’s terrible to say, but closures of other places meant a lot of promoters came to ask if we can make something with them. It’s been hard for some people to follow rules, especially the English,” he continues, “and it’s difficult for Spanish people because they eat and party late. But, we found an equilibrium and a lot of people are grateful we’re open.”
“We’re not demanding they open everything, but they should revise their ridiculous contradictory restrictions and recognise many people only eat because they work in the night-time industry here” — Xavier Aldana, who performs as Kolombus
According to Tomas, despite COVID-19 compliant conditions, the police allegedly “still create unnecessary stress” for venues. “Once they [police] didn’t leave the venue for three or four hours. We had to even stop serving drinks. They said people aren’t allowed on the terrace but we didn’t understand why: the place is big, we had social distancing, nobody was dancing and everyone had masks on. It’s like they were making life difficult without reason.” Tomas sees this hostility, coupled with a lack of government support for venues and organisers, as “driving the island’s party people back to the underground, where they also risk their health.”
Vicente (not his real name) is an organiser in Ibiza’s underground scene. He tells us there are three or four parties that take place on the island every week, but unless you’re connected to the island’s inner circles, information about these events isn’t readily available. Hanging out at Enigma’s poolside terrace, we speak about the scene. “I’ve played at many illegal parties for my own mental health reasons, and because people need to dance,” he insists. “If the government wants to keep us safe, they should make the rapid-result tests available to venues at the entrances. It will be good for everyone’s health and for business.”
Illegal raves in Ibiza do get busted. According to local media, police shut down one on Halloween that had upwards of 120 attendants. Such events can face immense fines: up to €600,000 for the organisers, and up to €60,000 for each attendee. That same night, around 100 people took to the streets to protest the national curfew in unison with several other cities across Spain.
Xavier Aldana, an artist who performs as Kolombus at the club Sankeys, was at the protest. He said it took place to demand government support for the autónomos. “We’re not demanding they open everything, but they should revise their ridiculous contradictory restrictions and recognise many people only eat because they work in the night-time industry here.”
Breaking the rules to prevent businesses from going under is out of the question for anyone operating commercial premises. One venue making efforts to adapt is the beloved Hostal la Torre: a long-time favourite of Ibiza’s “maestro of chill”, Jose Padilla, whose untimely death from cancer this October shook the island.
We were invited to a low-key event at Hostal la Torre to commemorate Padilla’s life. We arrived at a fully booked, COVID-compliant beach front restaurant, filled with tables of six. The pandemic has made Padilla’s death all the more poignant for many, especially for his former manager, Andy Wilson. “Jose was here for 45 years, so a lot of people wanted to get together for this because we don’t see each other, and it was a chance for a community that goes back a long time to reunite for the occasion and share memories,” he says.
“We all know in the DJ community what a disaster this year’s been for everyone, so it’s very hard for anyone to get by,” he continues. “But for someone like Jose, who was ill and in his sixties, it was even more difficult.” He said a live radio broadcast of the evening had been planned, but then abandoned to prevent over capacity “because nobody wants to piss off the authorities.”
Wilson said the feasibility of a more “substantial event for Jose in May” is currently being discussed with the International Music Summit and various artists, but for the moment “we’re all in the grieving stage.” Jose used to tell him stories about Ibiza in the ’70s. “He said that it’s always been a rich man’s playground, but back then, people drove around in Fiats and saw conspicuous consumption as distasteful. They wanted to be part of something more spiritual. Jose came here for that.”
For Wilson, heightened gentrification has attracted an increasingly decadent clientele, served by “very clever entrepreneurs who see which way the winds blow.” Their current absence is a sigh of relief for Hostal la Torre guests Luke and Alison, an Irish couple who stay on the island every summer. They agree that it was “refreshing” to see Ibiza free of the super rich who “make everything so expensive.” Against a panoramic vista that frames silhouettes of figures staring into the sunset, Wilson plays a special ambient set to honour his friend.
After the tribute, strolling through the Port of Eivissa towards a bar called Bianca and Friends, where Elia is scheduled to DJ, we notice an eerie silence. Two lonesome ferries, bound for the tiny island of Formentera, doss awkwardly at the dock. Absent from their sides are the super yachts that, for Luke and Alison, embody the commercialisation of the island. Earlier that day, Spanish authorities had announced a 10pm curfew. Bianca, the bar owner, is far from happy. “We were expecting more people than this [tonight], but a lot of people cancelled because of this curfew,” she says.
A smattering of clientele is seated at sofas, under trees glittering with fairy lanterns. Elia plugs into the amp and sets up his gear. “It feels a bit nostalgic,” he tells us as we look around. “This time last year, closing parties were reaching a climax. The port was packed with the fashionably late, and beautiful globetrotting revellers preparing to ‘kiss and fly away’ after a long summer of hedonism. But, this year, we’re the only ones open. Everyone else in the port closed at the end of September.”
Elia is confident that the pandemic can have a positive impact on the island in the long term though. “COVID-19 is a golden opportunity for Ibiza to reinvent itself,” he says. “This year has been about the vibe and the love of the music. We’ve been reminded of the intimacy and quality that have been missing these past years.” As Elia kicks off with some beats, a handful of people begin to bounce in their seats.
For DJ and producer Cici, that intimacy is exactly what legendary venue Pikes tapped into when it hosted the holistic charity event, Cosmic Pineapple. “This relaxed vibe lends itself to a more experiential type of event, with its market, healing, yoga, meditation and talks,” she says. “You had to eat and drink at your table, but the format worked well for social distancing. It had that festival feel but was less raucous than usual. I didn’t miss the chaos we usually have.”
She says this year has given Ibiza a chance to recharge without the superrich. "The rich will probably move on to places like Mykonos and I think a lot of people here are happy enough with that. It will be a fresh start, better for the environment and the wellbeing of the people.”
Heywood also agrees. “When we did the Oceanic Festival, we looked into the ridiculous amounts of plastic pollution generated by just one season. But this year, we’ve seen turtles and the sea is full of fish. It’s beautiful... the island’s getting a chance to regenerate. Yes, we’ve lost something, but we’re seeing the positives that having a break creates.”
Suddenly, it’s 10PM — time to head back to Sant Josep. We slip through the back streets and run up stairwells, winding through the cobbled old town like fugitives in the night. (We later learn you can’t be fined after 10PM as long as you are on your way home.)
For now, the pandemic has left Ibiza and its music and hospitality industries at a crossroads. Whether Ibiza wants to return to its more recent ways, or becomes a more localised, low-key place to party, is up to the islanders themselves.
Correction 11/12/2020: A previous version of this article stated that "In Ibiza, the Balearic Ministry of Health has noted 462 cases". This has been corrected to read "In the Balearic Islands, there have been 26,574 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and 426 deaths".