Ibiza is pleasingly grotty.
This being my first visit to the island despite 25-odd years of being into dance music (look shut up, right?), it was nice to see that despite the much-trumpeted best efforts of the builders of the newer Miami-style club buildings and the gleaming monuments to the power of the nouveau-riche that are the Ushuaia Tower and the Hard Rock Hotel (of which more later), the basic mode of the busy parts of the island is rough and ready, a little bit frazzled and frayed round the edges, a little bit… well… dirty.
I arrived mid evening and got a room in a slightly smelly hotel in the Playa d’en Bossa that had a soundtrack not of deep house but of Sarah Brightman and Bucks Fizz: walking in after check-in and surveying the beach and pool with ‘Land of Make Believe’ blasting was a bizarrely pleasurable moment. It was full of the sort of people Vice likes to point and smirk at: lots of musclebound northerners, including one guy who came down to breakfast in a blood-spattered MMA t-shirt, Lambrini-drinking sunburned Cardiff girls in boob tubes, morbidly obese mums, leathery nans necking pints etc etc. It served those pints in proper English-style dimpled mugs, and offered an excellent fry-up at breakfast.
The main strip outside was chock-a-block with off licenses and chippies, with a few street hawkers and street hookers, and lots of pop music playing everywhere. A couple of hundred yards further down the road this faded into the untse-untse-untse of funky house at the corner where the mega-clubs – either neo-deco buildings or utilitarian warehouse-type blocks – begun. Holidaymakers and ravers were starting to stagger, shout and sing about the place, but this was the week before the season really starts, so the whole place was pregnant with the promise of riotousness to come, the locals preparing with a sense of more or less benign resignation for the influx.
Without much time to really soak it up, though, I had to quickly saunter down the road to the Hard Rock Hotel for the £150-a-head testimonial dinner for Nile Rodgers, where a room full of music business folk were making sure they got their money’s worth of booze. This was quite necessary to wash away the taste of the horrendous food – which in common with a lot of overpriced restaurants that consider themselves “places to be seen” was monstrously over-salted, something I can only guess is designed to give a semblance of taste for people who’ve worn their senses away over the years.
It wasn’t auguring well. While I could see people elsewhere around the room having a perfectly normal good time of it, I appeared to be surrounded by absolute raging oafs – young entrepreneurs and 90s superstar DJ culture throwbacks sloshing the wine around, selfieing relentlessly, lecturing me about the best “spots” in London, bellowing “SETH! YO SETH!” every time Seth Troxler walked by (to no response), doing wacky things with baguettes then calling anyone who didn’t want to mock-fellate them “fucking boring cunts”, diverting mid sentence to say “sorry dude am I talking too much?” before returning without pause to whatever stream of thoughtlessness they were locked into, and trying to upstage Nile Rodgers.
Nile Rodgers, though! OK OK, I know, he receives a lifetime achievement award every couple of days (quite literally: the very next day after this dinner he’d be in London getting one at the Ivor Novello Awards ceremony). But that’s good, right? He deserves it, both for himself and as belated recognition of disco’s importance. And the dance world is well within its rights to trumpet its relationship with him: leeches like Aviiciiiciiciciiiiii aside, he wouldn’t be the living god that he’s now portrayed as without Bestival, Daft Punk and co holding him up as a still-current, still-got-it musician rather than just a heritage act.
So the tribute video (loads and loads of DJs, oddly including about 10 who were actually in the room, doing “sorry I couldn’t be there” type one-take iPhone-shot talking head things, often so disrupted by wind-rattle as to be inaudible) was more than slightly shonky. And the onstage chat with Pete Tong, later joined by a somewhat Grandpa Simpson-ish Seymour Stein didn’t amount to a lot more than a chance for us to bathe in Nile’s infinite geniality (although it was interesting to find out that Stein, one of the prime movers in the era of ’80s sonic gloss, really prefers garage-recorded mono doo-wop records to anything else). This was Nile Rodgers, the love in the room was palpable, and we all knew he was going to perform and it was going to be great.
He did, and it was. The oafs in the room were finally sidelined or drowned out by the appreciation shown. Loads of people danced (including Troxler, who properly lost his shit down front). Bernie Worrell was on keys, and after a few Chic and Sister Sledge bits, George Clinton got up with them and they did a 15-minute jammed out version of ‘Give up the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker)’, with George and Nona Hendryx stomping out into the crowd across the dining tables, punters frantically clearing glasses and plates from their path. Simon Le Bon getting up to join them, looking like an embarrassed Dale Winton at a wedding, was a bit odd, but even that couldn’t dilute the brilliance. It was precisely as good as it should have been, party music in its purest form, and for all their faults people in the dance music industry – whether oafs or sophisticates – do tend to know when it’s time to put down the smartphone and party.
Figuring any music we heard that night wasn’t going to beat that, some PRs, another journalist and I decided to give the Sankey’s opening the swerve and follow the advice of someone who clearly knew the score to try some “old school Ibiza”. A short 150kmph cab ride later and we were at a stupendously kooky courtyard bar full of aged acid freaks and haughty queens, where one particularly flamboyant individual with a cloud of dry ice billowing from a bottle immediately tried to entice us into drinking the “special punch”. We politely bottled out and happily sat sipping spirits under a tree into the small hours. This, I thought, with a tiny ping of regret, was probably the age-appropriate way to appreciate Ibiza.
Fighting through a thoroughly age-appropriate hangover, I tottered down the road into the IMS conference area of the Hard Rock Hotel at 10am the next morning to try and take in as much as possible. The first thing that leapt out at me was that this was not a sausage-fest. The immediate comparison would be with the conference part of Amsterdam Dance Event which, though quite possibly 50 times bigger, is a shockingly blokey affair. Whether it was the size, the more mixed crowd, or just the fact it’s Ibiza, everything felt significantly more relaxed than ADE – people were meeting and networking spontaneously rather than rushing around making appointments with each other – but business, it seemed, was very definitely getting done.
Also not Joe Muggs
The panels, as at any industry event, veered from the sickeningly banal (I started counting how many times people said “you have to have a passion for what you’re doing”, then got bored after 10 or so) to the intriguing, but actually the latter outweighed the former. In among the standard info-dump state-of-the-industry addresses and cap-doffing to ageing heavyweights (Seymour Stein, U2’s manager Paul McGuinness), there were charismatic and intensely-engaged people like Annie Mac, !K7 boss Horst Weidenmüller, Association of Independent Music chair Alison Wenham, who actually had interesting stuff to say about the nitty-gritty of operating in a wider industry in a state of permanent crisis. Wenham in particular had a nicely apocalyptic turn of phrase, likening independent labels to termites that would survive the end of civilisation.
Strangely, though, despite that now-permanent instability, and despite the threat of the EDM bubble bursting, the overwhelming sense was of steady-as-she-goes. There’s nothing like being in Ibiza to realise how deep-rooted the core of the dance industry is (the house and techno establishment here seems to regard the preposterous edifices of Ushaisha and Hard Rock with their bad food, €8 orange juice and UB40 and Pitbull bookings as a distraction rather than a threat), and meeting people from India, Chile and Australia was a great reminder that whatever happens in the USA is just one part of a scene that has solid infrastructure worldwide despite whatever hype storms might be raging.
Some of the more interesting people in the building were the quieter ones: the antitheses of those gobshite rave throwbacks. I met Pretty Lights, who plays to tens of thousands of people on a regular on the basis of having every track he’s made for free. The team with Anjunabeats reminded me that Above & Beyond, the trio that had set up the label, had done everything entirely independently yet had an audience of THIRTY MILLION podcast subscribers. The presence of a young digital-first generation – represented on a panel by UKF, Boiler Room, Eton Messy and Noisey – showed they are not replacing that old-school dance infrastructure but putting hard slog into building on to it, reinforcing it even.
This is not necessarily a good thing in itself: of course it’s not. On an aesthetic front, seeing some of the internet generation young guns raving in a taxi to the party after the party after the conference about how great a tune the hoary old middle-of-the-road Ibiza club favourite Mark Knight version of ‘The Man With the Red Face’ is (it really, really isn’t) was a bit of “haven’t you fucking learned anything?” moment. And of course the old house/techno establishment is the flesh around a skeleton of narcotic trafficking so hideous and toxic it almost counteracts anything good done in dance music’s name.
Almost. For every cynical old careerist twat or gangster in ravers’ clobber at IMS there were three earnest technicians or hopeful music heads with a few successes under their belts trying to make the best of it. Pretty Lights was a charming, slightly shambling presence (“you probably think I’m stoned – I’m not, I just haven’t slept for two days preparing my show”). Although most of his recorded music income now comes from streaming services, he described the fascinating phenomenon of a significant number of fans buying downloads, seemingly purely as an act of support to an artist they liked, even though the same music was being offered to them for free. He, like the Anjunabeats team, seemed to exist in a world where the attention to detail required on infinitely proliferating digital channels, not to mention physical “territories”, are bordering on the insane, but where the rewards both financially and in terms of self-determination are potentially extremely impressive.
After a “networking dinner” on a boat, sponsored by W Hotels, some of us went of to see Pretty Lights play in some sort of fort-type affair right at the top of Ibiza Old Town. The setting was utterly stunning, with a huge projection of Frankie Knuckles looking down from a nearby building (some of the DJs later would be playing tribute sets to him), and Pretty Lights’s set was kind of lovely. It was sort of at the pop end of what you might see in a Flying Lotus or Gaslamp Killer set, veering into cheesy dubstep but with a sparkly psychedelic edge and lots of funky, human feel. It raised the very real possibility that the EDM movement might actually produce its own Orbs, Underworlds and Leftfields as well as 2 Unlimiteds and Vengaboyses and Dr Albarns.
We watched Pete Tong play some house music afterwards (a really interesting mix of fantastic post-Disclosure stuff – all strong vocals, big bass and garagey shuffle) and entirely dreary elongated prog / tribal / ”big room” instrumentals, and a bit of Annie Mac too (funtimes neo-disco for the most part), but then once again the lure of Ibiza’s bars was stronger than the megaclubs. The old town was buzzing with old school pavement cafe-bar culture and we were directed to a bar by the port, which mostly seemed to be full of Britishers gone native, wizened but still sharp, funny and full of rave spirit.
When I fell into bed back on the Playa d’en Bossa, lulled by the sound of fighting a couple of corridors away and some kind of Germanic or Scandi football chants from outside, I’m not ashamed to say I felt a little bit “loved up”. No, I hadn’t been on the Garys, but some combination of the real, deep rooted character of the island – grot, rampant crookedness and all, the flash hotels and EDM blurting just another layer among all the rest of the historical pileup of the best and worst of humanity that is concentrated here – and the sense that the dance (and wider) music industry is still in some degree populated by bloody-minded optimists who will work and party themselves ragged in pursuit of the groove whatever the financial and political weather was more than enough to put a smile on my face.
Well – that and the titanic measures of whisky. But even with an equally titanic head on after four hours’ kip, trying to force a Playa fry-up down before bolting for the airport, the good feelings lingered as more than just a hazy after-image of a good night out. Maybe all this mainstream seems very remote from FACT Island, our place of musical innovation and diversity, but it was impossible to escape the conclusion that somehow among all the liggers, blaggers and rave technocrats of the White Isle and IMS, among all the grot, there are truly useful lessons hidden in Ibiza for all of us.