Out of Love: EDM Tourism to Ibiza and the Repression of Local Cultural Identity
University of Technology Sydney (Australia)
As a researcher of both island cultures and music more generally, I have had the opportunity to collaborate in research in Chiloé island, in South America, in Japan’s Amami and Ogasawara islands and in Vanuatu over the last decade. These locations have all been the sites of various forms of cultural revival and reimagination that demonstrate the resilience of their communities. Other locations have attracted my attention for very different reasons. This short article examines one example of the latter, the western Mediterranean island of Ibiza. In what follows I explore the history of the EDM club culture that has developed there and its impact on the island more broadly.
Ibiza’s contemporary club scene has its roots in the “Balearic Beat” scene that began at the Amnesia club in the mid 1980s. The club had interesting origins. It was founded by radical Spanish philosopher and drug experimentalist and decriminalisation campaigner Antonio Escohotado Espinosa. While Espinosa hailed from Madrid, the club was established in a secluded property near San Rafel, in the rural centre of Ibiza, in an attempt to evade the scrutiny and reach of General Franco’s repressive police force. Amnesia was initially an open centre for counter-cultural wanderers but quickly morphed into a discotheque playing a range of alternative musics. One of its earliest DJs was an Argentinian journalist, Alfredo Fiorito, who arrived in Ibiza in 1977 and began DJing in the early 1980s. Fiorito was well-versed in a range of musical genres and mixed rock and funk material with US house music. Living up to Amnesia’s founding principles, many patrons enjoyed the music while under the influence of illegal stimulants and/or hallucinogens. The early-mid 1980s are something of a legendary period for those who lived or visited the island at the time, representing the flowering of a post-hippy counter-culture remote from the conservative politics and greyness of much of Europe. It should be emphasised from the outset that Ibiza was the location of a club and related scene that was primarily composed of temporary migrants from outside the island, and many from outside of Spain. The “Ibizan-ness”/”Balearic-ness” of the scene and the music associated with it was situational rather than expressive of any elements of Ibizan culture.
The story of the scene’s relocation to and refiguration in the UK is well-known. In 1987 a group of young British DJs, including Nicky Holloway, Paul Oakenfold and Danny Rampling, visited Amnesia with DJ Trevor Fung (who had played at the club in 1983). They experienced something of a revelation concerning the potential to mix musical sounds, as exemplified by DJ Alfredo’s sets, and to perform for audiences who were chemically attuned to such combinations. Returning to London, the rest is history… The most relevant aspects of this history (for this article at least) are Rampling’s establishment of the weekly Shoom club night in south London and Oakenfold’s Ibiza Reunion late night sessions in Streatham in 1987-8. Over the next decade, Ibiza—and the Balearic Islands more broadly—assumed something of a legendary status for Brits and other Europeans as a place to visit, to aspire to visit and/or to fantasise about. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, at least, the free-spirited hedonism on offer around Ibiza’s club scene—and its increasing association with MDMA—was something of an in-group, aficionado pursuit. But as the decade progressed the extent of the island’s club scene and of tourism to it increased substantially and became more mainstream, leading to its cool being well and truly blown by the trans-European chart success of Dutch dance-pop act Vengaboys’ single ”We’re Going to Ibiza” (Vengaboys 1999). Regarded as irredeemably cheesy by aficionados of Ibizan club culture, the song merits passing comment. Modelled on the similarly stylistically bland exoticism of “Barbados” (Typically Tropical 1975) by Welsh pop producers Jeff Calvert and Max West, The Vengaboys’ song and its animated video proclaimed Ibiza as a place to escape dull, everyday reality and to party by the Mediterranean. Despite its lyrics aptly summing up the appeal of the island and its club scene, the crass populism of plodding reggae/house rhythm track and music video indicated the manner in which the Ibizan experience had gone mainstream (at the same time as it publicised it further to mass audiences).
Building on the historical phases discussed above, EDM club-related tourism is now a massive mainstream industry on Ibiza. The island’s small, permanent population of 134,000 has been overwhelmed by a rising tide of tourists over the last decade, with 3.24 million visiting in 2018. In this manner, the island offers a classic example of what is increasingly being referred to as “over-tourism”. Over-tourism has led to small-scale, local protests and resistance to the increasing effacement of traditional Ibizan culture (such as language and music) but has gained little traction in the face of the economic might of the EDM related tourism industry.
Anthony D’Andrea’s Techno and New Age as Transnational Counter-Cultures in Ibiza and Goa (2007) provides a comprehensive introduction to earlier types of counter-cultural settlement and visitation on the island. The counter-cultures D’Andrea profiles involved New Age travellers who lived in out-of-the-way parts of the island. In the 1980s they existed at the margins of the island’s economy with varying degrees of overlap with a new wave of travellers/tourists whose visits focussed on attendance at (and various types of preparation for and recovery from) the island’s EDM network. The low-impact presence of earlier New Age travellers is in marked contrast to the scale of contemporary club industry on the island, some being what are known as “mega-clubs” that can house up to 10,000 patrons. These clubs form, perpetuate and service the dominant musical imaginary of and for Western tourists to Ibiza: an intense and protracted experience of dancing to high-volume EDM music (usually performed at around 130 bpm) in spectacular surrounds. Through both their history and their dominant presence on the island, the clubs, their managers, promoters and staff have increasingly assumed identities as Ibizan and/or as expressive of Ibizan-ness in a manner that serves to erase deep-rooted Ibizan identities. These aspects are evident in the following discussion of the Ushuaïa club. Ushuaïa is one of Ibiza’s best-known venues and also one whose promotion and public image illustrates the club scene’s (highly commercialised) manipulation of the “participant imaginaries” of clubbers. As Graburn and Gravari-Barbas have asserted:
This set of imaginaries, referring to a place, to expected experiences, hoped for or feared at the vacation site—as well as the practices these experiences induce—and to the host population or other local actors, requires a highly complex analysis. This is especially true since it concerns not only the tourist who is at the center of the tourism system and who is ultimately the decision maker for the trip, but also the intermediaries who stand between the tourists and their destination, at all the different moments in the decision-making process. These middlemen, the tour operators, guides, and others may manipulate or even counteract the tourist imaginary (2010).
This characterisation readily applies to aspects of the establishment and presentation of Ushuaïa. One of the first intriguing things is its name. Rather than being a local term, Ushuaïa is the name of the main town in Argentinean Tierra del Fuego, at the far southern tip of South America, about as remote and thereby ”exotic” a locale as you can imagine from Western Europe. The locale is so distant from the club’s patrons’ experience that it might be taken to signify a “Never Never Land”—the remote, fantasy island of JM Barrie’s Peter Pan whose inhabitants are perpetually youthful. The club was given its name by its owner and originator, the French entrepreneur Yann Pissenem, who started in the entertainment business by managing venues in Barcelona the mid-1990s. Although Ushuaïa is only located 3 kilometres south of Ibiza’s main city and 5 kilometres from its international airport, Pissenem gave it its name because, in his own words it “felt like the end of the world, at that time” (Lunny 2019). Here we have an interesting insight into the subjective perception of remoteness.
The politics of place and of claiming authority to represent place are manifest in Ibiza’s club scene and are clearly illustrated in a set by highly popular DJ David Guetta at Ushuaïa that was streamed live in 2019. On a stage prominently visually branded as Ushuaïa by its illuminated logo, Guetta introduces his set by calling out to “Ibiza” and then asking the crowd—who are, presumably, in this context taken in some way to be “Ibiza”—whether they are “ready”. Following a teasing intro before the beats and light show kicks in, Guetta makes the hand sign for a heart (meaning “love”), as the track shifts into a sampled song sequence whose lyrics refer to the singer holding “your heart in the palm of your hand” and “carrying you to the promised land” where you’ll “never be alone”—suggesting the place in question to be Ibiza and/or Ushuaïa. Guetta then specifically welcomes the crowd to the club and to Ibiza and introduces himself as the music into an extended, up-tempo instrumental passage.
Guetta’s address strikes me as a pale or postmodern equivalent of the “welcome to country” that indigenous Australians extend to non-indigenous visitors attending events on ancestral lands. The indigenous Australians’ speeches often stress their clan group in order to establish their status as the traditional custodians of the land eligible to welcome visitors. Guetta attempts no such framing of his own ancestral position in this context, which is probably appropriate as he is a Paris-based DJ of mixed Belgian and Moroccan Jewish ancestry. The “country” he is welcoming the club audience to is a fantasy one, collectively co-constructed by tourists and by tourism intermediaries and entrepreneurs. In that process, any preceding and/or “real” Ibiza becomes (at best) a skeletal stage—like a basic computer graphic object which is brought to life by detailed rendering and illumination.
Ushuaïa and other clubs have minimal connection to anything specifically Ibizan and local talent has minimal presence on their stages. When I asked seasoned visitors to Ibiza’s club scene if they had heard of any DJs from Ibiza the only individual (confidently) identified as such was Roger Sanchez (only problem being that he is a New Yorker of Dominican descent who is known for working with Madonna and Diana Ross).
The central issue for Ibiza is that it is principally imagined by outsiders. Traditional cultural forms are so low in profile as to be invisible and have not been elevated by any successful minoritarian discourse or mechanisms. The few who still attempt to imagine a traditionalist Ibizan cultural identity are very much a minority and that culture is not represented as emblematic of Ibizan in any tourism discourse (unlike, for example, the manner in which flamenco is promoted as emblematic of Andalusia—and/or the manner in which it has been appropriated as emblematic of Spain more generally).
This leads us to the “Imaginary of Practices” proposed by Graburn and Gravari-Barbas, referring to aspects of the imaginary that “are linked as much to practices associated with categories of space, as to particular identified places” (2011). There is actually very little about the distinct materiality and cultural heritage of Ibiza that determines its international dance music culture. Magaluf and Palma on Mallorca have very similar scenes, as do further-flung locations such as Cancun, Patong and Boracay. Indeed, the geographically constituted scenes of the latter have more in common with each other than they do with other parts of the Yucatan, Phuket or the Central Philippines. The tourist imaginary in these locations is a translocational one co-created by tourists, industry intermediaries and facilitators and by a loosely associated group of Internet participants who represent global club culture online, collating texts and audio-visual representations into dense image resources that often prefigure tourists’ experiences of them. The tourist imaginary in this context is a (literally) dis-placed one. Gaonkar has provided a succinct characterisation of the “social imaginary” as an “enabling but not fully explicable symbolic matrix within which a people imagine and act as world-making collective agents” (2002: 1). We can see the inter-connection of Internet representations and tourist expectations and experiences in these terms and we can regard these as being “imaginary in a double sense”, existing “by virtue of representation or implicit understandings” and being “the means by which individuals understand their identities and their place in the world” (2002: 1). Drawing on this we can also see them as the means by which places frequented by tourists assume identities in the modern era.
Whatever fashionable cachet Ibiza’s club scene may still have, whatever (undoubted) pleasures it may offer and however much money it pours into the Ibizan economy, it is still a huge—and potentially terminal—blight on Ibizan cultural heritage. The massification of the (initially low-key) counter-cultural scene is so extensive that it blocks the reassertion of distinctly Ibizan cultural forms. This experience is in stark contrast to that of Catalonia (to which Ibiza’s language culture is affiliated). Not to conflate the very different nature of the two locations and societies but, unlike Catalonia, there are no local equivalents to castell gymnastics or performances of sardana music and dancing in Ibiza that attract popular support and approbation and no rap fusion acts such as Barcelona’s Tribade who use local argot to both celebrate and critique the repression of their culture. However uncomfortable it might be for returning clubbers to acknowledge it, EDM is the dominant hegemonic force on Ibiza and the tourists who support it through their patronage continue to be active agents in the repression of local identity.
Philip Hayward is an adjunct professor at the University of Technology Sydney. He is editor of the online journal Shima and a member of the audiovisual ensemble, The Moviolas. His recent publications include an article about Ibiza entitled “Place, Visibility and Perception: The Materiality of Es Vedrà and its Enfolding within New Age Discourse and Media-Lore,” co-authored with Marcel Farinelli, in Coolabah 27 (2019).
D’Andrea, Anthony. 2007. Techno and New Age as Transnational Counter-Cultures in Ibiza And Goa. New York: Taylor and Francis.
Gaonkar, Dilip Parameshwar. 2002. “Towards New Imaginaries”. Popular Culture 14(1): 1-19. <doi:10.1215/08992363-14-1-1>.
Graburn, Nelson and Gravari-Barbas, Maria. 2012. “Tourist Imaginaries”. Via: Tourism Review. 2012(1). <https://doi.org/10.4000/viatourism.1180>.
Lunny, Oisin. 2019. “Meet Yann Pissenem, The Hypercreative Mind Behind Ibiza’s Hottest Nightclubs”. Forbes, 9 September. <https://www.forbes.com/sites/oisinlunny/2019/09/09/meet-yann-pissenem-the-hypercreative-mind-behind-ibizas-hottest-nightclubs/#4e838a56593b>. (Accessed 28 July 2021).
“TRIBADE - Mujeres (Prod. Taboo)”. YouTube, 3:56. Tribade. 25 December 2017.
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bt7ihrkF7Ec>. (Accessed 6 March 2020).
Tropical, Typically. 1975. Barbados. UK: Gull (SINGLE): GULS.14.
Vengaboys. 1999. We’re Going To Ibiza! Netherlands: Breakin’ Records (CD): KRAK 4031.