In Barcelona, City of Mega-Festivals, Small Venues Struggle

On a recent Friday night, a few dozen 20-somethings piled into Sidecar, a well-known concert venue in downtown Barcelona.

The small space, with a low vaulted ceiling, was only half-full, but onstage, the singer Íñigo Merino and his band were determined to show their audience a good time. The crowd sang along to Merino’s catchy pop songs, which he interspersed with anecdotes, jokes and personal stories.

“Music used to be just a hobby, but when I wrote this song I started thinking ‘Why not give it a chance? It could be something beautiful,’” he told the crowd, to cheers of “Bravo!” Then he launched into “El Último Portazo” (“The Last Door Slam”).

Barcelona is known around the world for its nightlife, and huge festivals like Primavera Sound and Sónar — which begins Thursday and runs through Saturday — draw hundreds of thousands of visitors to the city each year. Yet small and medium-sized concert venues are struggling.

Capturing the performance at Sidecar in Barcelona on a recent Friday night.Credit…Maria Contreras Coll for The New York Times.
The singer Íñigo Merino performing at Sidecar.Credit…Maria Contreras Coll for The New York Times

The Association of Concert Venues of Catalonia, a trade body, estimates that in the past 20 years, 220 nightlife venues have closed in Barcelona and the surrounding metropolitan area. In a city of 1.6 million people, the total estimated capacity of its 198 music venues is less than 50,000, the venues association says.

And local musicians say they are running out of places to play.

The number of visitors to Barcelona soared in the past two decades, resulting in complaints about noise and overcrowding from residents. Under the left-wing mayor Ada Colau, the city has prioritized locals’ quality of life, limiting the number of tourist-related businesses, including nightlife venues, that can open in many parts of town.

“The city doesn’t issue licenses to set up new concert venues, and the existing ones are under threat and disappearing,” said Carmen Zapata, the manager of the venue association. “Barcelona has four music schools, and lots of musicians graduate every year, so we need small and medium-sized venues to absorb this whole scene.”

Thanks to its weather and beaches, the city has become a popular location for music festivals. Last summer, five big festivals took place in the city. Those events, which were attended by more than 800,000 people, received funding from City Hall and the regional government of Catalonia. Festivals like that are able to pay artists much bigger fees and demand exclusivity in the region, sometimes even for Spanish artists.

“Spain never had a very established culture of concert venues like in other countries, and now it has become a country of festivals and mega-festivals,” said Coque Sánchez, who runs Freedonia, a nonprofit music venue in the Raval neighborhood. “We also know that there are now artists who go straight from Spotify to performing in festivals, without passing through concert venues.”

“We are passionate about live music, but nobody does this because they make a lot of money,” said Sidecar’s programming manager.Credit…Maria Contreras Coll for The New York Times

Sidecar, the concert venue, celebrated its 40th birthday this year and is beloved by locals for its programming of mostly Spanish and Catalan indie-rock bands. But like many other live venues in Barcelona, it also puts on club nights, with D.J.s rather than bands, in order to survive. Fátima Mellado, who is in charge of production and programming at Sidecar, said hosting concerts was not a sustainable business model.

“We are passionate about live music, but nobody does this because they make a lot of money,” Mellado said.

In the neighborhood of Gràcia, the venue Heliogàbal has been booking emerging bands since 1995. The acts that have performed in a tiny corner of the bar include Rosalía, the Barcelona singer who went on to become a global pop sensation. She played at Heliogàbal in 2015, two years before she released her debut album.

“We have never wanted to grow because we prefer this small format,” said the owner, Albert Pijuan. “It’s a completely different experience. You get goose bumps because you’re so close.”

Despite its popularity over two decades, the venue almost closed down in 2016 when it received hefty fines for staging concerts without a license. It survived thanks to a City Hall initiative called Espais Cultura Viva (Live Culture Spaces), a new venue classification that makes it legal for existing bars, restaurants, bookshops and other small venues to host live music performances — but only until midnight, and only if they meet a series of requirements, including soundproofing.

“The aim is to legalize these venues that are providing a cultural service,” said Daniel Granados, a cultural official in City Hall. He said around 25 establishments had signed up since the program was introduced in 2019.

Heliogàbal, in the Gràcia neighborhood of Barcelona, has been booking emerging bands since 1995.Credit…Enric Sans/Heliogàbal

Pijuan said he had invested hundreds of thousands of euros in soundproofing and other upgrades to Heliogàbal, around half of which was funded with subsidies from the city and regional governments. The venue also has commercial sponsors, which help it stay afloat, and has even started hosting daytime concerts during “vermut,” the traditional pre-lunch apéritif hour. But he said these measures were not enough to guarantee the venue’s future. “We can’t understand why we are still struggling after 28 years of having shown that our project is attractive,” he said.

Pijuan said he felt that having supported so many local musicians in their careers, venues like his should receive more recognition and government support. “When posidonia disappears, there is no life left, the sea is dead,” he said, referring to a protected Mediterranean sea grass that flourishes off Catalonia’s coast. “Small venues play this role in the musical ecosystem.”

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