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concert au Palau Sant Jordi - © Xavi Torrent
concert au Palau Sant Jordi - © Xavi Torrent

Covid and the cultural crisis in Barcelona

When bur­geo­ning Mel­low Pro­duc­tions announ­ced on 5th March that, due to the health cri­sis, it was can­cel­ling the immi­nent launch of the Jazz Effu­sion event, eve­ryone said it was exag­ge­ra­ting. Ten days later Bar­ce­lo­na was in lock­down. And it was one of the har­shest lock­downs in Europe.

One year on, Mel­low is just one of the city’s smal­ler music pro­mo­ters unable to navi­gate the chal­len­ging waters of a cultu­ral sec­tor awash with uncer­tain­ty and insecurity.

Loo­king back over 2020, the pic­ture is bleak by any stan­dards. At an indus­try level, ticket sales for live music events in Spain fell 63.78% in 2020. As for the artists, Mis­ter Furia from The Pin­ker Tones ended up with just 25% of his annual gigs. Clear­ly “it wasn’t the year it should have been”. The Whis­per Not boo­king and mana­ge­ment agen­cy had more than 80% of their shows can­cel­led. Barcelona’s musi­cians and pro­mo­ters found them­selves sud­den­ly confi­ned to their homes, their invest­ments rapid­ly conver­ting into debt. And without a legal sta­tus equi­va­lent to the French ‘inter­mit­tence’, the extreme pre­ca­rious­ness of the sector’s entire value chain was brought dra­ma­ti­cal­ly to the fore.

 

Yet des­pite the ini­tial shock, fear and hard­ship, the city’s musi­cians and artists didn’t stop crea­ting. Nei­ther did an indus­try convin­ced of the impor­tance of culture and music for Bar­ce­lo­na and its citizens.

Glo­be­trot­ting Cuban jazz pia­nist Omar Sosa took the rare oppor­tu­ni­ty of such a leng­thy stint at home to connect with local artists, giving rise to the vibrant KO-BCN quar­tet and a series of stri­king videos recor­ded ‘On his Roof’. For Roman Daniel, the young pro­du­cer behind Mans‑O, the sud­den halt in his nor­mal­ly hec­tic sche­dule gave him time to “sail through infi­nite Ins­ta­grams and build a clea­rer map of what is hap­pe­ning right here”. Connec­ting with the young emer­ging talent of Bar­ce­lo­na, in par­ti­cu­lar mem­bers of the Jok­koo Col­lec­tive, led to the release of the Hi-Tech Tongue EP in Octo­ber 2020 on Por­tu­guese label XXIII : a fas­ci­na­ting jour­ney in eight lan­guages illus­tra­ting the dee­ply mul­ti­cul­tu­ral nature of his city.

 

Post-lock­down saw Barcelona’s inha­bi­tants slow­ly emerge into a city that was often hard to reco­gnise. Eve­ryone was deligh­ted with the fami­lies of dol­phins swim­ming close to shore and being able to stroll down the nor­mal­ly tee­ming streets of cen­tral Ciu­tat Vel­la, now prac­ti­cal­ly a ghost town. But the city’s young people found them­selves sti­fled, their social life and natu­ral need for connec­tion hin­de­red at eve­ry turn.

For twen­ty-one year-old trom­bone player and sin­ger Rita Payés, it meant losing her main source of ins­pi­ra­tion. Yet although she felt “like a chair with a leg mis­sing”, it was during this per­iod of almost for­ced intros­pec­tion that she wrote many of the per­so­nal com­po­si­tions which can be heard on “Como la piel”, her latest recor­ding relea­sed this April.

 

A deli­cate, sen­suous and sin­cere album in tones of jazz and bos­sa, in which Rita and her mother, clas­si­cal gui­ta­rist Eli­sa­beth Roma, are joi­ned by Hora­cio Fume­ro and Juan Berbín, lea­der of ano­ther Bar­ce­lo­na gem, Seward.

 

Barcelona’s trans­for­ma­tion into a quie­ter and slo­wer-paced metro­po­lis was not only due to people wor­king remo­te­ly, res­tau­rants and bars clo­sed in the eve­nings and the 10 pm cur­few impo­sed since June, but also due to the absence of tou­rists. The city was sud­den­ly left to its inha­bi­tants – a major shift as, for many years now, tou­rism has been one of its major indus­tries, repre­sen­ting 15% of PIB. Visi­tors come to admire Gaudi’s monu­ments, but also to attend music fes­ti­vals such as Sònar and Pri­ma­ve­ra Sound. In 2019, the elec­tro­nic and expe­ri­men­tal Sònar brought toge­ther over 100,000 atten­dees from 120 coun­tries, while the more tra­di­tio­nal­ly indie but increa­sin­gly urban Pri­ma­ve­ra Sound clo­cked in a stag­ge­rin­gly large crowd of 220,000 of which 60% came from abroad. In the spring of 2020 it soon became clear that the void left by tra­vel res­tric­tions would take its toll on Barcelona’s sum­mer fes­ti­vals, and in May both announ­ced they were can­cel­ling, albeit to return in hybrid for­mats that inclu­ded last year’s big win­ner : streaming.

Cruïl­la is Barcelona’s third major inner-city fes­ti­val with a more natio­nal and world music slant. The deci­sion “to car­ry on wor­king” was taken ear­ly on, resul­ting in a new Covid-friend­ly for­mat, Cruïl­la XXS. Head of com­mu­ni­ca­tion Marc Tapias recalls the ama­zing expe­rience of “having 800 people sea­ted and enjoying a concert in Bar­ça foot­ball club’s Camp Nou”, one of the spec­ta­cu­lar and unu­sual out­door venues used. Other note­wor­thy events orga­ni­zed were the Nits del Fòrum series of concerts for which the Pri­ma­ve­ra Sound team joi­ned forces with other pro­mo­ters, and a par­ti­cu­lar­ly suc­cess­ful ini­tia­tive, Sala Bar­ce­lo­na, laun­ched by the Cata­lan Asso­cia­tion of Concert Venues (ASCC) with the Bar­ce­lo­na Ins­ti­tute of Culture (ICUB) at Montjuic’s Castle, giving a wel­come respite to night-time venues and brin­ging live music back to the city.

A sense of the avant-garde is dee­ply roo­ted in Barcelona’s DNA. So it was no sur­prise when music pro­mo­ters from the legen­da­ry Sala Apo­lo hoo­ked up with research scien­tists from Can Ruti to hold a pilot test concert for an audience of 500, without social dis­tan­cing but with prior nega­tive anti­gen test results. Having suc­cess­ful­ly esta­bli­shed that the rate of conta­gion at the gig was zero, they took it one step fur­ther and at the end of March, a cohort of local pro­mo­ters, fes­ti­vals, asso­cia­tions and autho­ri­ties came toge­ther to orga­nize a concert by Cata­lan rock group Love of Les­bian for 5,000 fans inside the Palau Sant Jor­di. The results were as posi­tive as for the Apo­lo, and hence Bar­ce­lo­na has sent out a clear mes­sage that, if done pro­per­ly, even in times of Covid, Culture is Safe.

A mes­sage clear­ly aimed at the Cata­lan health autho­ri­ties, whose mana­ge­ment of the cri­sis, mar­ked by incon­sis­ten­cies and impro­vi­sa­tion, has made the job of pro­du­cing any cultu­ral event much har­der. Marc Tapias remem­bers the “sur­rea­lism of press confe­rences in which the health autho­ri­ties said that concerts were safe and asked people to stay at home in the same breath”.

So what les­sons for the city and for culture can be learnt from 2020 ? ICUB’s Daniel Gra­na­dos cele­brates the way in which the sec­tor came toge­ther, expres­sing a need for union and “crea­ting ties and a pro­duc­tion com­mu­ni­ty for events”. Offi­cial­ly reco­gni­zed as a ‘bien esen­cial’ in Cata­lo­nia since Sep­tem­ber 2020, no one doubts the impor­tance of culture. But there is an urgent need for more money, sup­port and a legal fra­me­work to allow the people behind culture, from musi­cians to sta­ge­hands, to be valued and to sim­ply make a decent living. As Albert Sal­merón, pre­sident of the APM (Asso­cia­tion of Music Pro­mo­ters), so right­ly puts it : “culture defines us as human beings […] and culture must be cen­tral to any government’s poli­cies”.  ¡¡Que viva la cultura…segura!!

 

 

Marushka Vidovic

Marushka Vidovic
Marushka Vidovic
As a music journalist (Radio Nova, Mondomix, Radio Gladys Palmera), cultural events producer (Mellow Productions) and social entrepreneur (nonprofit NouPOPbcn.org) based in Barcelona, Marushka has spent the best part of her career promoting and defending the power of music to transform, connect and uplift.

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