Several weeks ago, strolling through the historical neighborhoods of central Madrid, I was struck by the contrast between the gorgeous old architecture and the hyper-modern youth culture. I saw teens dressed like Bruno Mars—it seems like everyone under 30 in Madrid dresses like Bruno Mars—strolling through winding cobblestone alleys blasting Young Thug from a Beats Pill. A kid in a Justin Bieber jersey made out with a girl under the watchful eyes of a bronze statue of a general on horseback. Young skaters grinded rails in a gorgeous 18th century public garden. Though Spain is not without serious problems—unemployment hovers around 20% in the face of EU austerity—it overflows with energy. In the country that gave the world flamenco, much of this energy bursts forth on the dancefloor.
Madrid isn't necessarily the first European metropolis that first comes to mind when you think of contemporary dance music. Internationally, the city's reputation seems to revolve more around its cuisine and museums than cutting edge DJ nights. Recently, though, the city played host to the first True Music Forum;a series of panels and events presented by Boiler Room and Ballantine's that drew attention to the Spanish capital's scene. Intrigued, I jumped on a plane (which, full disclosure, was comped by the event) for a closer look.
On the first day of the event I attended a panel called A Lens on Spain's Underground Scene. It featured Spanish nightlife figures both upcoming and established, including techno legend , Primavera curator DJ Fra, and local promoter Olivia Morena. It was hosted by Noelia Rodriguez, who throws a Madrid event series called Delicalisten. The hour-long panel touched on the vibrant local scene—including references to footwork and trap scenes in the city, in addition to house and techno—but spent a bit too long surveying Osuna's career and the history of Primavera. It left me wanting more, so that night I arranged to have drinks with Morena and Rodriguez to further explore the scene in the Spanish capital.
Pro-tip—if you want to learn about music talk to a DJ. But, if you're interested in the nitty-gritty details that define a scene's character, ask a promoter. Since they're the people laying it on the line financially for their parties, promoters need to have a deeper understanding of their city's market than anyone else in the game.
Since it was a weekday, Morena and Rodriguez brought me to a favorite local bar, full of Madrilenos chatting and relaxing after work. Over vermouth on the rocks and callos, a stew made of blood sausage and beef tripe, they told me all about the exciting opportunities the city offers and challenges it presents to promoters on the scene's cutting edge.
"I think there's actually more nightlife here than in Barcelona," Rodriguez said, when I mentioned that Madrid sometimes seems to be overshadowed by the other great Spanish metropolis. "Maybe not as many club nights," she explained, "but as far as the actual definition of nightlife, there are more people here going out overall."
"The thing is, Barcelona is better exported internationally," added Morena, referring to the city's global reputation as a cultural hub with name-brand festivals like Sonar and Primavera. "Barcelona, for example, is a center for skaters, and the city encourages it. Here in Madrid, there was this big square which was a place for skaters, and it was banned. In Barcelona, they give facilities, they make things easy for these things to happen. But here, it's different. [The authorities] are not so into the kind of tourism that [youth culture] brings. Sometimes organized parties here have to struggle to survive."
Morena described how Madrid's government is more culturally conservative than Barcelona, its bureaucracy often standing in the way of nightlife. "They make it really difficult for new clubs to appear," she said. "It's really difficult if you want to make one of your own because in Madrid everything is so close together, so you are always annoying someone here."
Due to the difficulties of opening and operating a venue, many owners implement a financial structure that Morena says impedes curatorial risk-taking. At most clubs where she throws shows in Madrid, she only keeps a small percentage of the money from door sales, and "that percentage gets lower if you don't bring a lot of people."
This model benefits promoters who book tried and true acts, and hurts those who'd rather take risks on left-field talent. That's not stopping Morena, though. Since 2014 she's brought a wide array of underground talent to the city through several nights she helps throw, including Blank, an underground dance showcase that's hosted heavyweights like Galcher Lustwerk and Abdulla Rashim.
Spain is by no means new to clubbing. For 36 years the country was ruled by the dictator Francisco Franco—he kept a tight lid on creative expression, but after his death in 1975, an exciting new wave of dance culture was unleashed in the nation's capital. Morena explained, "There was this really flourishing moment in Madrid. There was a movement called La Movidad Madrileno, which became a scene. It was really punk but also glam. It was the result of a lot of people suddenly having freedom, you know?" The city exploded with parties, recreational drugs, and a new spirit of youth identity. "It was authentic," recalls Rodriguez.
Nowadays, though, Morena thinks of the city's scene as less of a vibrant movement and more so a handful of "people making cool things happen" against the backdrop of a commercialized club scene. The forward-thinking promoters who do throw parties struggle with the same forces as those in other major cities: DIY spaces shutting down due to gentrification, bureaucratic red tape, and close-minded venue owners.
Compounding the difficulties facing the city's music scene is the government's heavy-handed response to a recent tragedy. In 2012, three people died during a crowd surge at a Madrid festival headlined by Steve Aoki.
The aftermath of the festival was brutal for small promoters in Madrid. Rather than implement harm reduction policies or limits on big festivals, Rodriguez maintains that the government cracked down on clubs across the board. "They said, 'Let's close places in Madrid' and reduced capacities of many venues," she recalls.
Yet, despite the obstacles in their way, both Rodriguez and Morena feel optimistic about their scene's future. They point to the 2015 election of left-wing mayor Manuela Carmana as a positive sign. "She has been changing things," notes Rodriguez, describing a new era of increased tolerance on the youth culture and relaxed bureaucratic restrictions. Morena agrees, telling me that in 2016 she was allowed to help curate artists for a city-sponsored event series in a museum called Veranos de la Villa. While In previous years the bookings were limited to classical performances—"the kind of music that the conservative parties would enjoy"—under the current administration, she was able to book Tim Hecker on the city's dime. This "was not something you could think of before Carmana," she says.
The night after our interview, I went to a mid-size club called Shoko for a new party that Morena is involved with called 100% Psych. It's bookings include trippy artists from across the musical spectrum—the previous installment featured Nathan Fake, and this time, post-metal outfit Russian Circles headlined the bill. When I arrived around 9 PM, the club was packed with Madrilenos of all ages grooving to the band's spacey riffs. The show gave some context to Morena's assertion that the city's vibrant life force persists, despite challenges. Most people at Shoko didn't seem like devoted metalheads—rather, they seemed like omnivorous music lovers, the kind of people who'd support an event series that books both adventurous DJs and experimental rock bands. Despite the bureaucratic struggles that Morena and Rodriguez say affect the scene, the night felt like a sign of life.