Spanish rock musicians struggle to find an audience

Story by Shandana Mufti

MADRID – The lighting is dim at Madrid’s Sala Siroco, where local rock bands are about to take the stage on a recent Wednesday night to perform for a crowd of about 30. More people trickle in, but by the end of opener Panicky Wasters’ set, the 200-capacity venue remains nearly empty.

In just a few strums of a guitar, it becomes painfully obvious how vacant the room is: the music is just a little too loud, bouncing from wall to wall. “Open your eyes and tell me that you see/Now it’s time to change your behavior…” The vocals disappear without anyone singing them back. There is no rush to the barrier to be close to the band. In fact, there is no barrier separating musicians from audience, and the stage itself is just one-foot high.

“If the band isn’t famous, [people] don’t want to pay,” says Luis Flores, an event organizer at a local arts promotion agency, DAFY, and the promoter for this concert, where tickets are just 6 euros, or $8.

Piracy Graphic

This scene has become the norm in the city, where waning interest in rock music, the rise of electronica and DJs and pinched budgets due to a struggling economy have converged to create a hostile environment for young musicians. Even this audience of 50 – consisting largely of friends of the band – is now considered a decent showing as bands and concert venues alike struggle to hold the interest of a generation more interested in clubbing than live music. And as the crowds shrink, so does the rock music scene, where the average lifespan of a group is just 2 years.

“The quality of the bands is quite high because the new generation has had a lot of access to music,” says Jordi Meya, editor-in-chief of Rockzone, a Barcelona-based online music magazine. The free Spanish-language publication has a global monthly readership of 30,000. “The sad thing is that maybe the quality is better than ever but now there is no audience for it,” he says.

The scene didn’t always lack an audience. Between 2004-08, Spain had an active community of musicians and concertgoers who helped maintain a lively environment in which bands could thrive. José “Tweety” Capmany, currently lead singer and guitarist for rock group Days of Heroes, experienced the highs of that period with his previous band, Avenues & Silhouettes, for which he was drummer.

Days of Heroes

José “Tweety” Capmany, singer and guitarist for Days of Heroes, says that since the music scene in Madrid began splintering and crowds began shrinking in 2008, the number of bands has decreased. Photo by Shandana Mufti.

The band co-headlined a tour across Europe with British group Dividing the Line and even landed a spot on the Resurrection Fest lineup. The music festival, an annual metal, hardcore and punk event founded in 2006 and held in Viveiro in northwestern Spain, would have provided Avenues & Silhouettes with further opportunity for growth in popularity. Unfortunately, the band had broken up by the time promoters offered up a spot in 2011, and though the members agreed to reunite to play the festival on the condition that Days of Heroes would perform the following year, neither show materialized. The lead singer of Avenues & Silhouettes contracted tuberculosis days before the show, and Capmany never heard back from the promoter.

Winning a slot for Days of Heroes on Resurrection Fest’s lineup remains a long-term goal for Capmany, but first, there are more pressing matters to address – namely maintaining morale long enough to garner an audience that extends beyond friends and family. It’s an arduous process that requires patience, effort and money. Lots of money.

Capmany estimates that just the cost of renting rehearsal space can be more than 700 euros, or $950, annually. Add to that the cost of instruments and their upkeep – drumsticks alone can run up to 100 euros, or $136 – touring expenses and recording sessions, and the figures loom large over musicians who are often also balancing school and work.

“When you’re putting so much effort into something and getting nothing back, you’re just spending money,” Capmany says. “The old guitar player of my band right now quit the band because he wasn’t getting anything. He was tired of just spending time on something that wasn’t giving him anything back.”

Frequent lineup changes are standard as musicians burn out after growing frustrated by the lack of loyal fans that equal sustainable success. Days of Heroes underwent an almost complete overhaul earlier this year, as three of the four members were replaced by new faces. Capmany is the sole original member. Another Madrid rock band, In Years To Come, also experienced recent shake-ups as two of the four musicians left and were replaced.

In Years To Come drummer and vocalist Jaime "Jimmy" Comamala says that between shrinking budgets and drying interest, the rock scene is not an easy one to navigate: "I know that if I played pop I would be more famous."

In Years To Come drummer and vocalist Jaime “Jimmy” Comamala says that between shrinking budgets and drying interest, the rock scene is not an easy one to navigate: “I know that if I played pop I would be more famous.” Photo by Shandana Mufti.

“We have the crisis going on right now,” says In Years To Come drummer and vocalist Jaime “Jimmy” Comamala. “And we can’t work, we can’t study, so we stay at our parents’ place and we don’t have money and we cannot afford the things we want. Venues are expensive and people don’t go to shows because they don’t have money and there’s no scene, so in the end, you get this sense that things don’t work out as you would like.”

Among the victims of the economic crisis that hit Spain in 2008 was the music industry. In a country where digital piracy was already the norm, shrinking leisure budgets left people even more reluctant to spend money on music.

Ticket prices of between 6 and 8 euros, or just $8 to $11, can seem prohibitive to young adults who’d rather dance through the night at inexpensive clubs downing cheap beer and avoiding the overpriced alcohol sold at concert venues.

But while rock suffers, electronica, pop and indie styles are flourishing. “In the last 10 years or more, [the major labels] completely shifted their focus to Latin music and commercial indie rock and electronic music,” Meya says. “Major labels are not really paying attention to rock bands.”

The top 10 songs in Spain reflect this reality: Enrique Iglesias and Pharrell Williams occupy the top two spots, while the only rock presence is Coldplay at No. 7. Similarly, DJs and nightclubs are winning over more Spanish youth than live music.

“There will always be a core of music fans that will still go to shows and buy albums if they like the band,” Meya says. “But as far as being an important part of business, I don’t see that recovering anymore.”

Sala Siroco’s venue manager, Antonio Villar, is slightly more optimistic in his assessment of Madrid’s rock community. While single band shows don’t tend to do well, a lineup of three or four local acts can often attract audiences of 100 to 120, Villar says. “The good thing is there’s a lot of good bands trying to collaborate and play together and trying to make a scene here,” he adds.

After the end of its heyday around 2008, the music scene in Madrid was split into factions, with fans abandoning concerts outside their preferred styles. Before then, “It didn’t matter if you were an emo kid or a hardcore kid or a metal kid – if there was a concert, you would go,” Capmany says. Now, there are efforts to reach out to teenagers who can’t yet hit the town each weekend, drawing them into concerts to help rebuild that once robust community.

But even while attempts are being made to revive the Spanish scene, musicians are looking beyond national borders as their ultimate objectives. Comamala’s goal is to escape Spain for the United States, and he won’t even entertain the idea of signing to a local record label, something he fears will doom his band to playing obscure venues on poorly attended national tours.

Until international dreams can become a reality, friendships with other bands around Spain make for national opportunities. Bypassing promoters, bands often reach out to local groups in other cities to book concerts together. The local band brings friends to the show, and the visiting one agrees to return the favor in their hometown in the future.

Despite the slow return of a sense of community, bands continue to grow disheartened and split before reaching any success. But for the few that stick it out, even a bleak future isn’t a deterrent.

“You can see things in two ways,” Capmany says. “You can go, ‘I want to get money, I want to get big, I want to get famous,’ or you can go the other way, which is, ‘I love doing and playing music and we’ll see what happens.’ You have to enjoy what you’re doing to get a step forward.”

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About carlenehempel

I teach journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, and am leading a team of students abroad to report and write.

Posted on June 9, 2014, in Reporting from Madrid and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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