Government taxes, unemployment and piracy create problems for Spanish bands and their labels
Story by Marco White
MADRID–Record sales are down. The government is crushing local club owners with new taxes and regulations. And bands are struggling to draw crowds into Madrid’s music clubs.
So why, on a recent afternoon, were workers scurrying around the offices of Subterfuge Records, answering phones, booking dates and generally keeping busy among walls decorated with posters, neon skateboards and vinyl?
“We have more bands and releases than ever and there are lots of venues,” says Nacho Ruiz, 34, the head of the smaller Gran Derby Records in Madrid.
That’s the good news.
“But nobody knows how to make a living,” he continues.
In Spain, bands, promoters and label heads say there are a number of factors that are working against their industry. For one, recently imposed ticket taxes are keeping people away – especially now as unemployment soars among the prime concert-going set. Also, clubs aren’t allowed to serve alcohol – to any customer – if anyone under 18 in is the house. That means either they lose the profits from booze, or they lose a significant portion of their potential clientele. Also, the record labels complain about the Spanish government’s reluctance to take serious action against illegal music downloads.
However, those committed to independent music in Madrid haven’t given up.
That’s clearest at Subterfuge, one of the most successful record labels in Madrid, a company comparable to American counterparts such as Merge or Matador Records.
The label, founded in 1989, sold just 8,000 albums last year. That’s barely enough to keep a folk singer afloat. So, it makes much of its money by hustling for club gigs, which bring in more revenue than sales of recorded material.
“Because record sales have slowed so much because of digital piracy, the label had to innovate our business,” said Dani Campo, the head of booking for Subterfuge.
Still, that’s a tiny label, with five full-time and three part-time employees, and 28 bands on the roster. Dover, the label’s biggest success thanks to 1997’s “Devil Came to Me” – which sold a reported 500,000 copies worldwide – is no longer with Subterfuge. But they are still talked about in the Subterfuge offices as an example of what can happen.
All of that leaves local bands vying for an international audience to make up for their losses at home. (Note that Dover usually sings in English.) But this attempt to succeed elsewhere leads to other issues. Gigging outside Spain is expensive. And leaving Spanish soil also calls for a level of confidence that’s hard to generate when a band can’t even build an audience at home.
“I think Spanish bands are nervous to go abroad because they feel like we don’t have anything to offer,” said Ruiz. “It’s difficult for Spanish bands to think in a global sense.”
Spanish independent labels and the bands they represent have historically struggled to gain the international attention certain British record labels or Northern European artists enjoy. Ruiz’s Madrid-based label has only two full-time employees as it tries to mirror Subterfuge’s strategy, booking and promoting shows and publishing music to make the majority of their profits while still putting out albums in CD, digital and vinyl.
The challenge can be convincing local bands they can make it by working hard outside the country.
“We don’t see a lot of bands perform from outside Madrid so more bands think that they can’t go outside of Madrid,” said Ana García Perrote of the band Hinds (formerly known as Deers).
The all-woman garage rockers have been trying to change that perception. They’ve yet to record an album. But they have performed at the prestigious South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, and have played more gigs outside of Spain than in their home country. They also had 750 copies of a split single recorded with fellow Spanish band The Parrots pressed for record store day this year.
The strategy seems to be working. Hinds scored a feature in the London Guardian after a gig during which, the paper reported, they “charmed the attendees with their pidgin English and fidgety Spanish version of lo-fi garage rock with hints of ‘60s girl-group pop.”
It’s clear that, even outside the local club scene, live music trumps album sales. Last year, Spanish concerts yielded revenues of $190 million compared to $165 million in combined physical and digital music sales, according to the Associación de Promotores Musicales and the Productores de Musica de España respectively.
Perrote says that even if it’s hard to make money in Madrid, a band can feel appreciated.
“In London or New York where there are so many gigs every day they don’t get as excited as we do in Spain to go to a gig,” she said.
That’s a positive twist of working in a city without a huge, thriving local music scene. But those trying to make a living through clubs say they have many barriers to overcome, including the government’s unfavorable policies toward live music. One show at the centrally located Wurlitzer Ballroom drew a little over 30 people on a Friday night and even that exceeded the club owner’s expectations.
Ruiz’s band, Nine Stories, played 10 dates in China last year after a Chinese booking agency reached out to the band. That trip showed him that “people all over the world are willing to listen to Spanish bands.”
But according to Campo, the ultimate dream is to be recognized in the United States.
One group that’s managed that is Delorean, the Spanish alternative dance band that took its name from the car in the popular American “Back to the Future” films. The band, formed in the Basque region, has received praise from Rolling Stone and Pitchfork. Though Delorean may be the most globally visible band to come from Spain in the past several years, according to Ruiz, they had to tour America eight times while losing money before they could break even.
That’s a universal and timeless lesson in the music world. It’s also one Hinds has followed. Perrote says she’s been encouraged not only by the buzz from outside Madrid. She’s been pleased to hear other Spanish groups reference her band as a model.
“One of the bands that inspired us told us ‘We thought we were big before the Deers thing and you’ve just shown us we’re so small and local,’” she says. “Now, I think Spanish bands are starting to think that someone from outside could write about them.”