Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The goal is to become “a music-friendly city like Amsterdam or Paris,” says Deputy Mayor Jaume Asens.
On a continent where cities are increasingly cracking down on nightlife, Barcelona has seemingly taken a turn in the other direction. According to a City Hall decision this week, Barcelona’s bars and restaurants will no longer need a license to host live music. From now on, both acoustic and amplified shows can run without any special permission, and in less residential areas there will be no specific curfew on how long they can continue into the night.
The new policy is a godsend to many of the city’s bars and small venues, whose live music offerings have been in retreat for some years, thanks substantially to hostility from City Hall. What makes the city’s change of direction more striking is that, at the same time, it is also fighting a battle against the noise and nuisance created by a saturation of tourists. So how will Barcelona square the two battles?
There’s no denying that Barcelona’s music scene has being getting weaker and more sickly of late. Harried by a combination of constant inspections, fines for minor infractions and rising rents, many venues have either closed or cut out their musical offerings. One major venue gave up live music altogether this spring, and has resorted to holding benefits to pay its backlog of fines. Another was reduced to the indignity of attracting an audience of tourists with nightly flamenco—a Southern Spanish genre with no roots in Barcelona that has long been over-milked for its kitschy, picturesque appeal. Compared to what is still on offer in London or Paris (themselves no strangers to music venue closures) Barcelona’s music scene has looked pretty close to death.
The new laws should give Barcelona’s music scene a shot in the arm by reducing official involvement. As Deputy Mayor Jaume Asens told a Barcelona council meeting Monday: “We want to take live music out of the orbit of policing and public order control where it’s been stuck and turn Barcelona in a music-friendly city like Amsterdam or Paris.”
That such a turnabout is possible is largely due to a wave of political change in the city, of which the live music plan is just a whisper. Last summer a new left-leaning coalition under former anti-evictions activist Ada Colau was voted into power, promising a new citizen-centered approach to both tourism and housing, as well as far more direct democracy and public consultation. The city’s political gender balance has also shifted. Seven of the metro area’s 11 municipalities are now overseen by women mayors. Both within the ruling coalition and beyond it, there seems to be an appetite for reappraising and changing the way the city conducts its business.
The new music policies should help make the city livelier, but they do potentially sit at odds with Barcelona’s general clampdown on the tourism industry. That industry is being more strictly controlled because it creates noise and disruption that risks damaging the charm Barcelona sells its visitors—so the official argument goes—and is also causing displacement in the inner city thanks to the proliferation of vacation rentals. There’s no let up in the campaign to bring tourism to heel. Just this morning Barcelona extended its moratorium on new tourist accommodation for another year, until July 2018.
A sudden laissez-faire attitude to live music might seem to push in a different direction, but Barcelona’s new attitude isn’t entirely a case of anything goes. To help manage potential noise pollution, the city is pumping funding into soundproofing subsidies for night businesses, which will equal €400,000 ($445,000) this year as opposed to just €75,000 ($84,000) in 2015. Meanwhile, areas that are both busy and heavily populated, such as Gràcia or the Old City, will have a curfew of sorts, with venues obliged to turn the volume down after 11 p.m.—a time which may sound late enough to some, but in this night-loving country is actually just after dinner.
Indeed, there’s arguably a connection between the new live music policy and efforts to preserve the city center from some tourist pressures. Both are about creating the space to allow Barcelona to be its most authentic self. This can mean making sure residents and historic businesses remain in the city core. It can also mean letting venues that have long played a role in community life host musicians as they always used to, without fear of being summoned to court. As the success of Amsterdam’s Night Mayor has shown, allowing space for nightlife to breathe can actually reduce tension between different groups occupying the same city space, and help to boost other creative industries. Barcelona may be cracking down on tourism, but on the way it’s hopefully rediscovering a sense of itself.