Pacha has ruled the dance club scene on the Spanish island of Ibiza since the 1970s, but now star D.J.’s are defecting to higher pay in Las Vegas. The D.J. Guy Gerber, above right, at Pacha last year.
By ALEXEI BARRIONUEVO and BEN SISARIO
Published: April 7, 2013
One dance club, Pacha, has dominated the Spanish party paradise of Ibiza since the 1970s. Built on former marshland, this island disco and its all-night parties have become global symbols of hedonistic glamour, and the business has expanded to Buenos Aires, New York and beyond.
Ben Hider/Getty Images
Mr. Gerber has created an elaborate show for Pacha.
Lately Pacha’s profits have soared along with the growing popularity of electronic dance music. But so have the fees demanded by the top D.J.’s, to the annoyance of Ricardo Urgell, the 75-year-old Pacha patriarch who runs the club as a family business. Last year he decided that enough was enough.
He fired his longtime music director, Danny Whittle, and did not renew the contract for Erick Morillo, a Pacha regular for more than a decade, one of a chain of departures by other headliners like Tiësto, Luciano and Pete Tong. Only one big name, David Guetta, will return this summer, largely to protect his brand, which he built at the club.
“The D.J.’s wanted more money to play less,” said José Urgell, known as Piti, who is Mr. Urgell’s 65-year-old brother. “It was an abuse. We had to come up with a new plan because the old one was going to explode.” The Urgells’ move to shake up their D.J. lineup reflects a growing friction in the dance subculture as the music goes mainstream. The budgets behind the dance business are ballooning, with superstar D.J.’s now commanding hundreds of thousands of dollars a night in the megaclubs of Ibiza and Las Vegas, where they once spun anonymously in the dark.
Tiësto, perhaps the world’s most popular D.J., is skipping Ibiza altogether this summer. Instead his world tour includes Hakkasan Las Vegas, an 80,000-square-foot megaclub set to open this month at a reported cost of $100 million.
“I’ve played in Ibiza every summer for the last 10 summers, and I felt like it was time for a change,” Tiësto said through his publicist. “Las Vegas is an amazing place, and I’m incredibly excited about my residencies at Hakkasan and Wet Republic.”
The Urgells chafed at the growing power of celebrity D.J.’s and their handlers and said they longed to return to simpler times when the club wasn’t ruled by money.
Ricardo Urgell, the son of a Barcelona engineer, built Pacha in the early 1970s on a desolate half-acre he bought for about $14,000. After its opening in 1973 the club came to represent ultracool debauchery and an escape from the conservative moral code of Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator. Native Ibicencos mixed with artists, hippies, thieves on the lam and those whose bronzed bodies were all the clothing they required.
But as the scene grew, the elder Urgells eventually became disenchanted by the music that made them millionaires.
“It’s monotonous sound and volume; it’s bodies squeezed together, it’s a little masochistic,” Ricardo Urgell said in a 2011 interview. “The great defect of this music,” he added, “is that it has to be accompanied by drugs. I took Ecstasy just one time in my life and found that out for myself.”
Electronic music, Piti Urgell said last month, “hasn’t evolved in 20 years and is for idiots.”
The Urgells say that things began to change after 1999, when Ricardo Urgell’s oldest son, Hugo, hired Mr. Whittle, a former British firefighter and rave organizer. Mr. Whittle charted a new strategy for the club, introducing a record label and a magazine, and signed top D.J.’s like Mr. Guetta and Fatboy Slim.
The changes raised Pacha’s profile, but the Urgells grew annoyed at how Mr. Whittle indulged the whims of top acts, like redesigning the D.J. booth last year to accommodate Tiësto and finding the Swedish House Mafia trio extra Champagne at island supermarkets. They also clashed when Mr. Whittle began allowing Pacha D.J.’s to spin at the Ushuaïa Beach Hotel, which put on afternoon pool parties, taking its cue from Miami and Las Vegas.
“I told them two years ago not to look at Ushuaïa as competition, look at Vegas,” Mr. Whittle said. “The question is, ‘What is attracting people away from Ibiza?’ and that is Vegas.”
In just a few years Las Vegas has become a center of gravity for the dance world. Big D.J.’s are booked for long and lucrative residencies at casino nightclubs, and new competition has inflated fees. Along with Hakkasan Las Vegas this month also brings the arrival of Light, which will combine dance music with the acrobatics of Cirque du Soleil.
“D.J.’s doing well in the U.S. market will be increasingly torn between the two locations,” Mr. Tong said. “The zeitgeist moment for Ibiza has arrived. It’s no longer the only game in town.”
But the Urgells waited a long time to take a stand, and the economics of Big Dance are hard to ignore. Pacha Ibiza, with a capacity of about 3,000, grossed more than 30 million euros (about $40 million) last summer, compared with 7 million euros in 1999, Mr. Whittle said. Pacha paid some acts more than 100,000 euros (roughly $130,000) a night, he said, but all of those D.J.’s generated three times that amount in revenue for the club.
Recent business deals have attached values to dance properties that were once unimaginable. SFX Entertainment, controlled by the media investor Robert F. X. Sillerman, paid $50 million for Beatport, a music download store, and $102 million for a majority share of ID&T, a European festival company.
Some in the dance world criticize the Urgells for firing Mr. Whittle and say that they misread the market for top D.J. talent.
“This is going to cost them a fortune,” Mr. Whittle said of Pacha’s new direction. “I am either dealing with madness or genius, and it’s just about to come out in the wash.”
Mr. Whittle could become potential competition. He said the billionaire Ronald Burkle was backing his new D.J. promotions and management agency, and Mr. Whittle, 50, is programming the music for the Cipriani restaurant just down the road in Ibiza, having already signed three Pacha defectors: Luciano, Mr. Morillo and Defected in the House.
Amy Thomson, the manager of Swedish House Mafia, who used Pacha to catapult that act in 2009, said the Urgells “just assumed we were the bad guys, when in actual fact the whole business model created around Pacha was one of the most phenomenal of our time.” (She is also the music director at Light in Las Vegas.)
In the end the Urgells may not care anymore. They want to recapture the spirit of Ibiza’s yesteryear, when Ricardo Urgell would throw the light switches, and the club would spring to life each night. This summer they plan to make their monthly “Flower Power” party, in which Piti Urgell spins classic rock ’n’ roll, a weekly event. And they are bringing in more underground acts, like the Israeli D.J. Guy Gerber, 38, who has never received $100,000 for a gig.
Last month the Urgells met in Miami with Mr. Gerber, who is taking over for Mr. Morillo on Wednesdays, to hear his vision for his weekly show, “Wisdom of the Glove.” He promised to feature indie bands, magicians, fortunetelling machines, maybe a puppeteer.
“I was trying to create a night to bring back Ibiza like it used to be 30 years ago,” he said last week. “I want to freak people out.”
Days after spending time with Mr. Gerber, Iria Urgell, 26, sent an e-mail to her father, Ricardo Urgell. “We have the best D.J. in the world,” she said, “and a new sense of a family.”