On Ibiza, the Spanish Mediterranean island that is the summer dance-club capital of the world, the scene still looks pretty wild. At dawn on Tuesday 10,000 scantily clad youths are still dancing to the electronic rhythms spun by DJ Fatboy Slim at Privilege, a cavernous nightclub. But appearances are deceiving. This is the tail end of the infamous "Manumission" Monday night party. In its original, 1980s incarnation, it was a mingler for transvestites and coked-up glitterati; by the mid-1990s club owners and guests were copulating openly onstage. Then two years ago corporate sponsors came on the scene. Now the entertainment is provided by professional acrobats in sailor suits, staging mock battles with cartoon pirates on the decks of a fake ship. It's a bit raunchier than Disney, but not much.
Born as a spontaneous eruption of wild, underground drug parties, rave culture has become big business. From Barcelona to Reykjavik, 21 million European youths hit the clubs each week, and go on the road each summer seeking out the perfect rave in places like Ayia Napa, Cyprus or Ko Phangan, Thailand. Around 2 million land in Ibiza, packing club floors as large as 7,000 square meters. By sheer numbers, it was perhaps inevitable that raves would come out of the alleys and into superclubs, and that the clubs would evolve into corporations. They are now making records, running radio stations and Web sites, packaging dance-party holidays and turning Ibiza into an advertising hothouse for multinationals like BMW and Procter & Gamble. The godfather of the Ibiza clubs, the Ministry of Sound, expects revenue this year of $144 million, up from $37.7 million in 1998. The Ministry and rival club Cream both plan to go global this fall, starting with offices in the United States and expanding into South America and Australia. "Everyone realizes the size of the marketplace," says James Barton, managing director of Cream. "In key territories we're about to step it up a gear."
Youths are still drawn to Ibiza by the legendary tales of sex and drugs, which are now about as deeply buried in the past as the island's Phoenician ruins. The big change came almost by accident. Two years ago Ibiza began threatening to ban clubs from distributing promotional fliers, which had become a big litter problem. To get around the ban, Manumission organizers signed a deal with Orange, the big French-owned cell-phone company, to promote their party using short text messages. Now, Manumission partygoers meet under a circle of orange lights and toss big orange balls across the dance floor and on the leafy VIP terrace, next to the balcony where Sean (Puffy) Combs was entertaining his entourage the other Monday night. "It's as if Orange is naturally part of the club environment," says Nick Keegan, a 25-year-old Orange adman. "We have to be careful, because it's a very cynical market. We wanted to position ourselves as cool and set ourselves apart. We provide things that are free; we never stick up huge logos."
It is the sign of a commercialized age that no one yells, "Sellout." In the early days of the raves, which emerged from the "acid house" parties in the 1980s, the scene was driven underground by the mainstream music industry, which was leery of rave ties to illicit drugs like ecstasy. "It was very exclusive. To find out where a rave was, you had to drive out to a motorway service station and wait for someone to tell you, or tune in to a particular radio band," says former raver turned college professor Chris Kemp, who thinks corporations are opening up the rave scene. "For the kid on the street and the dance aficionado it's a brilliant thing that large amounts of money are being pushed into dance culture." One of those kids, Rowan Laurence, who at 20 is a veteran Ibiza clubber, says that "at the end of the day the big clubs are commercial ventures. If you want to go to Ibiza and experience the underground side of it, you'll be hiding in coves with hippies," a reference to secret outdoor trance parties that date to Ibiza's '60s incarnation as a stopover for hippies en route to Morocco.
In the view of the superclubs, the flow of corporate money actually nourishes the culture's underground roots. Dance music is digital, which means you can create it on your computer keyboard and send it over the Internet, where anyone can remix it. There are big names, like Basement Jaxx and Moby, but hits are more often one-off singles by unknowns. Global dance-music sales have hit $3.1 billion each year, making up 29 percent of singles and 13.5 percent of album sales. The big-money spinners are compilation albums of singles by the unknowns, making rave a pop subculture without megastars. "You don't have to be able to play an instrument or sing," says Kemp. "This process of commercialization is helping an awful lot of kids who couldn't do anything otherwise, make music."
The real star is Ibiza itself. Many of the compilation albums have names like "Naked Ibiza" or "Decadence Club Ibiza" and sell briskly even among American youths, many of whom have no idea Ibiza is a place. Now that the rave acts are cleaned up, corporations jockey for advertising space at Ibiza clubs like Cream, which gets 35 percent of its $23 million annual revenue from sponsors like BT Cellnet, Pepsi, Evian, Smirnoff and Levi's. "We have a captive audience for 15 weeks of the year," says Barton. "It's very easy to communicate a message to them and build the brand."
In summer Ibiza becomes "a three-month promotion platform," says Caroline Prothero, senior dance-promotions manager at Virgin Records. She makes sure her tracks get into all the right Ibiza clubs, attract the attention of "tastemaker" DJs like Paul Oakenfold or Danny Rampling, whose praise will start a domino effect as the word spreads to other DJs, clubs and daytime radio. "It's all synchronized," says Prothero, "having the record exposed in the right places, the guys themselves DJ-ing at all the right events."
The secret of dance-music success for a major record company is to forge an extensive network of small labels and club contacts who can spot talent early. The Ministry of Sound alone has five labels, and David Dollimore is the A&R (artist and repertoire) scout for one of them, Data Recording. He visits three Ibiza clubs each night, hunting for that elusive track that can go into mainstream clubs and daytime radio. His key question is not what's new and innovative, he says, but "Will the teenager who listens to [prepackaged pop group] Steps buy it?" Dollimore finished a recent worknight early in the morning at a nightclub called Eden, where he handed DJ Judge Jules test pressings of Ministry singles before retiring to a vodka and lemon in his "office," the VIP balcony overlooking the dance floor.
This is hardly an underground scene, as Dollimore is the first to admit. He says some local DJs are trying "to go back underground, and are really keen on developing something that not everybody wants." But the rowdy crowd of mostly British youths out on the dance floor seems thrilled with a pop sound. "You'd see all these people back in London," says Dollimore's colleague at the Ministry of Sound, radio producer Robert Sharp. "You'll see them all tomorrow night in Manumission. That's what's so depressing." TV producer and DJ Yomi Ayeni agrees that "it's all tied up now with this group of affluent Brits."
The evening had started on the terrace of the Hotel Bahia, as the sun set over San Antonio Bay and the pre-club party was winding up. The Ministry of Sound opened this luxury hotel just three months ago for wealthy ravers, and it stands like a monument to how completely global commerce can now swallow even outlaw subcultures. Ministry manager Jack Horlock is backing a promotional vehicle, the silver BMW "Ministry Mini," off the terrace. BT Cellnet logos snake around the frosted glass surrounding the pool. Prothero, who DJs a radio show for the Ministry, insists there's nothing lame about a corporate rave scene. "The first and foremost thing is that dance music when played in a club, whether now or 10 years ago, is liberating, it's an enjoyable experience, that sense of abandon and skin-tingling euphoria," she says, pushing up pink Chanel shades to unleash an intense gaze. "That's what lasts, and it's being passed on and experienced by younger people and the next generation." Ah, the timeless rave. Why not? After partying all night, it's impossible to resist the corporate pitch.