The European festival summer of 2023 has, paradoxically, been showing promise for years now. After seasons ‘20/’21 were lost to the pandemic, with season ‘22 finally picking up, this year was expected to be one of the most successful in recent memory. Many of the largest festivals saw increased demand, with expanded capacities and operational scope.
Primavera Sound, the largest compound music affair in the Mediterranean and one of the most revered music festivals internationally, set out to become a chain years ago, growing from its foundation in Barcelona to Porto, then Los Angeles (not returning this year due to overwhelming competition in California), and recently to Latin America across São Paulo, Buenos Aires, Bogotá, and Asunción (the latter two are debuting this year). Last year’s event in Barcelona even had. Primavera’s co-director Alfonso Lanza confirmed what’s been clear: despite raising prices and inflation, the festival demand in Europe (and Latin America) has been growing, so much so that the core event in Barcelona took the Coachella route last year, doubling itself over two weeks.
To top it all off, we get the Madrid edition, staged with a mirroring lineup just days after the Barcelona spectacle, with the slightly curtailed Porto outing also following in succession. The organizers’ mission of delivering genre and gender-balanced lineups to draw in a motley of listener profiles promised us the likes of Blur, Kendrick Lamar, Depeche Mode, Rosalía, Pet Shop Boys, Calvin Harris, Pusha T, and innumerable others. Seven days, 257 artists, and 289 concerts in total. After another knockout success with 193,000 spectators in the north of the country, who wouldn’t be excited about what the latest addition in the capital would look like?
As I’ve already mentioned, the three massive music festivals due to take over the entire Iberian Peninsula between 1-10 June weren’t the end of it. Each of the “main” events was complemented by tens of private clubs, even stadium gigs, for the most eager and diligent ticket-holders, who could gain free or otherwise affordable access to these special occasions known as “Primavera in the City” (Primavera en la Ciudad). This year, the offering in Madrid was particularly outstanding, seeing the Pet Shop Boys took over the Civitas Metropolitan stadium for a free-for-all concert on top of 50 plus smaller gigs across half a dozen other venues showcasing talent ranging from St. Vincent to Yves Tumor.
One would likely say that three back-to-back events attended by six-digit amounts of people and the incessant complementary programming are already a bite one could choke on, but that was just the musical part. The Primavera Pro music summits, conferences for professionals to discuss the global industry landscape, also ran concurrently in Barcelona and Madrid. In the end, all of the above was too much for the organization to implement successfully, and the inaugural Madrid edition bore the brunt of the expected growing pains.
The “Cursed” Compound
As we arrived in Madrid on 6 June, ready to dive into the Primavera en la Ciudad performances two days before the main event would kick off, we expected some setbacks could happen. Colossal ambition, after all, is often matched by at least moderate hindrances. I remember the Primavera Barcelona 2017 edition when an inexplicable lack of cabs lead to tens of thousands of folks being stranded six miles from the city center at 4 AM getting into fistfights and shouting matches over any vehicle with a green light on its roof. Nothing, however, could prepare us for the scale nor scope of issues we’d encounter (and have to endure) in Madrid.
The local media expressed skepticism and started publishing reports of preproduction issues as early as March when the organization officially announced its expansion into the capital. Some 300,000 visitors were expected, about 85,000 daily at Primavera Sound and up to 60,000 more at the Primavera in the City, with 200,000 festival-related overnight stays regionally. The city contributed €850,000 in subsidy, as the enthusiasm for the potential of another big happening was enormous.
Still, the prospective attendees failed to respond with the same fervor as soon as it was announced that the first Primavera Madrid would occur in Arganda del Rey, at a site known as “The City of Rock”. Arganda del Rey is, actually, not in Madrid. It’s a small town about 15 miles southeast of the city. “The City of Rock”, referred to by many locals as a “cursed” compound, is another ten miles out, virtually in the middle of nowhere. While a subway leads directly to Arganda del Rey, the remaining ten miles would have to be conquered by car or bus. Returning to the city center would also take an hour or more of driving – if you’re lucky. Remember this info for later.
As for The City of Rock, its story is so complex it deserves a report of its own (such a report can be found here – those who don’t speak Spanish can easily translate through Google). In short, it is an economically severely mismanaged project, dreamed up some 18 years ago by a former mayor of Arganda del Rey, hoping to attract the world’s greatest rock and pop stars to the area. The vision never came to fruition for reasons including the barren nature of the landscape, its distance from the city, generally poor mobility logistics, exceptionally high maintenance costs, and, in the words of music industry experts, a lack of attunement to the socioeconomic structures and cultural preferences of the state. After two clunky attempts at expanding the famous Rock in Rio to the Spanish capital in 2008 and 2010, the site has been barely touched but still incurs costs in excess of €500,000 for annual maintenance.
Arganda officials’ decade-long pursuit to secure concerts and justify the situation has been futile until Primavera organizers announced The City of Rock as “the best possible location” for their premiere in Madrid. It has to be said that finding a space big enough to host gargantuan festivals over multiple stages is a considerable challenge in many cities, and Madrid is no exception. But competing events, such as the enormous Mad Cool, have found themselves on better grounds despite moving around frequently. Many of the local media criticized the decision to stage Primavera Madrid in The City of Rock straight away, citing logistical reasons as the primary concern. Unfortunately, it will turn out they were right as coming to and leaving the festival turned out to be a nightmare.
Before the event, other concerns were raised, most notably regarding ticket prices and the potential to draw in foreign, even local, audiences. This year a three-day event pass totaled €325, a 40% increase from last year’s price of €245. With the average net salary in Madrid under €1,500, asking if hundreds of thousands could afford to spare a quarter of their monthly salary over one weekend was valid. Barcelona has always faced the same economic issues; nevertheless, the organizers stated that 65% of all Primavera Sound Barcelona guests were foreigners from 139 countries, unsurprising for a major cultural and party hub in the Mediterranean.
The reports of Primavera Sound Barcelona drawing €349 million to the local economy sound magnificent, but Madrid is simply a different beast in this context. While six million tourists annually (compared to Barcelona’s nine) is a compelling enough number to count on some foreign visitors at the Madrid event (I, for one, was among those), if you stage two replicas of an event less than a week apart, the one that hasn’t been a staple of contemporary music for the past 20 years is bound to lose, even more so if the older version is at the beachfront.
Then there are the age-old hypotheses about the Madrid audiences being more “conservative” and not interested in eclectic lineups or the exertion of any undue effort in order to see a show. It is, in fact, well known that most attempts at establishing a successful music festival in Madrid in the past two decades have failed until Mad Cool came along in 2018, that is. The question of why this is the case, however, remains unanswered by the social sciences.
Finally, I interviewed and chatted with over 50 attendees from Spain, UK, Ireland, and Russia on Friday, aged approximately 25-50. The half a dozen foreigners were visitors, the rest locals. Curiously, absolutely all of them agreed that perhaps the biggest problem with Primavera Sound Madrid was the scheduling, coupled with the remote location of the festival. All of Primavera’s many headliners were due to play after 11:00 pm, the top bills not kicking off until 2:00 am or even later. Whoever wanted to see the main programming would have to stay on premises at least until 4:00 am or so, not returning home before dawn, including on workdays: Day 1 of the main event was to take place on a Thursday.
Despite Spain being notorious as a nation of nighthawks, having to take a day off and check yourself out during an entire weekend to see a few shows does seem excessive and unnecessary. In the mainly touristic Barcelona and Porto, such a schedule might work for the majority, who are tourists visiting purposefully to party, but in Madrid, with mostly locals attending, this agenda wasn’t feasible; the discrepancy is exacerbated by knowing that the majority of headliners (Blur, New Order, Depeche Mode) would attract more mature audiences who couldn’t spare three days of their lives.
This was an interesting line of inquiry, so I pursued it with everyone I spoke with. The majority of large pop/rock music festivals observe 11:00 pm or midnight curfews, be it out of respect or legal necessity. Electronic and indie events often roll until the wee hours of the morning, but mainstream shindigs normally don’t. In Spain, there is an argument that the sun sets late in the summer, hence the need to push big shows to the witching hour, but the reality is that most countries in Western Europe, and especially in the North, see sunsets around 9:30-10:00 pm in June/July, which doesn’t effectively prevent main stage curfews. Cultural nuances are a relevant factor here and Spaniards traditionally stay up late. Still, the material reality in which one needs to go to work or school and/or care for their children, parents, or daily routines, is unrelenting.
Combining this with high ticket prices and a headlining roster often dominated by names that draw in 30-plus crowds effectively annuls the outdated idea that mainstream music festivals are kids’ stuff. Even in the US, where younger pop and rap performers are more prominent at festivals marketed at young adults, people under 30 make up less than half of the audience. That’s not to say that younger folks don’t have families or work to focus on, but they are also more likely to take time off and plan for partying with friends.
In any case, expecting the crowd to take time off and away from their daily duties in a metropolis known for its abundant entertainment was a misstep. The people I talked with all confirmed that many of their friends refused to go to Primavera Sound Madrid or simply couldn’t go because of work or family obligations. Two of the men said they took half a day or a full day off on Friday to see Blur – it’s all the worse that they never did because Day 1 was canceled. “I got my day off back and just worked on Friday. Imagine how many aren’t so lucky and would lose a day off,” said the man I sat with on the bus on Friday. It’s a salient, if seldom mentioned, point. Several others insisted they only came on Day 2 when they could have returned their tickets because it was confirmed last minute that Depeche Mode would play at 9 PM instead of 2 AM. More on that in a moment.
Whatever the main cause, Primavera Sound Madrid’s ticket sales didn’t go as planned. First, the expected numbers were reduced to about 65,000 attendees at The City of Rock per day, then to about 50,000. The Primavera Sound crew mobilized half the city. They worked miracles to implement the Primavera in the City plans, including a massive free Pet Shop Boys stadium show at the Civitas Metropolitano stadium and dozens of smaller, mostly private gigs across the city, but the numbers never caught on. Then the weather forecast made it all worse.
What the Rain Brought Down
Unprecedentedly for recent years, a better part of Spain announced a severe weather warning days before the festival was due to kick off. Madrid was mostly spared from deluges and floods, but even moderate rain was enough to halt everything. On 7 June, less than 24 hours before Day 1, a curt email arrived notifying everyone that the first day of Primavera Sound Madrid was canceled due to adverse weather. That there had been barely any precipitation in the city didn’t help. Blur, New Order, Halsey, Darkside, Turnstile, Pusha T, and about 50 other acts were no more. The organizers never explained what the main issue was, citing “preproduction challenges”, but videos posted on Twitter suggested that The City of Rock was reduced to a boundless field of muck, therefore hindering the setup of the festival and effectively forestalling any mass gathering onsite.
Expectedly, the media and the fans were disappointed, many enraged by how little it took to dampen the entire effort. The grand – and free – Pet Shop Boys show at the Civitas Metropolitano stadium still took place that same evening, salvaging the impression somewhat, but there was no consolation for those who waited a decade to see Blur live. Just when the promoters promised that Friday and Saturday would go as planned and we believed no further complications would arise, things got more complex.
First, there was the announcement on Thursday morning, 8 June, that there would be a Blur concert after all, but only as a scaled-down, private event for barely 2,000 lucky ticket holders who would tap their apps quickly enough at exactly 4 PM to secure a single ticket for the show at a new venue, La Riviera downtown. I was one of the lucky ones, and kudos to the promotion team for letting in a couple of hundred die-hard fans without a ticket in the end, too. But the interviews I’d done with fans the following day suggested many were only further infuriated that there had been a show they could not access despite their valid festival tickets.
In the spirit of fairness, one should refrain from judging the Primavera team here. They found themselves in a disastrous situation, and the decision to pull an all-nighter to find any venue where they could stage an impromptu show for one of their headliners was benevolent. They did what they could, and they pulled a small miracle off. Still, I concede that my vision of this event is somewhat distorted by my making it to the fantastic show. I cannot blame the tens of thousands of aficionados who were left high and dry.
Attending Primavera Sound Madrid Is a Marathon, Not a Sprint
On Friday, 9 June, we finally learned the hard way what the critics meant when they pronounced The City of Rock an inadequate location for large shows. Just when we hoped there would be no more organizational shockers, in the afternoon, a bomb dropped: Depeche Mode would start at 9 PM, not ca. 2 AM. To date, it is unclear why the sudden tectonic scheduling change. Some have speculated the alterations had to do with the insistence of Isabel Díaz (?!), the right-wing President of the Community of Madrid.
The few lucky and privileged ones who could take a car had already booked out the limited onsite parking spaces – another setback for anyone who might have scrapped together a last-minute carsharing crew to save time. The rest of us knew it would take 90+ minutes to get to the no man’s land; a frenzy ensued. Getting to the stadium Civitas Metropolitano, from which 100 co-opted buses ran continuously to and from the festival whereabouts – the transportation method recommended by the Primavera team – was already a drag. Located at the city’s northern edge, it’s out of almost everyone’s way, despite Madrid’s outstanding subway and bus network. The organizers had claimed that the stadium was the only place where many buses could park (?!), but, in reality, no more than three-five buses departed for the stadium at any given time.
As a former Madrid resident, I can confirm that there are many other places closer to the city center that could have served as departure points for half a dozen buses over three days. Mad Cool chose their new event site so that it can be reached in under 30 minutes from downtown. An hour and half of commuting, which involved two-mile-long marches, one to get the wristband at the far end of the stadium complex, and another, between the improvised bus parking and the City of Rock, seemed like an issue in itself. Then things got worse again.
As thousands flocked to the stadium parking, hoping to make it to the show’s beginning, it was announced that a car crash occurred on the highway, extending the bus travel time from 35 minutes to well over an hour. As I succeeded in securing a spot on one of the buses around 8:20 PM, the driver said that ours was the last bus to leave and that a 40-minute break will ensue so that the highway is cleared. The people outside the bus were screaming with frustration: most of them were rushing to see Depeche Mode and would now miss the show, which ought to have started at 9 PM. Certainly, nothing here was a matter of life and death, but the situation was so dramatic it was hilarious (admittedly not to those experiencing it).
Halfway there, a fellow attendee tells us that the Depeche Mode show was “postponed indefinitely” to wait for those left behind to catch up. How or when they would arrive was unclear. There was no formal announcement regarding the postponement – it was merely rumored on social media. The bus ride dragged on for about 75 minutes, then we march through the rain-softened trenches barely dried from the day before. Somewhere at the fourth discombobulated security staff member (volunteer?) who kept repeating they didn’t know where the press entrance was (it was literally right behind them), we heard Dave Gahan’s thunderous voice greeting the relatively meager. The concert had started with nary a 30-minute delay. A huge number of those who wanted to see it were nowhere near the site.
In the end, some 30,000 joined, for a total of 42,000 for Day 2 at Prima Vera Sound Madrid, against a projection of 50,000+ attendees. It was a good enough crowd for another customarily brilliant show by the alt-rock giants, but The City of Rock itself was disturbingly empty. The overall atmosphere picked up somewhat around 11 PopMatters | when Kendrick Lamar took over, but with the entire schedule pushed forward and a lack of clear communication around the logistics and timelines, the experience was barely salvageable.
As we were leaving sometime past midnight, exhausted by the ordeal of the past three days, we noticed that the Amazon Music, Cupra, and Plenitude stages were empty, with barely a few dozen people strolling or otherwise sitting here and there. I believed this was finally the last of the problems the festival was experiencing and that at least Saturday would be a hit, with La Rosalía and Calvin Harris ending the event on a high note. Then I and thousands of others got lost in the darkness.
If all this sounds a bit like a B-horror comedy, I won’t contest it. Anyhow, across the endless fields of spongy, mushy soil, with barely any lights and even fewer signposts, hundreds of the walking near-dead from exhaustion stumbled, hoping to find the right queue for the bus they wanted to take. There were four intended return spots, only one of them relatively central, but promises about shuttle buses to hotspots and amplified taxi service downtown ran high, so we pushed on, cautiously hoping for the best.
“The best” ended up being a complete breakdown in cue and desired location matching, exasperated coordinators openly admitting to the crowd they had no idea which bus went where, and a mass hysteria that went on for several hours. People would share hot tips on which location a certain bus the driver said was going to, then others would defect from one cue to another en masse; dozens would hopefully hop on buses and then off again. I changed four cues and got on two wrong buses before finally being assured the third bus was going my way. It took well over an hour to find that bus. All the while, we stood on tired legs and slowly began to freeze in the chilly open field.
The third time was no charm, though. We did arrive at the bus station we were told we’d get to, but in the 25 minutes I spent there, in the dead of night with dozens of other zombies, no shuttle bus or cab appeared. It was 2 AM and the streets were eerily empty. Securing a paid ride at that hour outside of the very center took another 20 minutes. All in all, Friday evening’s balance to see two shows was eight and a half hours there and back again, in what one can only admit were unfavorable conditions.
That’s where Primavera Sound Madrid ended for me. Instead of praying for better-organized transport on Saturday and letting loose with the final headliners, as a result of freezing for over an hour, I ended up ill and in bed for days. The local media reported some 48,000 visitors on Saturday and a bunch of good shows but, again, a logistic collapse with hour-long cues spoiled everyone’s fun.
Lessons Learned, Maybe
Ultimately, the shows that did take place were brilliant. The Pet Shop Boys’ intimate private gig at the Teatro Eslava was fantastically bouncy, their subsequent conquering of the weather at the Civitas Metropolitano stadium a triumph, full of emotional singalongs. Blur’s show was Rapture, if only for a select few. Depeche Mode and Kendrick Lamar also impressed their respective crowds, but it’s hard to comment on any of that when the price paid for those shows, for the majority, was too high in every respect. The best part of the local and regional media agreed, with only a small minority avoiding the subject of one hurdle after another. The Web3 Primavera Pro Summit was also a success but was barely mentioned in the cold muck of disappointment.
What is to be learned from all this? Hopefully, more consideration will be given to each of the issues called out above. Primavera Sound is genuinely a wonderfully complex event, cherished for a reason, with a strong focus on diversity, inclusion, and the betterment of the music industry itself. Nevertheless, in Primavera Sound Madrid’s post-festum press release, the organizers barely mentioned the calamities most attendees were forced to endure, arguably not an appropriate first step toward mending the situation. Logistics is an immense challenge and some hiccups are always expected at big events. Still, nearly all of the issues of Madrid’s first Primavera edition could have been avoided had the festival taken place elsewhere, i.e., nearer to the city. By now, it’s crystal clear that Arganda Del Rey was not an adequate location (rain would not have halted preproduction on many other sites) but doubts about the site had existed for a long time. To date, it remains nebulous why The City of Rock was chosen for Primavera Sound Madrid, a misbegotten investment not even the city council wanted anymore.
Primavera Sound Madrid is not the first (music) festival to encounter serious execution problems. Mad Cool, too, has been struggling for five years to get some of its aspects right. These collapses are emblematic because they occur mostly at large festivals, many of which desire to grow even more.
Is this the end of the “macrofestivals”, as some Madrid media have gone so far as to announce? I don’t think so, and neither should it be, as long as organizers have learned their lessons. As for Primavera Sound itself, the Barcelona and Porto events were successful and revered by fans and critics alike, with Madrid being the only, albeit notable, failure. I get the impression that people want more music festivals and would be happy to attend them under different, more humane circumstances. Hosting 48,000 folks on the third day when the first day was canceled and the second day was steeped in misery indicates considerable enthusiasm.
No matter what happens in the years to come, it’s all but certain Primavera Sound will continue to be many folks’ favorite music event. Whether it will return to Madrid remains to be seen, though it surely would be great to see them back. But choose a better site next year and work out transportation and communication kinks first, please.