Spanish Party Company Elrow Pushes the Limits of EDM by Leaning on the Absurd

BILLBOARD: From desert raves in the Spanish heartland to a residency in Las Vegas, the Arnau family has turned a day rave event into a global touring business.

BARCELONA— Juan Arnau Sr. casts his showman’s eye on the crowd from behind the DJ booth, a towering, brightly colored structure that resembles a house in a comic book. A parade of giant puppets on stilts stride through the door, past where a festival-size version of Twister has been going on since 11 a.m., some three hours ago. Elrow’s ninth anniversary party is thumping at the global entertainment brand’s flagship venue, an outdoor-indoor compound with a ramshackle veneer that has mushroomed on a strip of dusty nowhere, not far from the airport here.

The wiry, 60-year-old Arnau, elrow’s current family patriarch, darts around backstage, talking over the beat of techno music with members of the production crew. He hands out sandwiches among a relaxed group that includes his wife, Mari Cruz, and some long-time friends who’ve come to share in the couple’s Sunday morning routine.

About 30 actors costumed as goofy characters mix with dancers in red clown wigs and party hats. By closing time, at 11 p.m., the site will have swelled to about 6,000 people, who’ve paid 55 euros each (about $62) to experience elrow’s meticulously produced brand of nonsense, which combines dance music with — in a word — fun.

“We added what the music needed — joy and color,” says Arnau.

“The music is just the soundtrack to the spectacle,” he adds, before leaning in to reveal the secret of the brand’s global attraction: “Did you ever notice how children all over the world play the same way?  Child’s play is universal. So if you treat the adults like children, their entertainment becomes universal too.”

At a time when the modern-day raves that propelled the rise of EDM over the past decade have become increasingly formulaic, Arnau’s Spanish company is cutting against the grain with day and night extravaganzas built around an immersive theatrical experience that doesn’t take itself too seriously. As musical tastes have shifted, elrow is also capitalizing on a growing thirst for underground music that Las Vegas, in particular, is turning to, as casino owners re-program nightclubs away from once-trendy progressive and big room house sounds. With a partnership with electronic music visionary James Barton’s Superstruct Entertainment fueling its growth — and an entry into China in the works — elrow is primed to expand its global footprint even further over the next year.

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Courtesy of elrow/Toni Villen
A stage at elrow town London, August 2018.

“Elrow has really come along at a time when maybe we needed a bit of a more fun element being installed into a very serious music culture,” says Ben Turner, the co-founder of International Music Summit, the electronic music conference held annually in Ibiza.

Vicenc Marti, the elrow president who has shepherded the company from a family operation into a global enterprise, likes to compare elrow’s parties to Cirque du Soleil’s now ubiquitous brand of spectacle. “Instead of creating awe in your audience by watching incredible shows, you’re doing it through audience participation and a sense of humor,” he says.

Marti was in nearby Ibiza that weekend for another elrow party at the dance club Amnesia. Across the Atlantic, another was taking place in Las Vegas. They were among the 175 events the company plans to put on by the end of 2019, including 20 shows this summer in places as far-flung as the New York, London and Taipei. They include “Rowllywood,” a Bollywood-themed production at Brooklyn’s Mirage on July 27; parties in Ibiza; and the elrow Town Festival in London in August, with a line-up of 50 DJs.

Elrow management says their shows in 2018 brought in more than $30 million in revenue, up 35 percent from 2017.

Much like EDM before it, elrow’s guiding principles of inclusiveness and participation have been the keys to its ability to attract newcomers to electronic music. They “now feel that this is a sound that they love because of the experience,” says Alex Cordova, Wynn Las Vegas’ Executive VP of Nightlife.

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Courtesy of elrow/Toni Villen
elrow takes over Encore Beach Club at Wynn Las Vegas.

While dressing up in costumes at electronic festivals is hardly new, Elrow’s attitude is about looking absurd, not sexy. The crowd is more come as you are than fashion forward; ironically worn Hawaiian shirts are a thing. With its bombardment of playful distractions, elrow has plugged into the need of the digitally drained to interact rather than observe. “If we try something new and the first reaction is to hold a cell phone to take a picture, forget it, we don’t want it,” says Juan Arnau Jr., the company’s CEO.

Arnau and his sister, Cruz Arnau, represent the new generation of the Spanish family of café and theater owners, and club promoters, whose history dates to the late 19th century.

Elrow is thriving even as electronic dance music — which rose to historic heights only five years ago at the peak of the EDM craze — has lately taken a step back in popularity. The genre’s share of the U.S. recorded music market has reflected losses for three years in a row, according to numbers from a recent IMS report. The estimated earnings of the 10 highest-paid DJs have also tumbled to their lowest total since 2013, according to figures in Forbes. Globally, the electronic music business —- spanning sales, DJ earnings, clubs, festivals and branding — slipped last year by 1 percent to $7.2 billion, the IMS reported.

“The elrow concept,” by contrast, “has been working in every single country we go to,” says Arnau Jr., 37, during an interview in the company’s offices, a modern mansion in an upscale Barcelona neighborhood. The family transformed the house into a sort of Pee Wee’s Playhouse with props from the parties, including the ubiquitous elrow mascot, Rowgelia, a plush chicken.

Elrow has booked many big-name DJs, including Carl Cox and Fatboy Slim. “But in the end what we want is that they play fun music,” Arnau says. “We are not in the industry to teach people what to listen to. We are here to entertain them and to make them part of the show.”