It’s midday when we arrive at the villa, around the time when the Ibiza heat is particularly punishing on those who had been out until the early hours of the morning. Rumour has it that this is the very same villa from the 2005 fictional DJ biopic All Gone Pete Tong. But for this summer it’s home to this year’s contestants for Burn Residency, a kind of X Factor for electronic music at the heart of the Balearic island, the overall winner of which will be announced by October. In contrast to the others on my press party who spent all night dancing at Pacha's Flower Power night amid blown up hearts and confetti, I’m in the minority who stayed up waiting on a delayed flight, which if you’re travelling from Luton to Ibiza is a night out in and of itself, with girls unpinning the rollers from their hair, guys necking duty-free booze and a brawl breaking out over the “summer squad” playlist.
For the contestants, who are competing for a residency at three of Ibiza's superclubs and the grand prize of €100,000, the summer is less about partying than facing unforeseen challenges set by well respected names in the industry. These include Philipp Straub, John Digweed and Ibiza kingpin Carl Cox. Arguably the island’s first resident, Cox arrived here in the mid 1980s, playing at Space in the 90s where he has held one of the longest running residencies for a whopping 15 years. The DJs taking part in this year's competition already have years of experience in the industry and residencies back home. Roth Segan, this year’s Croatian contestant’s career spans a total of 15 years.
“I first started as a hip-hop DJ and was working as a hip-hop DJ until 2009. I grew up on Croatian hip-hop first. Croatian hip-hop started in the 90s, it was a time when Yugoslavia was separating and the lyrics were about social awareness, politics. Then I decided to discover every other aspect of music, every genre,” Segan tells me. He then started working as a mash-up DJ, playing in Zagreb's clubs such as Club Peppermint and Johann Franck. When applying for Burn he decided to focus, for the first time, on electronic music during which time he adopted his new name. “We had a remix challenge from John Digweed and this has been the toughest so far because I’d never produced anything. Now there is a need to learn how to do that and learn how to make a remix.”
Segan is one in a dozen of contenders from the New East. And it’s not a surprise. Places such as Kiev and Tbilisi boast a thriving underground music scene of late. Moreover, the New East has given us exceptional female DJs, Nina Kraviz being the most well known example. With last year’s Burn winner, Samanta hailing from Lithuania, and one of this year’s three finalists Mira Joo from Hungary, this also appears to be a trend in the competition. “Nowadays it’s normal to be female. Though females only make up 5% of the industry. I’m really lucky that I’m in that 5%,” says Samanta. The DJ, who is now touring the world as part of DJ Dubfire’s The Bullitt Agency, has come a long way from playing at restaurants and store openings in Vilnius. “There are girls playing in the restaurants and small bars right now,” she adds.
Part of the problem, particularly in eastern Europe, is that the electronic music industry is still small, so there’s a lot of competition. “It’s really hard to get further, especially in Budapest where everyone is DJing. Even if you’re great and talented, there are just three places where you can play,” says Joo. To make a name for herself and other female DJs in Budapest, Joo, who comes from a classical background, formed the She Fire collective, who run Sunday parties as well as an underground radio station. Despite the fact there’s less opportunity to get noticed, she says the city's size makes it easier to get around all the clubs and meet people. “The people there are not western Europe-minded, they are not eastern Europe-minded. It’s somehow mixed. We’re somehow in the centre but we have both mentalities and I think it’s exciting.”
It’s this familiarity with the audience that separates a local DJ from touring superstars such as Cox. “It’s a little bit scary because when you don’t know the crowd, you don’t know how they will react. In the end it’s satisfying,” Segen tells me when I ask what it’s been like to play in front of Ibiza's clubbers. Joo, who as one of the three finalists will stay on this summer for a ten-week residency on the island, recommends being attentive and forming a relationship with a new audience: “I don’t like to prepare myself for what I will play because it never works. Maybe you’ll make a really great mix but people just won’t get it. I always try to do a lot of eye contact, which makes people trust you more. Even if you make a mistake they might like your mistakes if they like you.” So what are the qualities that make a touring DJ? For Carl Cox, it’s improvisation: “If you look at my career, 15 years being on the island, not just playing in Ibiza but all over you’ll see my music style has changed a lot in those years and is still relevant to what’s going on today,” he says during the Burn conference.
In fact, this summer is the last one for Cox's Music is Revolution party and Space which is shutting its doors at the end of the season. Space is hailed as an iconic Ibiza club. A place that’s brought in the best DJs from around the world while staying true to an underground sound rather than feeding the thumping EDM machine taking over the island in recent years. Situated in Playa d’en Bossa, in close proximity to the airport, it’s the club people head to straight from the plane, and a perfect introduction to the island. Without it you face being greeted by Paris Hilton Amnesia residency billboards. But change is in the air. Space is being taken over by the owners of Ushuaïa and allegedly replaced with a hotel club for VIPs. My hotel in Talamanca, brand new and surrounded by more luxury new-builds, is another sign of this change. And then there’s the fact that I’m listening to a DJ set while clutching a large glass of wine.
There have been many contenders for an alternative to Ibiza including Hungary and Croatia (the latter even opened it’s own all summer festival island this year called Obonjan). Space’s absence throws into question the very future of the island, making this a special season for the Burn competition. Though its closure doesn’t get a mention throughout the conference it’s clear that what’s to come for Ibiza in the next few years will rest in the future residents’ hands. But as any DJ will tell you, sometimes it’s better to not be prepared.