With The Demise Of Red Bull Music Academy, What’s The Future For Brands In Music?
Red Bull Music Academy created a musical legacy that money can't buy, and its loss will be devastating.
It’s awfully serendipitous that in a week that saw one of the worst encroachments on the electronic music scene by a brand in recent memory, it’s most consistent commercial champion quietly called it a day.
Red Bull Music Academy, which ran programs, lectures, radio stations and curated festival stages across the world for over two decades, has just announced this year would be its last.
Ordinarily, a corporate entity getting out of the way of the people creating and performing music would be heralded as a huge success. Lord knows we’d all love it if KFC got back to chicken and left the drops to the experts. But with Red Bull, it’s different.
If you’ve had anything to do with the dance music underground in the past 21 years, or left-of-centre music in general, the sudden demise of RBMA will come as somewhat of a shock. So enmeshed into the fabric of the alternative/electronic world since its late ‘90s inception, RBMA for many musicians has come to be seen as one reliable place for them to express and flex their weird and wonderful ideas without bending to anyone’s rules.
Dreamed up in collaboration with Berlin-based consultancy Yardstar, whose burly, bald director, Torsten Schmidt seems to be simultaneously present at every RBMA event across the world, it’s the sort of project that no one will ever be able to convince a brand to do again, especially for such a consistent stretch of time.
If RBMA is the sort of thing you only registered when you saw the brand’s logo at a festival, you should consider the huge range of artists it gave a leg up when nobody would take a chance on them — offering them studio and on-air time, lectures and headline slots with essentially zero expectation of repayment. Their Academies, which took place at a different city each year and flew in up to 60 producers and musicians from all over the world to co-create, learn, write and gain confidence have been a launchpad for a huge range of genre-nonspecific artists.
Notable alumni of the program include Hudson Mohawke, Sinjin Hawke, Tokimonsta, Katy B, Nina Kraviz, Flying Lotus and Aloe Blacc. Australian beneficiaries include Ta-Ku (Barcelona, 2008), BRUX (Berlin, 2018), Kučka (Montreal, 2016), DXHeaven (Paris 2015), Andras Fox (London, 2010) and Lorna Clarkson (Rome, 2004).
Musicians are often seen as a cheap easy way to bypass the gatekeepers of culture and leverage some authenticity for next to nothing.
I spent ten years working pretty much full-time as a music journalist and another six trying to sell music to brands in agency land, which gave me the somewhat dubious fortune of seeing firsthand just how little the vast majority of advertisers respect musicians and what they do.
Whether it’s a denim company, a shoe brand or someone that just made an expensive new phone, musicians are often seen as a cheap easy way to bypass the gatekeepers of culture and leverage some authenticity for next to nothing.
I don’t have to give you examples, just go to literally any festival or major event in this country, open Instagram, or wait for a ‘content piece’ from any publication you read regularly. Or just cringe through this:
Giving You Wings, But Not Selling You Out
The creators of RBMA had a number of things working in their favour that today’s branded partnership alchemists do not. Most vital was a product that, by the late ‘90s, had already made so much money it’s founders were well on the way to becoming multi-millionaires.
Discovered by adventuring Austrians in Thailand, Red Bull sold bucketloads (sometimes in actual buckets) and created an entirely new segment in the market. But where it really got legs is when some bright spark realised you could mix it with vodka and party all night, instantly transforming it into the club drink of choice. By the time Y2K rolled around, they were selling close to a billion cans globally.
This cash train provided freedom. While Red Bull still wanted people to know about their product, they had license to be more radical about creating deeper relationships with consumers. The sort of deliverables anyone that works in marketing is used to seeing from a client — you know, like sales spikes or return on investment — weren’t as much of an issue.
Aligning themselves to dance music, which at this point in history was still very much a subversive medium, meant that overt product placement wasn’t going to work. Pepsi and Britney Spears this wasn’t.
In 1998, the idea of selling out was a very real concern. It remained so for many years, especially as electronic music grew in stature. That Schmidt and Red Bull got buy-in from the get-go and enjoyed a relatively unsullied reputation among the community for this long says a lot about the time and effort that went into getting it right.
There were lots of brands attempting to get into the music space, but the dominant model (if you weren’t a rapper starting your own clothing line) was still buying someone famous and sticking them in an ad. And that made sense. Even in the early noughties, major artists were selling a million CDs in a week. They didn’t need that Mattel money.
In this respect at least, Red Bull was prescient. The idea of investing back into the culture and collaborating with, rather than prostituting artists, seems like a good idea now that pretty much nobody outside of Adele is selling records anymore.
Certainly it was a better move than showing up somewhere you weren’t invited — the cardinal sin of advertising committed by The Colonel last week. Modern music campaigns and collaborations from the likes of Nike (Jorja Smith) and Adidas (Kanye West, Pharrell, Stormzy et al) have built on this legacy.
Levi’s Music Project, which this year focuses on rising UK rapper Loyle Carner, perhaps comes the closest to the Red Bull model.
However, what made RBMA unique is that their expectations for Academy were never grounded in sales. A huge awareness play, sure, which makes sense given how much money they sank into it. Custom-built studios, venue hire, all-star lecturers and international airfares don’t come cheap.
I was lucky enough to be a fly on the wall for the Paris 2015 edition, where the studio producer in residence was Just Blaze, guest lecturers included Kindness and Hudson Mohawke, interviewed by experts from NTS, Boiler Room and BBC. That’s a ridiculous level of talent.
What made RBMA unique is that their expectations for Academy were never grounded in sales.
If you were the marketing manager of any brand, you’d want to milk as much content as you could out of an event like that. Film every single person on the ground saying how great Red Bull were, how it’s really changed their lives. You know, the sort of crap we hear bands having to say about beer companies today.
Red Bull left their artists alone. I can’t stress emphatically enough how rare that is. What struck me from the get-go was how much deference was given to the musicians from a brand that had no reason to.
Yes, there was always a mysterious fridge with shiny cans positioned slightly to the left, but nobody was forcing anyone to drink it. Photo opps were non-existent. Media were often restricted to short periods and small numbers to give the musicians space to create without interference. I flew all the way to France and was booted out after two and a half days, told to come back the following week.
A Big, Energetic Loss
What Red Bull (or more likely, Torsten) understood was that there was a long game here. That long game was PR; look at any bio of any DJ, producer or musician worth their salt in the last decade and Red Bull is woven into it.
By being involved in their talent incubation and encouraging them to make music without imperative, Red Bull ensured a historical legacy that money can’t buy. Which other brand can lay claim to unearthing a young Nina Kraviz or Hudson Mohawke, now a favourite producer of Kanye West, and giving them a global platform?
During my three years covering Red Bull Music Academy, I also spent time with Mark Pritchard in Tasmania, who used his long-standing connection to the Academy as a studio head to wrangle a ridiculous sum out of them for a bonkers Dark Mofo show featuring floor-to-ceiling custom projections from frequent Flume collaborator Jonathan Zawada.
I also attended Ta-Ku’s EP launch in Perth, where he retro-fitted his barbershop with full-scale visuals for a livestream. In these (and many other) instances, the initial costs far outweighed the benefit. Particularly given that these audiences were always small clusters of devotees, not festival-sized crowds.
That’s perhaps the most unfortunate thing about losing RBMA; it removes a patron that has long sought to understood and foster niches in music rather than exploit them. A constant couch where D’Angelo and Questlove can feel as at home as Actress or Peggy Gou.
More than ever, musicians of all stripes need financial support that doesn’t rely on relentless touring. That’s even more true of those that operate on the fringes of what’s popular. Let’s hope some bright spark with a blank chequebook takes up the mantle of Red Bull Music Academy.
Trust me, you’ll miss it when it’s gone.
Jonathan Seidler is a former music journalist and brand partnerships consultant. Follow him on Twitter.