Photo: Brian Harkin. On the stage Bill Nace and Kim Gordon performing at the Knockdown Center in Queens on Thursday as part of the Red Bull Music Academy.
The Red Bull Music Academy, a traveling music workshop and festival, calls itself “a place that’s equal parts science lab, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and Kraftwerk’s home studio.” It’s also a live-event series, and its bookings stretch out over New York City this month.
The events include concerts, installations, D.J. sets, relay-style improvisations and lectures by Flying Lotus, Brian Eno, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Erykah Badu, Giorgio Moroder, KTL, Joe Lovano, Kim Gordon, and a lot more. The festival even has its own daily newspaper, with a new issue available every day through the event.
Sounds good and also utopian; sounds inherently unsustainable. But Ben Sisario, a reporter on the music business for The New York Times, explains and explores with Ben Ratliff, the host and jazz critic for The Times, why and how Red Bull, the Austrian energy-drink corporation, has gotten involved in heavy funding for the intersection of vanguard music and youth culture, and whether their form of corporate branding suggests a genuinely positive innovation.
Ben Sisario for The New York Times – April 25, 2013
In the basement of a Chelsea office building this week, workmen wired a recording studio so new it still smelled of freshly cut wood. In the floors above, vintage instruments lay waiting to be played, and shiny cans of Red Bull energy drink were stacked shoulder-high.
All were part of the preparations for the Red Bull Music Academy, a five-week series of concerts, lectures, art installations and workshops that is one of the biggest musical happenings in New York, as well as perhaps the most elaborate example of the reach of corporate brands into popular culture.
A combination citywide festival and private musical summer camp, the academy has been held in a different international city nearly each year since 1998, when it began in Berlin. The events this year — underwritten by Red Bull, at a cost that is undisclosed but is surely well into the millions — include eyebrow-raisers like Brian Eno presenting his visual art piece “77 Million Paintings”; Ryuichi Sakamoto performing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and Giorgio Moroder, the pioneering producer of Donna Summer, offering what he says is his first D.J. set in the United States.
At the center of it all is the academy itself, a mentorship program convened as a kind of Platonic symposium, albeit one whose primary philosophical focus is analog synthesizer sounds and block-rocking beats. The 62 students, chosen from more than 4,000 applicants, are flown to New York, lodged in the boutique Ace Hotel and given two weeks of close contact with their musical heroes — all on Red Bull’s dime.
“We came up with the idea of creating this academy that would speak to musicians of all different genres, learning from each other and sharing knowledge,” said Many Ameri, one of the two German music obsessives who founded the event.
For music fans, it is a cornucopia. The public events begin with a dance party on Sunday, and the opening week also includes Erykah Badu speaking at the Brooklyn Museum; improvisations with jazz, rock and hip-hop figures like James Chance, and Questlove of the Roots; and the opening of Mr. Eno’s digital “Paintings” show. (He will also speak on May 6 at Cooper Union.)
Events were booked in conjunction with local promoters like Adam Shore, whose Blackened Music Series explores the outer limits of heavy metal.
The academy is only one aspect of a shadow music industry built by Red Bull; it also has a record label, online radio and festival stages around the world (not to mention its sponsorship of sports and spectacles like Felix Baumgartner’s 128,000-foot sky dive last year). Red Bull, based in Austria, introduced its drink in 1987, and in its early underdog days pursued this “culture marketing” as an alternative to traditional advertising. But even now, with the company a $6.4 billion giant, its support of pop culture gives it an edge with young consumers.
“Part of being a great brand is conveying what you stand for in an authentic manner so consumers find it believable,” said Nirmalya Kumar, a professor of marketing at the London Business School who has studied the company. “The music academy and the air show have given Red Bull a lot of that.”
Mr. Ameri, 39, and his co-founder, Torsten Schmidt, 38, were active on the German music scene when Red Bull approached them in 1997 to start a music program, and they were skeptical. But they developed the academy around the idea of helping the music world at large, and took the educational bent to heart: the class size — 30 or so for each of the two terms — is based on the head count in a typical German classroom. Lecturers are paid an honorarium of a few hundred dollars.
At the academy’s headquarters in Chelsea are a large recording studio, a lecture hall, a radio booth and eight “bedroom studios,” where participants are free to jam all night. Some of these facilities will remain when Red Bull takes over the space permanently after the academy.
The company logo — a pair of charging bulls — is everywhere, as are coolers stocked with the drink. But Mr. Ameri and Mr. Schmidt say they have tried to preserve an open and trusting environment, free of commercial worries. After absorbing lecturers’ wisdom during the day, the participants gather in ad hoc teams to write and record music. There are no assignments or deadlines, and Red Bull has no ownership over the music made in the program.
“That’s part of the opening speech: there is no catch,” Mr. Schmidt said. “We are going to offer you nothing in the end but inspiration and this chance of being here together.”
Many artists support that view. The electronic musician Flying Lotus (real name, Steven Ellison) is an alumnus of the 2006 academy in Melbourne, and has kept close ties with the organization; now he is a studio tutor and will perform on May 5 and 6 at Terminal 5.
“The people behind the academy, they’re not just suits; they are really special people who are passionate about artists,” he said. “Above them they have some suits to deal with, but I’ve never dealt with any of them.”
Nile Rodgers, the Chic guitarist and veteran record producer, took part two years ago in Madrid and is returning this year for a public discussion about David Bowie on May 5. He said the academy reminded him of his own experience as a youngster with Jazzmobile, the 49-year-old nonprofit group that brings jazz legends to young people in New York.
“I believe that musicians are altruistic by nature,” Mr. Rodgers said, “so when you have the opportunity to share with people just willing to gobble it up, that’s pretty exciting for me.”
Not all musicians are as impressed. Matthew Herbert, whose work opposing corporate and consumer culture has included recording the sounds of a single pig as it is bred for slaughter, lectured at the academy in 2000 and has had occasional involvement since then. But in an e-mail he said that he regretted taking part and viewed Red Bull’s efforts as little more than crass commercialism.
“My overriding impression of any music industry Red Bull tie-in is that the brand is always louder than the art,” Mr. Herbert said. “I don’t think one would come away from any interaction with them thinking that they were interested in anything else other than selling caffeinated sugary drinks.”
In the new-music business, however, corporate involvement is becoming unavoidable. Red Bull was early to the model of bankrolling underground culture, now common among youth-oriented brands. It is also bringing the pop music world closer to the sponsor model on which nonprofit arts groups have long relied.
On May 29 the academy and the Metropolitan Museum will present the United States premiere of “s,” a multimedia piece by Mr. Sakamoto and the artist Alva Noto. Limor Tomer, the museum’s general manager of concerts and lectures, dismissed the idea that there was anything unusual about an institution like the Met working with a corporation.
“I see this as a healthy collaboration to present work that belongs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in the best possible way,” Ms. Tomer said.
Behind the scenes this week, the academy buzzed with the kind of last-minute activity that happens at any big festival. Technicians shouted out details about electrical circuits; workers lugged equipment in and out. Mr. Ameri, who has spent more than a year putting the festival together and just welcomed a newborn to his family, spoke about the logistical demands of running the academy while also keeping an eye on its dozens of events around the world.
When asked how he manages it all, his thanks went not to any corporation.
He smiled and replied, “I have an amazing wife.”
Check the Red Bull Music Academy New York 2013 website for EVENTS