wed 16/04/2014

Red Bull Music Academy: a caffeine boost for the music industry? | New music reviews, news & interviews

Red Bull Music Academy: a caffeine boost for the music industry?

Is the RBMA corporate branding exercise, old-school philanthropy or something new?

Bootsy Collins delivers a lecture to the Academicians

I almost feel duty bound to make a declaration of interest here. I have done several pieces of paid writing for the Red Bull Music Academy, including a piece of course material for this year's Academy, and a few days ago I went to Madrid to see the Academy for the first time on their tab. But here's the thing: music writers rarely, if ever, feel the need to say that they have written sleeve notes or other material for a major record label when writing about an artist on that label, let alone that the label is paying their expenses for a story (which they generally do, as magazine and newspaper budgets collapse ever further). And the RBMA is steadily becoming so woven into the fabric of the music industry that, in fact, it is more a part of that industry than it is an outside influence on it: so should it be treated any differently to the industry's other institutions?

Exterior of the Red Bull Music AcademyThere are plenty who are willing to go further and say that the RBMA represents not just an addition to the industry, but a new model for it. OK, it's not surprising that the musicians who were gathered in Madrid are well disposed to the Academy, having been flown from all over the world and given unlimited mentoring, access to high-end recording equipment and lectures from some of the music industry's most respected figures (Wu Tang Clan mastermind The RZA, Chic's Nile Rogers and David Bowie/T Rex producer Tony Visconti, to pick a few random examples just from this year) for two weeks, all in a stunning purpose-built complex in the shell of a beautiful 19th-century warehouse (pictured right) – but even allowing for this, their assessments of what it represents display an uncommon optimism about new ways of working, networking and giving value to music.

Watch Tony Visconti on Bowie, Eno and technology

When I asked if he felt compromised by participating in something so heavily branded, New Yorker Nick Hook was emphatic. "No," he said. "I've been signed to a major label before - THAT is compromising yourself. In that business relationship you are actually signing a contract that says you will limit your creativity to a particular sound or style, and you're bound to working in a particular way. With this, the opposite is true: they're very specifically saying to you, 'Branch out, experiment, try something new,' and there is no obligation to create a product of any kind at the end of the process."

Shanghai singer/producer Cha ChaShanghai reggae singer and electronic producer Cha Cha (pictured left) pointed to the intensive collaborative working that the Academy model brings about as something that standard record company artist development would never foster. “Especially with electronic music,” she asserted, “people can be very lonely, just talking to their computers. So it's very important when something like this brings people into the same room, to help each other work in new ways. And I think the most important thing is, it shows us that wherever we come from, as musicians we're all the same.”

Now, there Cha Cha unwittingly pointed to one limitation of the Academy model. The organisers are open about the fact that their selection process is extremely rigorous in terms of character and working method as well as musical talent, and that from the thousands of applicants, the 60 musicians selected to come to Madrid for the two-week “terms” are all deemed to be likely to work well in the collaborative environment. That means this is not a place for squarepegs, malcontents or loner genii: this is not where you're going to find the next Mark E Smith, Dan Treacy or Lemmy.

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