wed 07/12/2016

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

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

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.

Again, though, the comparison needs to be made with a big record company. Yes, there was a certain sense that many of the musicians were already part of a particular club music/hipster network – Nick Hook, for example, has already recorded for London's Night Slugs label as Cubic Zirconia, and Cha Cha provided vocals on Kode 9's most recent album – but actually the freedom of the RBMA artist development model seemed to be propelling many of them into more varied musical spheres, where club labels might find themselves limited by the demands of DJs and of the dance floor. The more time I spent speaking to the musicians and RBMA team, the less concerned about homogeneity I became.

The Red Bull Music Academy studioThe Academy is run by “music people” – not branding experts – from top to bottom. Founder Torsten Schmidt, a Cologne resident with a ribald sense of humour and obsessive love of Jamaican dancehall is case in point. He joked to me about weeping every time he sees a Red Bull-sponsored Formula One car damaged, thinking what he could do with that money – but the point is a serious one: the team is maniacally focused on ploughing their generous but not unlimited budgets into creating musical networks and infrastructure that will outlast the project itself. RBMA already runs its own studios in Capetown and London, and the recording studio built for the current Academy (pictured right) will be handed over to the city of Madrid, for the use of young musicians unable to afford such facilities.

Watch Bootsy Collins on working with James Brown

So, I may be biased; but on the other hand I can't help wondering if fear of bias, or of being seen to be aiding a corporate marketing exercise for over-caffeinated sugar water, has led to the RBMA's achievements and potential being under-reported. In the ravaged ecosystem of the music industry, the Academy is a beacon of optimism and belief in the thrill of the new, and there is no question that every musician that has participated in it takes that away with them and into whatever they do next. As I wrote in The Guardian recently, ideas of mentorship and patronage in the new music world are becoming ever more important; the RBMA is just one example of how this territory is being explored, but it's a particularly advanced one.

The Red Bull Music Academy lecture theatreNone of this is to deny there are limitations and compromises involved, as in any transaction between art and commerce, but I challenge any cynic to talk to the participants and write it off as a vampiric relationship between brand and creative minds. And as for the atmosphere at the event itself... well, in a two-day visit, I found myself as childishly thrilled about music and musicans as I've been in a long time. As I left the main entrance heading for the airport, Bootsy Collins walked right past me and in - ready to give his lecture - star-shaped glasses, top hat and all. Just that proximity to a genuine legend alone was enough to leave me pretty much agog; who knows how the young musicians in the Academy process the amount of stimulation they experience in two weeks.

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