When I wrote about Red Bull Music Academy in early 2015 (The Wire 372), it was because none of the clamour around this global music project seemed to consider the listener. Sure, artists who played at their many events sung its praises, as it gave them a gig and artistic freedom; journalists loved it as it gave them epic spectacles like its regular Culture Clash to file copy on; students who were flown out to its academies to hear lectures from famous musicians gave thanks for a once in lifetime opportunity.
But this is what listeners often got: one-off events with stars but a tinge of novelty; festival showcases of RBMA alumni with a bland united front of festivalfriendly globetrotting electronica; and a new elite strata of musicians on festival bills who happened to have RBMA on their CV.
We had many conversations in the office about the issues it raised, and some of these we attempted to raise in our coverage: the enormous carbon footprint of flying students and artists around the world to ever-changing destinations; the way it encroached on the territory of existing grassroots organisations; how it distorted an already precarious underground music economy. An independent publication like The Wire was in as good a position as anyone to offer an outside perspective, and attending the Tokyo edition of their annual event, I came away deeply ambivalent about its sense of casual mythologising and self-celebration. When we got the photos of the event back from their PR people to illustrate my piece, they gave us hundreds of options – and almost every single one of them featured a can of Red Bull.
Undoubtedly, Red Bull Music Academy’s events and online publications, as well as its prolific Red Bull Radio station, have had a seismic impact on underground dance music culture. The news that they are now coming to an end was greeted with a degree of shock, and you can understand why. Some of their journalism and editorial was of superb quality, and its online lectures and longform pieces provided a detailed – and completely free – schooling on some of the most exciting music ever heard. I remember talking to one of the editors at their website, and when I asked if they worried about word counts and deadlines for their articles, they paused and laughed: “No.” It’s a response that underlines the uneasy mix of quality control and noncommittal privilege that surrounded much of their activities. Their editorialising was rigorous, but its focus was historical and irregular – perhaps appropriate for a multinational wanting to dip a toe into underground music, but not for an organisation in it for the long haul.
In many ways, the story of RBMA is a familiar modern tale: a mysterious multinational ram-raids local culture and disrupts it forever, before retreating to some tax-free nonplace beyond scrutiny or transparency. Despite RBMA’s enormous impact, it’s clear in retrospect that at some point its top-down structure would come into conflict with its laudable intentions. It was opaque and close to unaccountable, and wielded power without real consequence – something that should always give cause for concern. It rarely created sustainable, accessible and transparent infrastructure on the ground, probably because they were always too busy jetting somewhere else. Like any club, RBMA promoted a certain ideal of itself – in this case, the evangelical power of dance culture – along with an exclusive guestlist of who is in and who is out.
What I’d like to see coming out of the lengthy RBMA chapter in recent music history is a discussion about commercial involvement in underground culture, and whether and in what way such support of music can happen without appropriation or art-washing; and another about what music community might consist in, and where it is lacking. For now, until such time as an outside body steps in to archive their many editorial and journalistic achievements, the only recourse may be to print out articles, share mixes, record conversations.
RBMA took from music culture, and the latter should be able to take something back. Derek Walmsley
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Issue 424 June 2019 £4.95 ISSN 0952-0686
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Words Jennifer Lucy Allan, Steve Barker, Mike Barnes, Dan Barrow, Robert Barry, Tristan Bath, Clive Bell, Abi Bliss, Marcus Boon, Britt Brown, Nick Cain, Philip Clark, Byron Coley, Lara C Cory, Julian Cowley, Alan Cummings, Erik Davis, Laina Dawes, Geeta Dayal, Katrina Dixon, Phil England, Kodwo Eshun, Josh Feola, Phil Freeman, Rory Gibb, Francis Gooding, Kurt Gottschalk, Louise Gray, James Hadfield, Andy Hamilton, Adam Harper, Jim Haynes, Ken Hollings, Maya Kalev, David Keenan, Kek-W, Biba Kopf, Matt Krefting, Neil Kulkarni, Sam Lefebvre, Dave Mandl, Howard Mandel, Wayne Marshall, Marc Masters, Noel Meek, Bill Meyer, Aurora Mitchell, Keith Moliné, Brian Morton, Joe Muggs, Alex Neilson, Daniel Neofetou, Louis Pattison, Ian Penman, Emily Pothast, Edwin Pouncey, Nina Power, Chal Ravens, Tony Rettman, Simon Reynolds, Nick Richardson, Bruce Russell, Sukhdev Sandhu, Claire Sawers, Dave Segal, Peter Shapiro, Stewart Smith, Nick Southgate, Daniel Spicer, Richard Stacey, David Stubbs, Greg Tate, Richard Thomas, Dave Tompkins, David Toop, Rob Turner, Zakia Uddin, Val Wilmer, Matt Wuethrich
Images Mustafah Abdulaziz, Ollie Adegboye, Guy Bolongaro, Polly Brown, Maya Fuhr, Georg Gatsas, Chris Hoare, Rita Lino, Sean Maung, Becky McNeel, Harris Mizrahi, Savage Pencil, Michael Schmelling, Rosaline Shahnavaz, Eva Vermandel, Jake Walters, Val Wilmer, Timo Wirsching