Social Anxiety: How Red Bull Is Changing What It Means To Be An Independent Musician

What happens when a multibillion-dollar corporation decides to become a patron of independent music?

November 20, 2014

In her bi-weekly column, Social Anxiety, Emilie Friedlander peeks underneath the artifacts of contemporary culture to question what it all really means.

I found myself on the run from Batman a few weeks ago. It was my first ever night in Los Angeles, where I wrote my last installment of Social Anxiety, and Hollywood Boulevard had left me shell shocked in the way I'd always imagined tourists to feel upon their first visit to Times Square. The caped crusader was stalking the perimeter of a crowd gathered in the street, occasionally whipping his giant black mantle around unsuspecting passersby. To escape him, I'd taken a stroll down the Boulevard's famous star walk, past men hawking hip-hop mixtapes, a row of scientologists offering stress tests, a small parade of anti-capitalist demonstrators in Guy Fawkes masks, and a glittering theater façade announcing the Hollywood debut of Lisa Kudrow's The Comeback. Inspecting the selection of limp-looking sandwiches on sale at a nearby Starbucks, though, I'd turned around to discover Batman standing right behind me, arms crossed, fixing me expectantly with his beady blue eyes.

Needless to say, my ability to distinguish reality from fantasy was already a bit compromised when I finally evaded him and made my way into Madame Tussaud's Hollywood, where Red Bull Sound Select was throwing an event called WAX ON WAX as part of its 30-day musical takeover of Los Angeles. The majority of the month-long series had consisted of more conventional concert programming: headlining shows from the likes of Juicy J, Real Estate, Chance the Rapper, and Warpaint, across a wide sampling of the city's flagship music venues, big and small, hip and historically landmarked. But when the intrepid energy drink company offered to fly me across the country to report on it, I'd been particularly interested in some of the stranger events that had popped up on the calendar. As I discovered upon arrival, WAX ON WAX was a record fair rolled into a trip to one of the world's most famous wax museums, billed as "a celebration of all things waxy."

Outside on the museum's patio, representatives from local record shops Amoeba Records, Origami Vinyl and the Record Parlour hawked obscure jazz and psych LPs from a line of booths as bartenders greeted early attendees with a menu full of Red Bull cocktails, gearing up for a special headlining DJ set from Grammy nominated singer-songwriter Mayer Hawthorne on the main stage later that night. Inside, Madame Tussaud's was more or less like Madame Tussaud's, with the caveat that not all of the inanimate celebrity deadringers I paused to take peace-sign selfies with were actually inanimate. Michael Jackson, Robert Deniro, Bono, Mick Jagger, and Elton John turned out to be flesh-in-blood human beings—all frighteningly convincing celebrity lookalikes, hired by Red Bull for the night—and there's probably no greater shock to the system than discovering something to be "alive" after filing it away as a "thing." One of the publicists from the private firm that had helped bring me out to Los Angeles described the uneasiness we were both feeling in terms of the "uncanny valley effect": when something that is fake starts seeming so impossibly real that the mind rejects it entirely.

Walking into the "Wild West" wing of the museum, I heard an Ornette Coleman LP spinning on a turntable alongside life-sized replicas of Clint Eastwood and Paul Newman dressed in cowboy attire as part of a display for Blue Note records. WAX ON WAX felt midway between a glitzy industry event and a conceptual art prank. Capitalist excess, grassroots authenticity, and serious musical connoisseurship are strange bedfellows; while WAX ON WAX was perhaps the most pointed example of that strange cohabitation I'd experience that week, it was a paradox that seemed implicit in Red Bull's massive, month-long undertaking. Why would a small independent business—be it a band or a record store or a historical jazz label—want to tangle with a huge brand, anyway?

It isn't exactly a novel question, although for a life-long music fan like myself, it feels like a particularly urgent one. Back in New York, I think many of my friends and colleagues will remember 2014 as the year when, aside from Shea Stadium, pretty much every single DIY venue that we frequented through our twenties either moved house or closed up shop. I had a particularly intimate relationship with 285 Kent; I lived for a time in an apartment in the same building, and even helped run an independent music publication out of 285 itself. When the venue shut down early this year, it felt as though I'd been expelled from the only adult home I'd ever really carved out for myself in New York. Between the rising property values and competition from increasingly underground-friendly commercial venues, it seemed that the Brooklyn DIY ethos—for me, synonymous with the idea of being able to build a successful small business on hard work and a love for music alone—was becoming little more than a tagline for people to sell products with. Subsequent rumors that Vice would be moving into that dingy warehouse space on Kent Avenue felt like yet another confirmation of the unavoidable reality that—in cities like New York, at least—big business was effectively swallowing the underground whole, from its symbolic spaces to its sounds.

It's a reality that I've come to accept, which is why, upon accepting the invitation to fly out to Los Angeles, I wasn't really interested in writing a negative critique of the energy drink manufacturer's role in music. Red Bull has long been one of independent music's most visible corporate patrons. Their Red Bull Music Academy program, launched in 1998, has over time expanded to include a competitive artist mentorship program, a lecture series, a radio station, an editorial publication, and a smattering of one-off events and festivals all over the world. (This fall, there's one in Japan, and I've attended two month-long curatorial takeovers of theirs in New York). Sound Select is still a younger and smaller program than RBMA: it's only been around for two years, and though it hosts regular monthly events across 16 cities, 30 DAYS IN LA is its most large-scale animation to date.

Of course, these days, large companies looking to invest money in the arts are becoming a regular fixture of the music industry landscape, both on the level of individual artists and that of the events companies and editorial properties that showcase them. Doritos has a stage at SxSW, and Sour Patch Kids recently unveiled a crash pad for touring bands in Brooklyn. The FADER, for its part, has partnered with other music-interested companies, like Converse and vitaminwater, to promote artists through events series like FORT and #uncapped, respectively. Because corporate patronage of independent music would seem to be here to stay, and the DIY model of support that I grew up alongside with seems to be becoming more a thing of the past, I Ubered my way around Los Angeles for a week with a question in mind: what exactly was Red Bull doing to help independent artists survive and flourish, along with the cottage industry of independent businesses that surrounds them?

One thing I noticed about 30 DAYS IN LA, pretty much from the beginning, were the pains Red Bull was taking to get people to their shows. If you've ever tried to get a musical project off the ground, you've probably experienced the disappointment of practicing for days in advance of an event only to show up to an empty room. Most promoters simply try their darndest to pick opening bands that people will actually show up to see, but at 30 DAYS IN LA, Red Bull seemed willing to go one step further, and actually spend money to get people to show up. On my second night in Los Angeles, en route to The Julie Ruin show at legendary West Hollywood rock tavern The Troubadour, I was struck by all the incentives Red Bull was offering to get people to the venue early. There was free parking for people arriving before 9pm (something a local friend of mine insisted was a "pretty big deal when you live in LA"), plus free Uber rides for non-drivers, and even free pizza upon arrival. Those so inclined could also enter a special raffle for early birds, presumably to win things like a special 30 DAYS IN LA tote bag and musician-grade 30 DAYS IN LA earplugs, but at other shows in the festival, the giveaways got a little more artist-specific than that. At the MR MS show on November 2nd, there was a free hair dying station for fans, "curated by" front woman Lizzy Plapinger herself; similarly, everybody in attendance at the Reignwolf show on the 12th got a custom, hand-numbered, limited edition Reignwolf jacket. And at the Real Estate show earlier this week, in presumably the same spirit of punning that gave birth to the WAX ON WAX tagline, you could even enter a raffle to win a free month of rent.

That night at The Julie Ruin gig, presumably as a result of the great pains Red Bull was taking, The Troubadour was packed by the time opening act Bad Girlfriend took the stage, enveloping the audience in a wave of durable garage riffs and round robin surf vocals. I'd never heard of Bad Girlfriend before that night, though retrospective Google search tells me that the all-female, leather jacket-clad rock group hails from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a neighborhood they believe to have "changed," although "the Vibe hasn't nor The Pulse, The Vibe, The Intensity." That's a quote I pulled directly from the Red Bull Sound Select website, which maintains an individual profile for each of the bands opening up at this month's festival. Bad Girlfriend is one of 300 national and international acts in the company's two-year-old Sound Select program, self-described (per the same website) as "an artist development program that delivers the best in new music." It took me a long time to figure out exactly what that meant—in fact, I still don't think I've completely wrapped my mind around it—but it seems to encompass a growing roster of independent artists that Red Bull is trying to help out, partly by booking them with bigger and more sought-after acts like Kathleen Hanna's comeback band, but also through a host of other promotional and creative resources.

"Believe it or not, we do 200+ shows and festivals every year," Stephen Canfield, a representative for Sound Select, told me over the phone this week, discussing the different opportunities available to artists in "the program." "We typically have two Sound Select artists on each of those types of performances. We work with a ton of different festivals to help us support artists at those. We also have our studios, and we do in-studio collaborations with leading creators and producers, like the track we did with Wrestlers and Twin Shadow, or one that was released today between Tink and Sleigh Bells. In addition to that, there's just a lot of marketing things, so we are able to support [our artists] through things like our magazine, The Red Bulletin, through our social channels, that type of stuff." From what I could glean from our discussion, the parameters of the program are tailored to the specific needs of the participating artists, such that no two individual trajectories within Sound Select will be alike. Bad Girlfriend, for its part, has taken advantage of many of these services since being brought into the fold by landmark New York free-form radio station East Village Radio, including playing multiple Red Bull Sound Select Presents shows in different markets, recording a collaborative track with Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. in one of Red Bull's open-use studios (there's one in LA, and one in New York), and benefiting from what was described to me as free promotion "through partnerships we have with companies like SoundCloud." "It's about helping them to navigate the business in music and helping to support them to get where they want to go," Canfield explained. "I think probably the best way to think about it is that it's kind of similar to how we develop athletes, as a company."

He's referring to some of the very powerful and well-broadcast inroads that Red Bull has made in the sports world since the company's inception in the late '80s, spanning not only the purchasing of sports teams and sponsorship of numerous race car manufacturers, but also the training and marketing of individual athletes. Perhaps most notoriously, Red Bull has done a great deal of content marketing in the realm of extreme sports, a pastime that has resulted in injuries, lawsuits and accusations regarding the dangerous exploitation of young athletes. But where a recent Mashable article spoke to the company's use of dangerous sporting feats to bring eyes to its various editorial and marketing platforms, the curation at 30 DAYS IN LA didn't really give off the impression of a company looking to draw eyeballs (and ears) with the most viral possible content at all costs.

Most of the Sound Select acts were artists I had never heard of, and unlike many RBMA events I've attended in New York, which have always seemed to spotlight respected legacy artists and young critical darlings in the experimental and electronic lanes, the LA festival seemed to offer a little something for everyone. In addition to discovering Bad Girlfriend and DIANA (garage rock and '80s-inspired synth pop, respectively), I caught an adrenaline-filled set by New Jersey punk band The Scandals on the eve of Bad Religion's sold-out performance at The Mayan, and also spoke on the phone with Los Angeles rapper and frequent DJ Dahi collaborator Thurz. Thurz opened up last Thursday for Run the Jewels at The Echo, and was brought into the program by the recently defunct, Los Angeles-based music quarterly Filter magazine. Today, there are over 40 Sound Select curators across 16 different cites, including Amoeba Music, local independent radio institution KCRW, and FLOOD Magazine in LA; AfroPunk and Brooklyn Vegan in New York; and Fake Shore Drive and Empty Bottle in Chicago. In each of those 16 markets, those curators help program monthly events, most of which have the same 2-opener, 1-headliner format as the "concert nights" at 30 DAYS. Presumably, most of these local independent businesses are participating for promotional reasons, although according to Kara Lane, the person in charge of in-store events and marketing at Amoeba Music, collaborating with Red Bull on shows has also been about benefiting from new resources: "For us, it was nice to be able to curate something at a real venue, and have a budget to get a big headliner, and then get those local bands on a bill that we were proud to present," she told me one day during my trip, when I decided to make my obligatory pilgrimage to Amoeba.

"Some people might say that its dorky or not cool to associate with a big company like Red Bull [but] there is no harm in having support from a company with resources." — Juan Velasquez

Despite the moneyed patina, then, Sound Select feels like something of a loose-knit community endeavor—the stylistically heterogeneous sum of many different independent business' favorite up-and-coming acts. I didn't find any one new artist that I'd necessarily write home about, but maybe I would've had I attended more of the events. Maybe I wish that the festival had featured more Sound Select artists more in line with my taste (which is probably more in line with the company's RBMA programming, anyway), but that doesn't mean that other people attending the festival didn't find something in line with theirs.
Most festivals I go to feel like variations on other festivals I've been to—revolving rosters of the same 50 or so artists, which also happen to be the same artists that every major music publication is writing about this year. Neither of those entities—music festivals or magazines—seems to be in a financial position to invest significant resources in artists that aren't already swept up in the hype cycle, but a corporation like Red Bull can.

As far as I can tell, Red Bull doesn't stand to make any direct financial gains from its investment in the artists in the program; by giving artists full ownership over the music that is recorded in their studios, though, and asking for nothing in return other than photo opps and other promotional content, they could surely be said to be making great gains on the level of cultural capital and brand visibility. Going to 30 DAYS IN LA allowed me a strange, potentially naïve, thought: if more musically open-minded companies with nothing to lose were to throw indiscriminate sums of money at the arts, indie artists might actually have a chance at becoming less preoccupied with the marketplace. Maybe, rather than worrying about how to sell themselves, they'd put more time and effort into making the best music they possibly can. Then again, as the Redbull representative explained to me over the phone, Sound Select is a program geared to helping acts navigate the business aspects of being an independent artist—with the very 2014 assumption that trying to succeed on the business end of things is something that every serious independent artist should be trying to do. And though there have been a few great Sound Select success stories in my particular corner of the taste universe—namely, I'm thinking about Tink, Sicko Mobb, and Chance the Rapper, all three Chicago artists curated by Fake Shore Drive—it remains to be seen whether other artists in the program will achieve a similar degree of aboveground success.

For the artists' part, I don't think there was one participating act I talked to who had anything negative to say about the experience of playing the festival and working with Red Bull. When I called him up the morning after his supporting set for Run the Jewels, Thurz, who recorded his recent Designer EP in the company's Los Angeles studio, was practically gushing about how much the company had helped push his career along: "Man, I just haven't seen a company really put this effort forward in really supporting an artist and sticking to a model of giving [people] wings and extending that model across different barriers." Juan Velasquez, the former Abe Vigoda guitarist and keys player whose new project Roses is also a Sound Select band, echoed the sentiment, this time from the perspective of an indie rock artist: "I think that the initial worry is that they will make you do something cheesy that will make you uncomfortable or something," he said. "But Red Bull seems to not want to do anything like that really. Some people might say that its dorky or not cool to associate with a big company like Red Bull whether for political reasons or [because] they are not a fan of the product/aesthetic/etc. But I think of our band as pretty easy going and if they want to help us out and have been nothing but nice there is no harm in having support from a company with resources."

Of course, there's a certain paradigm-shifting paradox in the idea of being independent artist who also enjoys the patronage of a corporation. It's something we will be seeing more and more of as big business becomes increasingly aware of the branding potential in supporting the "little guy," but it's confusing, because it threatens to overturn the entire counter-culture vs. mainstream, authentic versus inauthentic, "us versus them" mentality that has fueled independent music since the beginning. To that end, perhaps no comment I heard during my trip to Los Angeles felt truer to this state of affairs then something Mac DeMarco said during a set I caught him play at The Fonda (at an event unrelated to Red Bull), when for some reason he decided to cap off the night with a rant against wearing designer clothes. "Brands should be paying you to wear that shit," he'd said to an audience full of screaming fans. The funny thing is, both metaphorically and literally, they already are.

Images all courtesy of Red Bull Sound Select.

From The Collection:

Social Anxiety
Social Anxiety: How Red Bull Is Changing What It Means To Be An Independent Musician