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Black Sky Thinking

What Does Red Bull's Corporate Exit Means For Underground Music?
Ed Gillett , April 4th, 2019 07:55

Red Bull have announced the end of their well-loved music platform RBMA, after over 20 years of operation. Ed Gillett looks at how this decision fits into a wider pattern of narrowing, frailty and loss across digital music communities.

Yesterday, Red Bull revealed that their popular music platform, event series and radio station Red Bull Music Academy will be closing in October 2019. While there's still some uncertainty about the exact form this will take - both businesses were in fact run by a separate company Yadastar, hidden behind Red Bull branding - their press release closes by saying "The world is full of great ideas. This was one", giving a pretty clear nod towards the finality of the situation.

Founded in 1998, RBMA began life as a slick bootcamp for up-and-coming artists, initially focusing on electronic producers but later expanding to include singers, songwriters and musical creatives of all types. Hosted in a different city each year, it offered participants access to lectures and workshops with scene luminaries, collaborations with their peers, and support for building their careers.

Buoyed by the subsequent global success of graduates like Objekt, Nina Kraviz and Flying Lotus, RBMA (and its notoriously demanding application form, whittling roughly 5,000 applicants a year down to 30) became something of a rite of passage for aspiring young musicians across the world. Writing in 2015, The Wire's editor Derek Walmsley described it as "Willy Wonka's golden ticket for bedroom producers".

While RBMA had a life-changing impact on many of the artists who participated in it directly, perhaps its more profound effect has been on the much larger number who've watched if from afar. Red Bull's financial backing means that they had the resources required to film all their lectures, archive them thoughtfully, and publish them online, creating a vast, free repository of creative knowledge and insight. RBMA also grew to include an online writing strand, focused on extensive longreads on the history and meaning of underground music, and an online radio station giving exposure to new artists; the infrastructure around the Academy itself developed too, from big-name gigs to smaller workshops for local residents, running year-round.

In this, RBMA came closer than most to realising the best of what a brand-funded music platform could achieve. It's clear that its staff and contributors cared deeply about the creative cultures fostered within it; light-touch branding, and funding divorced from click rates or advertising imperatives, enabled that culture to exist as an end in itself, rather than being circumscribed by an immediate need to sell energy drinks. Former participants have spoken about the holistic nature of Red Bull's support, from visas to networking, in an industry which can often feel like a closed shop; their work to establish meaningful roots in host cities suggested a practical commitment to community-building which might embarrass several of their peers.

And yet despite all of this, it's impossible to untangle RBMA's positives from the complexities of brand-funded platforms which it also undeniably embodied.

Most obvious is the decision to close it - however gentle Red Bull's advertising may have been on the surface, it's self-evident that those holding the purse strings would have expected a meaningful return on such substantial investment. RBMA's vast trove of learning and experience may have functioned as a public good, but it was not incorporated or owned as one - ultimately, if and when it no longer made financial sense to Red Bull's owners for it to exist, then its importance to a wider community of artists and listeners could never have been enough to save it.

In this, RBMA reveals the uncomfortable truth that many of the most influential nodes in our collective network of globalised underground music, whether news sites subsidised by property developers or streaming platforms funded by venture capital, rely not only on the creative communities who provide their content and create their value, but also on the continued indulgence of wealthy benefactors, whose priorities can and will change. In Red Bull's case, an expectation of the eternal good will of CEO and owner Dietrich Mateschitz might be viewed as optimistic, given his widely-publicised and noxiously reactionary political views.

At a time when online advertising revenues are in freefall and the global economy remains fragile, loss-leading cultural content becomes harder to justify and things can feel increasingly precarious. RBMA's closure follows the shuttering of online radio station Berlin Community Radio in January, a heavy round of job losses at The Fader and the closure of print magazines Spex and Groove late last year, and the contentious decision last month by Radio 3 to slash its experimental Late Junction strand, as well as most of its jazz and ‘world' music programming. It's hard to avoid a sense of possibilities gradually narrowing as belts tighten, whether the source of that money is institutional, advertising-led or derived from a single wealthy individual.

Alongside this, there's also a more hypothetical question of lost opportunities and competition over access to audiences. Through the weight of its funding, RBMA was able to achieve things that other content platforms and music publishers simply couldn't afford to: this created beautiful, unique experiences but also by definition distorted the space around itself.

If RBMA hadn't existed, hadn't been able to disrupt the market in this way, it's possible to imagine alternative platforms which might have achieved some of the same goals in more sustainable forms. Maybe without brands taking up that space, we'd see more room for existing decentralised models to grow: artists eschewing traditional PR-led approaches in favour of self-releasing, setting up their own labels and working more directly with the communities of listeners around them, instead of leaving entire scenes inescapably and overly reliant on a single source of funding.

RBMA's closure also raises the thorny issue of what happens to online archives once public interest and the impetus to maintain them fades. In recent weeks, social media belatedly caught up on news that a bungled server migration at MySpace in early 2018 had permanently destroyed every piece of music uploaded to the site between 2003 and 2015: a collection of 53 million songs, many of which did not exist elsewhere, from a time when MySpace was the preeminent source of music streaming on the internet.

In many places, the reaction was predictably scathing - who cares about an endless collection of embarrassing 15-year-old math rock demo tapes? But such glibness seems short-sighted, given the endless potential for formerly-unloved creative works to be unearthed by later generations.

It's scary to imagine the work of the mid-2000s' answer to Arthur Russell, for example, no longer having the opportunity to be rediscovered, simply because the centralised repository for their particular cultural moment no longer exists. What risks are created when we hand over control of that collective resource to brands, or tech firms, rather than creating a broad and sustainable archive answerable to creators rather than the owners of publishing platforms?

In RBMA's case, that question remains unanswered. It would seem obvious that its 20 years of learning and culture must surely be preserved somewhere, but it's also possible to envisage it being slowly eroded by indifference, as links cease to work, video and audio hosting stops being paid for, and webpage registrations expire.

This would be an unjust end to a project which, for all the complexities it reflected, created something of lasting and deeply personal value, an antidote to the depersonalised aggregation of music and culture embodied by Spotify, Youtube and others. In a recent talk at Berlin's CTM Festival, before the news of RBMA's closure, the artist and theorist Mat Dryhurst described it as "an impressively seamless model to fund artists' eclectic visions, and continue the kind of specialist archival model of music that the algorithmic populist platforms have decimated".

Whatever their compromises, RBMA and other similar platforms create moments of connectivity and beauty which are worth cherishing. When they close, we should take this as a stark reminder to recall exactly why those things matter, and to imagine better ways in which we might collectively perpetuate them.

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