Inside Red Bull Music Academy

In 18 years, Red Bull Music Academy has become a global institution, with an annual residency scheme for emerging musicians, a radio station, a network of music studios and a year-round programme of events running in 60 countries. Creative review paid a visit to the 2016 Academy in Montreal to find out the secret to its success

It’s a chilly October afternoon in Montreal and Björk is sitting in an art gallery, dressed in a pink embroidered mask, talking to an excited group of musicians about her creative process. For almost two hours, she discusses writing, composing and dealing with creative block. She also talks candidly about family, feminism, her love of nature – and what she likes to listen to when she’s driving her car or making toast in the morning.

The musicians in this room – around 30 of them – are participants of Red Bull Music Academy. Some are classically trained instrumentalists, while others learned to make music on computers in their bedroom. They have all come to Canada to spend two weeks making music, attending lectures from world-leading artists and getting to know musicians from a range of different cultures and backgrounds.

Dopplereffekt performs the Red Bull Music Academy in Montreal
Dopplereffekt performs at underwater gig Dans les Abysses during the Red Bull Music Academy in Montreal, September 24 to October 28 2016. Image: Dan Wilton/Red Bull Content Pool. Lead image (shown top): Björk performs at La Selection de Björk during Red Bull Music Academy in Montreal. Image: Santiago Felipe / Red Bull Content Pool

RBMA takes place in a different city each year but the format is always the same. Two groups of musicians are each invited to spend two weeks in a custom-built space kitted out with recording studios and cutting edge equipment. Each day, there is a lecture from a notable musician and the rest of the time, participants are free to write, compose and experiment. There is no pressure to create something by the end of it – instead, the hope is that musicians will leave feeling inspired, having discovered new music, new people and new approaches to working.

RBMA was founded in Berlin in 1998 by Many Ameri and Torsten Schmidt. Ameri came from an agency background, with experience of promoting club nights and  putting on events, while Schmidt was previously editor at German music magazine Groove. With Red Bull keen to replicate its success in sports marketing at grassroots level (the brand sponsors athletes and runs events in dozens of sports, from boxcar racing to cliff diving), it asked Ameri and Schmidt to help devise a music programme. “The thing that impressed us is that they said, ‘we want to do something long-term … we want to build something up that’s worth existing in a few years’,” explains Ameri.

We were really interested in creating an environment that could foster creativity in music

The initial idea was to create a platform for musicians to reflect on the creative process. “We were really interested in creating an environment that could foster creativity in music,” says Ameri. “[At the time], there were places you could go to learn the business of music, or music theory, but there was really no place we knew of where you could just go to focus on the creativity in music and to learn from other people.”

An informal education

The aim was not to create a place for theoretical discussion but instead, somewhere that musicians could go to learn about different musical styles – be it jazz or techno – from musicians who have had a formative or significant influence on that scene. Lectures aren’t lectures in the traditional sense, but informal conversations on a couch, with musicians encouraged to talk openly about their creative process and personal experiences. (Participants can also ask questions.)

“We weren’t looking for an Academy that would have teachers but a place where, in a very anecdotal way, you could learn about the cultural context of music from the people who created it,” adds Ameri.

The project was also set up to encourage collaboration between artists from different genres – something Ameri says was less common in the 90s than it is now. Each year, the Academy has around 30 musicians but offers around eight recording studios, “so people are somewhat forced to end up in random combinations and learn how people have different ways of approaching their music,” says Ameri.

The choice of musicians is always diverse – this year’s group included a composer from Finland, a drummer from Vancouver and a synth pop artist from Mexico. Some make fairly niche music while others have more mainstream appeal, but they must all have “a strong vision” and be open to collaboration, says Ameri.

Applicants are asked to fill out a 20-page application form by hand and submit it along with a demo CD or links to their music. Participants are asked to rate their skills, list their inspirations and even draw themselves in the musical universe – helping the RBMA team get a sense of each applicant’s personality as well as their musical interests and ambitions.

It’s almost like a social experiment. You have to have certain characters in there, and you need to have a certain mindset and be open to collaborating.

Applications are then reviewed by a team of around 25 people, who draw up a shortlist of 200 or so before selecting the final 60. It’s a laborious process but as Ameri points out, “if you don’t get that right, then everything else is a waste of time”. RBMA spends a great deal of time ensuring each group contains a mix of personalities, musical styles and skill sets, to encourage interesting partnerships.

“It’s almost like a social experiment. You have to have certain characters in there, and you need to have a certain mindset and be open to collaborating, but that absolutely does not mean that these people will all be popular or outgoing or whatever … we have plenty of ‘boy in the corner’ types,” adds Ameri.

Embracing diversity

The choice of musicians brought in to give lectures is equally diverse. This year’s line-up included Iggy Pop, Arcade Fire’s Win Butler and experimental vocalist Joan La Barbara as well as Björk. The programme always features a mix of famous faces, lesser-known or more experimental artists and exciting new talent – encouraging participants to discover new music and hear from people outside of the genres they are familiar with. “Often, it’s the people you know least about that will turn out to have the biggest impact on you,” says Ameri.

The most important thing is that visiting musicians have something interesting to say and are willing to engage in the programme. Canadian producer and pianist Chilly Gonzales, for example, worked for a week with a handful of participants to put on a live show in a concert hall in the city, and musicians are encouraged to hang around after their lectures to talk with participants on the programme. “This is not a gig … we want them to come here and actually spend time with people. To go into the studio and be accessible,” says Ameri.

Alongside the invite-only scheme, RBMA puts on a series of public gigs and events during each Academy’s five-week run. These often take place in an unusual venue or feature an unexpected combination of artists: Montreal’s line-up included a gig in a planetarium and another in the city’s Olympic swimming pool where people could hear music underwater (pictured), as well as a performance from a throat singer and a punk band.

RBMA participants Matilda Abraham, So Called, Casey Mq, Dani Shivers, Angus Tarnawsky, Joona Samuel perform with Chilly Gonzalez in Montreal
RBMA participants Matilda Abraham, So Called, Casey Mq, Dani Shivers, Angus Tarnawsky, Joona Samuel perform with Chilly Gonzales in Montreal. Image: Karel Chladek

Partnership, not sponsorship

RBMA has travelled to Asia, Europe, Canada, South America and Australia. Ameri says there was never a grand plan to turn it into a global enterprise – but after running academies in Europe, Red Bull started working with former participants who wanted to put on events and workshops in their own cities. Eventually, the company recruited a team of cultural marketing managers – “and they became the infrastructure we could use to start building this,” says Ameri.

RBMA is responsible for curating and programming music events – from festivals to one-off gigs – but it’s Red Bull’s culture teams that are responsible for making them happen, making the project more of a partnership than a sponsorship model.

“We do the programming, we do the curation and all of that but in each country, you have people [in Red Bull] that know enough about their local environment and culture that they can help us execute it … it’s the only way we could have gotten to this space,” says Ameri.

As the Academy has grown, so too has the company behind it – it now employs people in various cities who are responsible for organising and promoting events, working with artists and producing editorial, social and video content.

“You’re looking at an organisation that started off with a culture programme, but that culture programme, this Academy, has really changed the culture of the organisation – and the organisation was willing to engage with us enough to do that,” he adds.

The choice of city is based on several factors: it must have an exciting and diverse cultural scene and a Red Bull team that is willing to spend 18 months planning the Academy before it opens.

The ability to create some kind of legacy is also important. In Madrid, RBMA worked with the city council and its mayor to transform a former slaughterhouse into a cultural space. Architects Langarita-Navarro designed ten permanent recording studios in the building which are now used by local creatives and Academy musicians. (Other spaces such as the lecture room and dining room were housed in pop-up wooden structures that were dismantled after the event).

RBMA will sometimes put on an Academy in a city where Red Bull is looking to set up a new office: in London, New York, Tokyo and Toronto, former Academies have been turned into workspaces and RBMA studios. The studios continue to host music events and provide a recording space for musicians with an interesting project they want to develop.

“It’s so much easier to turn a really beautiful creative space into an office than it is to turn an office into a beautiful creative space,” says Ameri.

This year’s Academy took place in the PHI Centre – a multifunctional arts space in the heart of Montreal’s Old Town. Architecture firm Z P+A designed a bright and airy dining room filled with plants, an open-plan office space for the RBMA team, a cosy lecture room with plush velvet seating and ‘bedroom’ studios filled with colourful artwork, mixing equipment and custom-made furniture.

Some of the studios will remain after the Academy comes to an end and RBMA has worked with PHI to transform bland meeting rooms into more exciting events spaces, offering up new ideas for how to use the building in future.

Rooms at RBMA Montreal have a cosy, intimate feel: Ameri says the idea was to create a relaxing environment with a residential feel – one that would put people at ease. The space is also filled with artwork by local creatives: each year, RBMA recruits a local artist or organisation to source paintings, sculptures and site-specific installations for the Academy, with the aim of creating a visually stimulating space that showcases that city’s creative scene.

Involving visual artists

Melissa Matos and Emmanuel Mauriés-Rinfret of Montreal creative studio Trusst curated this year’s art, sourcing some striking paintings, kinetic sculptures and video installations. One studio features hand-painted, Memphis-inspired wallpapers created by artist Dominique Pétrin, while an adjoining corridor is lit up with sculptures made out of light boxes and Ty-wraps by Élisabeth Picard.

Artists work in a range of mediums – but they are all based in Montreal. “We really wanted to represent Montreal’s whole artistic landscape, so we went to galleries, worked with emerging independent artists … it’s a really nice combination of emerging and established artists,” says Matos.

The arts programme is an important part of the Academy – not just because it helps create an inspiring space for musicians to work in, but because it helps RMBA to root itself in a city’s creative scene by making connections with local creatives. It also encourages local artists from different disciplines to work together in much the same way as the Academy programme does with musicians.

This is very important for us. It’s also an opportunity to leave behind a more intangible legacy … of people having worked together on something and watched their city transformed for five weeks.

“By the moment we open up here, you will have had 20 artists that will have been here on ladders and installed their work and put their sweat and blood into this…. Those people feel invested in what this is and it becomes their Academy too,” says Ameri. “This is very important for us. It’s also an opportunity to leave behind a more intangible legacy … of people having worked together on something and watched their city transformed for five weeks,” he adds.

RBMA has become something of a global institution: it runs a radio station, an annual festival in New York, music stages at dozens of festivals including Sonar and Bestival and a year-round programme of cultural events in around 60 countries. It has also created a wealth of free online content for music fans, publishing lectures online alongside articles about Academy events and participants. It’s both a brilliantly creative marketing initiative and a great example of how to foster creativity through bringing together people with wildly different skillsets, backgrounds and outlooks.

Think value, not profit

Red Bull, of course, has the luxury of being a global brand that can afford to invest in ambitious projects like this. But the project’s success isn’t just down to money: it is built on a commitment to creating something with value – something that musicians want to be a part of and one that can genuinely help them develop their career.

“I think the recipe to this was not making any compromises,” says Ameri. “The second thing was having patience and giving something the opportunity to grow – to not second guess it and become insecure but say, ‘OK, there is value here in this idea’.”

Offering advice for other brands looking to create their own cultural programmes, Ameri says it’s important to define clear parameters for success – but to avoid setting goals that are focused purely on making money, gaining exposure or getting a certain amount of likes or shares.

If you can agree on [success] not being a number…then a project like this can grow.

“If you can agree on [success] not being a number, but being something that has value attached, something that actually means something, and if you ask yourself with everything you do whether it means something or not, and you’re brutally honest with yourself about what you have achieved and you haven’t done so well, then a project like this can grow,” says Ameri.

Dopplereffekt performs at underwater gig Dans les Abysses during the Red Bull Music Academy in Montreal, September 24 to October 28 2016. Image: Dan Wilton
Dopplereffekt performs at underwater gig Dans les Abysses during the Red Bull Music Academy in Montreal, September 24 to October 28 2016. Image: Dan Wilton

Red Bull’s creative approach to cultural and sports marketing seems to be paying off: its sales rose 6.1% from 2014 to 2015, with 5.9 billion cans sold worldwide. In the same year, the company grew from 10,410 to 10,996 employees.

Perhaps the biggest indication of the programme’s success, however, comes from fellow participants. From the musicians CR spoke to in Montreal, the response was overwhelmingly positive – one even described it as a “miniature utopia”.

Casey MQ (Manierka-Quaile), a Canadian composer who performed on stage with Chilly Gonzales at this year’s Academy, says the programme has helped him figure out what his strengths are and what he wants to do next. “I’ve already come out with so many lists of things I’m going to be doing and putting together,” he says.

Venue at Quebec Electrique: Montreal Discoville during the Red Bull Music Academy. Image: Maria Jose Govea / Red Bull Content Pool
Venue at Quebec Electrique: Montreal Discoville during the Red Bull Music Academy. Image: Maria Jose Govea / Red Bull Content Pool

Joona Samuel, a composer from Helsinki, says: “I notice here that I’ve been living in a bit of a bubble…. There are people here who don’t know anything about musical theory, and they’re making great music, whereas I had been obsessed with knowing everything there was to know…. Being exposed to the fact that there are other ways of doing things was really helpful.”

“It’s also about discovering from fellow participants that they also have weaknesses and insecurities and stuff that I battle with all the time, and that I’m not the only one,” he adds.

It can be a daunting and exhausting experience – but for musicians working alone, the sense of community offered at RBMA can provide the confidence to try out new approaches. The Academy also provides a chance to seek advice from peers and more established artists on handling the challenges faced by every musician.

“It’s such an inspiring atmosphere, and because of all of these beautiful events and lectures, you’re able to really allow yourself to just enjoy it and have fun and meet people,” says Manierka-Quaile. “You have the confidence to create something that’s new and exciting and beautiful – or dark and aggressive, whatever you want!”

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