Tonight, dance crews representing four different styles and eras of club music will take over Greenpoint’s Brooklyn Bazaar, filling every corner of that big room with competing beats and the weirdly specific gyrations each might trigger. Like many dance-floor freak outs before it, this one will be fueled by Red Bull. The event, dubbed the “Bounce Ballroom” is the first of many put on this month by The Red Bull Music Academy, a high-brow combination of academic salon and experimental art fair, all funded by hyperactive teens’ and drowsy business dudes’ beverage of choice.
There’s a light irony in the idea that the music festival linked most closely to a single brand should be the one least interested in big-name commercial appeal. The industry's current music festival arms race takes a would-be magic moment, like Outkast finally reuniting, and Xeroxes it over 40 different appearances, turning it painfully ordinary. Red Bull Music Academy events are instead defined by unrepeatable collaborations, super specific sub-culture exchange, and public experiments that teeter on an unpredictable line between transcendence and disaster. “It sort of gives us a right to be out there, instead of just putting on shows and booking people who would have played these shows anyway,” says Academy co-founder Many Ameri. “I don't find that very challenging.”
Amery started the Red Bull Music Academy in 1998, along with fellow Germans Christopher Romberg and Torsten Schmidt, as a series of roving global workshops with a mission to connect local musicians, giving them a private space to experiment together or attend lectures by pioneers in dozens of musical styles. Ameri considers these private conferences the organization’s core element, an environment that builds trust within artistic communities, making everything else they do possible.
Going into this year they revealed an ambition to build on their 2013 events here to establish an annual festival in New York City. They're planting roots at a time when rent prices are exploding and the local scenes that produce challenging work are being pushed out. But Ameri considers our city’s challenges no different from the rest of the globe’s. “The regulations that are here for all sorts of licenses and permits and so on, every country and every city has them. I don’t think it’s particular to New York. I would say that wherever we go, we will get people from the local scene say how difficult it actually is to do things here, how impossible it is, how the city stops you from being creative, and so on. It really comes down to the people. Creativity cannot be stopped. There’s always a way to express yourself, and this city certainly has a history of that.”
Potential obstacles can be easily overcome by the ample funding and organizational power of a corporation like Red Bull, and an enormous city packed not just with artists but art enthusiasts is an irresistible lure for the Academy’s ambitions. “The programming can be very challenging and very out there," says Ameri, “and this is a city that has people in it who are as critical as we want people to be, who are embracing something that can be presented in some mature fashion.”
Specifically, it was last year’s “Drone Activity in Progress” event that convinced Ameri that New York could be a perfect home base. That show featured Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, DNA’s Arto Lindsay, Sunn 0)))’s Stephen O’Malley, and Prurient’s Dominick Fernow among other luminaries of loud, uncompromising music. Together they turned Queens’ cavernous Knockdown Center into a terrifying noise factory to the delight or confusion of at least a thousand attendees. “As a European, I’m from Germany, I looked at that show like the fantasy I had of what New York sounded like in the 80s at an artsier show. I think for some of the people that came there and were from New York, it was their fantasy of what Berlin is like.” This year, they return to the space, adding techno, jazz, hip-hop to the mix, for a more expansive sequel called “Hardcore Activity in Progress.”
For Ameri, these events are just the public face for the utopian cultural cross-pollination the Academy workshops aim to create. It’s become a sort of wish-fulfillment vehicle for funding weird, improbable happenings among its wide social network of former lecturers and alumni. When David Byrne wanted to put on an all-star concert celebrating the work of mysterious Nigerian funk musician William Onyeabor, he brought the idea to them. (Two Byrne-led Onyeabor tribute shows happen at BAM this weekend.) “We were always interested in somehow presenting stuff that would otherwise not necessarily happen,” says Ameri. “It’s not a financial question, that’s not the reason these things don’t happen. It’s because you seldom have people who are persistent enough to try and work on making a meeting of minds work out in the end.”
Even with an admirable track record of high-minded events, it can be hard to shake the feeling that using art to increase a brand’s profile, even as a side effect, somehow diminishes it. It’s a perception they’ve actively tried to diffuse. “We started this whole academy trying to create something that would be substantial enough a concept that us—who are all somehow from this music world, or editors of music magazines, pretty much the most skeptical people that could look at a brand moving in this culture—we were all part of the group that was developing this academy from day one. We wanted to create something that even us, as cynical as we all were, would say, this is actually good,” insists Ameri. It’s safe to say that no artists will be emerging from a giant Red Bull vending machine anytime soon.
But how do they respond to the idea that heavily branded cultural events, even those with overtly laudable, non-commercial bookings, can't help but render the brand more important than the art? “Ultimately you have to accept that challenge,” says Ameri.
“As a brand, a promoter, a musician, whoever you are who wants to step out there and present what is dear to your heart, you’re always going to be vulnerable, exposing yourself to criticism. The best thing you can do is just make sure whatever you are presenting is pure in the sense of being exactly what you want to do. Of course, doing something as a brand in this music environment, people are going to look at that and say ‘Ok, what kind of a phony thing is this?’ After 16 years it’s easy for us to say that if you deliver on quality and make no compromises when it comes to your programming, people will respect that. The people that don’t, wouldn’t no matter what you do. Seriously, there is nothing you can change about the fact that this is an organization that is programming all this stuff. The mission here is not to convert people. It's to do something that you believe in and do that really well.”