How Red Bull Music Academy Is Investing In The Next Generation Of Artists

A community center in the middle of Old Montréal has gone green. By which I mean, the entire building has been covered in living, sighing plants that drip from ceilings and unexpectedly emerge from every nook and cranny along the wall. Walking into the building feels like walking into a lush, low key indoor jungle; the green washes over you like a cooling balm, the air feels thicker and rich with oxygen.

There is something musical about the singing green, it’s an unexpected burst of life, and the first sign that Red Bull Music Academy has taken over the building for their near month-long artist-focused boot camp in Canada. Time to throw all your expectations about corporate patronage out the window.

For those who are unfamiliar, Red Bull Music Academy (RBMA, natch) is a five-week long, traveling series of musical performances, workshops, concerts, art installations, club nights and lectures. Red Bull selects a number of participants to live, work, and learn in the Academy’s location of choice each year, covering all the cost of travel and accommodation for the students throughout the course of the event.

Potential participants must fill out an extensive application process to prove they’re serious about the process, and submit a personal selection of their own music. This year, 70 students from all over the world came together to work and study at the revamped Phi Centre for RBMA Montréal.

They don’t just throw students into any old building, either, as noted above, the environment is specifically designed for their event, in this case, by local Montréal interior designer and architect Zébulon Perron who is well-known for his incorporation of greenery into warm, minimal designs. The space is beautiful, creative and welcoming; it encourages collaboration, community-building and freedom, empowering young artists in a way that not much else in the current system will.

The full-on greening of the Phi Centre is an ideal design twist for a space that’s been designated as an artistic haven. As the site of this year’s Red Bull Music Academy headquarters, the building underwent a complete transformation prior to any of the greenery installation.

The upper floors of the building were built out from completely empty gallery space into a series of bedroom studios, an enormous collaboration studio room, and a separate haven for RBMA Radio — along with an office for the staff to continue working for the duration of the event.

RBMA has been going strong since 1998, and the latest installment in Montréal marks the Academy’s eighteenth year. This year’s event was held from Saturday, September 24 until Friday, October 28, and I got the chance to spend the third weekend in October participating in everything the students themselves get to experience.

Guest lecturers and mentors this year included greats like Win Butler of Arcade Fire, The Black Madonna, Dev Hynes, Thundercat, and Björk — whose expansive digital exhibit is also part of the program — along with quickly rising stars from Montréal’s own scene like Kaytranada, who just won Canada’s coveted Polaris Prize, and Jacques Green, who gave the keynote lecture while I was visiting.

Greene’s discussion was a vivid, engaging lecture about his city’s musical history and the realities of making money as a musician — the gist is, you’re going to have to tour often — which you can watch above, as all the lectures are made available after the fact.

For participants, RBMA is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that gives them insight into the particular challenges that being a musician entails, firsthand from those who have made it. It also provides them an opportunity to learn, make connections, and hone their skills in a safe and nurturing environment that the real world simply will not offer.

And once they leave, participants don’t owe Red Bull a thing; none of their art is copyrighted, none of it belongs to the company, and though product is present throughout the space, consuming it is in no way a requirement.

Yes, Red Bull is there if you want it — and surely the energy drink can be a boon during late night studio sessions — but the brand’s main goal is to facilitate artistic development in the next generation. They don’t have to deliver anything, file any final project, or show their work. The experience belongs to them, and them alone.

In this way, Red Bull is reframing ideas about corporate patronage; they’re investing in the history, production, and future of music with no strings attached. By refocusing on the art and the artists themselves, all the awkward stress of product inclusion and ROI melts away. Now, there is somewhere to go. Now, there is room to grow.

The goal of their investment is in the quality of the experience, and everything surrounding their musical events and programs reflects that. Everyone seems to be waiting for a catch to kick in at some point, but the only catch with RBMA is that… there isn’t one. Music is front and center, and will remain that way. No catch, no hashtag required and no product placement necessary. The relief is palpable, the results, inspiring.

Over the course of that weekend spent in Montréal, I was able to attend the experimental Kaleidoscope 1754 show, a lineup featuring inventive, eclectic producers like RP Boo and Jlin, along with an instrumentalist like Thundercat, and newcomers to boot.

Perhaps the most impressive artist on the bill was Schmied Puls, aka Mira Lu Kovacs, a participant in the academy whose big-hearted vocals and guitar-work left just as much of an impact on me as the more established names. Watching her move into 2017 with what she gained from RBMA is one of the things I’m looking forward to the most in music right now.

Additionally, the weekend included the chance to attend Björk’s digital exhibit and new “Family” video (watch a teaser here), which will travel for the rest of this year but moved to Montréal in conjunction with RBMA, and was capped off with Québec Électrique: Montréal Discoville, a night of electronic music that honored various eras of the city’s electronic music heritage.
If that seems like a packed three days, consider the depth and breadth of knowledge RBMA participants will accrue over weeks immersed in this cultural richness. Though the programming may be incredible, there’s something to be said for place, too.

Zébulon’s thoughtful designs are a great reminder of the importance that environment plays when it comes to artistic development. Young musicians and young plants aren’t that different; sometimes all either of them need is a change of scenery, a bit of attention, and the encouragement to grow. Add water, or Red Bull, as desired.

Applications for Red Bull Music Academy 2017 will be found here in the very near future. If you’re an aspiring musician or producer who could use a little nurturing, consider applying.