Red Bull Music Academy MAY 8, 2014 - by Melissa Locker


The month-long Red Bull Music Academy shows the energy drink company's marketing muscle - minus mention of the actual product.

FORTUNE - The posters start showing up in April.

They cover the subway walls, filled with names like Larry Levan, D'Angelo, Hudson Mohawk, Gunplay, David Byrne. Names of cutting-edge, underground, and often mind-bending artists, who create sounds across the spectrum, all performing at the Red Bull Music Academy that takes over New York City in May. Each year the New York iteration of the Red Bull Music Academy (RBMA) brings avant-garde musicians and creators together for a month of unlikely collaborations, once-in-a-lifetime performances, parties, art exhibits, and lectures. For the creative class, it's summer camp and Sunday school all rolled into one. And it's all brought to you by Red Bull.

Profits from the company that makes the energy drink of choice of blue-collar workers in need of an afternoon pick-me-up, sorority sisters headed to class with a hangover, businessmen on a bender, and anyone who wants to dance all night, fund the month-long festival.

It's an incongruous relationship between cutting-edge art and the stereotype of a staid corporation that works for Red Bull, though.

"This brand is built around the idea of giving wings to people - inspiring them - and allowing them to express themselves," said Many Ameri, one of the Red Bull Music Academy's co-founders.

While many companies aspire to fully integrate their company's branded mission statement into their everyday operations, Red Bull seems to have accomplished it. Under the auspices of the company's slogan "Red Bull gives you wings," the company has seen fit to attach its brand name (and considerable financial resources) to such ventures as extreme sports and aviation, combining the two last year to fund Felix Baumgartner's record-breaking free-fall parachute jump from high above the earth. The company's U.S. website reads like a culture page with articles such as "15 Must-See Bands At Hangout Festival," "5 Surfers We'd Like To See In Brazil," and "Las Vegas Supercross Finale: What You Need To Know" and links leading visitors to further adventures in skateboarding, eSports, and music.

Nowhere on the page does it mention the company's product.

It's just another sign that in many ways, Red Bull is a sports and entertainment company that also happens to sell a drink. It is really good at doing both.

This adventurous spirit (and its reflection of Red Bull's freewheeling corporate culture) has contributed not only to the company's performance record, but to its willingness to take risks with its profits and its brand. To wit, the Red Bull Music Academy, the avant-garde music conclave and festival that the company built from the ground up and has run around the globe for the last sixteen years.

"Red Bull have a long history of doing substantial things when it comes to sport," said Ameri. "They wanted to do the same thing in music, but didn't know how to do it."

Red Bull approached Ameri and his co-founders, Christopher Romberg and Torsten Schmidt, in 1997 to help it break into the musical sphere. "We were approached by Red Bull about an initiative that would be a long-term commitment to music," said Ameri. "We came up with the concept of the Academy. What we are doing today is very close to what we started in 1998."

The idea was to create a series of global workshops that connect local musicians with like-minded creators, visionaries, and genre-specific pioneers. The hope was that once everyone - student and mentor alike - was in a room together, a cultural cross-pollination would take place letting artists expand each other's horizon.

It's an idea that has expanded across the globe. "There are a thousand workshops happening globally," said Ameri. "And when I say 'a thousand' I mean that literally." Musicians from around the world gathering together to inspire each other. And working with local Red Bull teams around the world to help bring the ideas to life.

Ideas like last year's soundscape installation by Brian Eno called 77 Million Paintings, Bounce Ballroom dance party with the sounds of DJ Slink and Todd Terry, a musical tribute to William Onyeabor, a conversation with reclusive R&B singer D'Angelo, and the event that Ameri is most excited to watch at this year's festival, the round robin improvisational duets that last year paired Vijay Iyer with Robert Glasper, Andrew WK with Bernie Worell, and ?uestlove with Dutch DJ Jameszoo.

If you haven't heard of many of those artists, you're not alone. RBMA seems to pride itself on highlighting obscure creators who typically work under the radar and far from the spotlight.

There is an inherent irony in the idea that a music festival created by a corporation and branded as such, so thoroughly eschews mainstream or commercial appeal ("The programming can be very challenging and very out there," noted Ameri), but it works for Red Bull. How it works for Red Bull is a bit of a mystery, though, as this is the same company whose representative once told Mashable, "The marketing strategy that has worked best for us is not to publish our strategies."

"The idea of allowing people to express themselves to make the music they are into and to help them expand their musical vocabulary and create a space where they can be inspired by others. For us, it was really at the heart of this brand," said Ameri.

If you compare the Red Bull Music Academy festival in New York to, say, Budweiser's Made In America Festival - another festival created and mounted by a single brand - you will see few similarities. Jay Z doesn't headline or curate RBMA, there are no merch tables or Red Bull drinking gardens, and artists like Brian Eno are not drinking Red Bull onstage at events. In fact, aside from the festival's name, the brand's product is largely absent from events. (Both events do have movies about them, though. Ron Howard directed Made In America, while RMBA has What Difference Does It Make?)

When pressed about Red Bull footing the bill for the massive undertaking, Ameri pointed out, "What's more interesting than who is paying for the Academy, is who is actually doing the work supporting it. We are operating in ninety countries with this project, and it's run through the Red Bull organisation. It's not like there's an event here and you slap your logo on it. It starts with an idea. We then have a local infrastructure of Red Bull people who work in the company that help create the event. It's not about who foots the bill, but its about who creates these events - It's not an agency, it's Red Bull."

This hands-on, on-the-ground approach has let Red Bull build up currency with the commercial-shy artists they work with at RBMA. "Brian Eno doesn't do anything with brands," said Ameri. "The only way these things work out is if you have a track record of actually being sincere about stepping into a dialogue with these artists about what they want to be doing."

Ameri considers the trust that the company has built within the artistic communities, to be the festival's greatest asset - and one that makes everything else they do possible.

"This is not just aligning yourself with an artist, " said Ameri. "That's not the approach here. It's getting yourself into a situation where you can speak eye to eye with each other and create projects together and be part of the creative process, but always with the intention to enhance what the artist wants to do."

"A lot of the things that we do, they come out of conversations with the artists," Ameri added. "When people approach us with ideas, and they trust that we will not exploit their ideas or turn them into something that they are not, but we are interested in understanding their vision. That for us is success."