999 Words

Red Bull Music Academy Blues

As I write this, at least a dozen cranes are presiding over Southwest Montréal’s up-and-coming condo boom. It’s a story that Williamsburg Brooklynites, or Mission District San Franciscans, or Gastown Vancouverites, or Londoners of Hackney will find only too familiar: once a light-industrial and staunchly working-class community, the area known locally as Griffintown is undergoing a massive “revitalization”; read: sweeping gentrification.

Culturally speaking, gentrification typically wipes out whatever creative community might have previously thrived there. But Griffintown is different: here, cultural events have been woven right into a cunning redevelopment narrative. Rebranded as part of the city’s “Quartier de l’Innovation”—a hub for the creative class—Griffintown in particular has been sold as the city’s newest hipster neighborhood, an alternative to the Plateau and Mile-End’s cultural hegemony: an “urban oasis”.

Look for example to last Friday’s Red Bull Music Academy Drone Activity In Progress. This event series began in 2013 at the Knockdown Center in Queens, and is franchised out to reconditioning communities around the globe. Staged in a disused warehouse that ironically now serves as a sales office for the chic SE7T condo project, the Griffintown edition boasted most of Montréal’s fiercest noisemakers including Drainolith, Kara-Lis Coverdale and headliner Tim Hecker.

Still, hold no illusions that Red Bull cares about this district. They don’t care that the cost of a single-family home in the Southwest borough rose by 18% over the past twelve months—the highest increase seen anywhere across the city; they don’t care that a nearby 18th century archeological site was recently demolished with no consultation or oversight; or that an historic housing co-op was irrevocably damaged and razed without warning, its longtime residents losing all of their earthly belongings; or that industrial noise from around-the-clock work is disturbing sleep; or that dust and debris deteriorate air quality; or that frequent water main breaks make drinking water unsafe; or that, despite this localized influx of capital, the entire city is suffering from what the CBC, in an on-the-nose nomenclatural gesture calls “extreme neglect”.

Red Bull doesn’t care about this music scene either, or especially about music in general. Red Bull’s sole purpose is to sell Red Bull—wherever, to whomever, however—in as much quantity as possible. Kanye loves Kanye like Red Bull loves Red Bull. In 2015, according to data-gathering website Statista.com, the company raked in nearly one US dollar per person on the planet, making it by far the world’s most profitable energy drink, and among the more ubiquitous global brands. How? Since the 1990s, Red Bull’s advertising tactic has been to get involved in absolutely anything and everything. Slowly, we bought it.

The former New York Times “Consumed” columnist Rob Walker coined a useful term for this strategy: “Murketing”, or murky + marketing: blurring the borders between what we consider to be traditional advertising and authentic daily life. Defined by Walker, murketing is increasingly confusing the things we buy with our fundamental identities: simply, who we think we are is ever-more based upon our marketplace choices. Lifestyle branding is nothing new. What is new, though, is how apparently every possible lifestyle now seems to sport a Red Bull sponsorship: from windsurfing to space jumps to art spaces—and musically speaking, from Mumford and Sons to last Friday’s drone show.

Yet, Tim Hecker’s audience is a far cry from Mumford and Sons’: it’s not particularly popular culture. For Red Bull, ostensibly, there is no pile too high, and no hole too deep. What does it say when even our most underground artists and effervescent scenes are not beyond the reach of a behemoth branding machine? The question becomes: Is the scene fundamentally different because of corporate sponsorship? And after the fog clears, the answer is a resounding yes.

Previously, this kind of thing might have taken place in a DIY loft or other venerable venue, with little advertising beyond perhaps a Facebook event page (or a flyer before that) and word-of-mouth—precisely the sort of murky strategies Red Bull has appropriated. It would be organized locally and cost relatively little money—another façade that RBMA worked hard to construct. But people would arrive on bikes and on foot, not in Ubers. There would be no valet parking, no hastily installed ATM machine, no guest-list exclusivity and no omnipresent trademark imagery, as there was at the RBMA event.

Superficially, the fifteen-dollar entry fee for thirteen acts in a sprawling abandoned warehouse seems like a steal, until you realize who really ends up paying. Friday night’s show didn’t take place in an established locale. It was a pop-up event. This is an alarming and dangerous trend representing the Airbnb-ification of festivals, with no cultivated relationship to a permanent venue or staff, and no ongoing responsibility to the community. If a scene is defined by a group of people engaged in collective activity around a common interest, what we are left with, then, is a group of people collectively engaged in replicating a scene for commercial benefit—a scene-simulating scene.

This particular scene has been nurtured in Montréal since 2000 most visibly by the Mutek festival; a non-profit organization principally supported by the municipal, provincial and federal governments, and dedicated fans. Then Red Bull waltzes into town and drinks their vod-bomb milkshake. How can Mutek refuse partnering with an overwhelmingly profitable brand, its tendrils embedded in deep pockets? How can local artists say no to playing a stage with nothing else visible save a Red Bull logo? All of this community’s political momentum—chiefly its public, grassroots origin—has been co-opted into an elaborate energy drink sales pitch. We are forced to face the fact that this once-resistant music scene is now indelibly branded, and ultimately inextricable from the urban gentrification process. It’s murketing at work.

The lineup on Friday night was stacked with eight hours worth of performances—an impressive bill by any standard. Just how was an audience expected to stay alert for the entire evening? There’s always that fridge-full of sugar water behind the bar.

(Read Part II of this story here. Read Part III of this story here.)

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