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Dead Bull: reflections on RBMA’s failed experiment in murketing

The comedian Dave Chappelle has a smart and riotous routine about being right in an argument. He describes the veracious person as “the most uncomfortable motherfucker in the room.” It’s a position for which there are no prizes, Chappelle believes: “I was right at an orgy once. Nobody fucked me.”

Reading the announcement this morning that Red Bull Music Academy and Red Bull Radio will cease operations as of October 31st, 2019, I acutely feel Chappelle’s pain. I have been banging on about this for years. And I get no pleasure in saying I told you so. But I did tell you so. I tried my best to warn that what Red Bull was doing amounted to little other than gentrification of an entire scene, that it was an artificial bubble created by a careless corporation, that RBMA was nothing more or less than a 21st century advertising campaign to perpetuate an 18th century economic model, that Red Bull had terrible business practices, that it is an unhealthy product to consume, that despite its ostensible commitment to culture, its founders have questionable politics and hold outright racist beliefs. When nobody would commission my research, I published it on my own — here, here, and here.

I don’t want an ovation. But the bulls have come home to roost, as it were. This was going to happen sooner or later. Maybe it’s a good thing that it’s happening now.

My goal with this writing on Red Bull was never to finger-wag or moralise. It was, rather, to shed light on Red Bull’s shady process, which I believed was holding us back more than pushing us forward, deflating rather than expanding consciousness, stifling not empowering music and art. The first step toward transcending oppression is to understand how oppression works.

Rather than pay for billboards along highways, or full-page ads in magazines, Red Bull pioneered what the journalist Rob Walker in his 2008 book Buying In called “murketing”: the blurring of the lines between what we buy and who we are. Red Bull also saw an opportunity in the dance music community, of reaching potential customers who were otherwise beyond the grasp of traditional advertising: the “unreachables”. Nevertheless, the experimental electronic music population was never going to be profitable enough for Red Bull to justify pouring millions of dollars into the scene. F1 auto racing. Football. That’s where the real money is. Despite the company’s best efforts, ravers apparently didn’t buy enough Red Bull.

What really upsets me is that Red Bull fundamentally saw RBMA as an experiment. Because it was just another form of advertising, front-to-back, plain and simple, Red Bull always knew that they could abandon whatever community they had helped to cultivate. When the petri dish got dirty, or didn’t produce the results they’d anticipated, they could toss it into the trash and start another advertising experiment afresh in some other burgeoning community. There was never a sense of responsibility on the part of Red Bull to the real people who increasingly relied upon their infrastructures for their livelihoods. I know of at least a dozen people who did excellent work for Red Bull, who brought tireless enthusiasm and energy to an employer that ultimately couldn’t have cared less about them.

The most immediate issue is jobs, a question to which the company has so far refused to provide a clear answer. Red Bull had a knack for attracting some of the best and brightest musicians, journalists, broadcasters, event coordinators, and the like. Some of these people will be out of work. This is a sad consequence of an artificial ecosystem’s collapse. Yet, I was denied freelance jobs because of my anti-RBMA stance. Publications would not run my research because they feared it would upset their advertisers, none more than RBMA. So, the employment question is not a clear-cut or straightforward one.

Another big question: what’s going to happen to all those lectures, all those interviews, the radio broadcasts, the essays and articles that RBMA produced? I hope that someone who is tech-savvy enough preserves them, because regardless of whether or not they were bankrolled with corporate funding, these are all important historical documents. They should in some sense be “nationalised” and archived for the public good.

Perhaps — and I hope this is the case — we are witnessing the dawn of a new era for music and media, an era which will be less dependent upon ad-driven revenue, and that will be more open to championing and amplifying critical voices rather than those who simply sing the company jingle. I hope that we are witnessing the end to our corporate-sponsored slumbers. Even the most hardcore proponent of Red Bull’s economic model cannot today come to its defence with any sense of dignity. Red Bull was never an altruistic, philanthropic entity. They were always-already after one consistent goal: to sell more Red Bull.

What we have before us is an enormous opportunity: the spectre of a scene which could be free — free from corporate tyranny; free of commodification; free from cynicism and unquestioning compliance. “Instead of seeking to overcome capital,” Mark Fisher wrote in the introduction to his unfinished book Acid Communism, “we should focus on what capital must always obstruct: the collective capacity to produce, care and enjoy.” We now have those capacities immediately in our midst.

Ultimately, art cannot be used in the service of capital, because art is necessarily a refusal of what Terence McKenna called “the dominator culture.” We cannot look back to a time that seemed better or more comfortable — the swinging sixties; 1990s rave culture — purely because we are here, now. Yes, we can recycle the language and templates of movements gone by. Still, anything we create from this moment forward must be in the service of constructing new narratives, and the unwavering confidence that those narratives will prevail. What needs to happen is no less than revolutionary. Capitalism has never been inevitable. A world beyond it, however, is not only possible. It’s necessary.

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