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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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OK Punk: notes on Mark Fisher’s ghost

Hua Hsu’s New Yorker review of Mark Fisher’s K-Punk compendium notes the “relentless energy” of his writing. What this means, in layman’s terms, is that Fisher wrote like a bandit. He produced an incredible volume of work via his blog, his columns, several books, and even through correspondence and comments sections. Fisher was always writing. And nearly two years after his death, there are still hundreds of pages of his missives to sift through in this new anthology.

Mark Fisher’s ghost has haunted me all year. My own book came out this spring via Repeater Books, a publisher that Fisher co-founded with fellow writer Tariq Goddard, from the ashes of an acrimonious split with Zer0, which they also helped establish. Among the first feedback I received, from multiple readers, was “Mark Fisher would have liked your book.” I took this as a complement, but it also bothered me for some reason. The reason, I understand now, is complicated.

Since Fisher took his own life in 2017, his popularity has blossomed into a sort of immediate mythology. Memorial lectures and events have been dedicated in his honour; his specter has dogged every avenue of critical discourse: everywhere that the words “hauntology” (Derrida’s neologism), or “retro” (Simon Reynolds’ purview) or “capitalist realism” (a phenomenon that Michael Schudson outlined in his 1984 book, Advertising, the uneasy persuasion) appear, so does Fisher’s name. It’s as if his death bestowed upon his work some final authority. In some instances, it’s unwarranted, and since it can’t be contested, it could prove dangerous.

There are clear lines throughout his writing that connect the theory he read, the books and films and music he consumed, his radical, punk politics, and his poor mental health. There is an assumption bobbing just beneath the surface that suicide is the only logical conclusion, knowing what Fisher knew — the only viable solution to the complete refusal of authority. Either we accept the abhorrence/compliance double bind of capitalism, or we face death heroically, as Fisher did.

One of the often-recited Fisher-isms is that it’s easier for us to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. This idea has been reiterated to the point that it’s become a mantra for the left, and again, a perilous one. It’s perilous because it normalizes an unimaginative resistance. Instead, we are occupied imagining the doom-and-gloom that Control would rather we believe is inevitable. But it isn’t. Instead, we need to start imagining more and better alternatives. And every second is vital. It is not my place to speak for Fisher, but I believe that this was his point: if it’s easier to imagine the end of the world, then do the hard thing and imagine the end of capitalism!

The problem is that Fisher didn’t do that. He didn’t lead by example. He built a road, and led us all down it, and then jumped off the cliff when he reached the edge. Now it’s up to us to build a bridge, or learn to fly, or pray for divine intervention, or all of the above. At this year’s Unsound Festival, where Paul Rekret and I convened a workshop devoted to four of Fisher’s more optimistic posts culled from K-Punk, we discovered a community that’s willing to at least try.

Suicide has surrounded me in 2018. My best friend’s mother killed herself when he was still a child, and obviously this has affected him throughout his life. It’s something that we discuss often. Until recently, I felt stable enough, emotionally, to listen to him without feeling like it was taking a toll on my own outlook. But I’m not so sure now. I was disturbed by the story of Rich, the Alaskan Air worker who apparently stole an airplane and used it to do aerial acrobatics before crashing it, and himself, into a remote island in Puget Sound. The media event-ness of this story led some to postulate that it was fake news, a “false-flag operation”. America is so beyond fucked that either explanation is plausible. But the upshot is that suicide keeps bubbling up into conscious contemplation. And constantly seeing Fisher’s face in my newsfeed isn’t helping.

If Mark Fisher were truly radical, he would have refused to kill himself, just as he refused to believe that capitalism was the only possible version of modernity. He would have fought alongside us. But by taking the early checkout, he sold us out. And all we have is his unfinished roadmap.

I didn’t know Mark Fisher. I doubt that he was aware of me. Some of our writing overlaps in places. And I feel egged on by his absence. But it’s an unattainable challenge to live up to. It’s actually something I would have to die to achieve. Competing with Fisher on the Repeater imprint is what I imagine Dan Lopatin would feel like competing with Autechre on Warp, only if Autechre had killed themselves. The legend is just too great, it’s too overwhelming, there’s too much material, and it’s now enshrined in cyber-gothic lore that will live as long as digital ecosystems do.

I want to start imagining a post-Mark Fisher world, one in which his work slowly loses relevance. I want to envision ways out of capitalism, different modes of social organization, of currency, of value, pleasure and desire — things that can’t be commoditized. I want to think of a future in which we are optimistically, not pessimistically, resigned; one where it will be normal to assume that things are going to be great, not one in which we wake up every day and reload our negative operating systems, and reorient ourselves once again to the consciousness-deflating platforms that profit from the status quo’s infinite prolongation.

I think that’s what Mark Fisher would have wanted us to do, instead of banging on about how prescient he was, long after he could do anything about his purported foresight. Only then will Fisher’s ghost finally be able to rest.

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Runaway: notes on suicide

The camera is the cockpit of a Horizon Air Bombardier Q400 turboprop aircraft just as it completes an aerial backflip and banks gracefully over Chambers Bay, in the lower waters of Puget Sound, Pierce County, Washington State. For a moment, the turbid surf is no further than fifty feet away.

Below, rushes of green foliage and deep blue sea blur together; above, the red and blood orange wisps of cirrostratus clouds smudge a midsummer’s sunset. Two F-15 fighter jets scramble along either side of the twin propeller plane as it coasts low through the inlet. Incredulous onlookers film the acrobatics with their mobile phones and upload the footage to social media sites. Thousands of people listen via the internet to the air traffic control broadcast among several career aviators desperate to land the plane safely, a cool-headed dispatcher named Andrew, and the craft’s illicit pilot, known as “Rich.”

Forthwith, the airplane sinks beneath the tree line and finally crashes in a smear of flame onto a isolated patch of Ketron Island, eleven miles due southwest of Tacoma. The Pierce County Sheriff — followed swiftly by the news media, including venerable international publications and cable TV networks — was quick to announce on Twitter: “This is not a terrorist incident. Confirmed info … this is a single suicide male…”

As with a rash of recent high-profile suicides, including the untimely deaths of the lawyer David Buckel, celebrity gourmand Anthony Bourdain, and fashion magnate Kate Spade, a flurry of mental health-related posts appeared online, urging for more support for victims of mental illness. But there is no real indication that any of these deaths were due to mental illness — at least not the types of mental illnesses — clinical depression, schizophrenia — habitually attributable to suicide. Many of the media reports curiously omitted a key exchange in the air traffic control recording, in which Rich says, “Ah, minimum wage. We’ll chalk it up to that. Maybe that will grease the gears a little bit with the higher-ups.” With that remark, Rich transformed unmistakably from a “single suicide male” into a political activist.

“Depression is the shadow side of entrepreneurial culture,” wrote the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher in a Guardian article entitled “Why Mental Health is a Political Issue” — “what happens when magical voluntarism confronts limited opportunities.” Fisher, who tragically took his own life in January of 2017, wrote prolifically, and ultimately, prophetically on the topic. In a separate piece called “Remember Who the Enemy is,” an essay extolling the critical valence of The Hunger Games, Fisher makes the distinction between resistance to power (which is futile), and insubordination (which demonstrates effective flickers).

Fisher argues:

“… resistance is not a challenge to power; it is, on the contrary, that which power needs. No power without something to resist it. No power without a living being as its subject. When they kill us, they can no longer see us subjugated. A being reduced to whimpering — this is the limit of power. Beyond that lies death.”

For Fisher, once the subject chooses neither to exploit nor to be exploited, the subsequent opportunities are reduced to only one: to end one’s own life.

In the conclusion to Fredric Jameson’s infamous tome on Postmodernism, he claims that there is no difference between voluntarism and determinism: our actions and choices are always already socially determined: “One’s reaction to necessity, in other words, is itself an expression of freedom.” In the uttermost case of suicidal intention, the social subject, bound by insurmountable constraints, and void of rational options, chooses suicide as the paramount emancipatory cry.

A number of current thinkers have characterized our political and environmental milieu as “suicidal.” Naomi Klein, in her book about capitalism’s climate antagonism, This Changes Everything, bluntly calls the lack of coordinated regulatory response to the environmental crisis a “suicide mission.” In Living in the End Times, Slavoj Žižek offers a useful way to think about suicide: as the extreme conclusion to the trauma of helplessness. He invokes the metaphor of “anesthesia awareness,” a state in which a patient on the operating table is anesthetized, yet remains fully cognizant of what is being done to them:

“The most traumatic cases occur when patients who have experienced full awareness explicitly recall it afterwards: the result is an enormous trauma generating post-traumatic stress disorder, leading to long-lasting after-effects such as nightmares, night terrors, flashbacks, insomnia, and in some cases even suicide.”

Our moment is surely analogous in nature to “anesthesia awareness”: as subject-patients, we are corporeally, terrifyingly alert during the operations taking place on a global scale, just out of reach, but we are paralyzed by the economic and socio-political constraints that prevent us from manifesting a world beyond capitalism’s inherent violence. This, to me, is the opposite of mental illness. And I would contend that the actions of Mark Fisher, Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain, David Buckel, and most recently, Rich, the Horizon Air worker, are indicative of extremely intelligent, healthy, and hyper-aware minds that have struggled to locate exit routes from the banal horrors of cultural comprehension in 2018 — struggled and lost.

The crucial question remains: is it possible that suicidal subjects are in some way predetermined to take their own lives? — whether they perceive a lack of choice in the matter. It’s impossible to know for sure, because 100% of those who have acted decisively upon suicidal ideation are no longer with us. It’s heartbreaking. I’m not endorsing suicide, far from it. I believe that life is sacred, that it’s a gift, one we are able to both give and receive freely. But maybe contemporary suicide is also heartbreakingly disruptive to our system, and our era. I can empathize.

I’ve often thought that if I were to take my own life, my final words would be in the parlance of our times, a last post of the well-worn meme depicting an exasperated marsupial, captioned: “Go on without me.” But lately, I’ve been thinking more along the lines of Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski: “I’m staying.”

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A Load of Bull: how RBMA is at odds with its founder’s beliefs

Remember that appalling Pepsi advert this April—the one where Kendall Jenner singlehandedly diffuses some generic protest with a blue can of cola? Upon its release, increasingly more people quickly denounced the spot for its tone-deaf co-optation of the iconography of grassroots activism like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. Even Bernice King, the daughter of the American minister and civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made a snarky remark about it on Twitter. Snark begat screenshots begat memes, and Pepsi, in a rare reversal of a mammoth global marketing campaign, scrapped it following an overwhelming backlash. All that over an ad, Pepsi’s failed stab at radical chic.

Now, imagine that Pepsi had doubled down and skipped making the ad altogether, going straight to sponsoring the actual protests instead. Imagine that they showed up to the next demonstration and set up stands selling Pepsi, plastering their logo across banners, handbills, and t-shirts. Imagine they installed temporary ATMs. Imagine they became corporate partners with nonprofits and NGOs, making them cross-promote Pepsi products through their social media feeds. Imagine they funded leading experts to retrace histories of their own communities, publishing them on a Pepsi-branded website. Imagine Pepsi, more than merely co-opting the lexicon and codes of a popular movement, simply annexed the whole movement.

You can stop imagining, because that’s exactly what Red Bull has done with the global underground music scene, another grassroots, radical, and revolutionary force. Rather than mimic avant-garde music communities, Red Bull has bought them outright. Which would be less of a problem, if Dietrich Mateschitz, the company’s co-founder and public face remotely stood for any of the values that avant-garde artists and their audiences hold dear.

I’ve written before about the loose relationship between experimental music scenes, Red Bull Music Academy, and gentrification, as well as Red Bull’s shady business practices, and the mystery of the beverage itself. Now, on the occasion of their return to Montreal, it’s time to talk about RBMA’s ostensibly inclusive cultural rhetoric versus Dietrich Mateschitz’s unsettling social and political beliefs.

According to Forbes magazine, Mr. Mateschitz is Austria’s wealthiest person, controlling a vast fortune estimated at $13.4 billion US. Being that rich means that he has a lot of stuff: aside from a forty-nine percent stake in Red Bull, he also owns an Alpine lodge, a Formula One motorsports team, a race track, football clubs in Austria, Germany, Brazil, and America, an island in the South Seas, and various aircraft to get there. By degrees of separation, Mateschitz likewise finances Red Bull Music Academy. But all these assets haven’t tamed Mr. Mateschitz’s tempest.

No. In an exclusive Q&A this April with the Austrian newspaper Kleine Zeitung, Mr. Mateschitz rants indignantly about his contempt for political correctness, hostility toward multiculturalism, sympathy for Donald Trump, and scorn for what he describes as the “self-proclaimed so-called intellectual elite.” Apparently, Mateschitz doesn’t recognize his billionaire entrepreneur status as anything approaching elitism.

When pressed on political correctness, Mateschitz claims: “The most basic of all human rights is that of self-responsibility, and that is what they want to take away. They manipulate, regulate, monitor and control.” His sentiments echo Trump’s own, who has frequently railed in public against liberal diplomacy. On Twitter following the June terrorist attack in London, Trump wrote: “We must stop being politically correct and get down to the business of security for our people. If we don’t get smart it will only get worse.” As if “getting smart” equates to “outspoken bigotry.”

Another point of accord between the US president and Mateschitz is their opposition to accepting those fleeing conflict, something that Mateschitz in particular sees as a wave that’s “destabilizing Europe.” The reporter interjects at one point during the interview, warning: “You are talking like an enraged citizen.”

“I am talking about the fact that none of those who called out ‘Welcome’ or ‘We can manage it’ offered up their guest room or set up a tent in their garden to accommodate five emigrants,” snaps Mr. Mateschitz. “When one of the highest officials in Brussels says that countries with monocultures should no longer exist, then I hope that I am not the only one who is worried. But it seems that no one dares say the truth anymore, even if everyone knows that it is the truth.”

The truth, as Mateschitz sees it, is that emigrants are mongelizing Europe’s purity. This is all a long way from RMBA’s talk of diversity and inclusivity in dance culture. For Mateschitz, heterogeneity is fine in the club, just not out in the real world.

Few English-language music publications picked up on the Mateschitz interview—The Fader, Resident Advisor, and Crack magazine all ran brief mentions after Artsnet’s Hilli Perlson initially reported it—but the story quickly disappeared, as stories do nowadays. Still, the right-leaning website Breitbart jumped right on top of it, running an enthusiastic news item with the headline: “Red Bull Boss Slams Mass Migration, Forced Multiculturalism in Europe.”

All this begs the question: if Mateschitz is so obviously versed in the alt-right’s talking points, why is Red Bull interested in traditionally left-leaning avant-garde music cultures, of all things? I believe that, in their combative postures toward the status quo, Mateschitz sees something of himself. The artistic underground is also the most loyal scene—the most vocal, most active, and accustomed to being on the defence. For both the underground and Mateschitz, their critics are haters, losers.

In addition to Pepsi’s misguided ad, another string of images this year came to symbolize how out of touch with reality some of us have become: Chris Christie vacationing on a private beach; golfers in Oregon chipping on the fairway while nearby wildfires rage; Melania Trump arriving in stilettos in Houston to greet victims of hurricane Irma. It’s an equally bad look now to claim a radical political attitude and continue to support Mateschitz’s endeavors. Do you want to be seen raving away at RBMA while the world burns?

The choice is yours.

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Walls and bridges: how to break the media mirror and reclaim reality

“Is this … really happening? Is this … an act?”

Through the nervous, refocusing lens of an unsteady camcorder recording, an increasingly worried young girl verbally processes the scene before her. She’s witnessing the entertainer Meat Loaf moments after he collapses on stage at a performance in Edmonton, Canada. But this is not part of the act; this is really happening.

The camera briskly zooms out, revealing a confused and restless crowd. Audience members begin to vacate their seats. A roadie calls reluctantly for applause from the stage. Panic rises in the girl’s voice: “Oh my god, mum! Mum, what happened?”

 

At some point during this foul year—whether after the Brexit result in Britain, or Donald J. Trump’s US presidential election victory, or simply at a Meat Loaf concert—we were all various versions of that terrified girl, watching in shocked disbelief, grappling for a parental figure to assure us this was just a bad dream while something that wasn’t supposed to happen happened right in front of our very eyes.

Reality as we knew it broke down in 2016. All artifice revealed. Finally, ignoring or wishing away our collective situation would no longer suffice. But what is our situation?

It’s proved futile to establish “reality” today: television shows like Mr. Robot and Black Mirror blur the lines between cultural verisimilitude and speculative fiction; bogus news items propagate virally online, only to be revealed as such by “real” news organizations—publications and networks of which we have become progressively more distrustful; social media act as echo chambers, containing and reflecting our own images and opinions and desires back at us, reinforcing the perception of societal stability and normalcy; even comedy and farce have failed their critical duties, in part because reality itself seems evermore ironic, satirical and absurd.

How did we get here?

This peculiar account begins in July of 1892, with an obscure American philosopher and logician called Charles Sanders Peirce. Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Peirce attended Harvard University in the early 1860s, graduating summa cum laude with a degree in chemistry in 1863. Peirce held only sporadic academic appointments, but his ideas on pragmatism and the nature of mind would have a profound influence upon a century of Western thought.

One of Peirce’s key philosophical contributions was called “synechism”: “the tendency to regard continuity” in all things. Peirce believed that we mistakenly perceive the world as a series of binary operations: utterances and interpretations. The medium of consciousness then wants to smoothe them out, and makes them appear uninterrupted and endless.

Peirce outlined synechism in an article called “The Law of Mind,” published in the journal The Monist. Radically, he argued further in 1893 that synechism implied the illusory nature of independent identity: “the selfhood you like to attribute to yourself is,” Peirce wrote, “the vulgarest delusion of vanity.”

But this notion of unified existence and consciousness found itself at odds with another, more lucrative view of the individual—one that would come to dominate the 20th century: the idea that each of us is utterly unique.

In 1925, the Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud authored a brief but important article called “A Note Upon The Mystic Writing Pad.” In it, he likened perception consciousness to an Etch-a-Sketch-esque device made of wax and cellophane. Freud noted: “the appearance and disappearance of the writing” is analogous “with the flickering-up and passing-away of consciousness in the process of perception.” For Freud, consciousness was a discontinuous and malleable activity.

Peirce died in poverty in 1914, with many of his later writings going unpublished. Synechism was incongruous with the anthropocentric, Western notion of the individual’s supremacy. However, another of Peirce’s concepts would prove consistent with Freud’s imminent individualist ideology: pragmatism.

Peirce also thought that the best way to perceive reality was through logic and scientific inquiry—by data gathering. All objects had practical consequences, argued Peirce, and those consequences constituted the whole of our perception of them. It was the beginning of a results-based, utilitarian conception of reality.

Pragmatism would come to govern both public administration and private markets. For the following hundred years, value would be determined through demonstrating practicality.

A problem with the results-based reality arises when it rubs up against Freud’s notion of discontinuous consciousness. Freud supposed:

If we imagine one hand writing upon the surface of the Mystic Writing Pad while another periodically raises its covering sheet from the wax slab, we shall have a concrete representation of the way in which I tried to picture the functioning of the perceptual apparatus of our mind.

Modulating the intervals at which our perceptual apparatuses register experience, for example, could destabilize our observation of time. Bombarding people with rapidly cycling and shifting forms of information could manipulate the development of memory, too.

In the 21st century, almost all of our memories emerged mediated. Even immediate, first-hand experiences were described in mediated terms: numerous eyewitnesses of the September 11th terrorist attacks in New York City, for instance, recalled the twin towers’ dramatic descent as “like a movie.” Reality was entirely a simulation.

Suddenly, any practical result could be mass-produced: wide-ranging policies could seem effective on screen when, in reality, they failed. Corporations could appear to produce giant profits when, in truth, they were losing vast sums of money. A game of managing appearances became reality—carefully manufactured, and delivered through increasingly individualized media channels.

By 2016, those media forms completely dissociated: The New York Times and Fox News began reporting entirely different stories; political dissent was officially pathologized; Facebook and Twitter turned into self-reinforcing bubbles; Apple attempted to further circumscribe its ecosystem through new and proprietary standards; reality became a hall of mirrors.

That really happened. It wasn’t an act.

The world today is not a two-sided coin; it’s a 99-sided die, and on each side a problem. What we desperately need now is to tell ourselves bold and original stories about the future, building neither walls nor mirrors but bridges—bridges that revive a sense of interconnectedness, continuity, synechism.

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Red Bull’s Sour Notes

(For Part I of this story, please read this.)

It’s not easy to casually surf for information on the health effects of Red Bull, which contains high doses of caffeine (the devil we know) and a shadowy organic compound called Taurine (the bull we don’t).

A 2010 study published in the journal Amino Acids suggests that Red Bull consumption “ameliorates changes in blood pressure during stressful experiences, and increases the participants’ pain tolerance.”

The American FDA collected records of Red Bull-related health problems voluntarily reported between 2004 and 2012. One patient in particular suffered from panic attacks, anxiety, blurred vision, dizziness, decreased appetite, fatigue, adrenal insufficiency, insomnia, confusion, attention deficiency, self-examination and dependence. These side effects are especially dangerous during brutally loud, disorientingly strobing, blindingly smoky EDM events. They’re also potentially deadly amidst sports, Red Bull’s other key branding arena.

In 2013, the family of a Brooklyn man called Cory Terry brought a wrongful death lawsuit for $85 million against Red Bull, charging that consumption of the energy beverage directly caused this otherwise healthy 33-year-old’s fatal heart attack on a Berlin, Maryland basketball court. As of April 2016, though, the case failed making it to trial, suggesting that Red Bull paid substantially to keep the Terry family quiet.

The following year, Red Bull resolved a different kind of lawsuit, a class-action false advertising claim challenging its “Red Bull Gives You Wings” slogan. That out-of-court settlement cost the company $13 million. How anyone would seriously consider that consuming Red Bull could possibly result in spontaneous wing growth is debatable. It becomes conceivable, then, that Red Bull might spend $13 million on a bogus lawsuit simply as a perception management maneuver, linking the search terms “Red Bull” and “lawsuit” with another case that A: has nothing to do with Red Bull’s potential health hazards, and B: makes the company appear favorable under public scrutiny. Indeed, because of the avalanche of mainstream publicity the story generated, this is the lawsuit that Google most commonly indexes to Red Bull today, not the Terry’s.

Managing the perception of whether or not Red Bull is dangerous is beyond big business. In an important way, Red Bull is no different from Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, or even other “energy drink” brands. This is because, where it counts, they function in lock step.

In fact, powerful industry associations represent them all—chiefly, the American Beverage Association in the US. Britain and Canada have their own equivalents. These organizations effectively act as muscle for their clients, doing the leg- and sometimes dirty work that individual companies either can’t do alone, or don’t want to be seen doing publically. This work most often involves lobbying efforts to stall independent studies on health effects, fighting new taxes designed to curb mass consumption of sugary beverages, and swaying public opinion whenever possible.

And their collective methods are shadier than Red Bull’s marketing strategies. In October 2016, the American Beverage Association was caught in an intricate scheme that reportedly paid US dietitians to publically oppose a new soda tax via updates posted to their personal social media accounts. Credentialed opinions are not outside Red Bull’s reach. Experts have been bought.

That everyone down the line has a price tag isn’t overly surprising. And Red Bull Music Academy’s operations seem inexpensive by comparison—surely against governmental lobbying efforts: artists and their surrounding scenes are the starvingest of all. Over the past fifteen years, music recordings have plunged in value, and music journalism has slid even further. Investing in these cultural venues is a comparative cakewalk for Red Bull. And it makes clear the reasons why the corporation would go after the elusive music of the underground.

Avant-garde artists are traditionally most resistant to branding partnerships. They also cultivate fierce loyalty among their audiences, who view them to be more authentic than pop stars. Red Bull targets these artists because of—not despite—their DIY, outsider status. Thus the underground becomes a carrier signal for Red Bull’s increasingly murkier marketing mission.

Nonetheless, some of these scenes want nothing to do with Red Bull. But that doesn’t put them out of reach. RBMA can commission a “history,” say, on Montreal’s “Godspeed Generation,” effectively co-opting an especially anti-capitalist movement into the heart of its branded online ecosystem. The same goes for RBMA’s Cadence Weapon-penned account of the city’s “Torn Curtain” scene.

At first glance, these seem like thoughtful and insightful chronicles of significant cultural undercurrents that shaped Montreal’s musical identity. But they are, in effect, reliable roadmaps locating otherwise unreachable would-be customers: those thought to be above the sway of advertising: ad-blockers; cord-cutters; Gen-y’ers; Millennials—anyone deemed impervious to traditional promotional tactics.

Reaching the unreachables is what Red Bull Music Academy is all about. The logic goes: if you can locate them, you can map them. And if you can map them, you can conquer them. Marketing “campaigns” are named for their military resemblance. Red Bull goes further. Its RBMA activities are termed “activations.” Co-opted by Red Bull Music Academy, the spirit of resistance becomes the capitalist’s user manual.

But RBMA operates at arm’s length from Red Bull, right? Not true. According to their legal disclaimer, Red Bull GmbH reserves exclusive intellectual and commercial ownership over RBMA’s domain and content. All Your Avant-Garde Are Belong To Red Bull.

It’s worrying. Especially when you think about what’s in the stuff.

Still, the most abundant ingredient in Red Bull, besides sweetener and Taurine, of course, is water. The company is deliberately vague about identifying its water sources, saying only that it uses “fresh Alpine water of highest quality, which comes from springs nearby the production sites in Austria and Switzerland.”

I’m not a water policy expert. But the World Economic Forum, the influential Swiss-based foundation urges that water crises will become “the biggest threat facing the planet over the next decade.”

What Red Bull wants to do with fresh Alpine water is to add sugar. And Taurine. Put it in cans and sell it to as many of us as possible. Full stop. That’s not good for anybody.

(Read Part III of this story here.)

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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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