999 Words

Red Bull’s Sour Notes

(For Part 1 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.

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Play Recent

‘I get some of you all the time, All of you some of the time’

Lost Highway – OST Reissue – Music on Vinyl

“I like to remember things my own way,” says Fred Madison, the main character in David Lynch’s 1997 film Lost Highway, as he’s interrogated about his aversion to video cameras by two stereotypical police detectives. “What do you mean by that?” one of the cops presses. “How I remembered them,” Madison deadpans. “Not necessarily the way they happened.” These austere lines of dialogue convey a deeper truth: that an imperfect and highly subjective mode of remembering—what once was merely considered “memory”—is quickly disappearing. With commemorative cycles, archival releases, anniversaries, reissues, documentaries, hidden and expanded histories and the like, we are increasingly instructed on who, what, when, where, why and how to remember; forgetting in the process that memory itself is a muscle; forgetting in the process just how we might have remembered in the first place. These revisionist histories are like surveillance videos, offering the illusion of objective omniscience, all the while directing our attention through an ever-narrower window.

 

“Animals” – Oneohtrix Point Never – Dir. Rick Alverson – Warp

I get the sense that this video was completely conceived and executed by algorithms. It’s like how House of Cards was made because Netflix noticed from their metrics that viewers favoured both political dramas and Kevin Spacey. In some Brazil-like office, a report was generated: It revealed that 0PN fans also searched for Val Kilmer (86%); tabloid sensationalism (64%); red Nike tracksuits (73%); strobing visual effects (77%); non-sequiters (94%); steady-cam (81%); and beige (100%).

 

“Strong Proud Stupid And Superior” – Grebenstein – Downwards

Service.

 

Twin Peaks Season 3 – Dir. David Lynch – Showcase

After viewing the most recent teaser for the upcoming season of Twin Peaks, scheduled to air in 2017 on the Showtime network, and believing that there were no budgetary or creative compromises, I am genuinely excited. This is beginning to look less like a reboot and more like a band—like Pink Floyd or Godspeed—reuniting while they still have something great left in them.

 

Responses to “999 Words” on RBMA and underground scenes

There are three things I now understand about the nuts and bolts of Red Bull’s relationship with Mutek—and with other non-profits like it. 1: Red Bull requires a liquor license to sell the Vodka part of the Vod-Bomb, so they need to partner up with an entity that has one—preferably a festival that can arrange licenses for a wide range of events and venues. 2: Mutek is co-opted into deploying their social networks to promote RBMA events: Mutek RTs Red Bull’s Twitter posts, not the other way around. 3: Red Bull gives money to the festival in exchange for subtle brand infiltration: i.e. ubiquitous logos displayed onstage during Mutek musical performances. In this way, a gigantic corporation is able to infiltrate a non-profit organization that was largely funded by the public: governments; granting agencies; fans like you and me. It’s the privatization of public resources routine at work, the logic of neoliberalism.

The question then becomes: do corporations do it better? And the answer is still a resounding no. Why? Here are two good reasons.

The first disturbing trend about Red Bull Music Academy’s infiltration of the musical underground is the sidestepping and in some cases re-writing of its histories. Rather than acknowledge existing journalism and scholarship on artists, scenes and cities, they order up their own. Again, Red Bull has deep pockets and pays handsomely. So this attracts enough authorities—say, Will Straw writing on Montreal’s disco scene—to lend an air of unified legitimacy, reinforcing the “academy” part of RBMA. Instead of sharing an article or interview from The Wire or The Quietus, or local papers like Voir or Cult MTL, they will poach someone to write a standalone piece, thus keeping the centre of cultural knowledge contained within their own branded ecosystem.

But the biggest reason is this: Once scenes enter into a monetary relationship with corporations, the scene must adhere to corporate logic, not the other way around. Music and its criticism becomes content for corporate benefit; the corporation is surely not in operation to assist local music communities. If musical output or even the entire scene starts to wane, rather than nurture or cultivate it (as a devoted public might do), the corporate benefactor will simply move on and find another site of production that they can latch their logo onto. Growth becomes imperative. It’s capitalism.

Since penning my “999 Words” column, I have been inundated with responses, both positive and negative. I have been called a “hater.” (Not true. I deeply love this music, this city and its scenes.) Other people have asked me what solutions exist. One that I can think of, and it’s not far off, is to make being skeptical of Red Bull so popular that they are forced to commission works that are overtly critical of their own brand. Hey RBMA, this gun’s for hire.

 

“Killing A Little Time” – David Bowie – Lazarus – Columbia Records

Heavy, confessional insight and drum-and-bassy riffage from what we now know were the Thin White Duke’s last days. Echoes of Reeves Gabrels, Mike Garson and Charles Mingus fuse particularly well on this recording, the third of Bowie’s final three musical offerings.

A friend of mine once said to me, in a time of dire need: there are two ways of looking at the world: 1: we’re all fucked 😦 Or 2: we’re all fucked 🙂 A truism if ever there was one. We’re all just singing our handful of songs here, killing a little time.

 

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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.)

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