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Can Red Bull Break a Band? Sound Select's 30 Days in L.A. Kicks Off
Yesterday marked the launch of 30 Days in LA, the biggest initiative yet by Red Bull's two-year old Sound Select program to develop emerging artists. The month-long program features a daily live music event for the month of November most often with a mid-level headliner dripping with indie cred like Run the Jewels, Death From Above 1979, Future Islands and The Julie Ruin, among others. Opening for these underwritten undersells are Sound Select's all-but unknown artists such as Hustle and Drone, Tapioca and the Flea, Wrestlers, DIANA, Bad Girlfriend and Avid Dancer -- all of whom Red Bull Sound Select is looking to break big.
"The best way to describe it is to say we give you wings," says Stephen Canfield, Red Bull's national culture marketing manager and one of Sound Select's primary chieftains. "Dietrich Mateschitz, the founder of the company, says that the fundamental mission of the organization is to give wings to people and ideas and help them to do what they want to do. That's why this program exists -- it's a fundamental part of the mission of the brand. It's really about putting those artists first and doing something that's good for them."
To that end, this year the Sound Select program will produce some 200 subsidized shows in 12 American cities, for which Sound Select members pay just $3.00 per ticket. The shows are booked in conjunction with 40 in-the-know regional curatorial partners. This includes such beacons of independent music as Amoeba Music, Sub Pop Records, L.A.'s KCRW, the indie blog Brooklyn Vegan, Chicago's Empty Bottle, the Kill Rock Stars label, NYC's Afropunk and Nashville venue Basement, among others.
"I think [Sound Select] is a great program for the bands who are invited to get in on it," says Kara Lane, Amoeba's marketing and events director. "Red Bull has the resources to keep making connections for the bands." But not everyone agrees that the 30 Days in LA initiative can offer these baby bands -- or even music fans -- much. "It's not that interesting," says one prominent national promoter who declined to speak on record. "They booked bands already on tour at venues they would have played anyway." Many of the headliners were booked by C3, the national promoter which Live Nation recently bought a majority stake in. Other critics wonder if avid fans of the headlining bands will even show up for little-known Sound Select artists.
"There's been a lot of thought put into the project, on how to make the whole thing interesting from front to back," says Canfield when asked about skipped opening acts. "We want this to be something that celebrates the fans -- that's a big part of it. It's simple things, like fans who show up for the openers will have access to free parking, and other things they'll learn about on the day of the show."
Indeed, some of 30 Days' most innovative offerings are its non-traditional, concept shows: Wax on Wax is a vinyl appreciation night at Madam Tussauds featuring Mayer Hawthorne; a roller disco night at Moonlight Rollerway in Glendale with members of Soul Clap; Turntable Tennis with DJ Numark of Jurassic 5 at the Standard; a This is Spinal Tap screening at the Electric Dusk Drive-in; and the "Moth StorySlam" which will host the non-profit responsible for NPR's Moth Radio Hour featuring stories of life on the road. "A lot of care went into making the right pairings," Canfield says.
Canfield, a corporate communications minder, an independent publicist and myself are all four holed up inside the slick wonderland that is Red Bull's massive North American headquarters in Santa Monica, a 105,000 square foot former industrial space tricked out with a torqued, wooden skateboard ramp, a Red Bull race car and a backline for spontaneous office jams. All of this amidst an army of casually-dressed, scruffy 20- and 30-somethings sitting in clusters of cubicles strewn throughout. There's a private theatre, a futuristic neon-hued "E-Sports" hub for live sporting events that could be a prop from Logan's Run, and a state-of the art recording studio which Sound Select acts have access to.
A week ago, Bob Lefsetz, the head-scratching music biz pundit with a severe case of boomer myopia, had his head exploded by these very same offices and Red Bull's ambitious music initiatives. It was as if he had never heard of the modern, coital relationship between brands and music that has exploded exponentially over the past fifteen years. "That's right," Lefsetz wrote somewhat incredulously, "Red Bull is deep into music." HE concluded that the beverage company is "cooler than almost all music."
While that thesis is debatable, what's not is that brands will spend an estimated $1.3 billion on live music events and sponsorships this year, according to analytics firm IEG. A multi-million-dollar portion of that will come directly from the coffers of the privately-owned beverage manufacturer which strictly refuses to divulge the budgets for its music initiatives. The company does, however, boast of selling some 5.4 billion cans of Red Bull energy drinks worldwide last year, with a turnover exceeding $6.3 billion in 2013.
Some of that revenue is spent on the company's more established Red Bull Music Academy program, which for the past 18 years has traded in dollars for dance music and authenticity. The event regularly attracts the participation of stone-cold legends like Brian Eno, Hugh Masekela, Derrick May, Bob Moog and Giorgio Morodor -- among many others -- while helping to launch hundreds of dance music careers, including those of Flying Lotus, Nina Kraviz and Hudson Mohawke.
Another portion of the energy drink manufacturer's music marketing pie will go to with the Red Bull Records, whose biggest success was breaking AWOL Nation with the biblical patience of Job. Canfield says Sound Select is not working with the label. Red Bull Sound Select is focused on the dark art of artist development for indie artists and less on Red Bull's core dance music and club audience. Two years in, Sound Select is still a relatively new initiative, with success that can be difficult to measure.
When asked which of the Sound Select's 300 acts have had the most success, Canfield first mentions Chance the Rapper, who played Sound Select's Four Days in Austin during SXSW in 2013, just before his famed Acid Rap mixtape was released. He came to the program via Chicago's Fake Shore Drive blog. Though that would seem a good call, some would argue Chance was well on his way to success before Sound Select found him.
"We also worked with artists in the past like Cherub," says Canfield, who formerly worked at SonicBids, the web-based platform connecting indie bands and promoters. "We worked with them at Lollapalooza last year. We're also doing interesting things with Wrestlers out of Houston. We started working with them very early. They were curated by ScoreMore Shows out of Austin. We developed a deeper relationship with them and put together a collaboration with Twin Shadow, who put out a single called 'Say Anything' featuring D'angelo Lacy."
Wrestlers, formerly known as Bagheera, were featured on Red Bull Sound Select's Record Store Day release along with other RBSS artists Thurz, Tapioca, the Flea and Denitia and Sene. Sound Select gave away 10,000 copies of the release on Record Store Day, of which it was the event's official partner.
Canfield won't go into specifics on the deals Sound Select has with it artists -- he says the relationship they have with each band is "proprietary" and "designed to just be the kind of thing that just supports them." Artists, he says, have the freedom to sign with any label they like and band managers Billboard spoke with were thankful and enthusiastic about the platform.
"A lot of big brands do these sort of things where they want more than they say," says JJ Corsini of Vector Management, who has had two bands in the Sound Select program -- Wild Cat, Wild Cat, who were one of the initiative's first acts, and Avid Dancer, who will open for Warpaint on Nov. 7 at the Echoplex. "[Brand partners usually] sneak in things like 'Oh yeah, we're going to record this show and we're gonna own all the footage and own the masters' -- there's always this weird component that's not what meets the eye. With Sound Select there's none of that. Working with them over the last two years has been unbelievable in terms of the opportunities with festivals, interviews and shows and helping bands in their infancy of the careers."
For Gemini Club, who played with Cut Copy and Wrestlers last night, their career has exploded thanks in large measure to Sound Select. Originally recommended by Chicago's Do312, the platform initially helped the band play a few shows, make a video and land the opening spot for the Sounds tour. Since then, their partnership has developed into something much deeper. "Stephen [Canfield] presented us with a scenario of working on a national level with Red Bull Sound Select and actually releasing the bands next album," John Davis, Gemeni Cub's co-manager, tells Billboard by email. "I have been a senior executive for major labels [as a vp of A&R and marketing for Loud/Columbia Records], president of some indies and an artist manager. I have offered and seen all kinds of record deals, and the deal Red Bull Sound Select offered Gemini Club was more innovative than anything I have seen to date."
Sound Select gave the band resources like studio time to record their album and the ability to bring in big name producers like Mark Needham (Fleetwood Mac, The Killers, Imagine Dragons) to mix and Howie Weinberg (Nirvana, Public Enemy) to master, with Gemini Club retaining ownership of its recordings. The band's first single, "Empty Bed," launched two weeks ago on the Sound Select's Soundcloud page, has so far accrued 120,000 plays. It's all setting up first quarter 2015 release of their new EP End Of Your Life -- through Red Bull Sound Select.
"There is no other platform out there that curates talent like this on a local and regional level giving opportunities to top artists to then participate in national events," says Davis. "This is grassroots artist development at it's core."
Even Chris Swanson, co-founder of the quintessentially indie Secret Label Group, is impressed by initiatives like Red Bull Sound Select. "Its interesting when you have these big consumer brands doing this. Though it might seem a little goofy at first, like, 'Oh Mountain Dew is putting out this record,'" says Swanson whose band DIANA on Jagjaguar will open for The Julie Ruin on Nov. 6 at the Troubadour. "But they're injecting passion and visibility into a changing marketplace that can use it. A an independent label I think it's great."