Bridges for Music: How Nonprofit is Harnessing EDM’s Power for Positive Change

Courtesy of Bridges for Music
Richie Hawtin in South Africa

When twenty-five cyclists arrived in Amsterdam this week, their focus was not on the long trek from London, but what it would mean for the township of Langa.

At time of press, the riders had raised more than £95,000 ($152,000) to build a music school in the impoverished South African locale. Their arrival at Amsterdam Dance Event came as the culmination of a three-month "Cycle to ADE" charity campaign spearheaded by online electronic music magazine Resident Advisor, in support of international music development nonprofit Bridges for Music.

Comprised of artists and industry figures like Chris Liebing, Midland and Mixcloud founder Nikhil Shah, the cycling team raised funds by soliciting donations and raffling off sponsored prizes, while Resident Advisor covered all logistical costs to ensure that 100 percent of donations would go directly towards building the school. Less than £5,000 ($8,000) shy of the overall goal, and likely to achieve it by ADE’s end, the campaign is being validated as a successful music philanthropy model.

Founded by Valentino Barrioseta in 2012, Bridges for Music aims to become the “main nonprofit platform for the electronic music industry to give back.” By engaging local and industry actors, the organization seeks to use electronic music to support responsible industry development in disadvantaged communities by bridging socioeconomic boundaries and raising awareness.

“We work very closely with all these opinion leaders and artists to create positive change in the world in different ways,” says Barrioseta. “Whether it's touring in Africa in a way that we take it beyond the party and leave something behind or finding great causes to invest in and becoming that vehicle for these big artists and festivals to support them. Also changing the way brands, artists and festivals engage with their audiences. We believe that engaging with a bigger purpose and meaning is a stronger way to engage.”

Barrioseta began as a promoter in Valencia, partnering with iconic club Barraca to plan events and run a record label and magazine. After the financial crisis, he became the brand manager for Amnesia Ibiza, where he revamped the club’s marketing department and multimedia promotion. While he learned volumes and made valuable contacts, his four years on the White Isle ultimately left him unfulfilled.

“I love Ibiza, but it felt a bit empty,” he says. “I’ve seen it all in the Amnesia VIP, from Russians spending fortunes to Paris Hilton and other celebrities. It’s a lot of show off and passion for music gets kind of diluted in that environment. I decided to take a break and see if I could put my energy into something that'd mean more to me in the future and to other people at a deeper level.”

Barrioseta used the time off to travel to Brazil in 2011, where he met a tour guide who ran a DJ school in the favelas to keep kids out of trouble. He then headed to South Africa, where a fateful Cape Town township tour revealed a burgeoning house scene he didn’t know existed. 

“The first thing I heard when I jumped out of the cab was a small kid in the street playing amazing deep house,” he recalls. “I was like ‘wow where does this come from?’ and he said ‘this is our house music.’ It was like a CD from Panorama Bar. I couldn’t believe it.”

Barrioseta immersed himself in the South African music scene, meeting local artists and promoters and learning its history as a soundtrack for the largely black townships. He also drew inspiration from brais -- communal township barbecues like Mzoli’s in Gugulethu -- where blacks and whites mingle to enjoy grilled meat and house music.

“I saw some tourists there who had come for the music and experience, and it got me thinking again about music’s power to really break down social barriers and bring people together,” he says. “I also immediately thought of Luciano and Richie Hawtin, because I know they are passionate about discovering new places and breaking boundaries. I thought they’d love to play here.”

Bridges for Music, a registered not-for-profit charity in the U.K., was born after Barrioseta worked with South African director Eldon Van Aswegen to produce a short film on the story of local artist Niskerone. The clip would become his first marketing tool for pitching potential partners. Back in Ibiza, Barrioseta relayed his experiences to close friends Hawtin and Luciano, explaining his aim of bringing them to the townships for free shows and workshops that would prioritize engagement and empowerment. Both artists quickly ascribed to his vision.

Simultaneously, he reached out to industry contacts to form an organizational board that would eventually include Elrow’s Juan Arnau, World Wildlife Fund’s Lars Erik Mangset, Popshop founder Bobby Simms, International Music Summit founder Ben Turner, chief commercial officer of Rightster Patrick Walker, and Beatport vp of Music Services Terry Weerasinghe

In order to provide gear and sponsorship, Barrioseta courted music technology companies like Pioneer, Native Instruments and Ableton. He also cites the integral support of the Bridges for Music’s African representative Black Mango, as well as local artists and partners like the SAE Institute, ERA and SEED Experiences.

 

In 2013, Hawtin headlined Cape Town Electronic Music Festival and Johannesburg club Truth, followed by a free series of inaugural Bridges for Music workshops and pop up shows in Gugulethu and Soweto townships with popular South African DJ Black Coffee.

“I remember Rich was super nervous,” says Barrioseta. “I think it was like in the early years when he was playing in Detroit for the first time, and he was this white dude playing in front of people who didn’t know him. It was like ‘these guys are not going to go crazy just because I’m Richie Hawtin.’”

Hawtin won over the township just as he did Motor City many years prior. He played four times longer than planned and later referred to the experience as the “proudest moment” of his career.

“It was truly inspiring to see how black and white people began the day in different corners and ended up dancing together and making the craziest dances on the dance floor,” says Barrioseta.

Later that year, Barrioseta reached out to Skrillex after seeing that he would be touring South Africa. The dubstep star happily hosted a Bridges for Music workshop in Langa and played back-to-back with South African artists DJ Fosta and Thibo Tazz. The partnership outlived the event as well, with Skrillex’s labels OWSLA and Nest HQ hosting a regular "Nestivus" holiday reward campaign to raise funds for the nonprofit.

“A lot of the kids who came to Skrillex’s workshop told us they couldn’t have told their parents they were coming to the township because they wouldn't allow them to go there,” says Barrioseta. “That shows you the kinds of barriers these events break. A lot of collaborations between township artists and white artists started happening after that. That kind of change is immeasurable and intangible, but I think we started a big movement to bridge the gap in that way.”

Luciano was the next artist to come to South Africa with Bridges for Music, as well as the first to do so without playing any commercial shows outside the townships. The Spanish artist also hosted workshops featuring support from Pioneer, Native Instruments and Ableton. Since then, Boys Noize, Dixon, and Noisia have also come to South Africa to support the nonprofit, and Barrioseta has presented its work at major events including ADE, Sónar and TEDx Black Rock City.

Barrioseta does not believe in building one-way bridges, as evidenced by the sponsorship deals he struck with Glastonbury and Tomorrowland to showcase South African artists Fosta, Tazz, DJ Siphe Tebeka and Lavish 189 at the festivals this year. Bridges for Music has also partnered with the Black Coffee Foundation to give SAE Institute scholarships to aspiring township musicians.

“This isn’t just about bringing international artists to South Africa, but creating real opportunities and initiatives for South African artists and building bridges in the other direction,” Barrioseta says. “It’s about giving opportunities to local artists to play these big festivals, travel abroad for the first time, meet new people and see what’s outside South Africa. We always say that to dream about something, you must have seen it before. It's impossible to dream about something you haven't seen.”

It’s the same concept behind the proposed music school in Langa, which Barrioseta envisions as a modern “hub for creative minds.” By teaching Internet use, graphic design, video editing and other vocational skills alongside DJing and producing, the school aims to empower youth interested in a wide range of music career roles. The school will also serve as an event space for township workshops, and a nexus for the numerous volunteers who have reached out to contribute from around the world.

Funding was the only issue. Enter Resident Advisor and its new annual social responsibility initiative. Once its staff decided to cycle 300 miles over four days to support a cause, Barrioseta provided his longtime media partner with the project details. After internal discussions, Bridges for Music’s project was selected. Sonos, Native Instruments and Amsterdam Dance Event itself came onboard as sponsors soon after.

“We felt it was a great project that we could make happen,” says Nick Sabine, co-founder of Resident Advisor. “The wheels are in motion for the school to exist and not only provide education and access to gear but also create a self-sustaining legacy that will facilitate opportunities for future generations.”

“The whole Resident Advisor team has been living and breathing this campaign,” says Barrioseta. “Everyone has been blown away by how seriously they are taking this and the support we have gotten. We could only take 25 riders because of logistical issues, and had to decline hundreds of requests from people from across the world. It’s amazing.”

 

With a nearly funded school and a documentary on deck, Barrioseta also has bold ambitions for the organization beyond South Africa. He believes that its program model can be adapted to countries fitting a certain context, eyeing potential expansion into countries like Brazil, Kenya, Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

“It’s important that the electronic music scene is just about to take off and there is a big gap between those enjoying electronic music and people who are underprivileged,” Barrioseta says. “For example, in a place like Brazil where Tomorrowland is landing next year and sold out tickets in an hour, there’s an amazing opportunity to use our power and love for music to make a positive impact and engage with issues.”

However, sustainability remains the biggest challenge facing Bridges for Music. All team members contribute on a volunteer basis, and Barrioseta has yet to see any return on his investment in the organization. The support of popular artists and visible brands does not always translate into big donations. With the exception of a handful of major initiatives like ‘Cycle to ADE,’ few partnerships have yielded more than four figures in funding. 

Rather than simply having artists play free township shows when other promoters bring them in proximity, Barrioseta believes Bridges for Music’s key to sustainability lies in running its own events in partnership with local promoters. It’s a model being employed for a February festival with Tale of Us and Recondite. 

“Being involved with these big artists and brands makes us look very flashy but the reality is we are struggling to earn a living with this,” he says. “It’s a thin line. You want to look credible from one side and sell your visions, but you need to show you need help or no one will want to.”

Support Resident Advisor and Bridges for Music’s campaign to build a music school in Langa by donating here. Those who donate $10 or more are eligible to win a VIP weekend to TimeWarp.