FKA Twigs, Arthur Russell Tribute Lead Red Bull Music Academy's NY Celebration of the Underground

Rich Fury/Invision/AP
FKA Twigs performs at the 2015 Coachella Music and Arts Festival on Saturday, April 18, 2015, in Indio, California. 

Debuting Friday (May 1) in its third year, the 30-day New York edition of the Red Bull Music Academy Festival reads like a who’s who of different underground eras. Seemingly no genre is untouched, from '60s avant garde classical (“A Conversation With LaMonte Young” on May 6) and '70s P-Funk (“A Conversation With George Clinton” on May 12) to '90s techno (the first NYC “Storm Rave” since 1993 with Adam X and Frankie Bones on May 16) and '80s post-disco (Red Hot’s tribute to Arthur Russell on May 29 and a closing celebration of Sleeping Bag Records on May 30) to modern tropical bass (May 9’s Que Bajo) and deconstructed R&B (FKA Twigs’ sure-to-be-epic three-day Congregata concerts May 17-19).

But at a time when other beverage brands like Mountain Dew, Diet Coke, 7Up and Dr. Pepper look to big stars to help get their message across, why does Red Bull still shell out upward of seven figures each year to fund artists’ productions, travel (including international visas) and lodging with nary a “sip and grin” moment onstage with its core product?

It’s simple, says Many Ameri, who co-founded the Red Bull Music Academy back in 1998 in Berlin. “This is not a sponsorship deal. It is a Red Bull initiative, so that when we started this initiative we didn’t have to look for a sponsor, it was the other way around.”

Plus, artists who play the New York festival typically don’t stop there -- Red Bull sponsors stages at more than 60 festivals around the world and more than 500 live events in total, and has other media properties like RBMA Radio and, where it can feature artists (even D’Angelo premiered the studio version of live favorite “Sugah Daddy” with Red Bull last December).

“Once we start working with artists and it’s a great relationship, there’s so many more things we can do together after this,” says Adam Shore, who leads U.S. and Canada booking for the Academy. “A lot of those artists are just at the beginning of their careers in America. They don’t have a real infrastructure around them, so we can help be a platform for them as they develop as artists.”

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One artist who’s developed a relationship with the Academy over the years is FKA Twigs, who gave one of her first-ever interviews to RBMA Radio Berlin in 2013 and has since become a must-see on the live and festival circuit. Twigs’ Congregata concerts at the Brooklyn Hanger in Sunset Park are the festival’s “only headliner” among 21 shows. Shore says they're based on “a concept she created and really wanted to bring to life, but didn’t have the resources, based on your normal promoter deals. It’s a very elaborate light and visuals production. She has 10 dancers that she’s bringing in from the U.K., costumes by Alexander McQueen, every song is choreographed by her and the whole production is directed by Ryan Heffington, who’s directed those Sia videos.”

Equally ambitious is the Academy’s partnership with Red Hot and the Arthur Russell Foundation for a two-night tribute at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which Shore says will showcase all three phases of Russell’s career: “the classical minimalist, the singer-songwriter and his disco side. We know that in BAM, the classical and singer-songwriter sides are an easy thing to get across, but the disco side is a little harder.” That’s why a second night was created around Russell’s Sleeping Bag Records at the nearby Good Room, where the label’s most influential alum, Kurtis Mantronik, will spin alongside Morgan Geist and Nicky Siano.

The Academy also hosts a rotating month-long workshop that in recent years has hit London (2010), Madrid (2011), New York (2013) and Tokyo (2014) and produced many well-decorated alums, including Aloe Blacc, Flying Lotus and Evian Christ, the latter of whom will be featured as part of the May 15 fifth-anniversary party for Tri Angle Records. 

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Though each piece of programming caters to very specific, eclectic tastes, Ameri reports anecdotal evidence that some music fans really want to be part of the month-long festivities. “I met one guy at our Ryuichi Sakomoto show at the Met last year who told me, ‘I’ve been to 16 of your shows this month. I don’t usually get that in any other part of the world, this is amazing.’”

Following 2013’s New York debut, which hosted Giorgio Moroder’s first-ever DJ gig and rare appearances from pioneers Brian Eno and Lee “Scratch” Perry, Ameri is proud to report his wish list of Red Bull artists gets smaller and smaller every year. But there’s still one elusive holdout he hopes to feature one of these days: “Certainly the one person on the list we haven’t had is David Bowie,” Ameri says. “It’s not like booking people for a show, we don’t really do that. What we’re really trying to do is find the right moment for an artist who feels like they want to be a part of this, whether it’s coming to the Academy, spending a couple nights with the participants or realizing a show they’ve been thinking about for a long time. We’ll just sit there and wait for the right moment.”


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