Red Bull Music Academy Turns 20: Co-Founder Reflects on Favorite Moments and What's Changed

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Many Ameri and Torsten Schmidt at the Red Bull Music Academy in Berlin, Germany.

When Red Bull Music Academy launched in 1998 in Berlin, you could be forgiven for regarding it suspiciously. After all, corporate forays into the arts are often forced and awkward, so why would things be different for this energy drink company?

Well, the answer is simple, at least in hindsight. Instead of shelling out bucks for household-name stars to shill their product, Red Bull did something radical -- they invested in nascent artistic talent, eschewing commercially-minded musicians for more challenging ones.

Plus, while RBMA-sponsored events naturally carry the Red Bull name, guest performers and lecturers aren't required to get up on stage or sit behind a camera and extol the virtues of the drink's latest flavor.

That gamble paid off. After twenty years of Academy education for select participants (each year about 60 are chosen from thousands of applicants for two weeks of musical boot camp; Flying Lotus and Tokimonsta are alumni) and innovative event programming (the annual Red Bull Music Academy Festival is one of the best curated events around, shining a light on undervalued pioneers and status quo-challenging newcomers), Red Bull has achieved the rare feat of producing an ongoing branded music event that, well, isn't lame.

Right now in Berlin through Oct. 12, the Academy is celebrating 20 years with the 2018 Red Bull Music Festival. Amidst the festivities, co-founder Many Ameri spoke to Billboard about the Academy's broadening scope, his favorite moments from the last two decades and what qualities he sees in successful alumni.

What does an average day in the Academy look like? Is your average day now radically different than it was 15, 17 years ago?

First of all, the profile of our participants is very different. In the early years, they were mainly DJs. Now most of them would consider themselves music producers; many are multi-instrumentalists. And 15 or 17 years ago, we hardly had any events – we only had one or two parties during the Academy. Now there's a whole festival that runs in parallel to it, and our participants also perform as part of it, sometimes even premiering collaborations that just happened in the studio. Since the first year, however, we've had around 30 participants, working in eight to ten bedroom studios on-site, and our lecture format has pretty much stayed same: two people, sitting on a couch, having a conversation.

When did you decide to expand the Academy outside of electronic music, and why?

From a programming perspective, the Academy always encompassed different music styles. Even in the first year, we had people representing hip-hop, reggae, northern soul, disco, house music, techno, etc. But of course, they were coming as DJs. The expansion of our participants into a wider range of genres came from people playing instruments, and with the possibility of producing their own music through access to computers and cheaper software. But did we deliberately change? No, we didn't. From day one, the lectures came from different generations, different genres, different cultures. And slowly but surely, with the expansion of our program, the participants came from different cultures as well. This year, we had applications from more than 100 countries.

What qualities do successful applicants and alumni share?  

Very talented musically, and very open-minded. They have a strong sense of identity and an interest in expanding their musical vocabulary to express what's on their minds. Commercial appeal isn't a concern we have at the Academy. Our focus is really on their creative vision. Whether that then translates into a success story is totally irrelevant. Many of the people that come here are challenging the status quo of music. Sometimes they shape musical aesthetics in years to come, and sometimes they don't. It's true, however, that we'll often select applicants and by the time the Academy starts, they'll have management and agents. That's not a sign of how brilliant we are at picking these people, but of how volatile, or fertile I should say, this ecosystem is.

How hands on is the corporate end of Red Bull, or do you have free reign more or less?

This whole project is a Red Bull initiative. Our Red Bull Music programs around the globe are operated through the organization, whether that's workshops under the Academy name, Red Bull Music Festivals, or Studios where artists collaborate and create amazing new stuff.

Were there ever any moments where you thought the Academy might not 'make it'? Did you expect it to go 20 years?

I didn't expect it to go 20 years, but it was always conceived as a project that was worthy of staying around long term. All of the things that have developed out of the Academy and the Red Bull Music program have been built on individual initiatives: of people having been deeply touched by projects they've done with us and wanting to do something in their local scenes. An Academy alum coming to us wanting to run a local workshop led to 200 workshops in 60 countries per year. The fact that we had selected participants that went on to impact the aesthetics of music has led to festivals asking us to create stages for them. The stages that were recognized led to us being able to run our own festivals later. All these things were very logical progressions, and if we saw an opportunity, we also had the infrastructure in place to roll these projects out. Red Bull Music has grown organically into a very holistic program, with an educational pillar that's the Academy, a way to experience stories through our Festival events and destinations for music discovery like Red Bull Radio.

Are there any particular moments or people who stand out over the years?

Yes. Having Bob Moog come to the Cape Town Academy in 2003 to give a lecture and then staying for a week, with his wife knitting in the back of the lecture hall. Such a humble man. I'd also include the concert we did in Sao Paulo in 2002, where we paired six of the most legendary drummers with the turntablists that stole their beats. You had the drummer of Marvin Gaye, the drummer of James Brown. These people were swapping beats with Madlib, J-Rocc, Cut Chemist and Babu and their Brazilian counterparts. Just seeing the energy in that place was absolutely amazing. Then there's the street party we threw for Larry Levan, in 2014, to support changing the name of the street where Paradise Garage had been to Larry Levan Way. That was certainly one of those moments for me. But it's often small things also, like when you see a Belgian Academy participant making a techno track, and looking up to see the hand on his shoulder belonged to the techno pioneer Derrick May. On the lecture side, seeing the Mizell Brothers being taught music production on cracked software by a Romanian dubstep DJ after they played an unreleased Marvin Gaye dubplate they had recorded at Motown. Or seeing Goldie winning the first Culture Clash ever and not shutting up about how much he owed Jazzie B from Soul II Soul, who he just had beaten in the Clash. These kinds of moments are equally strong as the spectacular things.

Any surprising artist interactions over the years?

We did a concert highlighting the role of the arranger in music. You had Eumir Deodato, the arranger of Roberta Flack, Clare Fischer, who was the arranger of Michael Jackson, Donald Byrd and Dizzie Gillespie, and his son Brent Fischer, who was the arranger of Prince. They swapped their material with producers like techno legend Mike Banks. The music was arranged for an orchestra and then played by the Northwest Sinfonia. Two moments from that stand out: the moment when I first saw Mike, who I didn't know very well at the time, hear the strings play the chord from an Underground Resistance track he was playing on his keyboard. It was in the machine, and that's all he knew, and then suddenly he had this 36-piece string orchestra behind him. The second moment was Deodato coming to me after the concert and saying, "If I had only known what these guys were doing, I would have tried harder."

Looking back, what makes you most proud of your work?

It's when you're meeting artists who, years after having been at an Academy, will always reference their experience there. That lets us know that this approach that we have works. It's not about trying to control what's being taught, or how, but rather building an environment where these artists can take all these diverse influences and perspectives on board and make them their own. That's the rewarding thing.