Thirty-two-year-old Yoshiyuki “Yosi” Horikawa from Ibaraki, Osaka, couldn’t believe his eyes when he went online the morning of July 16.
“When I got the e-mail I was so surprised,” he says. “I started pumping my fists in the air in celebration. Since it was early in the morning, I also felt like I might have still been dreaming … but I wasn’t. I was selected for the academy.”
The academy Horikawa is talking about is the Red Bull Music Academy, and it’s a bedroom musician’s dream come true. It takes the form of two separate two-week workshops with 30 participants in each. They descend on a chosen city to take part in lectures, recording sessions and mentoring from established dance-music heavyweights. And, it’s completely paid for.
“I would love to do a session with good musicians as well as a vocalist,” Horikawa says. “Since 30 people will be there I’m pretty sure I’ll get that chance. Right now I am making a lot of music to take to the academy.”
It’s not just attendees who get excited about the academy and its possibilities. British music producer Mark Pritchard, who along with Steve Spacek forms electronic-music duo Africa Hitech, has assumed a role as one of the lecturers.
“I hate doing lectures and talking in front of people, but I went (to the academy) and I was really blown away by it,” Pritchard says. “I couldn’t believe what was going on, how good it was. It was a corporate-sponsored event, but it was all about the music and about hyping people up and giving inspiration.”
Pritchard will perform under the Africa Hitech moniker at “Play, Japan!” on Aug. 26. It’s part of a string of events held in various cities around the world to showcase the activities of the academy and to support local music scenes. The Tokyo event will be preceded by an interview [which this writer has been asked to conduct] and lecture at Seco Bar in Tokyo’s trendy Shibuya district.
It’s a curious path that energy-drink company Red Bull has taken, but not a unique one. Fashion brand Diesel’s U:Music competition, Heineken’s Green Ribbon Latin music initiative and soft-drink maker Mountain Dew’s music label Green Label Sound are but a few examples of big business sponsoring lesser known musicians — or what they hope could be the “next big thing.”
What sets Red Bull Music Academy apart, though, is their focus on education. They don’t stop at just creating opportunities for the artists, but they take a direct role in their personal development. And, Pritchard notes, nobody forces them to guzzle down cans of Red Bull.
The Red Bull Music Academy is in its 14th year, having started in Berlin in 1998. In its inaugural year, Jeff Mills, Norman Jay and hip-hop pioneer Grand Wizard Theodore all took part. This year’s academy was originally supposed to take place in Tokyo, but the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11 caused the company to relocate their event to Madrid. It will be held from Oct. 23 to Nov. 25.
At first glance, a free plane ticket and the chance to work with experienced artists, recording engineers and industry moguls should be enough to entice a novice musician to apply for the academy. Some of the previous lecturers have included U.S. composer Steve Reich, techno artist Carl Craig and hip-hop star Chuck D. However, alumni cite the sense of community that develops among participants as being the main attraction, rather than the big names.
Horikawa has been in touch with 2010 academy participant Daisuke Tanabe, who told him that the academy is a good place to make friends: “(Tanabe) said, ‘The fact you were chosen to take part means you do have some things in common, and that (artistic) communication surpasses language as everyone expresses themselves through music as well.”
The academy has its share of dance-music mythology, too. Beat-making wunderkind Hudson Mohawke is said to have been discovered by Warp Records’ boss Steve Beckett during his stay at the academy, and both U.S. artist Flying Lotus and German producer Dorian Concept are among the better-known alumni.
Horikawa was selected from a pool of 3,720 applicants, which included DJs, singers and musicians from 96 countries. When applying, Horikawa had to submit some of his own music for consideration. His work is based mainly on field recordings, bits of speech and everyday sounds that he blends into complicated rhythms. He then grounds it with simple, haunting melodies. Horikawa started making music when he was 12 and got a boombox as a gift from his parents. He used it to record various sounds through the karaoke input jack and then compiled the sounds he gathered into songs.
“I loved making things when I was a kid,” Horikawa says. “I used to make all sorts of stuff, including my own toys. I think that my music is an extension of that, but with sound.”
After sending the occasional demo tape to different Japanese labels without ever hearing anything back, in 2007 Horikawa launched a page on social-networking website MySpace that included samples of his music. Within a week, he was contacted by French electronic-music label Eklektik Records.
“It all happened really fast,” he says. “At first, they wanted to release a track of mine. Soon after, I got asked to do an EP.”
It was the academy alumnus Tanabe who urged Horikawa to then apply for the academy. Without Tanabe’s encouragement, Horikawa says, he would’ve probably missed the deadline.
“I wanted to uphold my promise to him so I submitted the application the day before the deadline,” he laughs.
So who makes the cut at Red Bull Music Academy? “Just someone with a good open outlook on music,” Pritchard explains. “(For each workshop) they want 30 people together who are open to other people and open to share what they know. It’s all about getting a balance of different personalities.”
Pritchard says participants hear two lectures each day, but then it’s off to the studio. “We’ll sit in the studio and start making music with people. A participant might start a track and I’ll come in and help. Or I might start something up and the participant might help me. The best way to learn to make music is just to watch and see how people make things.”
Horikawa has also been getting support from the people around him — including his boss at the architectural firm where he works, who gave him time off to attend.
“I am very fortunate to have a boss who understands and supports my artistic endeavors,” he says. “He told me to give it all I’ve got.”
Horikawa will become the sixth Japanese artist accepted in the academy’s history, out of more than 600 previous participants. With the new “semester” approaching, does the musician have any last-minute jitters?
“I usually only ever work by myself,” he says. “So the thought of joining in a session is a bit unnerving. But I’m sure it will be a great experience.”