The Japan Times spoke to Red Bull Music Academy (RBMA) co-founder Many Ameri from New York, the site of last year’s academy, and now home to an annual Red Bull music festival. Here are some excerpts from the conversation:
RBMA was originally supposed to come to Tokyo in 2011, but you switched locations after the Great East Japan Earthquake. Looking back, do you think that was the right decision to make?
To be honest, it was the only decision we could take at that moment. It’s sort of ridiculous to be talking about our little workshop in the middle of that — but looking at it from an academy cycle, it was during our application phase when that happened, on March 11, and we have thousands of people applying from different countries every year. It was very hard to get a sense of the impact, and getting information and so on. It was clear to us that the right thing to do was to say that we would change the location for the academy, and get a better sense of the situation.
But at the same time, SonarSound Tokyo was (held) in the beginning of April, and we continued doing our Red Bull Music Academy stage at Sonar. I think you had to be very specific about which decision you’re taking. It felt like the right thing to separate those two decisions, on what we are doing on a local level and what it is the academy will do.
The flip side is that it has given RBMA more time to build up its presence in Japan.
That is very true, of course. When we’re running this academy in different countries, everything we do is built up with a local team. The structure that we have now is more connected and more stable than what we had back then. When we prepare the academy, it’s probably a year or a year-and-a-half of coming to the host country and trying to build up our local communities, talking about projects we want to do, looking at buildings and preparing for events, etc. A lot of the people that we started meeting (in Tokyo) in 2010 and 2011 are people that are somehow connected to what we are doing now.
How big is the RBMA team at the moment?
Now we’re about 40 people. We do around 1,000 events a year around the globe, in 60 countries. When we’re doing this academy, and we start building up our team, when we’re in full swing it’s about 120 people working on the project. Around 30 of them are international people — all the rest of them are locals.
When you go into organizing each RBMA, do you have a wish list of local artists that you hope to get involved?
Obviously, there’s a wish list of — ultimately — a bunch of foreigners looking at a country that they know a little bit about. Every year when we come to a new country, we totally reset our minds: We start the project from scratch, as if we had never done it before. If you look at the academies in Sao Paulo, Cape Town, New York, Madrid or Tokyo, these cities could not be more different in the way that they operate, the way stuff is organized locally and the way that the scene has grown. We have to come in and try and find people locally that will help us to get a sense of what really impacts the local scene, what the things are that might be missing, if there are elements that we can bring to a scene through our work.
With Tokyo, was there anything in particular that you hoped to achieve?
If you look at Japan — and I think any foreigner will be able to testify to this — every time you go there, you’re just blown away by the quality of the creative work — the amount of stuff that actually comes out of this country, and the ideas in the creative scene that you see around you. One of the biggest limitations that we found is that there was a lack of appreciation for this on a local level. (We wanted to) involve as many creative people from the local team as possible, but also use everything we do within the academy to showcase that creative potential.
Can you tell me about the studio facilities that Red Bull is setting up here?
This is the ninth studio we’re building around the globe, so we have quite a bit of history with it now. Many of them have been built as academy buildings, and then we try and make sure that the infrastructure is then used afterward as well. Sometimes this is in collaboration with the local cultural institution and in other cases it is actually Red Bull who run these creative spaces, like what we’re doing in Tokyo. The programming stays with Red Bull, and then they’re connecting with local organizations and creative networks to make sure that it is used by the local music scene.
The intent of these studios is basically to provide an environment where local musicians can collaborate with each other, but also with people who have come through Red Bull projects like the Red Bull Music Academy — we have a network of about 1,500 alumni of the academy now. The idea of the studio is not to create a closed environment or ecosystem; to the contrary, the idea is that you would have gateways into this world of musicians that have come through our programs.
Are there any public events that you’re particularly looking forward to?
Well, that’s like asking a father about their favorite children. We’re a bigger family than that, so I can’t take credit for all the stuff that was done. This “Diggin’ in the Carts” video-game music series (of online documentaries) that we’re doing — having an event that’s sort of close to that, I’m really excited to see how that pans out. Also, there’s this event that we’re doing called “Wails to Whispers,” which is ultimately a noise concert that then turns into a sleepover ambient kind of night, and I’m really excited to see that happening as well.
I’m super excited about doing this Ryoji Ikeda thing. He was certainly on the top of (my) wish list. Being able to do something with him, and being able to have him present an installation in Tokyo on that scale for the first time is great. If you look at that just as an art installation, that’s one thing, but if you walk into this installation, it’s such a physical experience to be in these projections and so on. I want to see people that don’t even have this connection with art — or don’t even have this connection with the music — go there just to experience that. That’s the exciting bit that we’re seeing in Japan — there’s opportunities to present people with something that they didn’t even know they were looking for.
There was a significant increase in the number of applications for the academy compared to when you did it in New York. Do you think that was because of the academy being higher profile now, or was it the Tokyo effect?
I don’t think we can take credit for that. There is an excitement about the city. One of the tasks that we have set for ourselves is basically making sure that we find a way to present some of the most interesting creative work that is happening in Japan, and present that to a global audience — as much as to a Japanese audience that doesn’t really get exposed to it so much. You’ll see a lot of illustration, a lot of animation work and so on pop up in Tokyo over the next few weeks.
It must be a lot of work for you to get through all the applications, though.
It’s a lot of work because it’s a bunch of Germans who are doing it as well. We’re making a card for everybody. The application form is 20 pages, you have to fill it in by hand, you send it off by post. We’re making it very difficult. And still, for 6,200 people or something to make it to the post office and send it off is a huge achievement for mankind, I would say (laughs).
But once that gets to our Cologne office, we have about 30 people that work through these applications: Every application is reviewed by two different people, and then we make a pre-selection of about 200 or 300 people out of those 6,000 applications. Then the real argument starts. There’s 10 people sitting in a room yelling at each other for, I would say, three to four weeks of why this guy or this girl should be in the group or shouldn’t be. Then once you’ve rattled it down to people that all deserve to be part of the academy, it becomes very difficult, because now you’re looking at getting the right mixes: Music styles and cultural background, for one, but also you’re trying to make a functional group, where these on-the-fly collaborations can happen at any time, where there will be someone who’s actually a good drummer, and some people are good at writing lyrics, and other people are great at producing. There are so many things and factors that go into the selection.
It’s beautiful to see what happens to (the participants) in these two weeks — a jam-packed two weeks of total stimulation overload — and seeing how they take this very confusing experience that they go through onboard, and how they channel it over the years afterward. I think that’s really the beauty of the project seeing what happens after the academy is really what it’s about.