Since the 1990s, Red Bull has been sticking its logo on anything an athlete can ride. The energy-drink company has cultivated some history-making moments in the process, such as sponsoring Felix Baumgartner's wacky decision to skydive from the stratosphere.
Red Bull also has attached its wings to music. The company launched its own record label in 2007, and in early 2013 introduced an “artist development program” called Red Bull Sound Select. Of the more than 450 artists who have passed through the Sound Select system, none has gone on to sign with the label. Instead, Red Bull has deployed Sound Select in ways that are less obvious — but ultimately more beneficial to the bands and, not incidentally, to the Red Bull brand itself.
Above all, for the artists participating in Sound Select — mostly millennials born in an era when “sellout” is no longer even a concept — the program offers a much-needed financial lifeline. “Red Bull is definitely paying for this tour,” says Liam Downey, part of Seattle punk trio So Pitted with bandmates Jeannine Koewler and Nathan Rodriguez. He's referring to the band's most recent run of West Coast dates, which followed a Sound Select gig in Seattle, opening for White Lung.
“Nathan has all these crazy theories that Red Bull pays people to come to our shows,” Downey jokingly adds. Most of the band's gig still are not Red Bull–sponsored, but they will play another Sound Select show in L.A. on Nov. 18, opening for No Age at the Echo, as part of a monthlong concert series called 30 Days in L.A. Apart from “these two shows, some free Red Bull and swag,” he says, So Pitted's involvement with Sound Select has been limited.
For No Age, pioneers of L.A.'s downtown DIY scene, agreeing to work with Red Bull required a little more research. “I assumed Red Bull was owned by some bigger corporation,” guitarist Randy Randall says. “But they're strangely independent.”
No Age would never work with, say, Monster Energy, which is distributed and partially owned by Coca-Cola and erects gaudy Monster banners at every show it sponsors. But for Randall and bandmate Dean Spunt, Red Bull passed the smell test.
“I think we've been against a lot of this stuff in the past,” Randall says. But their Red Bull experience so far has been “surprisingly rad” — especially when they were given access to the plush Red Bull Studios in Santa Monica, where they co-wrote and produced two tracks for another Sound Select artist, Denver rock duo In the Whale. Randall calls Red Bull's state-of-the-art recording facilities a “Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory experience.”
In the Whale, for their part, are understandably stoked about their entire Sound Select experience. “They've made some great posters to promote our shows,” says the band's singer-guitarist, Nate Valdez, “and promotion is huge.” They also get to join So Pitted in opening for No Age at the Echo.
Red Bull is careful to avoid any mention of marketing or branding in relation to Sound Select or 30 Days in L.A. It's not a marketing strategy; it's an “artist development program” — run, according to representatives for Sound Select, completely independently from Red Bull's corporate operations. But it's not hard to see how the Red Bull brand cultivates a certain kind of indie cred by aligning itself with up-and-coming punk bands, rappers and electronic musicians.
Sound Select also helps Red Bull align itself with other cool brands, enlisting them as “curators” to recruit new Sound Select artists and book shows. Curators in L.A. — one of just 14 cities in which Sound Select now operates — include KCRW, Flood magazine and Amoeba Music. “It's a good opportunity for a lot of bands that don't have the marketing budget,” says Amoeba's in-store performance booker, Kara Lane.
Of the handful of L.A.-based Sound Select artists appearing as part of 30 Days in L.A. (most of the artists booked are out-of-towners), Pearl Charles, a bluesy, psychedelic folk singer/songwriter, least fits most people's image of Red Bull as the party fuel of nightclubs and rave culture. But that's sort of the whole point of Sound Select, which seems aimed at spreading Red Bull's branding wings beyond the EDM crowd.
“I had never really known what the Red Bull demographic was,” says Charles, who plays Friday, Nov. 6, at Mack Sennett Studios on a hodgepodge bill, which includes electro-pop duo Chromeo and rapper Cakes da Killer. “I'm stoked to be involved with anything that promotes local music. They truly support the music and they don't over-brand, which is key.”
Instead of in-your-face branding
She's right. Red Bull, to its credit, doesn't turn Sound Select shows into a logo gallery. There's usually Sound Select signage somewhere above the stage, a Sound Select photo booth and, occasionally, a branded DJ truck (hey, can't ditch those club-bro roots entirely). Instead of in-your-face branding, 30 Days in L.A. — or to use its unwieldy official name, Red Bull Sound Select Presents: 30 Days in L.A. — goes for all-out pervasiveness.
With more than 60 artists playing shows in 23 venues throughout the month of November, 30 Days in L.A. seemingly is everywhere. Despite the program's avowed emphasis on up-and-coming bands, 30 Days pulls out some big names to ensure high attendance. Last year, it brought in the likes of Lil Wayne, Drake and Rivers Cuomo; this year, Grimes, TV on the Radio and Big Sean are confirmed, with more surprise special guests promised.
It's already a success. As of this writing, 20 of the 30 curated shows are sold out, thanks to the big headliners and Red Bull's promotional efforts, which include media buys on KCRW and some visually stunning signage plastered across the city.
Another ingenious ploy Red Bull uses for 30 Days: fan incentives given to early arrivals, from complimentary parking to artist-designed merch. (Maybe So Pitted's conspiracy theory that “Red Bull pays people to come to our shows” wasn't that far off.) And ticket prices are kept low — although the only way to buy them is to register on the Sound Select website, preferably via Facebook or Twitter. Who needs aggressive marketing when you can collect social media data?
In these days of broke record labels and broker artists, only a cash-filled brand such as Red Bull can produce something on this scale while still charging as little as $5 for tickets. The truth is, as No Age's Randall acknowledges, we're living in an new age of musical patronage, with Red Bull serving as the corporate, 21st-century version of the Medici family.
“It's a feudal system,” Randall says. “There are these guys at the top with money who want to support art, and that's their right. It's also our right to refuse or accept their commissions.”
Over the years, Red Bull's logo has traversed Earth's atmosphere, fought off sharks in the Atlantic and exploded into tiny pieces of carbon fiber on the racetrack. But, in the company's shrewdest (and coolest) move of all, there's one place you won't see those trademarked bulls locking horns.
“It isn't like they ask you to put a Red Bull logo on your bass drum,” Charles says.