Red Bull is famous for selling orange-tinted poison, but over the past few years it has become increasingly well-known in certain circles for hawking a product much less profitable than energized swill: music, and writing about music. This week, a writer found out what happens when a brand dipping its toes into culture writing gets frightened by its own act of mild journalistic aggression.
Last week, British music writer Alex Macpherson (who is, full disclosure, a friend of mine) wrote an article for Red Bull about a team of producers called Future Brown. It was a critical piece headlined "Honest Question: Is Future Brown's Shtick 4Real?" that examines how Future Brown—a "supergroup" of sorts that is the combined efforts of four of underground dance music's most popular beat-makers—ended up putting out a drab album that fails to live up to its lofty art-school rhetoric.
The article was not overly mean or personal. It was, plainly, music criticism—a well-established, albeit dying, journalistic enterprise. But at some point between then and now, Red Bull quietly erased the piece from its website, though it is preserved on Macpherson's Tumblr and still pops up on Google:
But if you click that link, you're redirected to a standard, fluffy interview with the group that takes a sort of wondrous tone, informing the reader that Future Brown is "always looking to the future" and mounting "challenges to commodified beauty."
The tension here is pretty clear. On the one hand, Red Bull is selling Future Brown (and, by proxy, itself) as a progressive band of artists that's helping push music forward. But on the other, in Macpherson's since-deleted piece, it's telling you that there's a nagging emptiness to that argument because Future Brown's music actually isn't very good.
Culture publications are constantly forced to navigate this divide. In the case of music publications, artists are the ones who, theoretically, attract readers. So while most editors and writers would love to write as bluntly as possible about the music they cover, the truth is that the health of every magazine and website depends, to varying degrees, on which artists—and PR firms and labels—feel comfortable enough with your coverage to continue to play ball. A good current example (maybe the most analogous in many ways to Red Bull) is Noisey, Vice's music channel, which runs about as much music criticism as anyone, but is forever wrestling editorially with the fact that Vice—which loves to do things like throw cool, branded parties—must stay in the good graces of a certain set of artists and companies. (It's also in the best interest of publications to have coherent, identifiable taste, which becomes a problem when artists you once stumped for begin to suck. This is partly what happened in the case of Future Brown and Red Bull, which has been supporting and promoting the careers of the group's individual members for years.)
Every single major publication deals with this problem, and has for decades, but it is especially acute now that maintaining the health of a music magazine and/or website is more fraught than ever. In many respects, the quality and viability of a music publication rests on its ability to speak freely and truthfully while not alienating the very people that, essentially, allow it to exist. Some places, for various reasons, are better equipped to hit that sweet spot than others—Pitchfork, where (full disclosure!) I sometimes contribute, has more or less maintained its reputation for unvarnished criticism despite necessarily entangling itself with the artists that it covers.
Red Bull is not trying to be Pitchfork. But along with its sister company Red Bull Music Academy, the 74th most valuable brand in the world, has, through sheer monetary force, made itself an important player in the world of music. Red Bull played an integral role in the recent release of D'Angelo's long-awaited third album, and routinely puts on concerts, parties and other events across the globe, some of which—like a block party it threw last summer in New York as a tribute to house music pioneer Larry Levan—are genuinely enriching experiences.
Compared to its monthlong, city-wide takeovers, the journalistic arm of Red Bull and Red Bull Music Academy is less of a presence—the towering Red Bull Music Academy ads that pop up yearly in New York, for instance, don't implore you to read its music criticism. But in music journalism, and thus music, it is a growing entity, because in an industry that has been wilting away for years, money talks.
Red Bull Music Academy routinely flies journalists around the world to report stories and publicly interview musicians (here's another disclosure: I have a small portrait of Erykah Badu pinned up in my living room that I received after having attended one of those "conversations"). It does not do this out of benevolence, but because it has decided that sponsoring the arts, and the people who cover the arts, might be a particularly effective method of quasi-covert advertising.
Writers who take money from Red Bull are, obviously, aware of this dynamic, but Red Bull has carefully positioned itself as a tastemaker and a friend of tastemakers, covering artists and music scenes that music journalists—many of whom pride themselves on championing up-and-coming, or unfairly under-covered or forgotten, acts—might naturally feel passionate about. The implicit statement that Red Bull has made in its foray into music is that it cares about quality instead of popularity—but, crucially, only insofar as that translates into positive coverage with a utopian sort of worldview.
But what happens when this sort of hands-off boosterism collides with a critic's desire to, you know, criticize? Red Bull is apparently in the process of figuring this out. Macpherson tells me that his piece was commissioned by a new Red Bull site, as opposed to the established Red Bull Music Academy site; these are run by different editorial teams, at least in part. Guidelines and plans and editorial strategies for this new site will presumably be put in place at some point, but outright deleting a critical article and redirecting its page to a positive interview does not exactly set an encouraging precedent for what happens when a soft drink brand does music journalism.
It's not that hard to imagine a future where the sort of arrangement that currently exists between Red Bull and the journalists who write for it is more common. Mountain Dew, Adult Swim, and Sour Patch Kids, for instance, already fund the creation of music, and it wouldn't be a very far walk for them to one day fund the coverage of it, too. But brands, institutionally, do not want to foster criticism, or be associated with negativity. The ethics of brands and the ethics of journalists do not align, which is why they traditionally haven't cohabited.
Red Bull probably isn't abandoning music or music journalism anytime soon, and as long as its around offering money to music writers who need it (which is most of them), it will present a moral quandary to those hoping to (continue to) make a living. Am I helping a proprietor of sugary drinks look better by accepting its money to cover something I genuinely care about, or that someone else may not even pay me to cover? If I'm critical, will my article disappear? What about my career?
[image of Red Bull Flugtag via AP]