Just about every month for the past two years, the words “Red Bull Sound Select Presents” have appeared on the marquees of small venues around Denver, usually accompanied by the name of some major national headliner (Bun B, Viet Cong, The Internet) and, on the ground, a line of eager show-goers stretching around the block.
The Red Bull Sound Select Series, which currently puts on events in fourteen cities in the U.S. (and two in New Zealand), isn’t just in the concert-promotion business — or, for that matter, the energy-drink-hawking business. It’s a new kind of beast, one that’s charging the music industry — and the Denver music scene.
“Red Bull Sound Select gives artists in the program the opportunity to play different Red Bull-sponsored events,” explains Brianna Hernandez, marketing director for the Larimer Lounge and project manager for Red Bull Sound Select in Denver. “The other opportunity that [artists] have is for Red Bull to help connect the dots with certain opportunities.”
Here’s how it plays out: Red Bull works on the ground in one of the Sound Select cities (like Denver) to put on monthly concerts. Red Bull brings in a national headliner and foots the bill, and the company’s selected curators of that city’s local scene (here it’s Souls in Action, Underground Music Showcase and DJ Low Key) work with Red Bull to flesh out the lineup with local support. In addition, all shows take place in intimate spaces and cost only $3.
“It adds to the fan experience,” Hernandez says of the cheap ticket price. “In general, we want to provide these shows at a discounted cost because it’s an exciting experience. It’s difficult these days to see a show for that cheap, so it’s a way of giving back to fans. It’s an opportunity for people who haven’t heard of the local artists to come check them out.”
Once artists are selected by a curator and approved by Red Bull, they are then “on-boarded” into the Red Bull Sound Select program. This means that they now have the opportunity to play Sound Select shows in various cities, and Red Bull works with them to build connections and to provide potential concert and recording opportunities.
There are currently 26 Denver acts, from a variety of genres, on the Red Bull roster. One of those is In the Whale, the duo of guitarist Nate Valdez and drummer Eric Riley. The two play a fierce, stripped-down version of rock and roll that combines an old-school style of songwriting with a modern punk-as-fuck attitude. While the guys are known for their extra-musical antics — such as starting their own line of beer, dressing like monks to market a UMS show, and even having the Denver Broncos mascot crowd-surf at one of their shows — In the Whale’s music speaks for itself. The band is hardworking, on pace to play 130 tour dates this year. Roughly ten of those have been Red Bull Sound Select shows, all in different cities.
“They book us for the Sound Select shows, and we’re able to play to another band’s built-in crowd,” Riley says. “They’ve really pushed us and a handful of others more than other bands in their roster. The fact that they’ve gotten us on a couple of festivals and taken us out to L.A. and had us record at the studio has been so cool.”
This year, Red Bull was able to curate a stage at Lollapalooza and chose In the Whale for a time slot. It also took the band out to L.A. during its “30 Days In L.A.” series and gave them free studio time to record with No Age.
What Red Bull is doing with In the Whale and others isn’t unlike what major record labels do (and did with much greater frequency before the advent of Napster and the Internet). Through the Sound Select program, the company takes artists that it feels have potential and provides different platforms for them, working with them to get to the next level, whether that be through promotion, shows or recording time.
The key difference is that a record label’s main product is music, while Red Bull’s is an energy drink. At the end of the day, Red Bull is a commercial product.
That fact has raised eyebrows among certain Denver bands, like Homebody, which would prefer not to be associated with the brand.
“The main thing is...that it’s not really about music, it’s about selling something that’s not music,” says bandmember Michael Stein. “It’s an energy drink. I have no problem with business or selling an energy drink, but don’t mix that with music.”
Bandmate Morris Kolontyrsky says that in his opinion, the series is trying to be something it isn’t.
“It masquerades as independent, when in reality it’s as bad as any promotion service that wants you to pay for what they are providing,”
Kolontyrsky says. “But in this case, you aren’t paying with money, you’re paying with integrity.”
In the Whale, which has worked with Red Bull for months now, doesn’t see it that way.
“Red Bull is a big giant company, whatever,” Riley says. “Lots of companies do this; you can’t single out Red Bull. And those companies are a big reason that many bands, including us, have a leg up. They gave us free recording time. Who’s gonna pass that up? Not me.”
Valdez adds that he doesn’t see it as selling out.
“The only times we felt like, ‘Oh you’re selling out,’ is from other bands who weren’t given this opportunity saying, ‘You’re selling out,’” Valdez says. “We live out of our van and live on four bucks a day. Yeah, you’re right, we’re selling out.”
It’s worth noting that In the Whale and Homebody are fans of one another’s work, and both bands have released EPs, toured all of America and Canada, and played festivals without Red Bull.
For Stein, the issue isn’t DIY versus mainstream, selling out or not; it’s keeping music in the music industry and everything else out.
“I’m sure there are a lot of people involved who love music, but I don’t know — it’s not your turf, get the fuck out of it,” Stein says. “You’re an energy drink. It’s good, I drink Red Bull...but why are you getting involved in shows?”
The Sound Select Series is not Red Bull’s first foray into the cultural realm. The brand has long been associated with action sports, and in 1998 launched the Red Bull Music Academy, which involves a traveling series of lectures, events, studio sessions and shows.
“The Red Bull Music Academy is a global music institution committed to fostering creativity in music,” its website reads. “We celebrate music, its culture, and the transformative minds behind it.”
For Povi Tamu, a Red Bull Sound Select artist, the experience has been exactly that: fostering.
“My experience has been super-positive,” Tamu says. “Red Bull so far has had my back.”
For Tamu, an R&B singer, Denver hasn’t provided the most receptive audience. She briefly moved to Oakland to pursue music before coming back last year, and for her, Red Bull has made all the difference.
“We did the first Sound Select shows, and [I thought], ‘Cool, I’m finally opening up for people in my genre,’” Tamu says. “It’s hard for me as an R&B artist in Denver…so that’s been a great pairing, them pairing me with wise artists. There isn’t a huge industry for what I do in Denver. It’s honestly hard. Having this outlet has been huge.”
Local rapper Mane Rok, who has been part of Denver’s hip-hop scene for years, says that while “the premise is great,” he just can’t get behind supporting a giant beverage company to bolster his art.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow when it’s art that is commercially backed,” he says. “It gives a platform for art that isn’t usually supported financially to have its day in the sun, but at the cost of marketing a pretty shitty product to youth.”
Disparate opinions aside, there’s no doubt that Red Bull Sound Select has had an impact in Denver. It has highlighted small venues, up-and-coming local bands and some of the local organizations that keep the Denver music scene afloat. It has managed to put on a show nearly every month for two years, each one being “at or almost at capacity,” according to Hernandez. In her opinion, Red Bull is here to stay.
“There are lots of brands that throw shows or have big events in local markets, but then they disappear,” Hernandez says. “But with Red Bull Sound Select, they came in and sat down with a lot of people in our music community and picked people to curate the shows for them.”
Hernandez understands that Red Bull is an energy-drink company, but she maintains that Red Bull and culture are more connected than people may realize.
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Nonetheless, with the Music Academy, Sound Select shows, a website that lets users learn about and listen to Red Bull artists, and the prevalent hashtag “#breakmusic,” it’s clear that Red Bull is expanding its reach beyond its principal product.
“We know people might be turned off because it’s brand-related,” Hernandez says. “But truthfully, the brand has little to do with the show itself. Red Bull is just excited to showcase local talent.”
The next Red Bull Sound Select shows are Thursday, December 17, at the Bluebird Theater, featuring Battles, Bayonne and Rumtum, and Friday, December 18, at Larimer Lounge featuring Raury, The Reminders and Lily Fangz.