Red Bull Music Academy in Calgary: Bass Camp and Creative Progression

April 18, 2019

Red Bull as a brand has always done an admirable job of supporting creative efforts. This is due in part to its heritage as one of the earliest pioneers of a branding\marketing technique that is now common: advertising through direct creative engagement. As Red Bull employed or sponsored performers from musicians to extreme athletes in various forms of entertainment or large scale events, it created content that people ate up with enthusiasm, always conveniently with the Red Bull logo and brands colours in the background.

That marriage of corporate dollars and grassroots creativity has been mutually beneficial, and for fans of underground electronic music, it’s fair to say that Red Bull has made progress and strides with an aesthetic credibility that KFC and Ultra Miami could only wish for. The Red Bull Music Academy has provided a platform with global reach in world class studios for a staggeringly impressive list of musical alumni that reads like a Pitchfork who’s who ultimate dream team: Flying Lotus, Octo Octa, Nina Kraviz and Tokimonsta are names that only scratch the surface of the international talent that have made their way through RBMA events, not to mention the hundreds of local and mid level artists who have gained top level musical knowledge and exposure they’d have never otherwise had access to, courtesy of guest speakers as lofty as Bjӧrk, Questlove, Iggy Pop and D’Angelo.

So music lovers around the world would have been understandably miffed when news came down that Red Bull was shutting down RBMA in its current form. This was especially sad to hear in Calgary, since we had just received our first taste of that global dynamo of creativity here via Studio Bell in March 2019. RBMA’s Bass Camp brought electronic musicians to our fair prairie town in droves to learn and collaborate in Canada’s newest jewel of musical legitimacy at the National Music Centre. A proud Calgarian and former significant contributor to the dance music scene here, Sandro Petrillo (better known as Sergio SP) was in attendance as a studio mentor, so we caught up with him to hear some of the nuts and bolts of what went down at Studio Bell from March 15th to 17th.

Photos © Allison Seto / Red Bull Content Pool

BassBus: Can you briefly explain your connection to the RBMA Bass Camp? If I remember correctly you've been to that event before. How did you end up at this one, and what was the context?

Sandro:  I originally found out about the Red Bull Bass Camp in the early months of 2015 when I received an email offering to attend the camp in Montreal as a participant. At the time I wasn’t 100% sure of the whole process or how I had been selected to attend the camp. As far as I knew the RBMA program was a lengthy application process and so it was a bit of a shock when I received this amazing e-mail offering to attend this amazing all expenses paid weekend with a group of 19 other Canadian based musical contributors.

This year I caught wind of the program through a few colleagues of mine here in Toronto. I still do a handful of projects in the Red Bull sphere so keeping in touch has been amazing and has offered an even closer first hand look at some of the projects they’re working on. Through my continued work here in Toronto and for a variety of other reasons I was offered a position on the studio team as a mentor, essentially providing support and assistance for the talented group of 20 participants. I jumped on a plane from Toronto to Calgary and began a new chapter in my experience with the program.

Can you talk about the ways attendees learned on the weekend? What formats did the collaborative and workshop elements take?

The layout for the intensive and highly focused weekend essentially rolled out as follows:

10 am breakfast

11 am lecture

2 pm lunch  

3 pm - 2 am studio time with a break around 8pm for dinner

The first day starts with a show and tell of sorts where each participant is asked to provide a mix of up to 2 minutes of their own material to show to the rest of the attendees in the room, including but not limited to the other participants, the studio team, the Red Bull staff and the staff at the NMC. Of course the focus was on the participants and sharing a little bit about themselves as individuals and a bit about what they create and their near or distant goals inside the program and out.

The lectures started the day off with an insightful one on one interview with an amazing group of well experienced musicians and creators. The participants were able to ask questions towards the end of the lecture and fully immerse themselves into a wisdom filled session to start their day.

After a break for lunch the participants essentially had free range of a group of studios in which they were able to fully access a wide range of gear and instruments in spaces that are truly world class. They could collaborate however they wanted, they could sit back and watch/listen if they wanted or jump in and start making full compositions with the small groups that formed in each studio space.

Tracks and relationships essentially immediately started to form, friendships were made and sounds were recorded and manipulated. Techniques were shared and life long connections were formed. The format is very casual, the participants had gear setup and some heavy support at their fingertips, whatever they needed we tried to provide at a moment’s notice. There are no guidelines other than to take full advantage of the amazing space they’re in and the group that they get to be there with. Fruitful beyond words can describe it to be honest.

As a former contributing member to the Calgary music scene, what statement do you think it makes for Red Bull to hold this event at the National Music Centre? What strides do you see Calgary making from your vantage point in a larger market?

The access to a world class space such as the National Music Center is monumental in shedding a bit more light on the beauty that Calgary holds. I love this city enormously and it’s got a very special energy in its existence. For the team at Red Bull to choose to host this amazing event in Calgary at the NMC is a wonderful nod to the potential of Calgary as another city on the map that can certainly create waves of output to the international music scene.

When I lived and worked here, I was able to be in the middle of an extremely thriving music scene that often doesn’t get as much light as other cities in our country. Not that it’s a bad thing by any means, it just adds a certain amount of restriction to artists from here that are trying to reach bigger worldwide audiences. The potential to put your head down and focus your work in a place like Calgary is truly a gift in itself. All that being said I think having the Red Bull lens focused for a short time on the resources and access in Calgary will only add enormously to the exposure that the city deserves. Hopefully it will be a spark to inspire worldwide artists to want to work in that space and to tap into the talent that the city has to offer.

Photo © Allison Seto / Red Bull Content Pool

Photo © Allison Seto / Red Bull Content Pool

Local music industry communications impresario Kimberley Jev was also in the house during this process. She’s spent years pushing engaged and thoughtful music in the Calgary area, so her perspective was not too different from Sandro’s - she knows how far this scene has come in the last decade. She sat in on the first day of Bass Camp and saw first hand the pivotal moment unfold.

“The good thing about programs like this for Calgary, especially the electronic scene, is that we have a situation where we tend to get siloed, tours will miss us, things won’t happen here the way they are in certain parts of the country, so for Calgary it was a great nudge just to be included. Not only that, the Music Centre itself is a huge seal of approval for music in this city and the country, and yet there is also a seal of approval that Red Bull itself gives to that place and our city. The Centre itself was so fully equipped that when the musicians convened, it was immediately go time, and it was the fastest the event producers had ever seen that happen. The minute I arrived at the Centre, there was this instant vibe everywhere, and everyone was using all the gear and getting their hands on TONTO.”

So where does this leave Calgary, now that the Red Bull Music Academy circus has come and gone, forever? As Kimberley and Sandro both allude to, the fact that our musical infrastructure was sufficient to host one of the world’s most established creative productions is a statement in itself. Though this town may sometimes feel like a cultural backwater, so many artists and performers from so many walks of life have been working hard for passion’s sake in this town that something seems to be finally digging in.

Obviously, this is only the beginning of a new stage of Calgary’s artistic life. Though the RBMA itself is no more, we needn’t despair its departure, since that is just one more stamp on the musical passport which will encourage more great performers to come here, record here, and leave their marks. Alberta already has a world class radio station in CKUA, now it has a world class studio and recording facility, and we should all take as a point of pride our fair prairie city’s fledgling status in the world’s great creative cities, and if we all keep our heads down and keep doing the work, more greatness will come.

Baran Faber