FEATURE: Red Bull Records – A Movement
“I feel an extraordinary amount of sympathy for anybody working at a major label right now because their lives are over,” Amanda Palmer told Pitchfork in 2009.
While the Dresden Dolls front woman had a strained relationship with her label back then, her reasons to fund her next project via crowdfunding platform Kickstarter – where she raised $1.2 million – echoed a wave of artists looking outside the 360 deal to release their art.
Year on year, independent record labels are taking a bigger slice of the pie. 2014 was a banner year for indies; independent record companies’ share of combined physical/digital revenues was 35.1% of the US market (TMN requested local data but was told the Australian figure has never been released). One of the indies which continues to break barriers and conventions whilst competing with the majors at commercial radio, is Red Bull Records.
Red Bull Records wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz, who founded the energy drink giant 27 years ago. Red Bull has always aimed to elevate talent in all areas, from sports to culture, of which music is one of the most influential forms, and in 2007 Mr. Mateschitz launched the label as a platform to help give musicians meaningful exposure to their art.
Greg Hammer, a music industry veteran who worked with Daniel Glass before spending six years in A&R at Universal Music, is the Managing Director of Red Bull Records. Since taking the reins at the label’s inception, Hammer has presided over its growing roster and worked to execute Mr. Mateschitz’ ideas.
“There’s something to be said about having the kind of infrastructure and the kind of power in the market that comes with being a major label, but for Red Bull Records, it’s not part of our vision,” says Hammer.
Red Bull Records MD, Greg Hammer
It’s because of this that Red Bull Records operates with all the bells and whistles that make a major so all-encompassing and appealing, however it has the roster and patience of a start-up.
With just eight artists signed to the label and a staff which started with three and now boasts just 21 globally, Red Bull Records has been able to go above what artists expect from any label. Red Bull Records embryonic years were slow burners though; Hammer himself admits he expected reticence.
“When we first started the company I was really concerned that no one would want to sign with us,” Hammer laughs, mostly because of the label’s enviable track record: “We’ve only ever had once an artist say ‘you know it’s okay we’re not really interested’.”
When Glasgow quartet Twin Atlantic inked their deal with Red Bull Records in 2009 they had their own reservations. “I didn’t even know they had a record label” says bassist/vocalist Ross McNae backstage at Sydney’s Roundhouse Theatre.
The band were in Australia in February to play the mainstage at Soundwave – as part of their maiden voyage Down Under no less. Prior to this sold out sideshow with Chicago’s Fall Out Boy, Twin Atlantic’s success in the UK and US lead to the band soundtracking history-defining event, the Stratos Red Bull Space Jump. On October 14 2012, Felix Baumgartner broke records in three official categories and became the first human to break the speed of sound in freefall with a top speed of 843.6 mph. The event was carried on nearly 80 TV stations in 50 countries and the live webcast was distributed through 280 digital partners, all to the tune of Twin Atlantic’s 2011-released track Free. The video has clocked over 38 million views, making it the most-watched live stream in history.
In the UK alone, the publicity Free received from being aligned with the Space Jump lead to sales of over 90,000 of their debut LP that year. “Those things wouldn’t have been an option and we wouldn’t have been exposed to them had they not had the affiliation with [the brand],” says McNae.
“That’s a pretty important event in human history let alone music history,” Hammer says. “People from all over the world know about it and as Felix was plummeting over 100,000 (102,800 to be exact) feet toward the ground, to have Twin Atlantic played during that is, you know, that’s pretty darn cool.”
But Red Bull Records is constantly opening their artists up to wider audiences, audiences which their acts would have little chance of interacting with if it weren’t for the brand. Twin Atlantic had the official song for two years for global freestyle motocross tour X Fighters, had their track Vivarium featured in the Red Bull Racing Challenge video game, and are set to play the Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix this year.
“Before people really knew who we were, we were getting all these opportunities to expose us to different things and experiences,” remembers Twin Atlantic’s Ross McNae. “[…] Other labels don’t really have these opportunities to play for thousands of people.”
The label acts as something of a propeller for all its acts; Ohio Metalcore band Beartooth have the signature song for Red Bull X Fighters this year and had the theme song for extreme motorsport race Hard Enduro last year. “Red Bull isn’t a label that’s stuck in the past,” says Beartooth frontman Caleb Shomo. “They know where the industry is headed and are on top of it instead of trying to force an old way of pushing sales.”
Red Bull Records announced its global distribution deal with Sony Music in February (excluding Japan), however Beartooth is the only band on the label who is distributed in Australia via independent music company UNFD.
Nashville band Five Knives had their track Savages picked as the official song for the entire Red Bull Crashed Ice series; the winter extreme sporting event has eight different stops worldwide. British band Heaven’s Basement had the Hard Enduro wrap up video theme song with I Am Electric last year and their track Be Somebody was chosen as the official song for the Red Bull Air Race World Championship for 2014. Electro-rock band AWOLNATION has been featured in two World of Red Bull television ads, the first of which aired during the 2014 Super Bowl and the second of which premiered April 12th during the MTV Movie Awards.
“You usually have to fight, and scratch and claw, and discount your rate and hope somebody finds your music and syncs it in one of the Red Bull campaigns,” says Joe Calitri, Red Bull Records’ General Manager – International. “As long as it fits the creative, we have a good shot of getting it, and those are really game changers. Those are things that can put a band on the map.”
Joe Calitri, Red Bull Records GM – International
This isn’t to say the label don’t rely on the same drivers of any label, like press, radio and digital, they do, but Red Bull Records then has the monolithic brand that it can tap into and where it has priority consideration for synch licensing and live opportunities. In fact, the label even has a dedicated person in both Austria and the US whose job it is to interface with the brand and find opportunities for its artists.
“We still primarily focus on those traditional [drivers] but that’s one of the beauties of the relationship,” says Calitri. ‘There’s always one of those big events that the brand is doing […] that gets 150,000 people in attendance watching it live, and then it’s broadcast around the world on Red Bull TV.”
Prior to Red Bull Records, Calitri had spent 14 years in the major label sector as VP of Field Marketing with Island Def Jam, and six years as General Manager of progressive independent label Fueled By Ramen (21 Pilots, Paramore, Panic At The Disco). Interestingly, when Calitri was deciding on his next move, he was at home on his parents’ couch watching the Stratos Red Bull Space Jump, hearing Twin Atlantic’s single Free soundtracking the plummet.
“I was like, ‘this is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. I don’t think a record label could ever be even remotely associated with this.’ It was one of those things where it all kind of clicked.”
Calitri was hired in April 2013 and has been indispensable ever since. His mantra for building an artist in each territory is ‘it takes as long as it takes’. AWOLNATION’s last album campaign (for Megalithic Symphony) began in 2011 and is still generating synchs and airplay.
“We’re not afraid of long-term because we know we’re going to give the time and dedication to it,” says Calitri. “The longer the better as far as we’re concerned.”
Calitri knows the luxurious position Red Bull Records are in, his achievements during years under a major label stratagem are points of pride; however the patience and tenacity he’s now able to exercise is unparalleled.
“It’s a real tragedy of what the industry’s becoming these days in a lot of ways,” says Calitri. “Because in the traditional label scope, success has become that urgent. You have to make things connect and you’ve got to make it happen pretty quickly.”
“Here we’ve got time to really explore the markets where something is working, take it to the next level, and get creative on marketing – and if something’s not working you can change it up a little bit and really test how to get that artist voice out there.”
When UK artist Itch spoke to TMN in October 2014 his track Another Man was halfway through an eleven-week stint inside the ARIA Top 30 and it’s still sitting inside the Top 50. After years under a major with his previous project The King Blues it was Itch who approached Red Bull Records.
“I said look ‘I have a career already, I’m established in the UK, I have a vision for what I want to do’. They were very much like ‘Okay let’s try and make your vision come to life’, rather than ‘Here’s the plan.’
“Had I gone to another label, they would have put out a first single, the ‘poppiest’ one, and if it hadn’t connected that’d be it.”
Keeping true to their vision of a small, focused and experimental roster with a pointed concentration on unlearning the need for strict campaign timelines, Hammer says that while the label doesn’t operate in the same way as its compatriots, the recorded music business is a tough gig for most in the current climate.
“It is so difficult now for companies to be successful, even to break even […] that means companies have to make some big decisions and many of them are owned by other companies where there’s very much an expectation for short term results, or at least quick results.”
There’s a depth to Hammer’s comments, he’s very much a part of ‘the system’ in ways he could easily dismiss as the head of Red Bull Records. He sees those in the same role at other labels as his peers and his competitors and he relies less on the label’s brand affiliations that one might think.
“I think there’s an assumption that because we’re part of a brand there isn’t much expectation or pressure for success, and that just isn’t true,” Hammer says. “We’re here to win, the brand doesn’t lose and we refuse to be the company that bucks that trend.
“We’re just as competitive and aggressive,” Hammer continues. “Even more so than any other company and I think we do have an advantage in that we can be a bit more patient, a bit more thoughtful with our artists. We can try stuff that other companies can’t.”