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Is Corporate Sponsorship Now Long-Form Journalism’s Last Hope?

Jason Gross

How did Red Bull come to support and invest in long-form journalism at a time when this style of writing seemed as doomed as the typewriter, record stores and other art industry phenoms that have been wiped out by the Internet?

At a time when being a long-time, name-brand print publication is actually a liability and when online ad revenues pale in comparison to print ad sales enough to sink many of these publications, the idea of starting a new periodical seems quixotic or insane. Yet that’s exactly what’s happening with a new journal called the Daily Note, which is just starting up in New York now.

It’s the brainchild of the Red Bull company (yep, the same people who make the energy drink), which runs its own Red Bull Music Academy that’s been training producers, singers, engineers, musicians and DJ’s for the last 15 years in the art of dance music and avant music in locales across Europe, Africa and Australia. For the company’s latest installment of its festival, it’s taking over New York City where it will feature an incredible month-long slate of shows, lectures, films and exhibitions, including artists such as Brian Eno, Flying Lotus, the DFA Records roster, Eryka Badu, Questlove, Four Tet, Giorgio Moroder, Afrika Bambaataa, Oneohtrix Point Never, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, with many of the events already sold out.

If that wasn’t enough, the company has decided to take its Academy a step further by also launching its own publication to tie in with all of the events, much the same way it did in England three years ago when the Academy landed there. RBA’s Daily Note started coming out on April 26th and will keep coming out in five installments, for every week until this session of the Academy is over at the end of May. The first issue is Gotham-centric with a lengthy feature by author Simon Reynolds about Eno’s NYC period as well as articles about the origins of CBGB’s logo and composer Max Neuhaus’ Times Square sound-art installation. While the material is online now, Red Bull took the impressive step of also making Daily Note into a print publication, which is being handed out for free around NYC area, even including paper-hawkers giving them to weary transit travelers at subway stations.

So how did Red Bull come to support and invest in long-form journalism at a time when this style of writing seemed as doomed as the typewriter, record stores and other art industry phenoms that have been wiped out by the Internet? We asked Torsten Schmidt, one of the Founders of Red Bull Music Academy and Daily Note’s “all seeing eye” and Piotr Orlov, Daily Note’s editor-in-chief, for some answers about the origins of the magazine, where its inspiration came from and what the future of Note and the style of writing that it hopes to inspire might be.

* * *

Where did the idea for Daily Note come from?

Schmidt: Being a writer by trade, and being in the lucky position to employ a massive bunch of our favorites from that branch, we always loved papers and we always loved magazines. This is partly why the Academy looks the way it does, as it constitutes itself 15 years into its existence: a 4D-real life-magazine, where all our beloved musical characters get to mingle and start to collaborate and learn from each other.

When we started the Academy in 1998, our main impetus was documenting and contextualizing cultures, which so heavily relied on great moments that by nature were rarely documented. During the preparation for the 2010 London Red Bull Music Academy, we were commuting an awful lot across London and were intrigued about how little devotion to the arts there was in the heavily-consumed printed media of a city which has contributed to pop culture more than many others. And we figured that on any given train, there MUST be so many people that appreciate arts, especially those related to the club cultures of the past five decades, that are just plain bored, if not borderline offended, by the dumbing-down by the free papers. So we assembled an editorial team and came out with five week’s worth of editions of the Daily Note, most of them devoted to the themes that Londoners and the Academy equally cherish, ranging from sound-system culture to minimal art, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop to East London pirate radio and its chart topping grime MC’s.

And you know, something's going on when you even see a bunch of bobbies, as they lovingly call their policemen, leaning on a lamppost, reading that very Daily Note.

While we opted for a digital edition at 2011's Madrid Academy, we were more than ready to up the ante for the printed New York edition. Like London, the city's contribution to all the various music-influenced cultures is as diverse as its inhabitants and has created massive echoes around the world. To go back to the source and give a platform to all these globally-praised artists as well as the unsung heroes is not only a chance to show our appreciation and respect for these folks' work but also to introduce them to wider audiences. In essence, we're aiming to introduce all the Red Bull Music Academy's values and topics to all the good people, who so far may not even know about the great music that they actually would be really into, and to offer those who know about it some new perspective and context.

What other sponsored magazine projects inspired this?

Schmidt: To be honest, none really. We rather looked at what was going in the traditional print world, and also how much of what we loved got lost by conveying information via printed matter in an ever-more spiraling race for profit maximization. We care about music. We love good writing. To combine both is as simple yet as powerful as a well-written Motown song.

What was the original vision of what Note should be?

Schmidt: This project would not exist for 15 years, if the physical outcome would have differed from our original vision. So we're really glad to introduce the printed issues to the New York musical stories and to the great people of this great city- this is the reason that so many of us simple do love to indulge into its musical cultures, collaborate with its people, create amazing things and celebrate them together, no matter where in the world we're from.

What were the editorial standards for the articles? How were stories and writers chosen?

Orlov: The editorial standards were pretty simple. Is the story interesting? Has it been told before? Is the writer chosen the best-equipped writer to tell the story? Does it fit into the mosaic of genres and eras and stories that make up both RBMA programming and Daily Note's overall musical focus? The two non-negotiable points were that every long piece of editorial in the Daily Note had to be, in some ways, New York-related and about music.

The features were chosen completely based on the merits of the writer, of the story and of the music/scene at the heart of the story. In some cases, the topic came first and the right writer was found for it -- a good example is the tale of Public Enemy playing at Rikers Island in 1988, where there were Academy folks who wanted to know more about that, and I thought Amy Linden both knew the story and where to go with reporting it. In other cases, there were writers I wanted to work with whose expertise I knew to be on a musical topic the Daily Note wanted to cover, but it was just a matter of... well, what story? That was the case with Geeta Dayal, who is in the process of doing massive research about the development of early American electronic music -- she and I had a conversation about what she might have that fit the Note, and she instantly started telling me the story of the Barons (composers Louis and Bebe) and Tod Dockstader, and how all these bohemian people in the West Village constitute an alternative electronic music narrative to the European story of Stockhausen, etc. I thought it was awesome and off she went.

The New York Story personal essays (there's one in every issue) have been by far the most evolving. In that case, it was not a matter of writers, but a matter of unique stories by creative people. So, in many cases, the authors aren't necessarily writers (though quite a few are) but musicians or visual artists or events producers or label folks, and the idea there was to just show off the fabric of creative New York, 22 of the eight million stories of the naked city, and make sure that the crop of contributors was diverse. So you have "moving to New York" stories, "growing up in New York" stories, "intellectual investigations of New York" stories, "political manifestations of New York" stories, and they come from countless perspectives. But it begins with a 9/11 story by Skizz Fernando who was running a dub/hip-hop label in the city at the time, and who, because the 2001 Academy was in NYC at the time, was an RBMA lecture-host; the Academy was obviously cut-short by 9/11, and he writes about his experience with it. I thought that was a good way to introduce RBMA: its history and the very personal POV that this section would take.

How do you see the publication relating to the overall activities of RBMA?

Orlov: It's part and parcel. It is a mouth-piece of what's happening at the Academy and events day-to-day; its stories are sometimes an addendum to Academy events or lectures or happenings; and it's an extension for those folks who may not know that the Academy is happening in NYC at all, but will run into this publication on the subway or outside an art gallery, and might deem it worth their five minutes to pick it up.

How do you see this as different from other dance-based publications? Do you think the Daily Note fills a gap with dance-music journalism that's out there now?

Orlov: Publications or editorial outlets? I mean, I am not sure I have seen a mass "dance-based publication" in quite some time -- all the coverage is online, and between Resident Advisor and FACT, and XLR8R and Philip Sherburne's Control Voltage column, and some good Pitchfork and Fader writers, and blogs such as Little White Earbuds (and I'm sure I'm forgetting other great stuff in my feeds), there's actually a ton of excellent editorial coverage of dance-music, far more than there ever has been (it's just important to choose accordingly -- and not trust any individual outlet completely). Though dance-stuff is what RBMA is often known for, the Daily Note is NOT a dance-music publication; it is a New York music publication. In some ways, the stories we are trying to cover are less pertinent in the above outlets than they are in the pages of the Times and New York mag, but simply with a point-of-view that gives more weight to what happened at the Loft or is happening at the Bunker, than to most of the people who are playing Terminal 5 or wherever. Daily Note gets to be timeless with our coverage for a short period of time -- obviously, Jon/Ben/Jon/Nate (New York Times writers) and Nitsuh and Sasha et al. don't necessarily have that luxury.

How do you measure the success of the publication?

Orlov: "Is it good?" is always the most important barometer -- and not in that bullshit self-aggrandizing way, but with a strong gut-check from active readers and listeners (of which there are plenty at RBMA). Then, are people reading it, especially in the places I expect them to? Are the contributors all happy? Are online outlets picking up the stories? What are our returns? All the social media barometers that have become standard. But if that's a diplomatic way of asking "is there a set of 'unique impressions' that Daily Note needs to hit?" The answer is, I've literally never had that conversation with the people who are my leaders on this project.

Who do you see as the audience for this publication? What do you hope that they get out of the publication?

Orlov: Generally speaking, it's two-fold: on the one hand, I think that there's a lot of people in this town (residents or visitors, young or old, any borough) who will enjoy reading something in the Daily Note, and not just people who are music obsessives or what have you, but people who go to the movies and museums and shows, and like to know cool cultural stories. On the other, I've always had an imaginary rider of an afternoon-commute, Queens-bound #7 train in mind, just looking through the pictures and visuals, and just wondering ‘WTF is this?’ (maybe this is me wanting to take John Rocker's old anti-NYC slur, and flipping it on its head -- the train so diverse that everybody on it reads a different story, or looks at a different photo).

What I hope readers get out of the publication is an appreciation of the musical history of this town- it is so deep, so diverse, so always alive, so key to the cultural development of the world we currently live in -- that they'd take slightly more notice.

Do you think this might be a model for other corporate-sponsored publications in the future?

Orlov: If they have the vision and the forethought of this company, and of the Academy founders, to follow-through and build, sure. But here's my major point on this issue: you don't make the Daily Note based on a six-month culture-marketing brief that you will abandon when the next CMO (Chief Marketing Officer) comes in, you make it based on a continuous and long-term dedication to an idea of what you want to explore (whether that be music, sports, technology, or whichever passion-topic your company wants to play with). There's absolutely no way. I'm of the opinion that the level of talent that gets involved with the Academy can only get this involved when there is a certain amount of understanding that this exercise is not a short-term branding grab, but an actual investment in a cultural conversation. That is certainly the way I am involved with this job.

Are there any future plans for the publication after RBMA ends this year?

Orlov: The honest answer is, I don't know. But I also try to never say never.

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