"The marketing narratives laid down by the likes of Red Bull and similar have helped beckon forth an enveloping haze of meaningless positivity, creating a world that’s happy yet contentless, adult but toothless." Nathan Budzinski assumes the lotus position, breathes deeply and becomes mindful of Eternal Bliss™
It’s surprising how magical thought thrives in our supposedly rational world. Now that the hippy generation has matured, an ambient nebula of mindfulness has enshrouded power, making it softer and seemingly ungraspable. Concurrently a new age aesthetic enraptures the hippie generation’s offspring – children of the age of Cosmos – who express this vibrationship through music, art and culture at wide. To what extent this dynamic of aesthetics and power is causally linked is arguable, but my animal intuition tells me that there is a strong connection between the currently lamented post-digital zombie-like apathy of my generation and the reverberating flatulence of the equally self-interested hippie and Me generations.
One recent example of magical thinking: early in 2014 the UK online music mag FACT reported on a new project launched by the Red Bull Music Academy: "Eternal Bliss™: The Internet's most relaxing website” (reviewed by Clive Bell in The Wire 365). What initially caught me was a hint of suspicion lurking in FACT’s story: “There’s no clear motivation behind Eternal Bliss – just a gift from those good folks at RBMA, we guess." So, what might a crowd of good folks financially supported by an energy drink popular in nightclubs, bearing new age gifts without motivation, want in return?
The idea of Eternal Bliss™ is straightforward: a pisstake of new age mindfulness, calming methods and their attendant aesthetics, like relaxation cassettes in the 1980s and more recently via online platforms like YouTube (with technological enhancements). Eternal Bliss™ has all the cliched stock images of people sitting in lotus position, seascapes and slowly scrolling interactive text advising you to “take a deep, relaxing breath” and how “your daily affirmations practice will benefit you in a time of great need”. The site is soundtracked with some specially made schlocky tunes that hark back to a variety of 80s electronic sound-splodge, Steven Halpern’s chakra-tingling, Eno-esque ambient doodling, whale song and the like.
Framed as a relief from the neural agitation of extended screen gazing that’s endemic throughout contemporary work and leisure time, Eternal Bliss™ is a funny diversion, but the novelty wears off quickly. It’s ironic™, both in an offhand kind of way – like, isn’t this hippie meditating naked next to a waterfall hilarious, bro!? – but also because it’s not the world’s most relaxing website. After several minutes zoning in (or out), I felt as if locked in a sensory deprivation tank surrounded by a drunken mob of US university frat boys looking in and laughing at me.
But in another layer of hilarious irony, the new age sensibility that is the butt of the Eternal Bliss™ joke relates directly to the spirituality-tinged marketing methods of products like Red Bull, RBMA’s supporter and spirit guide. Red Bull’s influence might be expressed in (appropriately) diffuse ways regarding the Academy, and no matter the heavy jock-irony distancing of Eternal Bliss™, it does exactly what marketing gurus want it to do: tap into the same life-affirming energies that music relies on and sometimes creates, and then burrows into our emotional worlds, never to be forgotten – all in order to make us buy stuff.
My anxiety was sparked off elsewhere in the Red Bull cosmos: I thought it was an elaborate marketing trick when I heard that RBMA had been going for 16 years. But here’s its first incarnation in 1998! It was started by a brand consultancy firm called Yadastar – specialising in the “sweet spot uniting brand identity and cultural integrity”. After Red Bull saw how well the drink was selling in nightclubs, it consulted Yadastar about devising “some method of fostering discourse about underground dance culture”. Yadastar have run with that idea ever since, overseeing all subsequent events.
So, leaving aside discussions about the effect of corporate sponsorship and patronage in culture – not to mention whatever cultural integrity means in this context – RBMA has become a powerful economic force in music through its ongoing series of events and festivals, a stable of mentored artists, plus recording studios, releases and exhibitions.
What’s interesting isn’t so much how successful RBMA has been as a marketing project, but rather how it represents the new age of marketing and life in a globalised, cognitively managed world.
A quick online search reveals a constellation of activity: alongside Red Bull Media House and their Red Bull Content Pool, there’s a music publishing division and a TV channel – all linked up in a corporate feedback loop. Hey, Red Bull is not only an energy drink! It’s a world of narratives in profitable vibrationship with a cluster of lifestyle activities like extreme sports and music.
The marketing biz considers Red Bull one of the best. Red Bull dedicates more time and thought to longterm marketing strategies than most corporations. It beats all other innovators in ambush marketing (essentially hijacking events even as corporate sponsor locked-down as the Olympics). It’s a leader in the world of neo-marketing – that is, marketing that acknowledges, understands and uses what the internet actually does.
Several years ago, the French academic Christian Salmon wrote a book about this new world called Storytelling: Bewitching The Modern Mind. In it he outlines how starting in the 90s large corporations realised that traditional methods of marketing, such as building brand strength through advertising product and company logos, were no longer enough to succeed on their own. In Salmon’s analysis a new type of story-based marketing rose up that tried to create narratives that engaged audiences, stories that made their way into the minds of consumers and became part of their lives, affecting their decision making. Each of us has their own story – the marketers tell us – we suffer but are heroes of our own narratives. This happens through a number of interrelated practices using well targeted sponsorship, social media, so-called community marketing and so on alongside traditional advertising.
One chapter of Storytelling is particularly striking. “The Dream Society” looks at a recent generation of marketing gurus like Seth Godin who claim that “the ambitions of 21st century marketing do not, however, stop at the supermarket door: they extend to the world itself... Its ambition is no longer to simply promote the benefits of the consumer society; it seeks to “produce” a new society and a new world. It makes no secret of its messianic nature…”
It's a new society produced through the consumption of narratives about our world, which we pay for with our frazzled attention. It doesn’t matter if a story is true, it becomes real if you tell it often enough: take all the literature ever published about Atlantis, toss it all into the sea and you'll get a real island to match the tale.
In The Wire 372, Derek Walmsley speaks with one of the RBMA founders, Torsten Schmidt: "Every year there’s at least one article,” he complains, “where someone gets their Sherlock Holmes hat on and says, ‘This academy, it’s actually a marketing initiative by an international corporation!’ And then you’re going, ‘No shit Sherlock, that’s why it’s called the Red Bull Music Academy’." In essence, Schmidt says mockingly, 'well, duh'. But it's a dismissive diversion that only describes what something is, cutting off discussion of what that something does, its effects.
As a child of the age of Cosmos, a large part of me doesn’t care about RBMA and projects like Eternal Bliss™ – it's a deflated reaction that goes along with Schmidt's 'No shit Sherlock' but also because I'm simply uninterested in their project and its trappings. I can just forget about it, drink a couple tins of beer and listen to whatever I want on YouTube or watch another critically acclaimed fight-the-system documentary with an incongruous Tangerine Dream-like soundtrack on Netflix. But in the back of my mind a voice keeps telling me that I should care. It says that all of this, no matter how throw-away and jokey, is insidious and destructive. It's part of creating a delimited world where the caricaturisation of feeling and dulling of reality through holistic corporate cultural production is just something we must accept, as if we must live in someone else's dream.
We are surrounded in cultural life by occultic energies and fantastical narratives like fame, fate, destiny, a hidden afterlife, regeneration and redemption. They permeate our day-to-day lives, and are impossible to avoid. It’s someone else's reality distracting and displacing us from being present in our own. But dreams can also be useful and good – they can disrupt and expand parameters of experience and thought. For example, soon after Eternal Bliss™ was launched I saw The Body play at Copenhagen’s Heavy Days In Doomtown festival. After several bottles of strong beer I reached a blurry, malleable state where for the last half of their set everything became coherent in my mind – I felt a glowing, acidic mist emerging from a dark evergreen forest, and I thought to myself: “This is the dream. Through their music and sound, they have conjured up the dream.” What “the dream” is exactly, I have no idea. I've felt it a number of times in different contexts but cannot describe it, yet. At the same time as making me acutely aware of time passing, my life thus far and my own mortality, it made me feel good. A similar awareness has been described elsewhere as a collective, connected vibe, a feeling that “We Are on the Same Page, Only There Is No Page”.
Herein lies the urgent problem: how can you speak about, let alone write about something that is vague and always changing, seemingly ungraspable yet used by others to get inside of you, make you act differently?
Energy drinks, like booze, food and all other consumables course through your body and become part of that deep internal and subjective dream. I suppose it’s a form of magical thinking on my part, though I also think it's a common sentiment among many people.
But it’s the surrounding economy that matters here. The marketing narratives laid down by the likes of Red Bull and similar have helped beckon forth an enveloping haze of meaningless positivity, creating a world that’s happy yet contentless, adult but toothless.