After its online parties and DJ sets brought huge commercial success, the company is now preparing to launch its first ever festival next month
Six months ago Sherelle was ready to quit music for good, focus on the day job and give up the idea of being a professional DJ. Then her Boiler Room set happened. Fewer than 100 people were invited to see the 26-year-old play a studio in Hackney, but millions watched online; Sherelle went viral. The jungle and footwork music specialist is now one of the most talked about talents in club culture: two agents, her own record label, and a residency on BBC Radio 1 have followed.
“I amassed thousands of followers overnight,” she told the Observer. “Some of them were DJs and producers who I love and respected for years. My mind was blown.”
Boiler Room’s founder, 34-year-old Blaise Bellville, describes his company as “an independent music platform and cultural curator”, one that connects underground club culture to fans worldwide via the internet. The premise is simple: Boiler Room organise a wildly oversubscribed party, film the DJ playing a live set and then broadcast it online. More than two million people have subscribed to the YouTube channel, while three million follow the shows on Facebook. Now, nine years since Bellville says he “stuck a webcam on a wall at a warehouse party and streamed it on the internet”, Boiler Room is launching its first festival in Peckham next month.
But how big has its impact on the industry really been – and is it still credible? “It’s massive,” says Jaguar, a DJ and broadcaster. “So many people have been able to make their careers on Boiler Room. I guess we live in such a digital visual age, it’s more fun than sticking on a regular DJ mix on Spotify. It’s much more engaging, it’s like you’re at the rave: you can sip on some drinks with your friends in your living room, put on your favourite DJ in the world and see their energy and craft. Pre-raving is a great time to put on a Boiler Room.”
Translating the raucous energy of a cutting-edge set from the live event itself to an audience watching online may seem an unlikely proposition, but Boiler Room has spawned a number of competitors – Mixmag’s The Lab, and Slipmat.io to name but two – and has big brands lining up to sponsor its events.
“We pride ourselves on having our ears to the ground,” says Tom Wiltshire, head of music. “We cover lots of genres, but it’s about DJs who are pushing boundaries.” The most successful events, he says, are “about creating an atmosphere that feels a bit lawless, a bit loose – not dangerous in any way – but allowing people to have fun and express themselves. We make sure we set it up so that when you walk into the room, people are dancing – and all over the place, not just peacocking around the DJ. That’s what you want to create.”
One DJ, who wants to remain anonymous, says that Boiler Room “definitely changed the game in all sorts of positive and negative ways” but that for a while “they became sort of a joke when they had 20 streams at any one time from some techno festival or another. But, in recent years they’ve tried to turn it around by bringing younger crews platforming niche scenes. And they have succeeded, so they do feel relevant again.”
Boiler Room has always bridged the gap between championing the underground and making it accessible to see your favourite artists.
Nadine Ahmad, a non-binary DJ, curator and founder of club night Pxssy Palace, is working with Boiler Room on Lesbiennale – an art and clubbing showcase over three days in October in London that will spotlight “innovative queer collectives, artists and thinkers”. Critics online have frequently accused Boiler Room of co-opting grassroots scenes, particularly from marginalised communities, but Ahmad is unconvinced. “It’s not about co-opting. Lesbiennale is mine and Naeem [Davis’s] project … Boiler Room have created a platform which has given us the confidence and support to go ahead and create this moment.”
Ahmad has played a Boiler Room set before. “It’s nerve-racking being on camera, but it’s a pinnacle for you to say you’ve done it in your career. They’ve always bridged the gap between championing the underground and making it accessible to see your favourite artists: if you’re watching at home, which I’ve done so many times, to be able to see the skill, and feel the energy, of a set in the intimate way they film is a big pro. The con is always the trolls, who target women DJs especially. But how do you control the internet?”
Belville, who was born into an aristocratic family that went bankrupt when he was four, has been a force within the music industry since he was in his teens, setting up All Ages festival, then the influential music magazine Platform, before Boiler Room took off. “We started as a way of championing what was happening in London electronic underground music scenes to people who didn’t have access to it, who weren’t growing up in cities like London or New York,” he says.
The biggest event they have put on had 5,000 people attend in Montreal last week. “Most events are over-subscribed,” says Wiltshire. “The worst was a 1,000-capacity thing where 12,000 people applied for tickets.” Wiltshire is keen to distance the brand from its associations with electronic dance music (EDM) in the US. “We’ve always been anti-EDM, it’s not what we stand for – that’s dance music designed to be very commercial and it’s fallen off a cliff now, whereas the music we’ve championed for 10 years has always stayed on its course.” So what’s the biggest trend worldwide now? ‘Hard dance!” Wiltshire laughs. “Different territories are having different moments but the resurgence of very fast dance music – gabba, hardcore, jungle, what was big in the 90s – is huge with young people now, not just in places that have always been ahead of the curve but eastern Europe in particular.”
As for what comes next, Wiltshire is excited by the ground laid by third-generation diasporas: “Reggaeton, for instance, is a massive sound from central and south America. Because of the expansion of those diaspora communities, it’s permeating club culture.”
For Aaron Coultate, editor of online electronic music publication Resident Advisor, Boiler Room’s legacy remains solid. “[They’ve] taken DJ culture into homes around the world,” he says. “Their rise has been one of the defining stories of electronic music in the past decade.”
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