Welcome to the Boiler Room
The biggest nightlife success of the past year blurs the line between an online club and a radio show. Time Out logs on
On a Tuesday night, here's what London's electronic music fraternity in their twenties are up to: they're sitting down on their sofas, firing up their laptops, pouring themselves a drink and tuning in to watch live DJ sets via a webcam hooked up to a warehouse space in Elephant & Castle. They're probably rapid-fire tweeting about it at the same time too. If you squint and don't mind the juddering connection, you can see James Blake at the turntables, or perhaps popstar-in-waiting Yasmin singing over a mix from Jamie XX. Welcome to cult club the Boiler Room.
Since its inception a year ago this month, the Boiler Room has become an internet and dance music - wait for it - phenomenon. It's not strictly a club, but a weekly online Ustream broadcast - the live video facility popularised by Wiley, who likes to use it to show how to make boiled eggs and soldiers, advertise instant noodles and, ditto Kanye West, hold press conferences - in a nightlife environment. Shot on just a 'little Logitech webcam', it is pure voyeurism and allows clubbers to have an uninterrupted view of their favourite DJs without the hollering, drunken moshers and cloudy sound you can get at club nights. And if you miss it, you can just download the podcast and catch up later.
Despite the DIY set-up, Boiler Room has captured the zeitgeist in the same way as Rinse FM; that is, dance music's demand for quality radio programming and futuristic underground beats. Consequently, it's the first place that innovative London record labels, like Young Turks, R&S, Numbers, Swamp81 and Hessle Audio, want their new DJs, performers and music to be seen and heard immediately.
The broadcast was started by notorious hipster Blaise Bellville, who heads up mouthy webzine Platform and used to put on the underage Way Out West gigs, and co-run by Brownswood employee Thristian Richards, who goes by the DJ name The bPm. It began life in a former 1930s boiler room in Hackney (of course!), but it has gotten so big in both virtual and physical terms that they've upsized to Corsica Studios so that they can host a larger live audience.
'We've gone from having 50 of our mates watching online to up to 15,000 or 25,000 people during our most popular shows like the James Blake and the Jamie XX ones,' says Bellville. 'And then there's 100,000 people and upwards reposting and replaying the podcast every month. The space has got bigger - there used to be about 30 people max in the room, and now our guestlist requests exceed 500 each time. It's invite-only, but there's still about 150 people there every week.'
The numbers are unbelievable - their Facebook page exceeds 9,000 fans and counting. Which is why if you're not on the list, you're not getting in. 'It was getting too much like a party for a while,' Bellville continues, 'but it's about getting the right kinds of people down there, people who are there for the music, so that the artists don't feel overwhelmed by it all.'
The artists are, after all, the sole attraction at Boiler Room: attendees are positioned behind the decks in a bedroom DJ style set-up so that the selector is always the main figure in view. Says Bellville: 'The Boiler Room's signature format is that the DJ is always playing with their back to the crowd and is always on the ground level, the same as all the people in the room. People bounce about a bit, but they're coming to watch the show. It's all over by 11 o'clock.'
DJs also embrace it as an opportunity to get more eclectic. 'Boiler Room plays an important part in the type of electronic music that's coming out at the moment, because it's somewhere in-between a radio show and a club night,' says Bellville. 'The DJs get to play music that they wouldn't normally play in a club, where they have to face the audience and make everyone dance.'
He views it as a successful alternative to the dominating radio stations. 'Live radio is in a pretty difficult place, I reckon, right now,' he argues. 'It thrives off its podcasts and you get very few people actually tuning in in comparison. And with Boiler Room, because of the video element, there's more reason to tune in. We've managed to get great people in to play who love that live radio element and the instant feedback that you get from people watching it in real-time, whether it's from Twitter or from the chatrooms.'
Of course, like every musical experiment these days, 'there's not strict genre ties', but you can expect to hear West Coast hip hop - a scene on which they plan to shoot a quarterly documentary in LA later this year - one week and the post-dubstepisms of SBTRKT, Sampha et al the next. Coming up? There's a special Diplo and Red Bull takeover on April 26, a day ahead of his Koko show, and the broadcast's first birthday celebrations this month, which in typical east London style, will be announced at the very last minute. They've also plans to take Boiler Room global - they filmed the Young Turks showcase at South by South West this year, and they'll be covering the Rush Hour stage at the Queen's Day Carnival in Amsterdam at the end of April.
It isn't quite a club night and it's not quite a radio show, but Boiler Room is one heck of a party for your ears - and, clearly, there's much to tune in for.
On the boil
'I was actually very nervous about playing the Boiler Room, because it was the first time I'd ever done a PA in a nightclub. And it's a very cool place. It's got this weird double dynamic of being on the internet and in front of an audience - physically, they're in opposite directions and as a singer, I found that quite tricky! What was brilliant is that it has an underground feel to it and a casualness, which is really enjoyable.'
Seb Chew, YoYo
'The spirit at the Boiler Room reminded me of dance energy from back in the day, ie taking music and the rave and giving it another dimension without spoiling the reason why you're there in the first place, which is for good new music, played on big speakers.'
'I find it unnerving DJing at Boiler Room, having people behind me. But it works for watching intently. I've just moved to south London so I go there quite a lot to hang out.'