The story of Boiler Room – From an isolated London music project to a global broadcasting platform for underground music

Boiler Room

Boiler Room, the minute we utter these two words, the immediate picture that gets painted in your head is of a dark room or a basement packed with people dancing and swinging their fans while an artist plays music right off an open deck, while dancing amongst the crowd.

Boiler Room

No flashy visuals, no intricate set ups or massive stages. Just a group of people grooving to the pulsating beat of the music till the wee hours of day. Looking at it from an outsiders perspective, it’s almost as intimate as a house party. No fuss and only good music! Then how did a concept that basic rise to become one of the most premium platforms to showcase music and have the outreach of over 160 million people? We dig a little deeper and trace the origins of Boiler Room and decipher what makes it what it is today.

“[At the start], we used this weekly live-stream as a keyhole look into a niche London underground scene,” says Boiler Room founder Blaise Belville, who started the underground parties in a 1930s era boiler room that he had access to. In the Boiler Room setting, there is no backstage area, rather the artist is behind the decks and up to 200 attendees are behind them or interspersed around the table. The artist is always front and center of the broadcast, and there’s no velvet rope separating anybody anywhere in the room.

Belville says Boiler Room was a concerted attempt at “defying broadcasters.” “[They] were reducing their curatorial policy at the time….to the most bankable, commercial pop stars,” he says. The discovery of many of these artists was fuelled in part by Boiler Room’s platform, one that Belville says allowed viewers to “engage with artists at an early point” and was always driven by Belville and his cohort of curators. “We played music the way we wanted to. It was a U.K. approach to music in that it was a melting pot and more of a ‘selectors’ approach, rather than the DJ,” he adds.

Back in 2010, Belville was splitting his time between running a magazine-style website called Platform and persuading an investor to convert a derelict east London warehouse into artists’ studios.

“One night I was wandering around the building and found this old boiler room, it was fucking cool,” he says. “I moved my turntables in there, bought a shitty little CDJ [CD turntable], and the plan was to record mixes each week. I realised we could record on a cheap camera and broadcast it live. It was like a teenage hangout in a bedroom.”

They pulled the sign off the wall to use as a logo, and Boiler Room was born.

The first Boiler Room session was recorded using a webcam duct taped to the wall of a disused boiler room, and the session was broadcast live online on Ustream. During this period, Boiler Room developed their format of filming a DJ facing the camera a projected visual backdrop of the Boiler Room logo overlaid on old rave video footage.
Graphic designer Adam Tickle, who created the logo, described it as a “cross between a Technics slip mat and the Pure Garage logo.”

Boiler Room’s first session in March 2010 turned into a weekly show, becoming a Ustream “Supported Channel” and getting widespread press recognition, with coverage from the BBC, Fader, Time Out, Hypetrak, and Dummy Magazine. 2010, the first year in Boiler Room’s history, featured performances from a variety of mostly electronic musicians and DJs, including Theo Parrish, Jamie xx, SBTRKT, Hudson Mohawke, Jamie Woon, Mount Kimbie, Falty DL, James Blake, and Ben UFO, among others. London based record labels Young Turks and Hessle Audio, as well as hip-hop collective Livin’ Proof, also hosted Boiler Room takeovers in 2010.

These shows were repeated weekly, with various local DJs dropping in to play sets that were as much about showing off the records they loved as they were about making people dance. Its format – shaky web camera fixed in front of the DJ decks, a small invite-only group of clubbers milling around behind them – soon became a trademark, and an audience uncatered for by mainstream radio or TV began to tune in every week. It wasn’t just a chance to hear fresh dance music without setting foot in a club, it was also a chance to hear music that would rarely get played in a club at all.

Boiler Room first began international shows in August 2011 with a run hosted in Germany by Michail Stangl, a Russian-born music curator and DJ who is involved in planning Berlin’s CTM Festival. The first attempt to expand with the project and rope in bigger names however turned out to be a distasteful experience for Belville and his team. They decided to bring down the famed DJ Diplo, but things didn’t go the way they expected.

Boiler Room

“Diplo played the most awful set ever,” says Bellville. “He totally misjudged it, it was like bad dubstep. He’s a great DJ, but he thought he was in Vegas.” But the moment acted as a turning point for Boiler room as it allowed them to gauge the audience they were reaching out to. “ Things like that provoked the reaction online that helped us find our voice. It allowed people to rally together and be like: ‘We all think this is shit.’ It was a turning point because we’d been wondering how to get bigger, and we realised that going more commercial wasn’t the way. Our fan base liked underground music and so did we.”

It was then that they started to refocus on localised scenes. They booked easyJet flights to Berlin in order to showcase a trainspotter’s dream of little-known techno DJs. The debut Berlin session was spiky, non-commercial fare, and the shows were instantly popular. Boiler Room had unlocked the web’s potential for collectivism. On a local level, the DJs playing on the Berlin show might just about have the fans to fill a decent-sized nightclub; on a global level, they had enough to fill stadiums. They repeated the trick further and further afield, filming DJs spinning abstract hip-hop in Los Angeles, or favela funk from São Paulo. Whole swaths of previously inaccessible music were being made easily available, and DJs started seeing playing on Boiler Room as a way of tripling their fan base in the space of an hour-long set.

Raj Chaudhuri, Boiler Room’s head of music, says its audience digests content in a number of ways. “The way that people consume Boiler Room varies massively,” he says. “In Russia, there are places where bar owners are running the stream through a big sound system and charging for people to come in and dance. The beautiful thing about Boiler Room is that you have a choice in how engaged you want to be.”

Over time, the Boiler Room has grown leaps and bounds and still continues to be one of the most sought after platforms by both artists and the audience. While the Global audience uses it as a medium to listen to exclusive music and be a part of a good set just via a TV or a Laptop screen, the artists use it as a platform to road test tracks and experiment, along with getting the opportunity to play to a global audience while having the comfort of an intimate atmosphere.

Boiler Room
Solomun at Boiler Room
Boiler Room
Nina Kraviz at Boiler Room
Boiler Room
Skrillex at Boiler Room

Till date, these sessions have witnessed some of the biggest and the most diverse artists from different backgrounds. This also encourages them to expand to various places. And considering the fact that it is such a simple concept which banks essentially on local talent, and requires just a basement filled with a few enthusiastic people, it makes it way easier for them to take the concept and experiment at various places across the planet.

Over the years there have been controversies, tremendous achievements, comedy, and breath taking sets streamed out by this not so little thing, and that has defined its growth from an isolated London music project in 2010 to become the premiere international live underground music streaming service it is today.

Do you have a favourite memory of Boiler Room? Don’t forget to let us know in the comments’ section below.

Shivani Murthy


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