Barely 24 hours after playing a sold-out show at New York’s colossal Terminal 5 last October, Flying Lotus stood hunched over the DJ controls in a cramped warehouse tucked deep in the Lower East Side. The air was thick with smoke, and a palpable sense of exclusivity. Those who had been lucky enough to get their names on the list—journalists, PR types, DJ’s friends—swilled free booze from the open bar, and mingled with artists like The xx’s Oliver Sim, and masked U.K. producer SBTRKT.
The space only accommodated a few hundred attendees, but the crowd that night dwarfed the one at the 3000-capacity Terminal 5. The event was hosted by Boiler Room, and the rest of the audience—as many as 1.1 million, or the four-year-old streaming service’s active online subscribers—watched the festivities unfold on their laptops or smartphones via Boilerroom.tv. That voyeuristic activity has become part of what it means to be a fan of underground dance music, even as mainstream EDM culture rages on.
“Especially in the U.K., everyone knows what Boiler Room is,” said founder and CEO Blaise Bellville. “It’s become an absolute essential for any artist to promote—any artist in the credible music world, whether they’re aspiring pop musicians, or whether they want to stay underground. Everyone has to play at Boiler Room because it offers more license than any other live or archive platform there is.”
Hungry for content and organic “tune-in” opportunities, the video gods have taken notice. Boiler Room recently expanded from London to Berlin and the U.S. and closed a deal with Google to make it a YouTube-funded partner channel, which is set to launch around May 1. The partnership opens a stream of advertising revenue that will not only support Boiler Room’s continued activities, but it will also create a mainstream marketing opportunity for underground artists; an unprecedented way for a DJ playing in a basement to be discovered by potential fans all around the world, both during the live streams and via Boiler Room’s extensive archives.
“We created this space in which artists could hang out and not feel like they had a thousand fans standing right in front of them, waving their cameras in their faces,” said Bellville, “and also where they could perform to each other.”
The YouTube deal has been in the works since last May, when the Boiler Room team first met with James Cator and Patrick Walker, representatives from YouTube’s music division, and both fans of the streaming platform. Around the same time, Bellville and his cohorts set up a YouTube channel without promoting or announcing it to fans: It racked up 121,000 subscribers in short order, and continues to grow by 5,000 every week.
From the start, Boiler Room’s webcam has been a window into underground music scenes—first London’s blossoming U.K. bass culture, then Berlin’s thriving techno community, and now the bubbling-under artists in the United States. The company’s expansion into other markets supports its goal to become “the most comprehensive underground broadcaster in the world,” says Bellville, one that covers any type of burgeoning scene, without having to bend to commercial demands and post music just to drive traffic.
“Up until now, we’ve provided America and a lot of the world with a very good keyhole into the U.K. music scene, or into the Berlin techno scene,” Bellville said. “What we haven’t fully explored yet is sitting in the U.K. and being able to understand what America is about. So, when we’re actually comprehensive in our coverage of music in America, that’s going to be really exciting, because then we’d have two of the biggest markets in the world feeding off each other and being able to discover each other.”Boiler Room is Bellville’s most successful endeavor thus far. He’s launched two other businesses: All Age Concerts, a company that promoted all-ages concerts in the U.K., and Platform, an online music and culture magazine. Platform attracted a regular readership of about 300,000, but like many online publications, it struggled to translate high traffic into sufficient revenue. Bellville quickly grew jaded with music journalism and wanted to find a fresh way of evangelizing and reporting on underground talent that leveraged the potential of new media technologies. He became drawn to mixtapes.
“The one form of music coverage that still felt premium online,” he says. But instead of meticulously crafted and carefully planned studio mixes, he and some friends taped a webcam to the wall of the storage room in Platform’s warehouse office space and started spinning. Bellville enlisted Thristian Richards, a Soul Jazz and Gilles Peterson affiliate, and Femi Adeyemi, the founder of the London-based online radio station NTS, to host the weekly hangout. Between the three of them, they were able to establish Boiler Room as a low-key hangout for the patrons of London’s electronic music scene.
“We got Jamie xx, SBTRKT, Mount Kimbie and a bunch of people we didn’t expect at the beginning to come down and just turn up with their friends,” Bellville said. “Hudson Mohawke and a ton of other people had been coming down to play records and hang out, and artists were talking about it, and everybody seemed to be talking about it—in our scene, anyway.”
Although his project has set about becoming a comprehensive platform in terms of its global scale, Bellville remains devoted to underground music. “There’s conversations of, ‘Should we break into the commercial EDM market?’” he says. “Personally, I don’t think we should. I don’t think musically that it’s right. That one isn’t something we’re specifically interested in.”
But Bellville is interested in American hip-hop. Flying Lotus’s New York Boiler Room show, which also featured sets from underground rap crews the Flatbush Zombies and the Underachievers, was one of his first experiments, “but the final recorded footage for me wasn’t perfect,” Bellville said. “It wasn’t iconic, it wasn’t different enough. It wasn’t quite there.”
An epiphany during Miami Music Week led to a new format: Small sessions from the living rooms of private homes. “Hip-hop [is] a bit different, because to do it justice, you need to film it with a moving camera,” Bellville says. “The artist has to feel relaxed in the environment; they need to feel like they’re performing to the camera rather than the crowd in the room.”
Bellville is hard at work promoting the new treatment: a three-day series in New York set for later this month will showcase local hip-hop acts from Harlem, Brooklyn, and Queens, all from private residences. So far, he’s reached out to artists like Just Blaze, Smoke DZA, Action Bronson, Mobb Deep, and Big Daddy Kane to participate. While underground dance parties are cool, underground hip-hop performances could take Boiler Room to the next level, and Bellville knows it. “We’re trying to ingratiate ourselves and show respect to the hip-hop community, so we need to make sure we’re doing something different,” he says. “I think this is going to be our winning format.”