how boiler room works

Boiler Room's Deputy Editor Gabriel Szatan gives an insider's insight into the blood, sweat, tears and beats that go into making Boiler Room happen.

by Gabriel Szatan
12 February 2015, 2:50pm

That I'm even attempting to sum up Boiler Room remains a touch bizarre. For context, I played no part in Boiler Room's early years, nor its rapid global expansion, beyond loosely keeping tabs on it now and again. I remember catching a minorly awkward b2b between Deadboy and Mosca back at uni, and the first I actually attended was a suffocatingly hot Night Slugs session in summer of 2012.

As with the vast majority of people aware of Boiler Room, familiarity stems from those hyped early years. Secret locations and scathing chatrooms; Jamie xx and James Blake doing sets; notoriety for crowd displays of gawkiness, exuberance, disaffection, or some combination of the three and all this raw, chaotic, energy available at your fingertips.

Those days are long gone. The pushback against creative restrictions of the commercial gig circuit has been emphatic, track IDing has become a billion-dollar business, and Ben UFO has inherited the earth. Boiler Room is over the first bubble of exposure, that white-hot energy flash that catapulted it to an international level usually requiring years of steady graft, and is no longer the new kid on the block. So where to now?

Peculiarly, given the chunk of the musical map that Boiler Room's influence extends across, no-one really seems to be able to parse or even properly explain it.. It's an audiovisual broadcasting / serious music writing / festival hosting / online gathering / party-throwing hybrid thing. A movement boasting limitless potential, unmoored from convention, with no apparent endgame. In a funny way, that smudging is kinda the point.

Boiler Room's amorphous nature is one of its greatest assets, but isn't without drawbacks. To the average music fan, we float into view every time a Bonobo or a Nico or a Skream crops up, and then drift out of mind just as quickly. That's fine. It's how the trickle down of the internet works, and would be patently absurd to suggest otherwise.

If anything, as we've ballooned in both size and scope, the complex definition has become more pronounced. Cutting-edge club music used to be the sole preserve but now, with a global standing, we've broadened our remit to the point where we're tapping into so many different zones that we risk losing that sense of community and tangible ownership that helped propel us in the first place.

I mean: Tonal experiments at the V&A? Harsh noise in Tokyo? An animatronic dickface? 2014 took us into stranger climes than ever before, and that played no small part in the foundation of a proper editorial wing, as a better way to vocalise and explain why we champion who we do. This element of Boiler Room is still very much embryonic compared to the longstanding behemoths like Pitchfork, XLR8R and Fact, but we're making strong headway with a novel approach.

Through a combination of fortuitous factors, we have wound up with a unique platform, affording exposure on a hitherto unimaginable scale. If the recent switch-up in programming and upscaled production values fit any grand narrative, it's about being able to afford a more conducive cushion to what artists and DJs want to do with us. With an array of new formats, and more careful consideration across the board, we've moved past the 'one size fits all' model and become a healthier force in documenting, and actively enabling, underground music culture. That's the philosophy that undergirds this all.

I imagine the bulk of people are curious about how we work and not just, y'know, how we work. To answer a few recurrent questions I often hear: yes, we have a fixed office in London; yes, we're always on the lookout for new acts and if you catch our ear we will definitely come to you; no, you can't stream from any old dive and use the name. We're not a franchise to be farmed out. It's not quite that simple.

Similarly, we receive a never-ending stream of people reaching out to get involved, especially during festival season - the bulk of pitches are cute, but a tad misguided. It harks back to something the founder of Amsterdam's sadly-shuttered Trouw quipped to me: "Do you want to work here because you want to party, or do you want to work here so that other people can party?"

Given the density and variety of what comes through the site in any given week - daily track Debuts and weekly audio-only Upfront mixes; longform reads and interviews and archival churns; an unceasing flow of broadcasts to be announced and archived; plus, of course, the shows themselves - my personal role is pretty all-encompassing. Workdays can sometimes run out eighteen-hour slogs that begin at 6am liaising with labels from Melbourne and ending with troubleshooting a show in Mexico due to a wonky connection. Inherent love of music works as a natural coping mechanism, but even that is put under severe strain tests at times.

Fortunately there's an ever-present crackle of energy to tap into when needed, especially in the mornings after a particularly successful show or when a farfetched concept is on the cusp of coming off. The team home and abroad forms a buzzing hive-mind, constantly pinging ideas back and forth, strategising over what sort of environment might compliment the aesthetic of any given act, tailoring show formats to fit their sonic profile, pooling resources with a universe of like minded contacts to ensure we get it right each and every. Chaos still reigns supreme, but it's an agreeable sort of organized chaos; like a record label run out of a cluttered storeroom, or a band careening through rehearsals with an 'anything goes' mantra.

There are about fifty people who currently work for Boiler Room scattered across the globe. As well as the incredibly dedicated and well-oiled young production squad, we can count on input from some of the sharpest and most resourceful minds going. Our programming team home and abroad have variously held down roles with Beggars Group, Resident Advisor JPN, Berghain, FBi Radio, Bleep, Stones Throw, Unsound Festival, and managed tours or press for an enormous amount of artists; almost everyone throws parties, and they also helm a lot of seriously great upstart labels. We live and die on the strength of our contributors; they form a latticework somehow even stronger than those individually impressive composite parts.

But it's not like I - we - can't hear murmurs of disapproval or outright dissent above the backslapping. There are pretty obvious challenges in all this. We've been called out for propagating narcissism, fuelling stand-and-stare tendencies, or detracting from the music itself by reducing performance to an easily-digestible spectacle. Sometimes the slanging comes from artists we really adore, and that fucking stings. We're trying to be more responsive and proactive with stuff like this. There was one article in Attack Magazine that caused a lot of debate behind closed doors.

Attracting 'characters' on camera is still a big part of the fun (obviously), but the hipster baiting got stale. That well-reasoned criticism planted the seed for a nascent new series with Mister Saturday Night that we're really proud of, placing the impetus back squarely on true dance culture; the reaction was overwhelmingly positive, sparking another flurry of specially-commissioned episodes with a panoply of artists, set to drop across the year.

We're fully cognisant that the breadth of what we do verges on the overwhelming. Equally, we get that the expanded size of the operation, and having shed some of the more cavalier and calamitous elements of it all, turns people off. As I say, it's a challenge: how to maintain authenticity borne of localized origins when you're putting on Underground Resistance in the Amazon, or Panda Bear at MoMA PS1.

I see Boiler Room as symptomatic of a generational hyperactivity, this restless demand for instant gratification that bleeds through into every aspect of life. That doesn't have to be a bad thing. One of the standout musical trends of the past decade has been the championing of sounds and scenes that might have previously been passed over on grounds of taste or that they were no longer 'relevant' — and assimilation of everything back into dancefloor culture. You can see it in chintzy boogie and New Age noodling; in winebar jazz and soft-tone rock; in videogame soundtracks and library music. The boundaries have been completely dissolved, levelling the landscape in the best way possible.

A common trait amongst music fans of all stripes is a sort of 'digger's instinct', a desire to explore. If it helps to have someone of Jonny Greenwood's stature to nudge you in the direction of chamber music and abstract classical forms, then we're doing our job properly. It's super rewarding to notice huge numbers of users coming to our more leftfield programming without pretext, and enjoy it so much they ask after the next steps to dive deeper.

It's why, years after 'commercial radio is dead' became a truism, the likes of Benji B, Mary Anne Hobbs and Gilles Peterson all attract legions of followers. The trio occupy different slots on different parts of the BBC, commanding different audiences with different approaches, but are emblematic of a revered specialist. When adrift in an ocean of #content, you cling to what looks familiar. It all cycles back to democratising access to a diverse array of music from across the spectrum. That's a genuinely worthwhile pursuit.

Also it's fun. It's absurdly fun. The joy is interwoven into BR's DNA. From the very outset, the pleasure principle has been a guiding force, something that has remained intact from the days of Logitech webcams and UStream piggybacks, through the dizzying boom years and into the present, with Boiler Room a mainstay. I guess that joy, on levels micro and macro, is the crux of how Boiler Room works on a global scale - and why it will continue to work for a long, long time.


Text Gabriel Szatan
Photography Piczo

boiler room
Marika Hackman
Little Simz
Karma Kid
The Music Issue
Gabriel Szatan
music interviews
boiler room takeover