building a music empire with boiler room's blaise and sofie
While running an online youth magazine, Blaise found himself surrounded by musical friends. It seemed obvious to him to set up and broadcast a regular night, via Ustream, from the boiler room of his building to whoever wanted to watch. Literally ripping the sign off the door, Boiler Room soon became the logo and eventually, the company name. Things took off after a while and he and key Boiler Room player Thristian booked a session with Peanut Butter Wolf, founder of legendary LA hip-hop label Stones Throw Records. Then just 20, Stones Throw employee Sofie opened the set and bonded with the duo over an aligned musical interest. Sofie soon launched the LA side of things and in just four years, Boiler Room has become a worldwide phenomenon with an ever-expanding team producing 35 shows a month worldwide. Oh and Blaise and Sofie just got engaged! With big things happening both on and offline, we caught up with the dream team to discuss their new editorial voice, why classical music will blow your mind, and the hugely exciting future of Boiler Room.
Taking things way back to the early days of the company, did you ever expect all of this?
Blaise: Not at all. It was exciting and I thought it would be an appealing thing for people to see what this tiny crew of people in London were doing but we certainly weren't planning anything huge… I mean, we didn't even have a website for the first 52 shows.
But it eventually grew and Sofie, you helped take it global?
Sofie: Yeah, I guess my musical tastes fitted with what they wanted to do in the States, so I ran Boiler Room in LA for a long time, while working full time at Stones Throw, and eventually leaving to do Boiler Room full time which saw me moving to New York, and now London.
Blaise: I'm not just saying this to her credit but the USA is now our biggest market, and the shows that happen there really took us from the very electronic, post-dubstep, dubstep, house and techno of the UK and Berlin, towards the LA electronic scene of hip hop and rap. So yeah, we stole her from Stones Throw.
And what qualities do you think have ensured the continued success of Boiler Room?
Blaise: I think one of the key things is being able to be footloose and responsive because we're born in an era where things are changing massively every six months! Artists will pop up and be super hype and credible, then suddenly they're rubbish because things move so fast. I'm always deeply paranoid that we never get stuck in too much of a traditional route.
Sofie: Yeah, I think the difference between Boiler Room and other broadcasters is that when choosing artists, they need them to have X amount of return in either following or views to even consider featuring them, whereas we've always been very much the opposite; very much, what do we like? What do we think we can champion?
Blaise: Beyond that, like Sofie says, curation has been key for us in that we've stood out because we've been able to curate completely idealistically. In 2011 we talked about our growth and the pressure was on to go to bigger acts and stream their concerts but we actually did the complete opposite, focussing on more underground and emerging names. I think we need to remember that for a brand like Boiler Room to achieve the level of recognition it has, and to have reached such a big audience without ever having gone near the pop world is actually quite an exciting thing. It would be almost depressing if the actual underground music scene just remained something that only 50,000 people in the world ever took part in or knew about. Our whole mission is to move that forward and to actually try and defeat what has happened before - that idea that if you wanted to reach a big audience you had to somehow sell out; play a cornier set, change your setlist, release a pop song.
Sofie: That's the thing; good, credible music is for everybody. It's just not always readily available. It doesn't always reach the right ears.
Because people don't know where to find it…
Blaise: It's a difficult thing of course. As a brand we started in East London and only amazing music nerds around the world cared about us, but in growing that audience of course you get some kids who come in because they watched a video of somebody dancing in the background. But hopefully they discover they actually what we do so subscribe to the Soundcloud and YouTube and start to get into the music. Ultimately it's the same process of any artist we know crossing over into the charts. If they dissect their audience there are gonna be things they struggle with in terms of integrity.
I feel like there's been a lot of change recently — you're branching out with genres and covering more experimental and classical music…
Sofie: I think part of the reason is our new production standard. Previously we tried to do bands in the same setting as the regular nighttime broadcasts and we felt like we just weren't doing these artists justice at all.
Blaise: A lot of what we were doing in building our new team was a reaction to that. Our mission last year was to set ourselves up to be able to cover hip hop, jazz, guitar music, techno, whatever — whether at a party or in an empty room — and to make it complementary to what it is and to document it all in the right way. Last year we branched into all sorts of genres and it was amazing. We saw Boiler Room broadcasting from a 2000 year old amphitheatre with Caribou, who had got into the top 20 that week. It was a BBC-level production which we had done on a shoestring budget. Everyone online went crazy for it and it was really nice to see how far we had gone from a webcam on a wall in East London. We've been wanting to move into new things for a long time and now we're ready, that's why we've got a classical series and why we're doing jazz in the US, etc.
In doing so you'll be making these genres a lot more accessible to a younger audience...
Blaise: Exactly! And also democratising an incredibly stuffy industry. Sofie is a classically trained musician and we were talking — I think we were probably stoned — and listening to classical music like, 'Imagine watching this!' We've built a whole thing out of watching DJs and electronic artists, which is pretty interesting, but not that dynamic in terms of what you're filming. But with huge orchestras with every single person playing a different instrument that you could just watch for hours! If you've got an audience of millions of young people sitting in front of their computer screens on a Tuesday night, surely they would love to watch this incredible, beautiful music.
Especially if somebody they already understand and respect is presenting it to them as something worth watching…
Blaise: I hope so! We've done these obvious crossovers with classical and it's cool but I want to just go in on an oldschool fucking classical number. You'd just have people with tears in their eyes with their bongs.
You seem to be moving forward quite rapidly with your new editorial strand too?
Sofie: That's one of the biggest challenges that Boiler Room has had thus far; we had no voice up until a couple of months ago. We would do shows from LA or Berlin or wherever and it would be a relatively small artists which is great for the people that are already familiar with them, but for anybody else that's coming straight to the site…
Blaise: …they'd see 3000 performance different videos.
Sofie: Yeah! They'd be like, where do I even begin?!
Blaise: There's a limit to how much you can contextualise a DJ set. But we're creating a library that in 20 years time… well, there really won't be anything like it.
Sofie: People will need a map to navigate it.
Blaise: We'll be looking back at some of the most important artists of this century in their earliest stages ever. Imagining uncovering that gold for the stars of the 70s! Imagine being able to watch them hang out and play music before they were even signed. It's also like, a lot of the virtues of what we care about can often get poorly represented when the only representation is a group of people dancing in a room or a DJ set. Plus, we've had exclusive access to all kinds of artists and we could've got all this other coverage and far deeper involved our entire audience.
Sofie: There are so many moments in the past where you're like 'ohh!' and wish we could go back to and cover further.
Blaise: When you bring journalists into the fold, these guys have a whole other take; we used to do a UK Funky show and one of our writers, Errol, decided to do write a whole backstory piece on the genre and have a roundtable discussion with four of the most important artists. So we invited them down to the studio and before we knew it we had this one hour podcast of these four legendary guys all arguing about how the genre started. And you sit there like, 'fucking hell, this is great!' because we're going to get an amazing article out of this but it's also an amazing way of rethinking our broadcasts. We're working with people who are fucking clever and passionate right now. The caliber of intelligent, interesting and creative people at the company is really inspiring to be around. We just want to go around and gather more people like that; from editorial to video production, programming to tech guys.
And what other developments are on the agenda?
Blaise: We're talking to a fantastic developer who will make our content library available on mobiles, apps, Apple TV, Samsung, Sony, Playstation, Xbox, etc. The whole thing is going to be available everywhere, which is just part of our mission to reach a massive audience without compromising.
Sofie: Just making the content more accessible!
Blaise: We're doing a hell of a lot more stuff in the US too, and we're releasing a feature film called Altered State about trance-inducing music. Some amazing people are making it and it's essentially like, trance-inducing music… from kids taking pills and going to Berghain, through to like Sufi and Gnawa spiritual music and tribal dance.
Sofie: How to alter your mind state basically.
Blaise: We're also working on a Boiler Room festival. It will be a huge thing for us but it's also incredibly complicated so we'll see what happens.
What are your hopes and dreams for the future of Boiler Room?
Blaise: The ultimate would be to get back to those days where music TV could really change things and have huge worldwide impact. We want to keep getting bigger without ever compromising our curation or the integrity of the music.
Text Francesca Dunn