Since its inception in March 2010, Boiler Room has had a list of guests that reads like a who's who of dance music: UK-based artists like Mount Kimbie, Oneman, Terror Danjah, Jamie Woon, Goldie and Jackmaster have contributed sets, as have international visitors including Theo Parrish, Diplo, Gaslamp Killer, Falty DL, and DJ Rashad, garnering 148,000 average live monthly viewers on the site.
I'm lucky to get the chance to come down and watch these proceedings in the flesh, but this isn't really about the 100 or so people who've gathered here to drink Red Stripe and nod along to the beat. The heart of the matter lies in the tiny HD webcam that's perched ever so subtly in front of Scuba, who is playing a thoughtful selection of UK garage, dubstep and house, with his back to the crowd. On the other end of this camera, thousands of people are tuning in online to hear the latest tracks, check out a set from their favorite DJ, and make comments in the chat room (cleverly dubbed the "chat room massive" by one of the show's founders and hosts, Thristian bPm).
One such participant is Gosia Herman, a 22 year-old who works in event production and lives in Wroclaw, Poland. She's a big fan of forward thinking dance music, but says Boiler Room provides an opportunity to catch performances by people she might not have direct access to see live in her hometown. "If you don't live in London or Berlin etc., you can't choose from a number of nights every weekend. So being able to watch a live set from someone you respect is always a nice addition to the weekly schedule," she explains.
Herman and the other chat room inhabitants usually ask for track IDs, exchange banter about the DJs' skills, and make comments on what's played. There's nothing quite like watching a party go off in the text-only virtual realm. A rapid-fire stream of "Ohhhhhh!," "TUNE!" and rows of exclamation points cascade down the window, a thoroughly current take on a well-worn rave concept. Occasionally, DJs like Lunice or Scratcha DVA join in as well, answering impromptu questions about forthcoming releases or upcoming gigs.
While Boiler Room is currently the best known of these shows in the English-speaking world, the medium is not entirely new. Since September of 1999, the Los Angeles-based Dublab collective has been spreading avant beats on the airwaves and, simultaneously, broadcasting video from their studio. They started with a modest 56kbps stream, but currently use the ad-free service Yowie, and have up to three cameras and a video mixer merging in graphic loops and stills during their shows. "Platforms like Ustream and Yowie have changed the game by offering broadcasters big and small the chance to use simple tools to be seen and heard by the world," offers Mark "Frosty" McNeill, Dublab's co-founder and director. "There have also been huge technological leaps forward on the viewers' side. Increased bandwidth, graphics cards and souped-up mobile devices have made it a lot easier for folks to access content and browse offerings."
Now that the playing field is leveled for both broadcasters and viewers, it seems anyone can use a laptop or iPhone to connect with an audience. Varying slightly in form, content and means of production, new shows seemingly crop up each day, including Dommune in Tokyo, TwenFM in Berlin, Percussion Lab and Trouble & Bass in Brooklyn, Panhead in Bristol, Propa TV in Auckland, and Get Darker and Just Jam, which focus on grime in London. It has also become common practice for individual DJs to broadcast their sets, which are often informal bedroom sessions as opposed to the highly scheduled affairs put on by collectives.
Numbers-wise, the most watched show of this kind is Dommune in Tokyo, which broadcasts live DJ sets from 9 PM until midnight. Weekends are eschewed in favor of early weeknight time slots so as not to steal audiences from local club nights. It is filmed in a tiny venue that is kitted out with a bar and a Funktion One sound system, and holds just 50 people. However, tens of thousands tune in each evening to view performances from the likes of Four Tet, Onra and Tokimonsta, madly Tweeting or posting their thoughts to Facebook along to the music. "I chat on Dommune, where I know that a lot of people I know will most likely be online and listening," says Mike Sunda, a 22 year-old Londoner currently living in Tokyo to study Japanese and write for The Japan Times.
Time differences between countries can sometimes get in viewers' way, so many online shows make sets available on Soundcloud, as downloadable iTunes podcasts or post links to archived video segments—a truly cross-platform phenomenon. The medium itself also makes this a generational issue, inextricably tying the trend to its audience of young, often tech-savvy dance music fanatics. Historically, two friends could make tape recordings of radio programs and swap them later on. Now though, there is instantaneous running commentary, with young people engaging through a format that feels like second nature. "Usually we watch simultaneously at home," Herman divulges, "chatting throughout and having our own beers." Young teens that can't yet go to clubs legally can also join in on the action, getting a loose feel for what it's like to watch a DJ set and the various ways in which crowds react.
Another aspect that makes these shows notable is how their formats allow DJs to stretch out and experiment with types of music they might not normally play at a proper gig. "I select my tunes more in-depth for the Boiler Room," says UK funky/house artist Cooly G, who is currently working on an album for Hyperdub. "Gigs are more like, 'Oh my god I'm gonna play that tune!' and just vibe through my selection onstage," she adds.
"I always try and do something that I know I will enjoy," offers producer and DJ Jamie xx. "It's nice to make some more intriguing selections as people at home are listening much more intently than in a club." According to Sunda, "Lots of the time on Boiler Room you can see DJs experimenting and having fun—and that's definitely part of the appeal."
While Boiler Room uses just one camera, projecting a static shot of a DJ face-forward with the crowd behind, Dommune employs four, switching between shots of the DJ at work and the crowd. It also uses mandala-like visuals when the sound gets particularly complex, which comes across as the ultimate glorification of the DJ: bathed in a spotlight recalling the sun, the camera focuses on a pair of hands expertly manning a pair of turntables, then on a head bobbing to the beat, blurring the edges of the frame like some vision of heaven.
audience but into the abyss of the Internet…
the entire phenomenon can feel a bit odd."
Another site that has become prominent in this arena is TwenFM in Berlin, which began as a pirate radio station in 1999, moved to various legal stations over the years, and in May 2010 joined up with 88vier, a frequency supported by the local government. At the same time, they embedded a live video feed on their website, broadcasting shows via the Qik app for iPhone and promoting genres from house and techno to hip-hop and dubstep, with particular focus on what's going on in town, new releases, and artists underserved in other parts of the media sphere. Every Friday and Saturday evening from midnight until 4 AM, they are live online and simultaneously on local television station ALEX, whose studio they use for filming. "A DJ once said that playing on TwenFM is like playing in a friend's living room," remarks Andrea Bruns, TwenFM's Head of Communications. "Generally all of our friends, friends of the DJs, as well as friends of interview guests are welcome. So often, we have a really familiar atmosphere in our studio and a little party behind the scenes."
Aesthetically, TwenFM comes across as a more formal show, with heavy ties to its radio roots. Hosts adopt an on air personality-like demeanor, giving guests proper introductions, conducting interviews, and announcing club nights going on in the city. More than a thousand people typically tune in from all over the world to watch the video stream, requesting track IDs and asking the DJs questions in the chatroom, and even calling in to the show and speaking on air. During a recent Friday night session, techno and house-leaning duo Samanta Fox entered the studio dressed in full-body animal suits (a dinosaur and a fox), happily spinning tunes as two cameras caught their movements from various angles, cross-fading between them and the hostess at the helm in front of a microphone. It seems entirely likely that many radio stations will begin to follow a model like this, in an effort to keep up with the fast pace of the Internet or be rendered obsolete.
While TwenFM feels like a radio show that people just so happen to have the ability to watch live, Boiler Room comes across as a different animal entirely. Ostensibly, it should be quite boring, and carries the potential to incite feelings of missing out on the actual physical experience of going to a party. However, it's become clear to the show's founders that there is something appealing and oddly voyeuristic about observing people playing new music (or older music in innovative contexts) in a natural setting.
Watching along, some viewers begin to feel like they can't look away, lest a big tune drop or an up-and-coming DJ play a truly breakthrough set. Others choose to listen along live, and only maximize the screen when it sounds like something major is happening. And to some, their omniscient eyes locked into a faraway location, staring at a DJ who isn't looking at his or her audience but into the abyss of the Internet, the entire phenomenon can feel a bit odd. It's not always easy for the performers either. "Playing with your back to the crowd is unnerving and unnatural," offers Jamie xx. "It's all part of the challenge."
"The whole idea is that people jam to the music as naturally as possible," says Thristian bPm of Boiler Room. He is aware that guests are sometimes wary of the fact there is a camera in the room, but further explains: "After the vibes have settled in, everyone forgets that there are a whole bunch of people watching online." And he should know. Having worked with Gilles Peterson and his Brownswood Recordings label for a few years and DJing around London, Thristian (along with Femi Adeyemi, who DJs under the name Mr. Wonderful and now runs online radio station NTS) was summoned by Blaise Bellville in early 2010 to start Boiler Room.
Bellville, an entrepreneurial young Londoner who earned his stripes running club nights and promoting events, started the online magazine Platform in 2009, which became a go-to cultural hub for 18 to 24 year olds keen on keeping up with all things cool. He'd been keeping tabs on individual DJs mixing live online, and felt something similar would be a great addition to Platform. "Originally, we were thinking about how we could cover music in a different way," he explains.
The show was initially filmed in a space in Hackney Downs before moving to a warehouse in Dalston. It took form and blossomed, and Bellville realized he needed to stamp his brand on it. "My concern, as with anything online, was to protect that concept," he reveals. "We started asking labels to do takeovers where they would showcase their talent. That worked really well because we were protecting the concept. People wouldn't go off and do their own shows—they would come and do it with Boiler Room."
Over the past few months, the Boiler Room team has been expanding in scope, broadcasting live gigs from South By Southwest in Austin, Texas and, most recently, from Sónar in Barcelona. In mid-February of this year, they officially joined up with Red Bull Music Academy, which helps cover the hefty costs of streaming and aided them in securing the official venue Corsica Studios as a weekly venue for the live broadcasts. "It was like, 'Let's form a partnership and not a sponsorship.' They've helped us survive and added value in terms of the quality of the actual show," Bellville outlines.
TwenFM and Dublab have also streamed on site at various club nights and festivals, which is a testament to the fact that online streaming shows carry vast amounts of potential, as long as broadcasters are willing to think creatively. "I think most video webcasters are in the teething stage," claims Dublab's "Frosty" McNeill. "Up until now we've been just gnawing on the idea. Soon, many folks will start breaking through the barriers and mashing it all up, twisting content around and shredding pre-conceived blueprints of webcasting to make something totally new."