Club Classics: A Brief History Of The Boiler Room Set

Club Classics: A Brief History Of The Boiler Room Set

How the online music broadcaster became a haven for niche global scenes and a playground for mainstream renegades like Charli XCX, whose February set broke an RSVP record

Charli XCX wants the club classics. She confirmed as much earlier this month when she officially dropped her single of the same title, the latest glimpse at her sixth studio album Brat. But for the charmed 400 who stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a nondescript Brooklyn warehouse in February when Charli debuted an edit of the song to kick off her sought-after PARTYGIRL DJ set with producers A.G. Cook, George Daniel, Easyfun, and Doss, that’s last season’s revelation. The TikTok-famous, drag royalty, New York it-people, critics for every culture mag left standing, and regular old Angels (Charli’s fandom name) packed the house not just to watch Charli perform. They showed up in droves to party with her.

Charli chose to pressure-test Brat — a love letter to the London raves she ran in as a tween, due out June 7 — with an increasingly ubiquitous litmus test in global club culture: the Boiler Room set. The format, which places DJs in the center of their crowds before a fixed webcam streaming to Boiler Room’s website, aims to beam under-documented local scenes out to international listeners with their ears to the underground. The 400 crowd members at Charli’s set represented the chosen few among over 25,000 RSVPS, the most in Boiler Room’s history.

Boiler Room aligns well with Charli’s post-Atlantic Records assertion that she is not the chart-courting sweetheart “Yuck” might have you believe, because the London-based online music broadcaster wasn’t created for pop stars. Founded in 2010 by Blaise Bellville and Thristian Richards, Boiler Room’s 8,000-plus video archive gathers siloed and underdocumented movements of the global underground into one replayable record, proof of club culture in countries like Pakistan, Syria, and Palestine. Favela funk, amapiano, UK jungle and gabber revival, the Filipino budots dance, disco crate digging, and whatever Grimes terrorized Ibiza with in 2013 all coexist across the platform’s internal archive and YouTube channel.

The Hackney origin story combines a “derelict” building and a literal boiler room, empty and rank with unchecked mold — an average twentysomething’s weekend haunt. Bellville, then leading the music and underground culture website Platform, taped a webcam to the wall and designated the space a studio. He moved in turntables and planned to record weekly mixes for uploading on UStream weekly, inviting friends by to take a spin on his new CDJ or sway over warm beers.

These loosely structured bedroom-size sets eventually drew affiliates of London indie imprints like Young Turks, R&S, Numbers, and Swamp 81, and formed the foundation for Boiler Room today. As artists like Jamie xx, Hudson Mohawke, James Blake, and Mount Kimbie became early series regulars, Bellville and Richards fostered connections with labels like Awful Records in Atlanta and Stones Throw in LA, where Bellville met his now-wife and once Boiler Room creative director Sofie Royer.

From Hackney, Bellville envisioned rallying the zillenial Brits who cursed missing out on the turn-of-the-millennium halcyon days of trading grime- and garage-rich mixtapes sourced from FM pirate radio, a loosely curated universe to stumble into and wander through. Between Richards hosting an NTS broadcast and spinning club nights around the city as DJ bPm while Bellville put on Way Out West gigs part-time, he’d also familiarized himself with the tactical differences between putting on a great party and a great show. Bellville recognized both a challenge and an opportunity in expansion.

“The DJs get to play music that they wouldn’t normally play in a club, where they have to face the audience and make everyone dance,’ he told TimeOut London in 2011, shortly after Boiler Room headed up its first shows in Berlin and just a couple months before Thom Yorke streamed live for a memorably motionless crowd. Clearly, audience behavior counted. But the hook of Boiler Room’s fly-on the-wall POV really caught on with Kaytranada’s now-infamous 2015 set in Montreál, played for a crowd of people distinct enough to attract their own fandoms. (Canadian singer Shay Lia eventually identified herself as one “boiler room girl.”) Debut home-turf broadcasts from Palestine’s Sama’ Abdulhadi in 2018 and Pakistan’s Lyla in 2022 didn’t only highlight two rising talents. They also cataloged the thrill of two oft-misrepresented nightlife scenes in real-time, refuting popular Western misconceptions about Muslim-majority countries and the heads who live there.

The Boiler Room set stands in 2024 as a sort of showcase sui generis, a specified muscle flex that can benefit both genre architects and on-the-verge stars. Carl Cox’s lazer-focused 2013 Ibiza performance is Boiler Room’s most-watched mix on YouTube with over 65M views, a techno icon at peak island powers for bikini-clad clubbers and one very enthusiastic person in a hockey mask. Conversely, Fred Again..’s packed 2022 set in London jumpstarted his international career. Like Kaytranada’s Montréal character carousel, Fred Again.. benefited from the plot points introduced by a crowd sent wild by his finger-drumming. When Fred teased a Skrillex tag, one attendee danced so vigorously so near to him that their elbow switched off the decks, creating a coincidental pre-drop. The guy’s candid camera-captured expression read “guilty” and “horrified,” but Fred Again.. gave him a hug.

Boiler Room predates TikTok, Vine, and even Instagram, but flourished as short-form visual content became a dominant mode of fanbase building and maintenance over the past 15 years. Artists break now from viral moments, making an hour-long Boiler Room placement on YouTube potentially more fertile ground for visibility than a 3AM after-party set or small headline performance. Nascent online platforms like Brooklyn’s The Lot Radio, founded in 2016, and Berlin’s HÖR, founded in 2019, have refashioned the Boiler Room format in step. These broadcasters air sets from their own lineups from a stickered-up trailer and a hospital-tiled second-floor bathroom, respectively, honing in on the no-frills, scene-forward aspect of Boiler Room’s credo. (HÖR, however, has faced recent allegations of censorship after allegedly requesting two performers to remove clothing items—or in one case, cancel a set—due to expressions of solidarity with Palestine. Multiple other artists self-removed broadcasts in response.)

But Boiler Room has become a space for anyone — mainstream leaders, subgenre pioneers, SOPHIE — to cook without confines. Sometimes that looks like Grimes dropping “Gasolina” on a horrified gaggle of genre purists or Yorke grooving to an Africa Hitech remix for an airless room. But sometimes it takes the form of Chicago legend Honey Dijon’s 2018 set from Sugar Mountain, a master class in seamless blending; or budots pioneer DJ Love’s headlining broadcast from Manila, the culmination of a 20-plus year DIY career during which his influence wasn’t always put on his name. Establishing the Davao City style hasn’t been lucrative for Love and has only recently brought some critical attention. But behind his decks in Manila, he’s on the same playing field as the Radiohead mastermind, and his crowd gets more hyped.

Money started coming in less than a year into Boiler Room’s founding, and ultimately prompted a spatial graduation to London’s Corsica Studios. Today Boiler Room has multiple offices worldwide and counts Red Bull, Ray-Ban, and Adidas as partners. Ticketing platform Dice acquired the brand in 2021 after raising $122 million in Series C funding, and in 2023 Boiler Room organized its inaugural World Tour showcase, attracting around 200,000 people across 15 cities. (It’s worth noting the Charli tickets that sold out in minutes were free. The Boiler Room events that do charge admission line up a more robust slate of artists, as is the case with dates on their 25-stop World Tour 2024.)

The business has drawn criticism for offering to pay in exposure in the past, especially after filing for a chunk of Cultural Recovery Fund relief money in the fall of 2020. They took measures to address the claims that same year, introducing a universal artist fee. The change didn’t include backpay, perhaps exemplifying why exposure is never the same as income. But Boiler Room’s ability to guarantee eyes watching and ears listening reveals how they’ve learned to wield a virtual audience’s real engagement: viewers who click the live link and stay there, partygoers who line up at the club and talk about it the next day. However streaming the star-making Fred Again.. set two years after the fact clad in fleece pajamas on my couch to great pleasure, it’s clear that the tastemaking clout of being early or being there can’t completely account for the maintained hype.

The model actually seems well-argued for in Charli’s reasoning for an arch “music isn’t important” take shared in a March interview: An artist should bring you the whole world. Plenty of warriors rushed rightfully to music’s defense online, but Charli’s baiting comment latches onto something important about Boiler Room’s success, which still lives and dies in the crowd.

A show’s visual presentation doesn’t guarantee or supersede quality. But there’s a reason an r/electronicmusic post seeking out Boiler Room sets with the best crowds has dozens of unique and passionate responses. The cult of the Boiler Room DJ isn’t much detached from the people keeping its heartbeat, whether they’re on the dancefloor filming from two phones or in the live-stream comments time-stamping “the peak of the party.”

A format that endears viewers with moments inextricable from place demands an artist transmit the world — not an invented one, but the real milieu contextualizing their corner of the universe. When Charli introduces her rave album with a Boiler Room set, 25,000 people don’t exhaust the RSVPs because they love her work on “Boom Clap.” (“Vroom Vroom,” maybe.) They understand that Boiler Room promises a different kind of intimacy with the performer and stage, a chance to take part in something more holistic than the average concert and more intentional than the average rave. The DJ is the literal center of attention, but every friend, lover, and random in the vicinity still gets to flicker and glow like a distant planet. The lists for Boiler Room sets are getting more exclusive, and there’s likely little turning back. But throw on a stream, let it run, and watch. You’ll find yourself somewhere, in someone.

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