Boiler Room – the broadcasting platform which brought the party (and DJs turning knobs) into living rooms around the world – is changing. The company has unveiled parts of a new business model involving “brand fee/royalties” and a quasi-franchised version of the Boiler Room experience coming to a town near you.
Disclosure of this change in direction was not intentional. Aaron Clark from Pittsburgh’s Honcho and Hot Mass leaked an email to his Facebook page which consisted of a solicitation from someone with Boiler Room that drew broad outlines around the erstwhile broadcaster’s new direction.
“Boiler Room is now reaching out to underground promoters, offering to brand our parties as ‘Boiler Room’ for a LICENSING FEE,” Clark wrote, “and they won’t even bother to broadcast our artists on a video stream?
“Y’all, these people are trash and we need to stop fucking with them. This is dance music cancer.”
The email Clark posted refers to a “touring concept” for Boiler Room. “The idea,” it reads, “is to do non-broadcast Boiler Room parties in interesting cities where BR doesn’t usually visit.”
Curiously, this doesn’t seem to be about exposing local talent in cities like Pittsburgh (which has a ton) to an international audience, but helping artists from London and Berlin breakthrough in cities like Pittsburgh. “[Our] feeling is that the Boiler Room brand can sell the tickets,” the email reads, “and then we can showcase newer acts who might be getting strong traction in cities like London & Berlin but perhaps aren’t ready yet to sell out a show in smaller markets.”
Boiler Room is “looking for a long term partner in each place to do 2-4 shows a year,” it reads, “and further down the road will be able to do tours of hot talent that might not otherwise play smaller places.”
Promoters would “take the reigns on promo, with BR receiving a brand fee/royalty.”
The email concludes by noting Boiler Room’s eagerness to put together a show as quickly as possible to “test the strength of the brand.” The brand, it opines, is already quite strong: Boiler Room sold out 1,600 tickets in London “in 48 hours with no line-up, and similar in LA, New York, and Paris.”
Expectations: Realistic and the Other Kind
It was interesting to note who took issue with different aspects of the pitch that Aaron Clark posted. For some, it was the idea of an overseas crew co-opting the cool and the cachet of a local scene and charging a local promoter for the pleasure of it.
The idea that Boiler Room could legitimately sell out Pittsburgh in 48 hours seems absurd – it sounds like hype and the kind of hype that could end in tears for local promoters.
For me, it was the part at the end – about selling 1,600 tickets in 48 hours with no line-up. That Boiler Room could pitch those numbers selling that quickly in Pittsburgh seems absurd – it sounds like hype and the kind of hype that could end in tears for local promoters. Pittsburgh isn’t London. Chicago isn’t London for that matter, and the idea of putting together a line-up and selling out that quickly rarely happens except in hip hop and EDM (I mean really “selling out,” not Live Nation’s version when they put 5% of the tickets up for sale and claim they “sold out in ten minutes.”) It seemed pretty cheeky to pitch something like that at an experienced promoter like Clark.
Yet Boiler Room is doubling down on this claim. In the wake of Clark’s post, I traded emails with Michail Stangl, who describes himself elsewhere as “one of the lead programmers at Boiler Room” and who runs their Berlin office. Stangl spent a lot of time talking to me, which I appreciate – nearly 4,000 words of text largely emphasizing Boiler Room’s role in the electronic music scene.
Stangl allowed that the email sent to Clark was “ill-worded and didn’t contain any of the much necessary contexts,” but in our subsequent discussion basically stood by everything in it.
Stangl emphasized that selling out in 48 hours in Pittsburgh or any similar locale is “a very realistic expectation and one that we’ve seen repeat itself all over the world, no matter the continent.” This was possible because Boiler Room’s “appeal goes usually way beyond the particular genre we work with at a certain show.” Elsewhere, in a comment that Stangl wrote and which he forwarded to me, he claims that “Over [the] years we found that BR has, no matter the region, an incredible pull when it comes to our events, which we are now trying to turn into something positive and financially sustainable for everyone involved.”
I mentioned that I was also surprised their pitch was framed as a plan to subsidize a headliner from out-of-town rather than support the local community and give them more exposure on a big platform. This would seem to be the opposite of working with the local “underground,” particularly as this local show wouldn’t be broadcast.
Boiler Room says they will be “working together with these communities,” but I couldn’t figure out exactly what was in it for the community in this. Without the camera and the community, a Boiler Room “franchised” show like the one described to Clark would be just like any show – just with a big out-of-town partner.
Stangl answered that local promoters sometimes can’t book who they wanted to for financial reasons and “BR fills this gap – audiences know from our shows that the music will be exiting and BR adds additional promotional momentum so that the programming can focusing on quality, not on the artist’s commercial pull.” Which still doesn’t say much about the local community.
Trickle Down Boilernomics
Part of the reasoning behind the changes at Boiler Room, Stangl has said, is a laudable desire to see everyone – most importantly, artists – get paid for honest work. In floating the idea of a “standard fee” imposed on “even free shows,” Stangl wrote in a reply to Clark’s post that part of the advantage would be to ensure fair compensation for artists. “We fully believe,” he wrote, “that all artists should get paid for their time for anything they’re involved with, irrespective of any promotional value offered by platforms.”
Yet over the years, I’ve talked to three people who worked at Boiler Room shows for free in technical or support capacities. I didn’t think this was a problem – the people who volunteered made their decision to work without financial compensation, regardless of what I may think of it. But with Boiler Room’s new emphasis on being a marketing and ticketing agent, things would have to change. This was no longer some fun shit at a club. They have to pay these guys.
Stangl categorically denied this has happened outside of “early London and Berlin shows only” in Boiler Room’s early years – “and even back then those would have been exceptions.” Stangl allows that “there have been shows where friends of friends do sound or help out,” but that anyone who works in an “official capacity” gets paid.
“My team operating out of Berlin overlooks up to 70 shows per year and to my knowledge we have not knowingly sourced unpaid labor,” he told me, “even though very often many people contribute to make a show happen, some of which might do it for free, just the way I help friends often for free at events with my own knowledge and hands-on support.”
What Is Boiler Room Anyway?
Boiler Room’s new direction is still ambiguous to me – the email sent to Clark reads like an improvised monetization plan, floated for feedback and composed hastily after sponsor dollars dried up or became too unreliable (hence the desire to put together shows fast to “test the strength of the brand”).
I asked Stangl a follow-up question. “Has Boiler Room made a formal announcement of your changing business model?” I asked. “If not, how would you briefly describe it?”
This went unanswered, which might have been more appropriate than I originally thought. Because I’m not sure if Boiler Room can even describe itself and what it does anymore, and will have a harder time after it steps into this new direction.
The vast majority of people in the scene would describe Boiler Room as a broadcaster. But sometimes it has shows it doesn’t broadcast.
Behind the stage, it will sometimes act as a promoter, sometimes a brand that will partner with local promoters for a fee, sometimes a promoter partnering with other brands, like a vodka company or a maker of cheap sunglasses.
Sometimes it’s none of these things. Sometimes it’s more than one.
It’s probably quite hard to sort out, even when you’re in the middle of it. And having to come up with a definition would mean Boiler Room can no longer be many different things, to many different people, at many different times.