Formats Unpacked: Boiler Room

How a format has built one of the most important archives in dance music

Hi all,

There’s this thing we do with clients when we begin working with them on a new series. As we think about a title for episode one, we ask them to imagine the title for episode ten of the third series. We then ask them to imagine, or write down, all the episode titles in between. This serves two purposes: it helps them develop a title format and aids in visualising their content as an archive, which it will become if they fully commit to it.

This isn’t something you have to think about if your content is campaign-based. But if you do long running content formats, here’s somerthing you need to know - most of your audience will discover it as an archive. They won’t all show up on day one. They’ll discover later on and hopefully work their way though it. Visoning your project on day one thousand as opposed to day one is quite a powerful perspective change. It really helps with setting standards and princples early in the proces of building an archive.

I mention this because today’s format is an archive that is one of the most important in its category. It’s what we call a Sector Superstar - a brand that is number one in its sector and it got there, not necessaryily by being first, but by committing to something of high quality and sticking at it.

Doing the unpacking is Luc Benyon. Luc is a creative marketing strategist. He creates marketing ecosystems with content at their heart, and is available for freelance work. He lives in the Scottish Highlands and you can find him on Twitter.

Over to Luc…

What’s it called?

Boiler Room (online broadcaster)

What’s the format?

A DJ stands centre-screen, their decks laid out in front of them - on full display. Around them, uncomfortably close, are ravers of all kinds, doing what ravers do. Expect trigger fingers, sunglasses, water bottles, bumbags, bare chests, and phones in the air.

Boiler Room videos are hour-long DJ sets. They first broadcast on YouTube in 2010 and gained a cult following with dance music fans. In the intervening years, the Boiler Room format has expanded beyond its clubbing roots to encompass all kinds of dance music - and beyond.

The Boiler Room brand has become synonymous with 21st-century dance culture; the digitalisation of the dancefloor, bringing the underground music scene out of the clubs and on to phones and laptops.

But the videos themselves have remained compelling by sticking to their format and proving a perfect canvas for the music, the DJs, and the shape throwers.

What’s the magic that makes it special?

You watch Boiler Room sessions for two reasons - the tunes and the people.

Let’s start with the tunes. Boiler Room has probably featured every DJ you’ve ever (or never) heard of. At least once. It means their archive is epic and full of era-defining sets. DJs bring out their best selections and mixes for their Boiler Room sets. It’s a huge platform.

As for the people, well… At any normal club, the dancers are in front of the DJ. But Boiler Room flipped the dynamics on their head, and placed them behind the DJ, making the dancing become part of the performance. This has led to plenty of legendary dancers achieving minor fame for doing nothing other than being hilariously ‘in-the-zone’, or very self consciously showing off to the camera. 

Look out for gurning faces, flaunted midriffs, and tightly clutched water bottles. Expect plenty of Palace beanies and Supreme bumbags slung over chests. Standing behind a Boiler Room DJ is a clubbing right of passage, and there’s only one reason to do it - you want to be internet famous.

Iconic moments include Carl Cox in Ibiza, during Boiler Room’s early days - decked out in a white TV shirt and sailor hat - transporting you to the Balearic Sunshine. Peggy Gou, during lockdown, alone on a Seoul rooftop. Or Fred Again… having the time of his life.

In 2023, DJs are all over your Insta and TikTok feeds, we expect to have that decks-and-crowd view and every scroll of the thumb. And it’s led to an increase in performative DJing, everyone from Nina Kravitz to Badger can be seen forcing themselves to have a good time. Boiler Room opened the doors for this behaviour, the days of DJs with heads in their record crates are fading - unless you’re Calibre, the performance is now part of the act. 

Likewise with crowds. When Boiler Room emerged, dancefloors were safe places to be yourself, and get lost in the music without any fear that anyone outside of that room would see your moves. In the post-Boiler Room era, Michael Gove can’t even get wasted in Aberdeen without the whole internet knowing, and how you dance is a part of your digital identity.

Favourite Episode

Mala. A truly iconic set, that was rearranged and delayed to the extent that it became mythical. It’s vinyl-only, and heavy on bass, at times breathtakingly so, The setlist completely encapsulates one of the most definitive music scenes of the century. The crowd moves as one, and Mala himself is shrouded in darkness, only his hands are illuminated as they work the dials. 

What could be more 2015 than a Dubstep set in a Hackney Wick warehouse?

Similar formats?

Intimate music performance formats have evolved in the 13 years since Boiler Room emerged. The Tiny Desk Concerts cater to a more singer-songwriter audience, and have grown a comparable fanbase. Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s Kitchen Disco was… a big thing.

Techno fans now watch HÖR, in which DJ’s are denied the joy of dancers and are seemingly locked in a toilet. It’s more serious, introspective affair, that lacks the joy and unpredictability of Boiler Room. Maybe that’s the point.

One could even argue that Boiler Room’s influence has spread beyond music. Viral videos of international football matches, where moments of beer being flung in celebration of a goal are as widely discussed as the match play itself. 

It’s not that these things are Boiler Room’s fault. But in charting the evolution of dance music culture, Boiler Room can show us how much of our behaviour has changed in recent times. The private is now public. Being ‘in-the-moment’ is no longer enough, the moment itself is now kept, shared, and remixed.

Thanks Luc!

If you’d like to unpack a favourite format like Luc get in touch. We’re always looking for writers with interesting perspecitives on formats.

If you need help developing content formats we have a brilliant Fromats Unpacked workshop to help you. Just hit the button below if you’d like to know more.

Also, we’re going to be doing a version of it at SXSW in March. It’s a long way off but if you are going and would like to meet up for a coffee get in touch.

If you need more creative or strategic inspiration, please sign up for our other newsletters Attention Matters and the Storythings Newsletter. Join our network of over 11,000 creative explorers!

See you all next time,Hugh

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