Interview | Music and Brands
Boiler Room: “We were just a couple of kids with a laptop”
Boiler Room first surfaced in 2010 and went from a local broadcasting show in an east London boiler room to a crowd-pulling streaming platform for underground club music with international shows in countries like Germany, China and many more. Their trademark is a DJ facing the camera, the crowd behind the artist – a successful concept that is still used and has helped turn Boiler Room into a popular global business.
Michail Stangl has run the German spin-off since 2011, he co-curates CTM festival and organises the Berghain night Leisure System. After his inspirational talk at Acud Macht Neu Studio he went for lunch with the participants and answered their questions. Goethe Institut sat down with Michail Stangl and participant Derrick Fagbohoun, better known as the Accra-based producer Rvdical the kid.
How has the music business changed compared to ten years ago and how can artists make use of those changes?
We live in quite an amazing time where you don’t need gatekeepers and facilitators to make something awesome happen. You only need to understand what the tools and strategies are, and how you can utilise them for your career. I understand that for many artists it’s quite confusing, because – again a lot of those strategies and platforms require both access to and understanding for them to work. When we started out, we were just a couple of kids with a laptop, we were at the same level as the participants in the room. They need to find out how to professionalise their career.
What are the challenges when professionalising a career?
It’s the relationship – and this is a thread that is tied to all conversations I’ve had, especially in underground music – between underground culture, the commercial sphere and ownership, which translates into the question: how much access can we – as artists and cultural activists – grant brands, and how much can we ask for in return? This is a question that comes up constantly, because there is so much brand activity in the sphere of culture. In some countries, brands start owning the conversation, just because they already have the infrastructure and the ideas. In these moments, artists don’t really know what is okay to give, what we can for ask in return, and how we can have a conversation as equals.
You have a lot of experience working with brands. How can artists maintain the balance between underground culture and the commercial sphere?
I think artists can be way more confident. On the one hand, there’s always the challenge that whatever you do, there are probably 500 other people doing something similar, asking less questions for the same amount of money. So, you always have to be aware of that, but if we all ask the same kinds of questions in the end, make the same demands and establish a culture that encompasses all the relevant industries, then we can improve the position for everyone. So, I think my goal is to show artists case studies of how it can be done, to give them the confidence to ask questions and establish the structures that they need to make it sustainable on their local level.
How do you discover music for Boiler Room?
Oh man, I find my music on a mixture of platforms, my personal interest, my record shopping habits, people tipping me off, my network that spans the world, I follow certain people on Soundcloud and then, when they like something, it’s on my radar. It’s very complicated. I discover music the same way I did when I was 15 years old, but way more professionaly and strategicly now. Sometimes, I just shazam the radio.
For how long have you been aware of Boiler Room?
I’ve been following Boiler Room since 2010, since their early stuff with Hudson Mohawke, Jamie XX. They were the first people to have Boiler Room sets, and I’ve been following them because those are some of my favourite artists.
What questions have you asked Michail and what were his answers?
I studied in Baltimore, and that is where I started developing my personal style and consciously picking up on influences. My music is a bit different from what you would expect from someone based in Accra, Ghana. When Boiler Room comes to Ghana, you would expect them to look for artists that represent the Ghanaian sound. And basically, marketing yourself as an artist coming from a specific place, you would want people to know: This is my sound and it is influenced by this and that. So, my question to him was “as an artist removed from your local influences, how do you market yourself to a public expecting a certain kind of music?” Michail’s advice was: Be very good at what you do! Let’s say you are a Ghanaian producer who specialises in footwork, from Chicago. You’re the only one really doing that in your country. So be very good at it, you will gradually become the go to person for anyone looking for that specific type of music. You would have created a niche market for yourself.
What will stick with you from the workshops?
Be very genuine about everything, Whether it be how you reach your audience or how you brand yourself. That is something I really liked with Boiler Room, they genuinely do it for the music and for the culture. That’s the way I want my brand to be, it needs to be as genuine as possible, no gimmicks, nothing of this sort, just me doing my shit.