Is Boiler Room detrimental to electronic music culture?

Do Boiler Room’s contributions to the industry align with the ethos of its main actors, the musicians and consumers? We find it hard to believe.

By questioning the company’s integrity, we can determine whether their supposed objectives are beneficial to the health of music communities and the progression of music as a medium or art. This is a timely and relevant topic worth researching, because not enough analysis exists online. I will be relating it to critical theories by the likes of Adorno and Horkheimer as well as contemporary scholars like Shoshanna Zuboff. The research carried out is largely textual analysis, as well as analysis of data collected by other organizations. It will act as a cost-benefit analysis of the cultural harvesting that Boiler Room is undergoing on industrial scales.

The discussion of art and commerce is important, and extensive. If like Adorno said, we truly are in the age of Counter Enlightenment fueled by unlimited entertainment to distract the masses, then the upcoming repercussions of the global economic slowdown may prove fatal to the integrity of the scene. Many could argue that the scene’s integrity died long ago when festival EDM took center stage, but the revival of underground techno demonstrated the elasticity and reflexivity of consumers seeking authenticity in their clubbing experiences. However, this search for authenticity will be met with disappointment down the line.

Who exactly are Boiler Room?

Boiler Room is a broadcasting company known for hosting and streaming DJ sets and parties online. Having started operations with their small capacity invite-only electronic music-based London shows in 2010, they have since taken their iconic logo and party setups to over 100 cities around the globe, and expanding to other musical styles such as jazz and hip hop. Over the past decade, they’ve recorded music on a large scale and from a wide scope: over 4 billion minutes of music and counting, with millions of viewers across various video-hosting platforms. As they have grown, they have seen corporate partnerships from various industries (mainly alcohol/food & beverage). In 2018, they launched their film production studios 4:3, and a year later they opened a creative strategy consultancy firm called Brand Labs. Upon 4:3’s unveiling, it was dubbed the “Netflix of the Underground”. Brand Labs first client is drinks giant Pernod Ricard, representing the likes of Absolut Vodka, Ballantine’s and Jameson. If clubbing is seen as the point-of-sale for alcohol, and documenting culture is a beneficial for the image of a stigmatized scene, then perhaps these are mutually beneficial partnerships arising from the seemingly conglomerate behaviors.

It came to the surprise of many when a blog post, critical of Boiler Room’s involvement in the annual Notting Hill Carnival, began circulating in the summer of 2017. Upon first inspection, the blog shares photos of anti-Boiler Room posters and graffiti around the West End. By this point, Boiler Room were still on their way to global domination, having partnered with Google to host content on the first virtual-reality (VR) music venue, as well as collaborating with Converse to host a 360 degree concert broadcast of hip-hop giants Run The Jewels.

How is it that a platform can be the source of bitterness when it has brought joy to the screens of consumers, inspiration to the hearts of the aspirational, and success to many producers of culture? Have they not transformed dance music and brought it to new heights? It would seem that that depends on the criteria of what makes a healthy and sustainable musical scene thrive. Could it really be that Boiler Room’s ethos are misaligned with those of the very scene it commodifies to sponsors? It seems that the lack of clarity about Boiler Room’s organization does not instill trust, from the offset. The discussion around Boiler Room’s private ownership was brought up a few years ago in Stephen Pritchard’s opinion piece about Boiler Room’s forgotten Notting Hill scandal. Investment databases Pitchbook and Crunchbase list the company as VC (venture capital) backed. The public Companies House records show Belleville to currently be the person of significant control but with no more than 50% of shares and voting rights. The only other director listed is Mr Noam Ohana (5 other directors were shown to have resigned), who had been appointed in 2014. Mr Ohana is described as the former managing partner of the VC fund Conegliano Ventures, which in May 2017 was also involved in a £3 million investment into Boiler Room. This essay will look to explain the conglomerate nature of the private company in a later section.

The summer following the investment was when Boiler Room returned to Notting Hill Carnival. They had received a grant from Arts Council England to the tune of £300k. For context, Carnival is a historical West London celebration of the British West Indian heritage among its community members. Knowing that founder Belleville came from an aristocratic background (he was found to be a direct descendant of William the Conqueror), many questioned why his organization needed the public funds to run their profitable operations, whereas the Notting Hill Carnival Enterprises Trust (LNHCET) had to make do with £100k per year.

Pritchard pointed out that Arts Council England states its fund aims to prioritize activities which push for diversity and the development of talent outside of London. For public funding to be approved, Boiler Room had to prove to Arts Council England that their project was non-profit and “solely of public benefit”. Boiler Room’s pure intentions were seen as illusory by many. The allocation of funds in their press release was questionable due to only 11% of their grant going towards the British Association of Sound Systems. The opportunity for brands to access new markets at Carnival indicate how black culture can be transformed into a consumer product for corporations to profit from. Furthermore, Arts Council England said that Boiler Room’s broadcasting was an opportunity to virtually celebrate “without increasing footfall”. As Stephen Pritchard poses, limiting the number of attendees does not make Carnival more “resilient or sustainable”, and perhaps this limit only benefits those who wants to keep Notting Hill as an attractive place for wealthy homeowners and renters. The problem with assessing the credibility of Boiler Room’s funding and the integrity of their operations is that under the circumstances of data available to the public, their reasoning was not probed any further. The vagueness of how the music industry works seemingly grants Boiler Room a free pass over their lack of transparency. For people like Pritchard, their disapproval at the system of profit and “appropriation” suggests a misalignment of ethos.

Just as house music was anti-establishment escape from the real world for Chicago’s people of color and members of the LGBT scene, Carnival’s origins date back to racially motivated riots in the summer of 1958. After being founded by activist Claudia Jones, the celebration of Caribbean culture has become a sustained act of defiance to veiled forms of oppression that still continue in present-day Britain. For many, Boiler Room’s involvement in the carnival is financially oppressing, despite appearing to be an altruistic act of complementary celebration.

Sarra Wild’s Facebook post

To challenge Boiler Room’s point of “campaigning change for media misrepresentation of Carnival”, one could look no further than another scandal they were involved in just one week prior. Glaswegian DJ Sarra Wild featured in their recent New Wave documentary, and she took to social media to publicize how part of her interview was edited. It reads:

By not being allowed to “[start] a conversation that needs to be had”, Boiler Room went through a lot of effort to misrepresent the Glasgow scene. Sarra then tweeted the email which shows that this sanitization was an attempt to avoid “all sorts of political repercussions”. It is quite worrying that within the same week, this leading shaper of culture had its ethos misaligned by appearing to protect an inflammatory response from its white viewership. This type of behavior is often indicative of an “All Lives Matter” political perspective, which threatens the credibility of activist movements that campaign against systemic and veiled forms of oppression.

What may seem more worrying than their political stances could simply be the inconsistency in which they signal their virtues. A year later, in November of 2018, Boiler Room released a 30-minute documentary on Palestine’s underground scene in collaboration with Ma3azef, the Arab world’s leading music blog. The topic of Israel and Palestine is one of the most polarizing political debates of the past century. Perhaps their fear of facing political repercussions had suddenly subsided. The documentary portrayed the scene, its DJs and actors, and its ravers. They have produced a cultural good that ultimately made thousands of expatriate Palestinian viewers happy. It also carries the function of reassuring (current and prospective) consumers that Boiler Room as a company is one of the “good guys” by braving the controversial nature of this topic and standing beside a conventionally left-wing argument. For anyone unfamiliar with the previous scandals, their perception of Boiler Room’s ethos is that they simply have good intentions (those that the path to hell are paved with).

On their website, they only stated brand partnerships as their revenue generator, perhaps with some YouTube monetization, of course. After years of accusations of not paying artists, they set the record straight on their website about always paying artists, except when brand partnerships are not involved. The classic “paid in exposure” argument is expertly worded here. That argument passes its expiry date at some point, especially as theorist DeForrest Brown Jr claims that the overproduction of Boiler Room videos also devalues each stream and gets lost in an ocean of uploads. The next section of the essay will seek to challenge any notions that Boiler Room brings enough sociocultural value to pardon their profitability as a platform in the entertainment and tech sphere.

Neoliberalism and the Tech Sphere

In the digital age we live in, it has become normal to accept that the Big Four tech giants (Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Google) dominate large parts of our lives while operating in a sphere so complex that many simply cannot understand its intricacies. US data from a survey in 2019 reveals worrying consumer attitudes towards data privacy, despite 71% of participants claiming that the sacrifice of privacy was worth the benefits of whatever technology they were using.

Big Data has become a buzzword in recent, but it should not scare the public as a concept. Big data can help communities and businesses solve problems, optimize the future, as well as identify and eliminate risks that endanger lives. Used responsibly, it is a great advancement. Used irresponsibly, it can lead to greater oppression, counter-enlightenment and threats to livelihoods.

In the same way a bank teller is not responsible for the way his superiors may have mishandled money in the 2008 banking crisis, frontline workers and talented creatives should not bear the brunt for the harvesting of data within the cultural industries. In the case of Boiler Room, a lack of transparency and a claim of operating in the interests of the people is very misleading and, as previously stated, misaligned with the ethos of the culture it appropriates. As I write this, no further journalistic probes have evaluated the integrity of Boiler Room’s management and the potential risks their actions could bring to the scene. Free market capitalism is not the enemy of art and creativity. Investment can relieve financial pressures that hinder artists, entrepreneurs and other creatives from flourishing and reaching their true potential. The argument is far more nuanced than this, unfortunately. The danger of venture capital is that VCs can only make money when their investments are profitable, so there is good reason to believe that high pressures exist for Boiler Room to return on their large investment.

Research in the past decade has shown a change in the landscape of music’s relationship with commerce. The dawning of internet piracy was a death blow for music sales, and the scene had to readapt. Digital pioneers saw the value of data harvesting, which oblivious internet users still cannot grapple with today (a symptom of a widescale technological illiteracy). This is what allowed streaming services like Spotify the path to offer wide catalogues of music for rock-bottom prices, a common maneuver in platform capitalism. Events are now profitable, and so is YouTube monetization. This is likely to be the cost-benefit analysis that investors involved had to process in their heads.

For Boiler Room’s consumers (as well as artists, considered cultural producers in this supply chain), it seems to be worth sacrificing the email address for the benefit of guestlist to the party. It is worth sacrificing the recording of my face, as London’s CCTV does it anyway and many have uploaded hundreds of their photos to the servers of other tech giants. The risk is somehow insignificant when plenty of damage has been already been done, but this is far from the truth. For all tech companies, as surveillance capitalism expert Shoshana Zuboff explains, the consumers’ ignorance is their bliss. It would seem reasonable to fear that Boiler Room could irresponsibly profit from their users data without the need for consultation. With its history of repeatedly disappointing and deceiving the actual producers and consumers of the culture they claim to be preserving and improving, is that so farfetched?

Like virtually every company, they collect emails in exchange for guestlist and “keeping up to date”. They sway you to accept their cookies in order to “improve your user experience” through targeted advertising. In the new surveillance capitalism model, data is harvested in unfathomable ways, and the financial profits made from them are hidden away from the public. This ranges from behavioral data lifted through browser cookies, to biological data lifted from recorded images. It is not people’s faces that are sold, but the residual data scraped from their faces.

These methods have been designed to be stealthy and discrete. The data collected is used to train artificial intelligence models and algorithms to recognize facial features. Consumers have no idea what these models and subsequent softwares are used for, as they’re sold off to unknown entities. Trillions of terabytes of data are left behind with digital footprints on any platform, and users leave it for big tech companies to analyze. Predictions of human behavior are sold to business customers who want to maximum each user’s value to their business.

It is easy to say that these things don’t threaten people’s lives, and merely improve them. The mere fact that faces are uploaded online and facial recognition profiling companies could begin assigning social credit scores is another form of subtle oppression. In China, as well, there is a hi-tech war on Uighur Muslims using artificial intelligence which could only have been trained with data sets sold to those military entities that chose to use them in that manner. Boiler Room’s terms and conditions lay out that personal data and analytical assets can be shared with any of its owners or prospective buyers. It also states that they can disclose their information to authorities as a legal obligation. If they are under a duty to disclose data in order to comply with legal obligation, they may do so. If Israeli police would like to track down Palestinian drug users to make legal arrests, they can request to get all kinds of personal information from the documentary footage. Could Boiler Room really be capable of such socio-culturally endangering behavior in exchange for money?

Politically Compromised?

To assess whether BR has such capability, it is important to look at other corporate entities in the dance sphere. In the spring of 2017, prior to the Carnival debacle, Resident Advisor (RA) reported that Red Bull’s CEO publicized his questionable thoughts in an interview. He criticized “political correctness” and pro-refugee policies in Germany and Austria. RA’s decision to share this news could lie in the fact that Red Bull’s cultural industries arm, Red Bull Music Academy (RBMA), is a huge player in the “underground” scene that it documents. These views were met with negativity in the (now-defunct) comments section, and a representative to RBMA has since said “Mr. Mateschitz gave a personal interview — published on April 8th, 2017. Our company values freedom of mind and encourages open conversation.”

It was also reported that Red Bull’s CEO was planning to launch a media outlet akin to US alt-right website Breitbart. Since then, it seems the plans fell through. The backlash might have caused him to reconsider. For that brief moment in 2017, many worried about the integrity of a platform which could potentially have its content compromised over desires to push forth an agenda. The fear subsided, and RBMA continues to champion a diverse range of musical content.

In 2019, Boiler Room tweeted about registration to vote in the UK elections. They urged users to “ignore all the memes” and question whether “big businesses should pay more tax”. Their wording choice was strategically nonpartisan, but there is reason to believe that the memes reference was in relation to those from the left-wing Labour camp. For many in the twitter thread, the message was clear. “Aristocracy” and “venture capital” does not mix well with the Labour manifesto.

On a final note, it may be worth considering a piece of information found online about Mr Noam Ohana, the other majority shareholder of Boiler Room. Upon discovery of his twitter feed a few years ago, one could find that the French investor in fact served for the Israeli Defence Forces, and even wrote extensively about his experiences while at university. Now, it would be unfair to assume the politics of an individual on the basis of the army they served, considering that national military service is mandatory for all citizens. However, in an interview on i24 News, Ohana voiced his opinion about “progressive causes” and “intersectionality” (8:38) movements at universities. On the topic of Palestine, he appeared dismayed that Jews who align themselves with the pro-Palestinian BDS movement are touted as being the “good [guys]”, alienating others in the process (4:09). To avoid jumping to conclusions and respecting his freedom of speech, no conclusions shall be made about his political beliefs from his statements. The video is posted below for reader’s to make their own opinions. The lack of transparency, however, creates a lack of trust, and the inconsistency of Boiler Room’s stance on political matters casts a dark veil over the handling of profits (both in the form of money and data) made from his investment.

Conclusion

Artists who value liberty from political agendas and independence in profiting from their immaterial goods should seek to create new platforms or improve existing structures by demanding transparency and improved value-retention. This is not to say that art is not and cannot be political — on the contrary. This is a stance that should be taken to keep culture industries free from manipulation for political gains.

As evidenced, Boiler Room has subscribed itself to a neoliberalist model that devalues its content and content-producers, and so long as it refuses to be more transparent about its operations, it runs the risk of being a cultural industries tool which can propagate political agendas, as Adorno and Horkheimer once feared.

Bibliography

Adorno, T and Max Horkheimer, 1944. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” in The Dialectic of Englightenment

Zuboff, Shoshana (2019). The Age of Surveillance Capitalism The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (1st ed.). ISBN 978–1610395694.

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