A sleepy, Victorian warehouse isn’t the first place you’d associate with one of the most exciting brands in streaming, but it’s in this little corner of Hackney, East London that Boiler Room calls home.
Emerging in 2010, Boiler Room’s unique take on music broadcasting has fuelled rapid growth. Starting life as a live stream recorded from a webcam duct-taped to the wall of a disused boiler room, the company is now a global phenomenon. Today, Boiler Room hosts shows and performances from over 100 cities worldwide; from Stockholm to Shanghai, its regular programming reaching over 157 million people a month.
In recent years, the company has begun to diversify its offering and search out new audiences outside of music. This culminated last year with the launch of 4:3; Boiler Room’s new platform for underground film and documentary, which is already hailed as the “Netflix for the underground.”
I spoke with Stephen Mai, the company’s chief content officer and CMO, about Boiler Room’s rapidly developing audience, the role of insights in streaming and how his company is taking the niche mainstream.
Can you give us a quick history of Boiler Room?
Boiler Room started off as just a webcam where we recorded people DJing in a literal boiler room. At the time, our founder Blaise [Bellville] never anticipated that people would even be into watching that kind of thing.
Over time, by throwing more parties, working with different acts and creating a cultural style through our broadcasts, we’ve been able to build the brand. Because we tapped into a subculture and the underground, we can explore a whole range of different subjects and topics. After all, if you think about it, music has been the bedrock to a lot of youth culture; [but it can also] be fashion, activism or other [cultural] touchpoints.
How did you become involved with Boiler Room?
I’ve built a career on transforming media brands and using emerging content and marketing in a way that is impactful and effective. Before Boiler Room, I worked with LadBible–where the challenge was to realign the brand into one that was more commercially viable. I made it my mission to transform the brand into one that championed social change. In the two years I was there, I managed a few massive campaigns that changed the perception of the brand. The fact that we went from a brand that made most media agencies say “hmm I don’t know” into one that won eight Cannes Lions is absurd when you think about it.
Boiler Room was a very different challenge. It already had a very established brand and audience before I came over. The challenge here is how we can use our brand to drive counter-narratives around new verticals and bridge the gap between reality and digital. Boiler Room can influence culture and that really excites me.
Boiler Room is one of the more unique players in the streaming market. In your opinion, what is the thing that makes you stand out?
A lot of people describe us as a new MTV, but we see ourselves as more of a cultural institution like an art gallery or a museum. The music we cover is essentially “the art,” but it also allows us to explore the surrounding narratives and culture. As a brand, we’ve got the freedom to follow our own path when it comes to what we can and can’t do.
How would you describe the relationship between Boiler Room and its audience right now?
In terms of our audience, it’s my ambition to build a cultural space that exists wherever they are. Rather than trying to convert them into website clicks, we’re more interested in trying to exist in their world and in their culture. In many ways, we see ourselves more like a public service broadcaster. We want to understand what captures the interests of young people and create a space where that kind of stuff happens [more organically].
You’ve mentioned that having a profound understanding of your audience underpins a lot of what Boiler Room does. As a marketer, how do you go about getting those insights?
I’m quite privileged in the sense that as a marketing team we’re able to interact with our audience in a number of different ways. We throw over 400 events a year; so, we’re probably one of the few brands out there who get to see our audience in real life on a regular basis. We have thousands of kids who RSVP to our parties every year. We can literally see trends in music, fashion and culture as they unfold in all these different cities. It’s great to be able to use that as inspiration and as a catalyst for our programming.
Beyond this, we have also come up with a sophisticated way of using the insights we derive from our social channels and website data. We put a lot of effort into understanding our audience’s behavior online and their interests. It allows us to diversify our offering, which is becoming more and more important as we move into the world of original content. As we’ve expanded away from electronic music, we’ve started to see specific tribes develop within our audience. The next step is using digital analytics to track their behavior, discover what they’re into and service them better.
How important are analytics in informing and shaping the creative side of Boiler Room?
Honestly, insights can only take you so far. It helps that you have insights for inspiration, but it’s much more important to have some of the best music creators in the world sitting in the office. Our curators are in touch with what’s happening in the music world. They all put on nights, manage artists on the side and are firmly into the idea of creating and pushing the next big thing.
The launch of our 4:3 channel is an interesting example of how we’ve learned from our audience and combined it with a curator who knows their stuff. We’ve created a platform that’s driven by the idea of hyper-curating content that is super leftfield. A lot of people would ask if young people are really into the idea of high art and long-form cultural documentaries, but our insights told us that they are very culturally curious.
These were the people going to art galleries. We knew that if we could do something with a tone of voice that has a genuine love for the subject, then our audience would respond. In month one, we managed to gain 10 million views alone and have since managed to achieve a scale that most people would think is unbelievable. It goes to show, even if something might not seem the right fit on the surface, there’s usually an audience out there somewhere. You’ve just got to look hard enough.
There’s an obvious hazard here, though. If you’re committed to only covering niche topics, aren’t you in danger of running out of an audience?
I’m not sure actually. Both the mainstream and the underground can exist simultaneously on the same channel. A lot of people would describe our output as “niche,” but we’ve just hit 5 million followers on our social channels. Our ecosystem allows both groups to co-exist. We still have that cultural elite; the creators who we work with quite closely, but we can also accommodate a much wider audience. It’s like electronic music in a way; what was once a niche scene has become mainstream and globally recognized.
The evolution of content distribution has led us to a place where you’ve got things that were once considered niche reaching massive worldwide audiences. Take Game of Thrones for example. A few years back, a show like that would’ve struggled to find an audience because executives would’ve deemed the topic as having no chance of permeating the mainstream. Now though, these new channels exist, allowing us to tell really strong stories and become part of mainstream culture. It’s this philosophy that has allowed a brand like us to scale very, very quickly.
So, do you think insights are better used to inform a strategy rather than shaping executions?
Yes. One of the things I often tell marketers is that while a certain subject might seem like it’s not relatable, it’s our job to search out that hook that connects a piece of content with the people who love it.
Our Facebook strategy is a great example. We have 2.8 million followers, and as you can imagine, it would be impossible to come up with one piece of content that would please everyone. We try to pull out an aspect of the story that feels as relatable as possible. We’ve found that if you approach content distribution like this, then it doesn’t matter if the subject is niche. If the story is interesting then it will no doubt feel relevant to someone, and that’s the crux of what “mainstream” is.