Arts Culture Music Tech

How Boiler Room was born

Blaise Bellville is the Marlborough-educated bashment DJ who built a music broadcast platform that wants to be the new MTV.

22 Aug 2016

An ill-conceived property venture inadvertently gave birth to Boiler Room, one of the most talked-about media businesses around today.

Blaise Bellville lied to the building’s owner about investors and tenants he didn’t have in what was his latest wheeze to make money. His foray into property turned out to be a disaster.

But in the cellar of that dilapidated building in Hackney Downs was a boiler room. Bellville and his friends were playing DJ sets until he realised they had been breathing in asbestos. They relocated to another room in the building, taking the sign marked ‘Boiler Room’ before they left. Bellville ran a power cable through a window, set up a webcam and began broadcasting via a Ustream account.

A natural entrepreneur

Those involved in the early days of Boiler Room recall the mayhem of DJs playing sets while 10 to 20 people jumped around in a dingy four by six-metre room, unsure if anyone was watching online.

In this rudimentary set up Bellville saw a global media business in the making: raw and real subculture, beamed to millions. The timing was perfect, too. Hackney had plenty of cheap space available and was overflowing with frustrated DJs looking for an outlet.

A milestone came when respected Los Angeles-based DJ The Gaslamp Killer came to London and was persuaded by Bellville to play a Boiler Room set that instantly propelled the platform into wider consciousness.

Those working with Bellville at the time say he was in his element: doing something crazy, taking a punt with an ambition that seemed preposterous to everyone else.

The seeds of a star

The hustling started long before, however, while at boarding school. He sold goldfish to friends, promising them that they’d eventually turn into piranhas. He also sold mice, weed, porn, vodka, whistles to fox-hunting protesters and even owned one of the first CD recorders of the time, operating a thriving business selling bootlegged music from his dorm room.

Bellville attributes some of his teenage enterprise to being surrounded by the wealth of his peers at Marlborough College while coming from a family that had lost a lot of its own. He didn’t go to university, instead continuing his wheeling and dealing by selling makeovers on Oxford Street and putting on his illegal All Ages Concerts for under 18s.

Doing things that aren’t allowed has been a recurring theme according to those who know Bellville best. ‘It’s pointless telling him something can’t be done,’ says a colleague. ‘He’s just an incredibly naughty person,’ says another.

Going global

But is Boiler Room just another one of Bellville’s hustles? The facts suggest not. It reaches 72 million people a month in 80 cities, broadcasting 1,000 hours of its own content a year. It’s meant Bellville has had to walk a tightrope between credibility and commercial success; a notoriously difficult balancing act in the music industry and even harder in an underground scene.

For Bellville, though, ‘underground’ is a redundant concept in the internet era. In his world, classical and grime co-exist as long as the music is good, making Boiler Room more of an umbrella for people who affiliate themselves to Boiler Room’s tastes. Its audience is global, beaming DJ sets to anyone with an internet connection, including remote pockets of Russia and Turkey.

Bellville had just returned from his first trip to China and Japan at the time this article went to press, having put on Boiler Room parties there. A plan is also in place to bring US hip hop to the platform as part of a big push into America, starting with a new office and event space in Bushwick, New York.

Powers of persuasion

Having an audience on one side and clients on the other was the model that Bellville envisioned from the start. He lured Steven Appleyard – who once ran Vice Media’s music business Virtue in New York – to bring in sponsors.

Appleyard was impressed by how Bellville had managed to sign up brands such as Red Bull, Red Stripe and Umbro without any experience in agencies and big brands. He echoes a quality many describe in Bellville. ‘He has a frightening ability to bend situations to his will and get people to do what he wants.’

That persuasiveness was evident in convincing Mazdak Sanii to quit a successful role at investment bank NM Rothschilds and become chief operating officer at what was – at the time – little more than a ragtag operation with a dream. The relationship with Sanii had started when Vice offered to buy a majority stake in Boiler Room in 2013. Bellville rejected the bid but realised he needed Sanii’s help to devise a growth plan, finding investors and helping turn Boiler Room into a serious independent business.

A unique individual

Sanii stresses it would be foolish to underestimate Bellville: ‘I was struck by a very sharp mind, his instinct of what will have impact, how comfortable he was in any setting and, of course, the height.’ Bellville’s 6ft 7in wiry frame is the first thing anyone notices. That easy confidence isn’t far away.

It’s given him the language and familiarity to comfortably roll in the rarified world of investors and executives, perhaps an outcome from attending one of the country’s most prestigious schools. Yet Blaise Anthony Valentine Bellville, a respected bashment DJ, wears his poshness like he does his height – with indifference. And without the need to adopt a Tim Westwood-esque faux accent.

For some, however, he’s another white bloke with a public-school education riding underground culture for commercial success. A chancer who found a subculture in Hackney to make money from.

Yet even rivals say he’s the real deal. He’s perhaps escaped criticism because Boiler Room is a rare disruptor in that it hasn’t claimed any victims. He’s unlikely to care even if he had. As one person in the music industry says: ‘He’s just genuinely mad. Brilliantly mad. I hope he stays that way.’

This story first appeared in Courier Aug/Sep 2016.