Boiler Room, the leading livestream platform for rising producers, DJs and artists, has long been a staple of the underground electronic scene -- so it only makes sense that their next incarnation is an event that's 20 times the size of anything they've attempted before.
Expanding the feel of their infamously intimate broadcasts to a 3000-person, IRL getaway in the woods, the Ray-Ban x Boiler Room Weekender is set to be a wild one. Held at the shabby-chic Split Rock resort in the Poconos, Boiler Room founder Blaise Bellville says "The Shining meets Twin Peaks on an acid trip" backdrop is a huge progression for a company "started with a webcam taped to a wall." And now, five years later, Boiler Room has finally joined the festival big leagues, but with a twist true to their roots in the underground. Because while the Weekender may be big, it's their definitive attempt at bringing a few of their favorite American crews and curators -- such as NYC's GHE20G0TH1K, the dancehall dons at Mixpak and Kanye collaborator Virgil Abloh -- to a global audience, all while facilitating a unique collaborative, communal experience for artists and attendees alike.
So ahead of the event -- and the number of exclusive, behind-the-scenes tours we'll be giving you via our Snapchat this weekend (follow us at papermagazine 👻:!) -- we wanted to give you a sneak peek of the venue, the festival's perks and a number of extra on-site activities, including film screenings, VR experiences, dance classes and more. Read our interview with Bellville about everything from the shaggy, psychedelic surroundings to the crazy line-up curation, not to mention how all of this is the first step toward a brand new sort of American festival at the same time.
What was the sort of inspiration or premise of the Weekender?
In the UK, there's festivals that happened in places [that] are these like defunct seaside resorts which were really, really popular for British tourists in the 40s, 50s and 60s, and then have become completely run down. There's loads of these, [everybody knows what these weekenders are]. Whereas, when we walked around Split Rock in Pennsylvania and talked about what we wanted to do, they had absolutely no idea or benchmark for what it could be. They were like, "Well, we've had like frat parties..." Hopefully, it's not like a frat party.
I think we deliberated for years and years about how Boiler Room could ever do a large scale event. Because when you think about Boiler Room, we generally sort of host very intimate events to avoid putting too much pressure onto the artists and DJs playing. So we try and create an environment that allows that creative freedom -- which usually means small crowds. So doing a large-scale event is a bit of a challenge -- but eventually we decided that if we did do something for 2000-3000 people, we would need the location to feel...quite small, but spread apart -- to retain that intimacy.
[But we also wanted to gather] 3000 people -- across different genres and scenes and groups -- together in one place. As opposed to what we normally do, which is just one focused, 150-person capacity event. I think the point of the Weekender is to sort of see what happens when you put something like 90 different artists from different curators, collectives, labels, groups together. In that sense, I think we wanted a location where those people outside of just their performances could just hang out, meet each other and have the space to chat or explore. [Like in the UK, with these sorts of festivals], you can go to like the main party and dance, and also like run around like a weird, crazy golf course or go back to a villa and meet a bunch of people. There's like a whole, there's a whole side to the festival that's sort of off the grid, and it lends itself to like impromptu encounters. We want people to forge connections that then maybe turn into something next year. Like maybe someone from Discwoman will meet a new producer that they really like from just hanging out.
Yeah, fingers crossed. You kind of touched on it, but how exactly did you settle on Split Rock as the location?
We didn't want to go too far away [from our NYC base] for our first year, and Split Rock was one of the handful of different holiday resorts. And when we went to Spit Rock, it just majorly jumped out -- the whole place is frozen in time in the 70s. Every corridor you go down makes you feel like you're on some kind of trip. Like we were going around and they were like, 'Oh, here's our classic park,' and you suddenly walk into this massive, humid room with palm trees growing everywhere and animal noises in the background and slides. And they were like, 'Oh, we've got this lodge like a 10-minute walk from here,' and you walk and suddenly there's this crazy, big wooden lodge with a a million different rooms overlooking these huge lakes with boats on them. Basically when you're walking around the location, looking for somewhere to throw parties and to facilitate these kind of behind-closed-doors moments, this place just kind of felt like it.
Short answer is, we were sort of looking for something that as a location felt wildly different to any sort of normal US festival circuit, and where we could avoid having any kind of traditional stuff, like a VIP area.
That works pretty well with Boiler Room's general ethos.
Yeah, the sort of democratization between crowd and performer is really important to us, and [so we had to figure out how to have] everyone on that level, but on a larger scale.
So I know you're also introducing a lot of different like, non-musical elements into this festival, like film screenings and dance classes, and you're also putting quite the premium on the beauty of Split Rock and nature. But, to that end, are you worried about all these external elements potentially distracting or detracting from the performers and shows?
Generally, the stuff that's going on outside of the performance is fairly complimentary to the experience. There's a movie theatre there and we've got yours truly curating this whole program of stuff that runs during the day and late at night. And we're talking to Nitemind, who are these amazing visual artists who create these mind-melt installation type experiences [for a lot of the raves in New York]. But, also, when you look at the lineup, it's not stacked -- it's literally the opposite of what every other festival is. We've almost started the other end of it, and focused on the underground, left-of-center, up-and-coming names that we really back, the ones we're going to be shouting about for the next few years. We focused almost entirely on that, and I think the people who're coming to the event are really open to hearing new music -- and just stumbling across stuff that they don't know. They don't need to be going to a festival and jumping from headline stage to headline stage, pursuing solely headline artists, and because of that, we think there are opportunities to play on that open-mindedness -- whether it be within film, visual installations or panel discussions.
For most large-scale events, you spend a lot of money on a ticket advertised to you nine months before, and you, quite rightly, want to see like your eight favorite headliner artists and that tends to guide your evening. It's nice, but I think it often means you don't really discover much, you don't really chance upon things, and your capacity to just sort of wander around and discover stuff is diminished to an extent.
How did you go about curating the curators, to put it simply? After all, I noticed it's pretty focused on the New York afters scene, but also has the likes of NAAFI, NON and Soulection at the same time, which all are pretty far out from this, both genre- and geographically-speaking. Was there a sort of checklist of elements that you wanted when you guys were curating who to bring?
Perhaps it's New York-centric because of its location [in Pennsylvania], but honestly, we focused on [what we've been doing for our Ray-Ban partnership] for the last few years, which has been all about focusing on collectives and individuals artists who we really back and see a big future for over the next couple of years. So we came to the US Weekender having the luxury of programming idealistically rather than having to put the same headliners everyone else is. I think the kind of up-and-coming, bleeding edge of the underground type names is where Boiler Room is at its strongest -- which is a lot of the after hours parties, I guess. Because we've got a strong presence in the dance music community and parties and we've naturally gravitated towards them. But there are also a few things at the Weekender like the RVNG installations that aren't [afters-related at all]. But I think we wanted to bring this in to be almost like a family affair between the people that we think are the most impactful curators, artists and collectives in the US circuit. It's a really positive way to approach a festival -- booking from the point of view of, 'Oh, who do we really back? Who do we really think's going to blow up in the next couple of years?,' rather than who's going to shift our tickets.
You mentioned that in the UK, this sort of resort festival is pretty normal, but obviously in the US we don't have that -- is that why you chose to do the first Weekender in America?
Yeah, we're just expanding our presence in the US. Plus, we've been doing this sort of curator-led series with Ray-Ban for about three years here in America -- and so, it is a continuation of that series. It's also just always made the most sense in the States, in part because we're really focused on forging the same kind of connections in America with the people we really back in underground music culture, as we have in Europe. There are some really amazing things that happen in the US festival circuit, but they're far and few between. I think what [upstate techno festival] Sustain-Release did was really cool, but a lot of the bigger events -- the ones that get a lot of online buzz and hype, the Coachellas and so on -- there's something very artificial about the experience. There's something very clean-cut and homogenized. It's very weird, because in Europe there's such a massive underground circuit of festivals and events. And there's a real appetite for it in the US and an opportunity to make a splash here.
The underground is definitely underrepresented festival-wise stateside. However, a big critique of a lot of leftfield, underground music here is that it sometimes turns into something a little elitist and closed-off -- which isn't really the case in Europe. Are you worried about that being the vibe at the Weekender?
Yeah, I think it's a weird one because we were distributing tickets in this very specific way. [It was like] our approach to a standard Boiler Room though -- we think, as a company, we shouldn't be shifting tickets or commercializing these events. We're about the broadcasting to tens or hundreds of thousands of people -- so we always let the artist that is playing control who comes -- [which is what we did with the Weekender]. We left it to the artists -- whether they gave tickets to a closed circle or whether they did a competition on their Twitter and opened up to their fans -- we're not bothered either way. We just want them to be in control of the environment, so they're going to be comfortable to perform how they want.
And I think when it comes to a large-scale event, we've given [the curators] ticket codes in varying numbers with an open brief of like, "You can push this through [however you like]." So I think it might feel like it's going to be a fairly closed thing with the same people you always see -- but when you look at it across the 90 different artists, that spread is actually much wider. I think in the end you're going to get people who're really open-minded musically and interested in a wide variety of genres. And that's going to allow for a performance setting or an environment for performance that lends itself to the experimental, and that ultimately will feel and provide a really engaging online show for the people are watching around the world. It is always leaning towards democratizing experiences and creating something that is of value to people all around the world. It seems like quite a protracted process, but there is a fundamental issue with how normal festivals are run. Like, if you're selling tickets to the public, you have to book a number of major headline names to shift those tickets months in advance and it ultimately doesn't lend itself to having curatorial freedom, and doing something really different. And, in the end, for people watching all around the world online -- which is where the ultimate scale of the democratization can happen -- they need to be offered a performance that they're not going to see at every other festival, or every other festival livestream even.
I think you definitely have a very valid point there. Speaking of democratization -- the fact that such a large-scale event is free is also pretty wild to me. Can you talk a little bit about the logistics of that, and why it was so important to you guys that this experience was free?
In all honesty, we started planning this very late in the year, and it kind of comes back to the same point again. Like, we could have sold tickets and booked much bigger name artists. But basically, the barrier to the selling of tickets is that sales would have started to shape the kind of artist that we wanted to book. It would have meant that we had to [alter the program].
I think in future years, we can have this talk four months in advance and sell tickets. But for this first year, it's just sort of where we set a precedent where you should come because you trust us as curators. You know, I think not charging for tickets is to help support that cause.
Speaking of which, though, did Ray-Ban have any input with the planning or organization?
Yeah, the whole thing was conceived with them. And it just made complete sense to form it around curators' and individuals' ideas, and that was a perfect extension of what we've been doing with Ray-Ban for the past three years.
Are there any big surprises in store for the weekend that you're allowed to dish on?
I mean, honestly, there's going to be a lot of stuff that we switch the cameras off for. It's just very rare that you get a lot of people who are all doing their own thing, who are fairly seminal [alongside those] in the starting-out point of their careers or projects. It's very rare that you get them in one place where it's not just like a 4 a.m. gurney after party, and I think it really will be magical to see what comes out of that -- to see the gatherings happening that will be entirely offline.
On top of that, we also announced [a week] ago that we're launching the world's first virtual reality venue in London. We're literally building the venue space, and it's part of our [mission] to democratize virtual reality and music. We want to create a music library in virtual reality that is unrivaled in size and quality, and frequently releasing good stuff - but we also want to position ourselves to be able to experiment in that space as it develops from a technological and technical point -- experiment faster than everyone else. And one of the things we've started working on - which we haven't announced, is going on behind the scenes [at the Weekender]. We're going to be doing a number of virtual reality shoots onsite, so hopefully we'll really allow everyone around the world a chance to experience the entire space and its extraordinary qualities. It should be a really interesting weekend, and the things that come out of that afterwards even more so.