If you are passionate about electronic music, you have seen Michail Stangl at least once in one of his many appearances at Boiler Room (BR) events. He is probably the most renowned BR host, and he has been involved in this project since its early beginnings back in 2011. This would be enough for a countless number of interviews with him, but Michail is not just BR. He is much more.
Thanks to the many things he is involved in, from parties and festivals, to events and community building, he has an incredibly privileged point of view on the clubbing scene and the underground music culture.
We had the chance to meet him at the last BR event in Brussels with Derrick May, you can read the full review of the event here, and we agreed to have an interview whenever possible. It took a while, but as you know good things come to those who wait. We talked about music culture and emerging scenes around the world, about what is happening in Berlin and what happened there in the past decade. We discussed the many projects he is running, from Leisure System to n≠e (not equal) and CTM festival.
We explored Michail’s life somewhat, from his roots far away from Berlin and Germany, to the exact moment when electronic music suddenly made complete sense to him all those years ago.
Sit back, relax, take your time and get into this conversation with us.
We hope you will enjoy this as much as we did. And of course, a big thanks to Michail!
- So first of all, we all know who you are, but not everyone will know what your background is, where you come from and how you got involved in music scene. Can you tell us a few things about you, who is Michail Stangl?
Michail Stangl: Well yes, I am originally from Moscow, but I moved to Germany at a very young age. I grew up in a fairly small and boring town in central Germany.
I got involved very early with Internet music culture, which was basically the foundation of what I do nowadays. Being stuck in a small town, with not much access to culture, I have been building my access to it through the Internet.
Luckily, I was living pretty close to Frankfurt and I also had the chance to get in touch with electronic music quite early.
Initially it was more about Jungle, IDM and Industrial. Later also with other styles, and of course also with the Frankfurt kind of techno. I moved to Berlin in 2005, mostly because the music that I found exciting and interesting was there. It was natural for me to choose that city.
I started to organise some parties in Berlin, focusing on the music that to me was most interesting and emerging back then. Dubstep at the beginning, but also what came after as for example Footwork or other kind of experimental dance music. Never plain techno or house, but everything that was around them and possibly fuelling them.
I did that as a hobby for some years. Along with studying and working, I was organising up to four big nights per month. Tons of individual and smaller events, parties that maybe are not running anymore, or were just one-off things.
More or less at the time when Boiler Room started I decided to take music professionally. Even though back then I didn’t exactly know what that meant, I knew already that I wanted to be involved full-time in music.
You can say I took my passion, my “fanboyism”, and turned into a profession!
- How do you keep up with all these things? How do you organise your day?
Michail Stangl: When I started I was pretty much by myself and so what I could do was limited by the time I had back then, but most of the projects I just mentioned are team works. Basically I am one of many other people working together on a common goal.
Boiler Room Berlin, for example, there is a great team working with me. I was initially running it with a friend (Alex Waldron who runs also Greco-Roman Records), then a while pretty much of my own with the support of a small team, but now I have quite a big team in Berlin of full time staffers and freelancers dealing with all aspects of BR from publishing to video production and editing. BR is today a global operation with team spread out all over the world, and we work all together in most of the things we do.
It is more a question of focus and efficiency. I think I am very good at knowing what I am very good at, if you know what I mean. I try to invest my time where I can achieve the most results, and that makes it easier also to have multiple projects running in parallel.
I have also been lucky to be able to work with inspiring and curios people, all the people I met along the way contributed to what I do and who I am, in many different ways.
- You said that you have been passionate about electronic music since a very early age. You remember having a “revelation moment”, a moment when your relationship with electronic music changed forever?
Michail Stangl: Oh yeah, of course. It must have been 2000, or 2001, when I saw for the first time the British band called Coil. I mean, I was already into electronic music culture at that time, but for pure chance I ended up at one of their rare concerts in Germany. It was when they were performing their second show, more of a dark period, and I saw them live not knowing exactly what to expect.
That completely changed my life, and my approach to music. I think it was the most transcendent musical experience that I have ever witnessed in my whole life. I do believe that without that moment, I would probably not be doing what I am doing today, I would be a different person.
- We all know that Berlin is a special place for electronic music, but not only. Do you think that you would have been able to do the same things or have the same opportunities in another place?
Michail Stangl: I doubt that. I mean, yes, my interest for this art would have driven me to do something music related in any case, but Berlin is a very, very special place. Thanks to its social and economic structure, and also thanks to its history, Berlin has offered me (and many others) unique opportunities.
Building up a scene, a community, works the same in every city: you meet people committed to the culture, and not to the financial interest, and you work with them to build up a community-driven scene. This is the main driver, and you can replicate it anywhere. And this is one of the reasons why sometimes in smaller cities you can find very deeply rooted and well organised communities focused on specific genres.
But basically, bringing together certain culture narratives that are now a fundamental part of Berlin would have been possible only here. They were driven by the fluidity of the movement, with many different kind of musicians and creators. Berlin is truly a unique international network of cultures and sounds.
Also, I was lucky enough to arrive in Berlin in a period where everything was possible, probably one of the most important period for the city from an international point of view. Although some says that the most important things for music culture in Berlin happened before 2005, which is for some extent true, I think that the key years for Berlin were between 2007 and 2011. This is when great part of the international potential of the city as cultural aggregator really came into effect.
- Talking about BR, can you tell us more about its evolution from the beginning to what is nowadays?
Michail Stangl: Well you know, we grew up from a basement, with two webcams taped to a warehouse wall to an international operations with contacts in different continents. And the interesting thing, the beauty or poetry in it, is that this story is completely true.
When I started my experience with BR in early 2011, not exactly at the beginning but almost immediately, I was the first person to join the original team made up by the three founders. BR walked through a path that started as sort of hobby, a very simple project, that later found itself to be very successful and in urgent need to develop a sustainable structure out of it.
- How do you work internally? What is your structure?
Michail Stangl: Globally BR involves the efforts of around 100 people, including everyone from interns and freelance camera operators, to the fully employed people. Nowadays it is a very complex and significant operation.
What we do is very internationally oriented, and our initiatives are spread out across different cities all around the world. That requires a fully structured communication system, which is one of the main sections of our internal organisation. BR internally is mainly driven by communication and, very importantly, by curiosity: at the end of the day everyone in the company has joined it because of a sincere interest in preserving and supporting underground music culture.
- What is your daily routine? Is not just partying in front of a camera I guess.
Michail Stangl: Most of the people know me because they see me for a few minutes in a streaming video, but what they don’t see is the rest of the work. And I can assure you, it is a lot of work, at all level. You might not know that I spend the majority of my day in the office organising all the things that you see and I write something like 12,000-15,000 emails per year!
- Why do you think Boiler Room is so successful?
Michail Stangl: One of the reasons is because of the unique combination of people that we have. They are capable of doing many different things at the same time: admin organisation for an event, technical solutions for a live broadcast, managing social media, video technology, sound engineering and so on. It is a truly collective effort that requires an unusual problem solving skills and luckily we found a great group of people that have that!
- As you said, today Boiler Room is an international operation. What is the main mission of BR now?
Michail Stangl: For many of us, club culture and electronic music is easily accessible. On the contrary, for many other people around the world this is not the case at all. For the majority of our audience, BR provides their only possible access to electronic music and club culture. Hearing from people how we contribute to their cultural enrichment and also supporting artists reaching audiences they would have never reached without us is, to me, probably the most empowering aspect of BR.
I have been in China recently, where we just started to broadcast. It is a country with a huge population and a fast growing interest in music culture. However, they suffer from a lack of appropriate platforms ready for non-English speaking people. The things we have done so far in China has been greatly successful, for the reason I was mentioning before: providing access to music for people that normally struggle to experience it as we do in Europe.
- You talked about China, this is a huge country with lots of potential. Sometimes in Europe we tend to be focused on ourselves and we forget to consider what is happening around the world as relevant. This is true for electronic music, but could be extended to other cultural fields. BR is well known for its curiosity and we see that in the many events you organise around the world. If you had to choose, which one of the emerging markets you would say will be the most relevant in the future, other than Europe and the US of course?
Michail Stangl: You see, you have used a term that to me is problematic when we speak about music culture: market. I think that culture should always be driven first by the will to create and to share your productions with others, and only afterward by its financial sustainability.
- I agree with you, let me rephrase. When I say market, or investment, it doesn’t necessarily mean to me placing the financial aspect before culture. What I was trying to find out was, based on your experience and privileged opportunity to travel and meet people from very different places, where do you think underground electronic music culture is more vibrant and exciting currently.
Michail Stangl: I understand what you meant with this terminology, and I know you used these terms in a good way. But this is something that it is really happening, right now, in Africa for example, but also in China. There is a massive growth in interest for electronic music in those places, but we know very well that electronic music nowadays is also a big business. Therefore what is happening now is that big brands, mainly western professional structures, are landing in those places trying to monetise.
They come before the culture, and that is a problem.
At the moment, incredibly exciting things are happening in the African continent. I have been to South Africa, and I am already in touch with very interesting people in Nigeria, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, but also North Africa. There are tons of young producers coming up, audiences are growing and ready for all sorts of music. So this is going to be definitely the future.
There should be more attention from us, as Europeans, to these emerging experiences. Promoters, festivals and clubs in Europe should invest a bit less in headliners and a bit more into the idea of using their events as platforms for new artists, for new ideas and sounds that could bring different perspectives to Europe.
- You’re saying that a sort of musical or cultural colonialism is threatening those emerging scenes?
Michail Stangl: That is the danger. Professional structures from Europe are landing there right now, before local communities can create their own scene. This is particularly worrying to me because in that way we risk to loose enormous cultural and artistic potential just to replicate the same western experience anywhere in the world. You see this Euro-centrism in the line-ups of the first festivals over there, where big promoters have already arrived, with an evident focus on western artists to the detriment of locals.
We as BR are trying to be a first answer to this. Even though we also work with international figures and we bring them there, we mainly try to support local scenes by giving them the chance to be heard globally.
- Talking about the other projects you have, you mentioned before CTM Festival, which just saw this January its last edition in Berlin. This is a very different festival from what we are used to see around. Can you tell us something more about it? What is it that makes it so special?
Michail Stangl: You are right, CTM is very unique in many ways. It is a festival dedicated to contemporary and experimental electronic music and all the artistic activities that come in the context of sound and club culture. CTM was also one of the reasons why I moved back to Berlin in the first place. Back then I loved the concept and the line-up, but I was still living at home and studying. Now for the past five years I have been one of the curators.
We combine the broaden narratives of avant-garde music, new emerging things, plus other aspects surrounding all of this. This is all imported into a 10 day long festival, spread out in different locations in Berlin. Also, through panels, exhibitions, screenings we try to consider and reflect the artistic, technical and social developments that are running in parallel to the music experience.
Each year we pick a theme, this 2017’s edition was “Fear Anger Love” and we reproduced it throughout all the activities of the festival. Basically, we like to see CTM as a festival driven by content before ticket sales.
- You also work on two nights in Berlin, Leisure System (LS) and n≠e (not equal)
Michail Stangl: LS was started by my friends Sam Barker and Ned Beckett and I joined a short while after they started. LS has become one of the leading night in Europe for music that you can dance to, but that doesn’t necessarily falls into the categories of techno or house. It is a very eclectic event, in the same night you can go from Breakcore to IDM, from really old school jacking house to hard 140 bpm techno. It is driven by curiosity, definitely influenced by rave culture and the so called hardcore continuum. It has, of course, a British touch attached to it, but with the ability to utilize the amazing space of Berghain.
The idea of n≠e, on the other hand, was to explore music capable of challenging the perception of people and the contingency of club sound. I myself come from a sort of black metal and industrial background and I really like music capable of questioning people perceptions. Back when I started there was a big space for a new platform around industrial sounds to explore all the musical experiences that were trying to avoid harmony.
We have done quite a lot of those events at Berghain with n≠e, but now this industrial sound has become more popular, not only in Berlin. For the time being I stopped doing n≠e events for this reason, the sound was more or less found and people got the message. As a curator I felt that I didn’t have that much to add to this anymore. But I am pretty sure that I will come back with n≠e in 2017 with a different perspective. I believe there are still many things in music that can question people, but still without a proper platform.
- On a broader spectrum, we have all seen what happened in London with Fabric.
Michail Stangl: I would say that this is not just a specific case, but it’s kind of a trend all around the world where electronic music culture and clubbing in general is not fully understood by institutions and the general public. Why do you think it’s so hard for our scene to get acceptance? Probably because in the first place we do not want to be accepted, which would mean being homogenised into the broader society?
It is clear to me why it is so hard to gain this acceptance. Club culture always meant building safe spaces for people considered outsiders. Nowadays a great part of club culture is more driven by the lifestyle associated with it, rather than by the challenges of being part of such a minority. But nonetheless, if you look on a global scale, even the most mainstream attendant appears to be frankly weird from the point of view of the establishment.
Club culture has always been, and still is, on the edge of social politics, gender politics, of racial politics. It always attracted people who questioned our society. Club culture is made of people that basically question the current form of our society.
On the other hand, we have seen the process of urbanization recently. Cities are growing in population, so the available space is constantly diminishing. This, together with a process of gentrification that is common in metropolitan areas around the world, has restricted the space for alternative ideas. Urban space can be owned and ownership is driven by monetary interest, which has little to share with the promotion of alternative culture.
It is not just a question of authorities or city council against culture, but more a problem of gentrification and access to public spaces.
In Berlin for example we have a very convenient situation, but sometimes audiences are kind of lazy. There is a lot of available space in more peripheral area, as for example up north in Reinickendorf, but it would be very difficult to convince people to go there.
Sometimes we are too comfortable, we might be spoiled a bit over recent times. Maybe the interest in underground music is not that deep after all if people would not move that much for an event.
I think that if we want to protect and promote underground culture we should also be ready to question and challenge our habits, our own perception of the culture itself, the structure that comes with it and maybe also try to get out of our comfort zone more frequently.
This closing is a good way to picture Michail’s personality, at least for what we can say after this conversation where we found a very profound and curious person. Someone that doesn’t like to get too comfortable and needs constant challenges.
Facing a very delicate moment for electronic music and club culture, but also one offering many opportunities, we are gonna need people like him. Even if we do not realize it now, the future of our scene is on our hands. After this conversation I feel more confident about our future and about the road ahead for underground music culture.
We thank him for this exchange of views and we will keep you up to date about his many initiatives around the globe.