A few years ago, I may not have found watching a killer line up of DJs on an A/V live stream hard to imagine, but maybe to the extent to which Boiler Room has done. Remember back in 2010, when Hudson Mohawke played? One camera in a student digs-looking room with people hanging out, listening to hip hop? Since then, Boiler Room has proved that old quip about modern art - "I could have done that..." "Yeah, but you didn't, did you?" - by taking available technologies and a DIY mind-set to bring the music straight to us.
I've heard people complain about these streams ("No one's dancing!", "The sound's crap!"), but that's overshadowed by the fact that kids in countries where clubbing is either shit or non-existent can watch world-class talent play in a room thousands of miles away, and it's all live. There's something beautiful in that - and the late 2000s has seen this sentiment drive a rapidly expanding enterprise. From friends mucking about on Ustream to Boiler Room's globetrotting events, streams like these are now a largely accepted facet of electronic music culture, and have created shifts in attitudes towards the realities of clubbing: about what clubbing should deliver in an age where anyone with an internet connection can "get locked in" - and host.
Two weeks ago, I watched a crew of kids host a live stream called SPF420. Ryan Hemsworth, Saint Pepsi and half a dozen others flinging themselves around on a live stream via YouTube (which got killed off because of "copyright infringement issues"), then on TinyChat; playing the kind of high energy stabs of electronic pop that have made vaporware A Thing, getting stoned, and freaking out about every last transition in the chat room.
It turns out that SPF420 are Liz and Chaz, from North Carolina and Illinois respectively, who have been running these live streams from multiple locations ever since they started chatting years ago on Turntable FM. "We would all hang out and listen to whatever; Lil B, Salem sped up 33%, sometimes our own tracks", explains Liz. They're "super close, real life friends" - who had never met until a fortnight ago. "Except for this past week at SXSW, we did everything online together. We are close, real life friends - just, on the internet."
Liz and Chaz are two self-confessed introverts. Speaking to them, starting SPF420 seems the logical next step for a generation who have grown up with multiple identity-shaping platforms (LiveJournal and MySpace in the early days, Twitter and Facebook now necessary appendages), and use the phrase "IRL" in conversation – which they do constantly. It's a habit that seems to stem from a fairly rigid separation of what is and is not an experience guided by the internet for them. "I used to book IRL shows" says Liz, "but I got tired of them. I got tired of house shows. I got tired of the North Carolina scene. It's basically just a big cock-fest. I'd go see bands and end up hating it; people just yelling, harassing, being super drunk. You're always being looked at. I feel IRL shows just aren't enjoyable because you're not comfortable."
Chaz goes one further. "I hate IRL shows because I can't go to them. I'm underage. I'm 19. I've had to turn shows down. If I went, I wouldn't be able to go out and smoke a cigarette and go back in - even if I was playing. IRL shows just suck to me." Would you not just sneak in, if an artist you liked was playing your town? "Well, the producers I love don't play everywhere. Some of them don't even play shows. I'd rather see them online than fly to NY to see them play in the corner of some terrible warehouse party."
Yet, doesn't sitting in your room listening to music not compare to the immediacy of a sound-system and - romantic as it sounds - a room full of people who are all experiencing it in real-time? "Of course, I love the sound of live music in an IRL setting", says Liz. "Everything is so enhanced and beautiful. I just don't like live atmosphere. There's so much going on that could distract you from the performer. Why would we do that to ourselves?"
So, the live experience of clubbing can be divorced from club music for you? "The funny thing is that old punks will think of us as little bitches; who 'Don't know what real music is till they see it live', but they're old farts", says Chaz. "We're the new punks, who sleep all day and smoke kush. I like listening to music in my room, and I like listening to music with friends online. So, SPF420 is perfect for me."
Liz's investment in the stream is partly out of a desire to create a social environment in which people can enjoy club music in a new, more individualised way. "I like SPF420 because I can talk to my friends and feel safe", she confirms. "I can promote artists I love, and read what my friends are saying. At an IRL show, you either can't or don't talk to the few people you're there with. Online, you can talk. There's no cover charge, there's no bar – and you can bring your own drugs."
Aside from wanting to just get stoned in their bedrooms, SPF420 seems to have been born out of natural introvertedness, a gradual disdain for the accepted social experience of clubbing – and genuinely interesting takes on what producers should and should not be expected to do as performers. "We want total artist freedom because I'm well aware that at a lot of IRL shows, you're basically just putting the artist in a corner", says Liz. "I don't like that. The producer isn't necessarily a DJ. I like the artist doing what they want to do. We had Tobacco come and play pretty much all unfinished demos of his new album. It was fucking dope. Bear Face wanted the 'Bound 2' video looped on repeat. If that's what you want to do, we'll do it for you."
How has SPF420 grown since you met on Turntable FM? "Producer friends of ours wanted to join us after the first stream, which was just us, so we just did another, and another", says Chaz. "Sometimes we'd cold-call artists we like and ask them to play - if we think they'd fuck with it." And how has that worked out? "We've not had any negative responses towards the idea of it from anyone we've approached, especially the community aspect. When we break it down to an artist, either they love it or they might get confused by it. The cold-calling can be kind of difficult. They usually seemed interested, but puzzled as to how to do the in-the-bedroom thing."
So if a producer can just log in from their home to be part of the stream, what's the aesthetic pull for those playing, and the audience watching? "Our shows are tailored fit to each artist", explains Chaz. "We don't just throw 5 people together and say, 'Let's do this'. It's a concept that blossoms. We ask one artist who they'd like to play with, then we think, 'Who would we have to accompany this artist?' We ask a visual artist - we're a crew of about 15 or so right now - and without their visuals and flyers, we wouldn't have a strong enough tone for the shows."
In a culture where these live streams are populating the internet at a rapid rate, what makes SPF420 different from a Boiler Room or Just Jam session? "Well, I promote the artists in the chat during the stream. We moderate, and people can chat to each other via the TinyChat format", says Liz. "It has a more lively atmosphere. What sets us apart from ventures like Boiler Room and Just Jam is that those shows can only happen in one place. For SPF420, every artist can be in a different city in their own rooms. They just, log in and play. With other streaming sites, you just turn up and do a DJ set. Last November, Ryan Hemsworth played in his bathtub for us."
Speaking to them, it becomes clear that the separation of SPF420 from other ventures isn't what sells the stream at all. It's the very possibility of being one of many. Billions of people have access to the internet, and only a few hundred at any one time were watching the March 11th TinyChat stream. It's a global enterprise, rendered niche. Liz and Chaz become animated at the thought. "It's not like if Boiler Room does it, we can't do it, says Chaz. "There can never be too many venues online. There already are a lot of places you can watch music on the internet, were just filling our own little niche. The way people say 'Which club do you want to go to?', people will say 'Which channel do you want to stream tonight?', or 'Which website do you want to log onto tonight?'"
"I want that", agrees Liz. "SPF420, Boiler Room, Just Jam – we should be just three of the many channels to watch for online performance. I take everything show by show. I don't like to plan ahead because there's a shelf life for everything. I'll do SPF420 until I feel it is not worth doing for our community anymore. That hurts to say, but only having one channel like this would be wack. There's lots of very underground events in smaller groups than us, and we support every freaking one of them. That's also why I'm not concerned by shelf life, because I support every artistic endeavour like ours. As long as you have a positive mission, go for it."
SPF420 took the step from URL to IRL when they hosted a party at this month's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, after Ryan Hemsworth suggested they make the trip. "We hooked up with a label called Imaginary Friends, who came to us wanting to collaborate on an event for SXSW. We wanted to give an indication that it was not at SXSW, though. To play with the idea of it not being at a concrete location." So, maintaining that almost anti-IRL mentality, in an IRL setting? "Totally", insists Liz.
"Not only was the space we played at not feasible for 500 people to show up to, we could only invited 3 people per artist and per person. It was a 75 people show. It was at someone's house. We really didn't want to be so forward about it being in Austin: We don't know where this is – it's on the internet!' I loved that event because it kept in touch with our ethics: a house show with ten artists who are like family to us. I can't explain how beautiful it was to me." So SXSW was just the beginning? "For sure. Watch out, because were going to put in 110%. If you care, hit us up."