I recently attended Boomtown Fair 2023 and have plenty to share about the experience.
Boomtown, a colossal music festival unlike anything else on Earth, occurs at the Matterley Bowl, situated near Winchester, Hampshire in the United Kingdom.
To comprehend it, envisioning a city rather than a festival is advisable. Boomtown, constructed from the creative vigor of artists using plyboard, scrap materials, and painted canvas, forms a fantastical realm inhabited by a diverse array of actors adorned in intricately designed costumes.
The event creates an on-site parallel reality featuring a intricate storyline portrayed through art, theater, and an elaborate alternative reality game. To enhance the experience, a newspaper and local currency are printed and distributed, and participants are referred to as citizens.
Boomtown is divided into various districts, each with its unique theme, music, and art style. Botanica, Metropolis, and the Origin Stage exhibit a modernist and post-modernist aesthetic, complemented by vibrant commercial drum and bass and EDM music. In Letsbee Avenue, unbridled capitalism reigns supreme, and the absurdities of the contemporary world are mocked through sideshows and performers.
As you delve further into the festival, the prevailing modernist capitalist ideology wanes, giving way to a shifting aesthetic. Area 404 embodies a post-apocalyptic punk utopia, where numerous smaller stages showcase intense rock, tekno, hardcore, and other genres. Amidst the cyberpunk streets of this district, a continuous gang skirmish unfolds between the clown-themed Locos and the mercenary Guardians. Water projectiles soar through the air, drenching bystanders as the gangs engage in spirited super soaker battles, while various cults and sideshows vie for your fascination.
Continuing onward, you encounter Old Town, a maze of narrow streets that resembles a scene from a Dungeons and Dragons game. This area boasts an even greater number of activities and theatrical performances compared to the rest of the festival. With its unmistakable hippy-punk festival vibe and a plethora of smaller, indie bands, Old Town is a sanctuary for those who appreciate peculiar folk music and unconventional live performances, much like myself.
Above Old Town, after ascending a seemingly infinite staircase, lies Tribe of Frog. Known for their consistent psytrance music and attracting spinners and ravers, this ultimate level of the festival provides an ideal setting for perpetual dancing. The captivating visuals of the surrounding trees and lights keep the crowd mesmerized.
The festival’s storyline unfolds across these districts and beyond. By engaging in the alternative reality game, interacting with actors, observing the scattered details, and staying vigilant for significant events, individuals can stay updated on and potentially impact this narrative.
Each year, Boomtown’s storyline undergoes variations, but it consistently revolves around the city’s residents striving to overthrow the weekly villain, typically symbolizing the modern corporate world.
Despite its celebration of creativity, individualism, and rebellion against the mainstream corporate world, Boomtown conceals a paradox that cannot be overlooked. The festival’s core essence contradicts itself as it embraces elements of corporate capitalism within its alternative universe. Behind the high steel fence, guarded by drones, this vibrant atmosphere of creativity, energy, and fun is aggressively monetized.
Security at the event is robust but controversial. Attendees undergo thorough searches upon entry, while security patrols frequently conduct body searches and confiscate prohibited items. There are rumors circulating about questionable practices within the security team, leading to a pervasive distrust among Boomtown’s Citizens. This atmosphere of unease deters some individuals from attending due to the potential paranoia it may evoke.
Boomtown’s cashless system, intended to reduce theft, can sometimes be perceived as repressive. It closely monitors every transaction at the festival, giving full visibility into vendors’ businesses. Some attendees have even reported being turned away for using cash. On-site prices are high, and strict alcohol limits upon entry steer many towards the bars. Moreover, with numerous attractions to explore, finding time to cook becomes challenging, further pushing attendees towards the vendors. As a result, people end up spending significant amounts of money. Frankly, I would prefer paying a higher ticket price and avoiding the need to deal with overpriced £14 burgers, rather than enduring hunger while grappling with the current system.
Besides the exorbitant prices of food and drinks, festival attendees often faced difficulties in replenishing their cashless accounts due to the unreliable phone signal. Despite having designated stations for this purpose, it was not uncommon to hear about well-off festival-goers running out of funds for food.
An additional problem arises when people don’t use cash for payments: vendors may intentionally or unintentionally double or overcharge. Numerous individuals have shared their experiences of this issue on social media. However, Boomtown’s response has been limited to advising customers to check their balance after each purchase, which is challenging due to poor signal coverage at the site. While this suggestion seems reasonable, it cannot entirely compensate for vendors double charging customers. Consequently, those affected are left in a difficult situation, especially considering the fraudulent attempts by some individuals to obtain refunds for meals they actually purchased.
Maybe allowing the exchange of a valuable token for smaller tokens that represent the price difference would enhance trust and streamline the system. However, this should not be misconstrued as an endorsement for proprietary company currency. Simply put, let us transact with cash, Live Nation!
The approach to commerce at the festival contrasts greatly with the treatment of actors and crew. A significant number of those involved in creating or performing at Boomtown receive no compensation, not even food. They contribute their love and hard work solely for the joy of the experience, while also bearing the expenses of attending.
It’s as if Boomtown is a microcosm of the broader world it seeks to critique— art is consistently undervalued, and corporate influence penetrates everywhere. While this practice of heavily using volunteers is commonplace across the festival industry, it is arguably at its worst at Boomtown where the sheer spectacle of the event can convince many who would typically charge for their skills to put aside their concerns and work for a ticket. Thankfully, it seems that at least the misdeeds of previous years were not repeated, and the bar staff were not held hostage this year, indicating things might be improving.
The festival’s paradox lies in its narrative of inspiring attendees to rebel against corporate villains, while being structured upon the very corporate principles it opposes. This duality, blending artistic spirit and economic foundation, is simultaneously captivating and exasperating.
Although unintentional, the pervasive irony associated with this situation reflects the difficulties inherent in organizing a large-scale event, leading to unavoidable compromises. This irony introduces a sense of cognitive dissonance within the Boomtown experience. I found it consistently bothersome during my time at the festival, as it detracted from the immersive nature of the meticulously crafted alternative world that countless individuals had invested significant time and effort into. Consequently, it diminished the remarkable potential that the festival held.
The event’s size gives rise to another phenomenon known as the “Bucket Hats.” These groups of 18-25-year-old look-alike ketamine users are drawn to the popular dance acts performing on the main stages. They form a significant portion of the festival crowd but often appear disinterested and reluctant to participate in the unique experiences available.
In the vibrant and chaotic atmosphere of Boomtown, I encountered Dan, who appeared to be a typical “Bucket Hat” person. Yet, he had become dissatisfied with his ordinary circle of friends and sought something more adventurous within Boomtown’s influence. We met at the bar and I took him to experience the exhilarating energy of a punk show’s mosh pit in Oldtown. After our first meeting, I allowed him to explore on his own, hoping he would carve his own unique path in this diverse world.
Afterward, by a stroke of serendipity, I caught sight of Dan once more. This time, he was completely absorbed in an unplanned poi spinning lesson, guided by one of my longtime festival crew friends. It warmed my heart to witness someone like Dan, who might have been dismissed as a typical festivalgoer, immersing himself in the distinctive experiences that Boomtown had to offer.
I believe the core essence of the event lies in denormification. It aims to attract individuals whose creative desires are not fully satisfied by mainstream means and provide them with an opportunity to immerse themselves in diverse art, creativity, and even neurodiversity that our country has to offer. This experience has the potential to inspire them to surpass their current limitations and become something greater.
I thoroughly enjoyed my experience at Boomtown and plan on returning. I highly recommend it to anyone who appreciates music, parties, and immersive experiences, and is comfortable with large crowds, strict security, and some corporate elements.
Until the festival’s plot convinces you otherwise.