Behind the scenes at the pop-up city changing what it means to be a greenfield festival.
When Access sits down with Lak Mitchell, one of the founders of BoomTown Fair, it doesn’t take long for us to realise that his festival is a little bit different.
“This year the rebels took over the new nuclear power station, which the corrupt power-hungry mayor had built thinking she was doing the right thing,” he says, explaining that his event is part festival, part ongoing immersive theatre.
From the very beginning, says Mitchell, the idea for BoomTown was for something more than a regular music festival.
“The vision of it being a real working city was on the cards right from the start,” he says. “The clue is in the name. We called it BoomTown because we wanted to create a town that supposedly existed all year round.”
BoomTown’s current incarnation is a sprawling fictional metropolis, complete with detailed sets, themed areas and a complex, fantastical storyline involving corrupt officials and the occasional giant spider.
The site is split into nine districts, each with its own character and individual style.
“It was inspired partly by Disneyland, believe it or not,” laughs Mitchell. “There they’ve got zones that you can wander into and you’re hit with a completely different theme, feel and sensory environment.”
The resulting experience is something completely unique, both in terms of scale and imagination.
“The amount of scaffolding that goes into this festival is absolutely insane,” adds Mitchell. “I can’t imagine there’s another festival in the world with this amount of it.”
When Access talks to him, he is still on site after the 2016 event, which took place on 11-14 August at Matterley Estate in Winchester.
“We’re still flat-out packing up,” he says. “It takes a good two months. It’s such an ambitious build, it couldn’t be done in much less time. It’s like an enormous interactive film set.”
“None of the builds are straightforward, everything’s on the side of a hill,” adds Lee Austin, event director for the Winner Group. “It’s very unusual, there’s not another build like it. To see it up and running and finished is amazing.”
Naturally, BoomTown wasn’t always an event on this scale. It started, as many things do, with a group of friends.
“We give out budgets to our crazy lunatic friends” – Lak Mitchell
“We found ourselves, about 10 years ago, standing in front of a festival main stage,” explains Mitchell. “Everyone was just standing there, watching some band with no real soul to them, and we thought, ‘Christ, we can do this’.”
Mitchell, along with his co-founder Chris Rutherford, created a small festival with a line-up of friends and a makeshift stage.
“We’d grown up in the festival scene, and in the underground free party scene,” Mitchell continues. “Because we’d been putting on a lot of parties it meant that we were all up for creating this event. We didn’t have a penny to our name. If we’d lost 500 quid we would’ve been bankrupt.”
Making a profit has never been high on the agenda for Mitchell and his colleagues. In fact, for him the annual financial tightrope walk is a sign that the festival has managed to remain independent and true to its roots.
“It didn’t matter that there wasn’t much money coming in. That meant that the show was still at a really good, decent level,” he says. “The key to it not bankrupting each year was the fact that it had this love from the free party scene and evolved from that.”
The festival grew rapidly, almost doubling in size each year just to cover costs.
“It got to a point when it was putting too much strain on everything,” admits Mitchell. “We’ve always been really careful; we grew because we needed to make the operation professional. There is always inflation on every single angle of the festival: the infrastructure, the staff, everything. Every year we found gaps and we needed to fill them, and that cost money.”
One thing remained hugely important to Mitchell and his colleagues: loyal customers shouldn’t be priced out of the market.
“We didn’t want to out-price people who had been coming since year one,” he says. “We didn’t want them to suddenly not be able to come because they couldn’t afford it. We’ve always preferred to increase numbers for the festival rather than the ticket price.”
The official story of BoomTown began as something the organisers told each other for their own amusement, not for public consumption.
“There’s never much of a plan other than the fact that we’ve got this story,” says Mitchell. “The festival is led by its ever-evolving narrative. It gives the whole festival direction and means that every creative director can grab onto an element of that, and take their section in that direction.”
The story’s shift from private to public came when visitors to BoomTown – “we call them citizens not festivalgoers” – were asked to take part in a fictional mayoral election during its fourth year.
“They all voted in a lady called Comrade Jose,” says Mitchell. “She was amazing, she won everyone over at the town hall elections. It’s a little bit political, a bit fantasy. It’s partly put in place to educate on world issues and topics that we feel really strongly about. When the election came in the public really started grabbing onto it and buying into it. Before that it was just us having a bit of fun in our own world.”
The story, retroactively adapted to the early incarnations of the festival, now forms a central part of the creative vision.
“We’ve got a whole narrative directors’ board,” continues Mitchell. “We come up with the topics that we’re really passionate about and the direction the story’s going. Once we’ve got a really solid idea the story normally needs a big impact feature piece, which relates to something massive within the festival.”
While the creative teams working on the festival have naturally grown over the years, there is still an element of that first festival pieced together by a group of mates. Except for one significant difference:
“What’s really nice is that we give out budgets to our crazy lunatic friends,” laughs Mitchell. “They have these mental ideas and wouldn’t normally be given these nice big budgets. They come to us with their ideas and we shape them and work together on the concepts, then they go away and have creative input on the detail.
“Although the core creative collective of the festival steers everything it’s always amazing to give it out to the hundreds of creative directors who work on all the different elements.”
One such creative force is Dan Borg, creative director of set design agency Front Left and art director at BoomTown.
“I haven’t really seen any other festivals that come close in terms of scale,” he tells Access. “The whole of BoomTown is tied together under this narrative, and we try not to let the narrative break.”
For Borg, who took on the Old Town district four years ago and was responsible for managing 2016’s new district Sector 6, part of building up BoomTown is working out how to reuse and repurpose the sets used in previous years.
“There’s a lot of money spent on the stages, but we build on it year after year so the money doesn’t get wasted,” he explains. “We try and recycle as much as we can. The set that I’ve been using for Old Town has come from major feature films, TV, adverts, all over the place. It’s been recycled for years and years.”
“There is such a large amount of temporary theatrical infrastructure,” Mark Tennant, brand manager for BoomTown supplier LION Trackhire tells Access. “The site evolves organically as it builds, so flexibility is paramount.”
“I haven’t seen any other festivals that come close” – Dan Borg
“It’s great to be involved with such a progressive event,” adds Kevin Thorborn, UK manager of Mojo Barriers, “and to see organisers pushing boundaries when it comes to creativity and imagination.”
Flexibility, and a certain amount of pioneering innovation, has been necessary for more than one aspect of the festival. The site has around 150 sound systems packed into a relatively small area, meaning that the core team has been forced to get creative when it comes to noise management.
“There’s nothing else like it in the world to take advice from,” says Mitchell. “We’ve had to create new methods of noise management across the whole site, which is just insane. To make that amount of sound systems work in one space and not clash has been a really intense enterprise, but it’s really paid off.”
In terms of creativity, the designers have to achieve a balance between the narrative of the festival as a whole and their own personal vision for their assigned area or district.
“We all bounce off each other to a certain extent,” says Borg. “There’s a friendly rivalry between the areas, and we try and up the game each year. My vision for Old Town is hard to describe; it’s something in my head that’s been building up over the years. I was really happy with it this year, we got quite close.”
The vision for BoomTown extends to the festivalgoers as well, to how they experience the site and how they interact with the festival while on site.
“It’s about escapism and finding your inner character,” explains Mitchell. “We’ve had the most incredible emails afterwards, about how it’s completely opened people’s eyes in terms of creativity.
“It’s really humbling to read some of these comments. It’s about opening people’s imaginations and showing them what you can do with art and expression.”
The need for escapism, which seems particularly tempting in light of current events in 2016, doesn’t prevent Mitchell and his colleagues from seeing the potential impact they could have on real world events as the festival continues to grow.
“We’re all quite close to what’s going on in the real world. We’re passionate about supporting charities and we’re getting to a position where we’re able to focus a lot of our direction and energy on that side of things.”
When it comes to the future of BoomTown, Mitchell is reserved about providing details:
“We’ve written the story for the next few chapters, so we know the direction the festival is heading,” he says. “We’ve had ideas come in from all over the world from people who want to be involved. It’s insanely exciting.”
If there’s one thing Mitchell wants to remain constant, it’s the experience had by the citizens of BoomTown.
“We’ve created a community where people look out for each other, respect themselves, respect the environment and respect the people around them. It’s important that we don’t lose the intimacy everyone knows and loves. That’s the message we’re trying to put out there.”
This feature originally appeared in the October issue of Access All Areas, out now.