Boomtown Fair Chapter 11: the Radical City shows how festivals should be done11th September 2019
After Chapter 10 closed the Nickolas Boom Saga last summer, Chapter 11: A Radical City was the start of a new story for Boomtown.
We were told at the Chapter 10 closing ceremony that Boomtown must change to survive, and it did. The organisers gave us some big changes this year, from sorting out the sound levels to introducing a smartphone app and perhaps the most-ambitious sustainability campaign seen at a festival – with a plastic bottle ban, a total switch to compostables and a massive drive against campsite waste all introduced in the same year.
With a capacity increase on the way for Chapter 12, the changes put Boomtown on a firm footing for the next decade. Boomtown pulled off their biggest Fair yet with minimal disruption (and minimal mud!) on a weekend when festivals all around them had to cancel because of the weather.
Keep reading to find out how it went.
Never been to Boomtown? We’ll mostly focus on changes made for 2019 in this post, so if you’ve never been to Boomtown before and you’re wondering what it is, check out TheFestivals Chapter 10 review from last year.
Complaining about the sound levels has almost become part of the culture at Boomtown. Despite the festival’s rapid growth, they’re still operating within the same strict off-site sound limits as a decade ago. This requires specialist management that responds to the weather conditions and all sorts of other variables. Organisers promised they’d finally crack the sound levels this year, and from what I could tell, I think they pulled it off.
Looking around at
Sector 6 Nucleus, I was sure I could spot more relay speakers dotted throughout the crowd this year, and Boomtown co-founder Lak said shortly afterwards: “we basically put speakers everywhere and it finally worked”.
I also noticed many of the stacks had speakers facing in multiple directions, with some pointing ‘forward’ or back towards the stage. I’m not sure if the directions were new for this year, but either way, the sound was much better than last summer. It never bothered me too much, but there used to be plenty of spots in the crowd where the bass was a bit thin and the volume wasn’t quite enough to drown out the background chatter of the crowd. That didn’t happen this year, and if you’re minded to watch videos of DJ sets on YouTube, you’ll find that background chatter from Chapter 10 just isn’t there in the shaky phone videos of Chapter 11.
I went to the Job Centre for the first time this year, now dubbed ‘JobCentre 2.0’. After filling out some kind of personality-oriented assessment form, a ‘helpful’ advisor will assign you suitable employment. I was grouped up with some people I’d never met before to protest against Extinction Rebellion.
The climate-change protest group were heavily involved in Chapter 11, featuring in the opening ceremony, in the Sunday parade, and taking over Paradise Heights, probably among other things. The Job Centre told us we had to collect signatures for a petition to get rid of Extinction Rebellion and equipped us with a “make rebellion extinct again” placard. We headed out into Old Town, and after more than a few dirty looks, we eventually collected about seven signatures. One guy dressed as Jesus signed the petition as ‘Jesus Christ’ himself.
We headed back to the Job Centre with our seven signatures and were duly rewarded with the branded stickers, which apparently you need to get into the staff Christmas party on Sunday afternoon. I managed to nick a sheet of 12 when the G4Life security guard wasn’t looking. We never did go to the Christmas party anyway, but I gave some away and kept an ‘Early Working Centre’ sticker for my laptop.
Oh, and the Job Centre also have a big wheel they’ll make claimants spin, I think just for their own amusement. I had a go, and for some reason, had to have a fight with Adam from Boomtown Source. The winner would be whoever could take one of the other person’s socks off first and hold it above their head. I’m only mentioning this because I won.
The Job Centre staff rewarded me with a brown envelope. It contained a lighter and a lollipop.
With some ominous forecasts from the Met Office, who issued multiple severe weather warnings in the days before the festival, you’d be forgiven for thinking Boomtown was going to be a washout, or worse. You couldn’t have been more wrong.
The warnings suggested we’d get battered by strong winds and rain throughout Friday and Saturday. Boardmasters was the first big one to be called off, but it’s in an exposed location right on the Cornish coast, but when Houghton cancelled, I did start to get a little bit worried about Boomtown. It almost looked like the best we could hope for was the event to go ahead but be marred by awful weather.
The strong winds foretold by the weather warnings happened, and the odd few minutes of very heavy rain happened, but by-and-large, Boomtown enjoyed some pretty decent festival weather. The rain showers and strong winds were mostly confined to Friday and Saturday, but even on Sunday, there was very little mud to speak of and absolutely no need to wander about in a cumbersome pair of wellies.
Most of the time it was dry, and it was often pretty sunny, but without the exhausting and extreme temperatures we saw at Glastonbury earlier this summer. 30°C weather isn’t fun at festivals, and we shouldn’t really be celebrating heatwaves and climate breakdown as “perfect weather”, so yeah, Boomtown’s weekend of 22°C and partly cloudy skies is my ideal festival weather.
When the strong winds hit on Friday, organisers had prepared mitigations which were swiftly put into place, and anyone without a tent for the night was looked after by their campsite hub. RELIC was forced to close after a part of the set came away during ShyFX, but after the live music finished around 11pm, organisers switched the late-night RELIC line-up to the Lion’s Den stage.
I’m guessing for every set on RELIC someone spends a lot of time curating a bespoke light show, intending to take full advantage of the incredible setup. Switching to a live music stage at the last minute probably left these plans dead in the water. Much of the lighting was static to start with, and the screens just displayed set times. But as the night went on, you could tell the production team got to grips with things quickly, and more and more of the lighting came into play.
Boomtown really are blessed to have enough massive, incredible stages that when one big arena is forced to close, they can just switch the acts to another one a short (uphill!) walk away. It’s a result of Boomtown having two big live music stages and two big DJ stages, I suppose, but I can’t think of any other major festival that could do the same.
For the first time, Boomtown had a line-up app this year, courtesy of Woov. There’s been apps to accompany the storyline in the past, but this is the first that’s a proper festival info app with stage times, clashfinder, personal schedules and a decent map. You could find your friends on the map ala Snapchat, make group chats and set notification reminders for artists you don’t want to miss.
The phone signal on site was much better this time around, and I had a working internet connection pretty much everywhere. Boomtown is now big enough that some networks boost their signal on site with extra masts, although some don’t, and loads of there customers had pretty much no connection all weekend.
Lots of festivals have invested time and money creating their own bespoke app, which are often buggy or confusing, and lack loads of Woov’s useful features. The EE-sponsored Glastonbury app had some glitch that wouldn’t let me see the set times for any day besides Friday without tapping a frozen menu twenty times. If you design a bespoke app for a festival, then everyone arrives and you find a horrible glitch, it’s probably too late to do anything about it. Woov works with hundreds of festivals and has an ongoing update cycle, so it feels very polished, it’s fast, and it works well offline. For better or worse, it even has a festival-wide group chat for each event.
At an early Boomtown a good few years ago, if you wanted the set times you had to buy a programme and lanyard or find some laminated photocopies tied to a fence somewhere. Now the Woov app is in place for set times, I don’t think they even gave out the lanyards this year – another big chunk of plastic waste eliminated.
The app also allowed Boomtown HQ to send out push notifications with important info and updates, particularly useful when stages had to shut temporarily because of the weather, or when set times were adjusted. You’ve always been able to get these kinds of updates from the @BoomtownFair Twitter but having them pushed as alerts to tens of thousands of citizens must be far more effective at getting important info out there.
If you’re an event organiser, do your attendees a favour: scrap the plans for that unique app you wanted to commission and get your set times on Woov next summer.
Boomtown bolstered their sustainability efforts with some big initiatives this year, banning plastic bottles alongside a complete rollout of compostable ‘Vegware’ packaging and a massive push to reduce campsite waste. Not forgetting planting a tropical rainforest with 50,000 trees, introducing cigarette butt ballot bins, their efforts to reduce the festival’s carbon footprint, and the countless other eco-friendly things introduced or continued this year.
Coming prepared with a few refillable bottles, I didn’t really notice the plastic bottle ban. Free water was available from WaterAid kiosks and countless taps around the site. You could still buy water and soft drinks in aluminium cans (much easier to recycle than plastic bottles) and you could get free cups of water from the bars. In the uncomfortable heat of Glastonbury, I’d paid for the odd cold can of water, but I just didn’t need to at Boomtown. I got through the whole five days without any packaged drinks (besides a crate of Amstel) and I didn’t even notice.
Everything is compostable!
My favourite initiative introduced this year was probably replacing all food and drinks packaging with compostable ‘Vegware’, because Boomtown are leading the way on this and setting the standard for not just other festivals and events but also shops, supermarkets, and anyone else wrapping food in single-use plastic.
Vegware is a brand name for PLA, a compostable plastic made from plants. Orange compost bins around Boomtown collected both food waste and compostable packaging together. Then, instead of going to landfill or being processed for recycling, all of Boomtown’s packaging waste will compost into agricultural soil. The process only takes around 12 weeks, despite the Vegware packaging looking and feeling exactly like normal plastic, so there are no complaints about soggy paper alternatives.
You wouldn’t know the pint cups used by Boomtown’s bars were Vegware, not plastic, without being told, and every single piece of disposable packaging sold, right down to coffee cup linings and lids, was compostable – not plastic. Some smaller festivals have already done this, and some supermarkets are running limited trials of compostable packaging, but I’m yet to see anywhere match what Boomtown have done. Since I got home, it’s started to really wind me up when I see places using disposable plastic when Vegware/PLA is both better for the environment than paper and identical to plastic to the consumer. Though in fairness, Boomtown had their own arrangements with a local composting facility, and this might not be an option for small local venues.
Take your tent home
Boomtown took the bull by the horns with their campaign to reduce campsite waste and leftover tents, designating the messiest campsite from last year as their zero-waste eco-camp. Other festivals have introduced eco-campsites, but they’re usually pretty far away from the action and were really clean on Monday morning long before they became eco-campsites. Boomtown went for DSTRKT 5 camping, the only public campsite within the Downtown bowl and the campsite which left the most tents behind last year. Lots of Boomtown, like Whistler’s Green camping, already gets left totally spotless, so it’s good to see the organisers taking on a challenge with the DSTRKT 5 eco-camp.
This meant it wasn’t spotless on Monday morning, but it was a massive step forward, with a 50 per cent reduction in tents left behind from last year and a 70 per cent reduction in overall campsite waste, despite the destructive weather.
We’re coming up on 2,000 words now and I haven’t mentioned any music yet, so instead of rambling on about loads of ‘sick’ sets I saw over the weekend, I’m just gonna run through a few of my favourites.
Mike Skinner was amazing. If you’ve seen his Glastonbury set and thought that was epic, well this was that times ten. The Lion’s Den an incredible natural amphitheatre. The steep sides circle around the stage trapping the atmosphere inside like a stadium. I’d never seen The Streets live before Glastonbury, so I’m assuming Mike brings the same energy to every gig, but after his Glasto’ set I knew we’d be in for something special at the Lion’s Den.
We were, it was brilliant. A setlist full of the classic Streets material I loved back in high school. Relatively early into the set, Johannes handed Mike a can of Guinness from the crowd. He took it and necked it, but not before warning: “If I drink this, I will never come back, trust me. I’ll be in your tent, with all my drugs, it’s happened before ladies and gentlemen, you think I’m joking…”
He even found the time for a dip in one of the waterfalls, before closing the set with the timeless classic: ‘Fit But You Know It’ – which Boomtown have been kind enough to share the video of, see below.
Prophets of Rage
I’d seen Prophets of Rage once before, at Download 2017. That was pretty special, with the ‘supergroup’ bringing a politically-charged set to Donington on the day we learnt the results of Theresa May’s snap election. Not just that, but we checked out some recent Prophets of Rage setlists in the morning and realised they’d be playing a set packed with absolute bangers from Rage Against the Machine and Cypress Hill – with just a couple from their self-titled album of new material.
At the time, I thought it was of the most enjoyable sets I’d ever seen, but it was nothing compared to seeing them at Boomtown’s Town Centre. Admittedly, that’s because I found myself right at the front of the pit in the second row back from the stage at Boomtown – we were about five miles away at Download by comparison. I never dreamed I’d get to be in the second row watching Tom Morello, B Real and Chuck D anywhere, let alone at Boomtown when they headline, but somehow, I was there.
I’m even in this somewhere, which I think is my favourite photo ever:
Town Centre is the smaller of Boomtown’s two main live music stages, the other being Lion’s Den. It’s a big enough space to pack thousands in for big names like Limp Bizkit, Salt-N-Pepa (pictured above) and Prophets of Rage. (and hopefully, maybe one day, System of a Down?)
The buildings surround the stage from all sides, creating an impromptu town square that makes you feel involved and close to the action no matter where you stand. Despite being enclosed, well-placed gaps either side mean the crowd is really easy to get in and out of, and something about the place means it’s usually pretty easy to find your friends.
The Bad Apple Bar, opposite the stage at the back of the square, had an external bar added this year so you could get served while watching the stage, which was fantastic.
Beans on Toast
One last quick mention for Beans on Toast. The folk singer always puts on one of the most entertaining sets of the weekend wherever you stumble across him, and he’s a stalwart of a Boomtown citizen too. (he even recorded a song for their campsite waste campaign!) It’s been firmly established that Beans always plays the Old Mines stage at 3pm Sunday afternoon, that’s his slot and the Sunday wouldn’t feel complete without him.
With the Old Mines becoming The Forge this year, and Beans packing the place out last year anyway, organisers bumped his set up to the Town Centre stage. Same time, same day, but a much bigger stage. As you might expect, Beans easily attracted a crowd big enough to justify the extra space and played a brilliant set in the sun. He even brought out the Kidztown choir and let them sing one with him.
We’ll have to wait and see if Beans can make the 3pm Sunday Town Centre slot the perennial Beans on Toast slot like at the Old Mines, but let’s hope so.
Image credits: with thanks to Boomtown Fair for supplying photos by Scott Salt, Garry Jones, Sian Herbert, Lucas Sinclair, Derek Bremner, Leora Bermeister, George Harrison, Jody Hartley, Benjamin Paul. Some images are original work of TheFestivals.
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