What’s it like volunteering at Download with Hotbox?

by Sam Warrenger
What's it like volunteering at Download with Hotbox? 3

You probably already know that you can go to festivals for free if you volunteer. I did for years, and I always wrote it off as a waste of time. I thought you’d miss loads of bands in return for gruelling shifts that you don’t even get paid for. 

I was wrong, and since trying it for the first time last year, I properly love volunteering with Hotbox. I’m yet to miss a band I really wanted to see, the shifts are actually loads of fun, and you’ll make loads of friends.

You have to pay a deposit, to make sure you don’t just run off into the festival after getting your wristband and sack off your shifts. It’s £145 for new applicants, but as we’ve done Hotbox volunteering before it was just £95 this year.

That covers you for all of their festivals, so you can do as many of Download, Latitude, RiZe, and Leeds or Reading just paying one deposit, once. You’ll get it back 30 days after your last festival.

With Hotbox, you work three eight-hour shifts throughout the festival. A few weeks before, you rank all the shift patterns in order of preference online. They’re allocated in the order deposits are paid, so whilst you may not get your first choice, I’ve usually been given one of my top preferences even when one of the last few to apply.

You can also apply together and get allocated the same shift patterns as your friends, although the majority of volunteers come alone and make friends there.


The staff accreditation hut
Queuing at the staff accreditation hut

We left it pretty late turning up this year. Last time, we had a shift at 8am Wednesday morning, which meant we had to turn up on Tuesday for our briefing.

With our first shift at 4pm Thursday this time around, we got to Download on Wednesday afternoon a few hours before the briefing at 7pm. I guess this was when it was busiest, as it meant waiting about an hour to get accredited. Hotbox are required to check everyone’s passports when they arrive, to prove they have the right to volunteer in the UK.

The overflow Hotbox campsite
The overflow Hotbox campsite

Having arrived right at the last minute, we ended up in an impromptu overflow campsite, rather than the main Hotbox compound. With the hot weather, the shade from the trees here was great.

Unfortunately, it meant being a short walk from the facilities in the Hotbox camp, such as toilets, showers, and catering. It also meant being somewhat isolated from the socialising that goes on in the Hotbox marquee, usually a great place to make friends and a hot drink. 

Hotbox are on top of this, and should have the campsite capacity issues solved next year.

Hotbox Events briefing
The Hotbox Events briefing on Wednesday night

Unlike last year’s briefings in the marquee, the wonderful weather meant our our briefing was held outside on a grassy bank in the Hotbox campsite.

It takes about an hour, much of which taken up with safety information and advice on using the radios. They’ll also run through what you’ll be expected to do on shift. You’ll be given a volunteers guidebook with all the information needed to help festival-goers and answer their questions.

We made our way back to the overflow camp after the briefing, finished setting up camp, and got started on the beers. We noticed our big-but-old tent had developed a new problem, one of the doors wouldn’t shut. It didn’t seem like it was going to rain anyway. Off to the village.

I’ve always loved the entertainment in Download’s campsite village on the Wednesday and Thursday nights. The comedy tent is always great fun, and the Doghouse is just amazing. For the five nights of Download, it must be by far the UK’s biggest metal club. There’s also a silent disco and cinema tent if that’s your sorta thing.

Download Festival Co-op
Inside the Download Festival Co-op store

It’s a 10 or 15 minute walk from the staff and volunteer camping area to the village. The first thing we did was check out the new onsite Co-op Food store, and we were impressed. Whilst slightly more expensive than a normal Co-op, it’s way cheaper than you’d normally get at festivals. There’s an impressive range of meal deal options, and you can get a pack of four own-brand Cornetto things for under £2. 

The best thing though? Chilled, plastic, full-size bottles of wine for £7. You could wander around swigging from them, and take them into the Doghouse. An incredible bargain when the bar in there likely charged a similar price for a small glass.

The Download store was also the UK’s first trial of reverse plastic vending machines, where each plastic bottle sold includes a refundable deposit. We’re looking forward to seeing the festival Co-op again at Latitude later this month. Keep an eye out for a special feature on these stores coming to TheFestivals soon!

We watched a few comedy sets, then once it had finished, spent pretty much the rest of the night in the Doghouse. I’d turn your speakers down before playing the short video above, but it should give you an idea of exactly what the Doghouse is about.

Why you’d choose the silent disco over that place, I’ll never know, but then again, I’ve never been.


Download Staff Car Parking
Looking towards the staff car park Thursday morning

The day of our first shifts, which didn’t start until 4pm, so we had some time to kill. I woke up early, so took the chance to go off site and get some more drinks from Tesco in Ashby-de-la-Zouch, about a 15 minute drive away. 

This also meant I could get a McDonald’s breakfast, which always seems amazing value when you’re used to paying festival prices. Huzzah.

Back on site, we went for another wander around the village to see what was going on in the daytime. Watched some people playing football, had a look around the traders, then headed back to camp to shower and get ready for the shift.

An advertisement for a used fleshlight at Download Festival
We also noticed these advertisements for a used Fleshlight plastered around the village

It’s best to arrive about an hour before your shift, so that you can be allocated a team and make the way over to where you’ll be working.

We were on the fire tower team, so rather than the majority of ‘Dog Sqaud’ volunteers that patrol the campsite, we’d be based at the fire watch tower near each campsites’ base. We’d alternate one in the tower looking for issues, and one at the base responding to them and answering questions from punters.

I was a little dubious about being allocated fire tower shifts at first, having ended up with them through having no real preference about it, but I actually really enjoyed it. Like most Hotbox shifts, it’s all pretty relaxed, which was probably helped by the fact we were posted in the quiet / family campsite.

Download Festival Yellow Campsite on Thursday Evening
The view from the quiet camping fire tower towards yellow camp around 6pm Thursday

The only issues we dealt with were barbeques that hadn’t been properly extinguished. No trouble, no hassle. You’d come away from each shift feeling like you’d make some friends, and with that bit of chatter, the shifts pass really quickly.

We had a radio each to stay in touch around the campsite, and occasionally I’d have to send someone out to check a cloud of smoke was indeed from a barbeque, not a fire. It was always a barbeque. Happy days.

Moths at the Fire Tower lights
The fire tower lights attract loads of moths

It can get a little chilly in those towers after dark, so make sure you bring a coat and some decent trousers on shift with you.

You’ll also make friends with loads of moths, as they swarm around the bright lights mounted to the tower.

We finished our shift at midnight. Some went out afterwards, straight back to the Doghouse. I went straight to bed.


Backstage at Download Festival 2018
Tour buses begin to arrive, parking near the disabled campsite

Friday morning, and we’d had a little rain overnight. With the tent door on one side stuck open, it’d flooded the middle section with water. The bedrooms were dry though, so no worries.

On another quick trip to the car, we noticed the tour buses beginning to arrive backstage. The vehicle passes on the windscreen of each coach mean you know which belongs to which band, and you’d often see artists congregating in front of the buses.

Dragonforce on the Main Stage
Dragonforce on the Main Stage, behind a battle

With no Hotbox shift on Friday, we had the whole day to ourselves. As soon as we entered the arena, we stumbled upon some kind of medieval battle going down whilst Dragonforce performed in the background.

We watched the battle unfold for a bit, then moved closer to Dragonforce. Once they’d played Through The Fire and Flames, we ran over to the second stage to catch CKY’s set. Having seen CKY supporting Skindred in Manchester a few weeks earlier, we didn’t want to miss any of it.

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CKY – from our Instagram

They didn’t disappoint either. Chad I Ginsburg, pictured, cut his face open somehow and started bleeding not long after the set started.

Refusing all assistance, and towels, from his road crew, he instead opted to smear the blood all over his face and power through the rest of the set. It seemed really cool at the time, anyway.

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Andrew WK – from our Instagram

Next up on the second stage, known as The Zippo Encore Stage, it’s Andrew W.K. Like CKY, his music features in a few Jackass movie soundtracks, albeit to a lesser extent.

There was nothing lesser about his set though, with an incredibly high energy performance no other artist could match.

After Andrew WK, we headed back down to the main stage for Volbeat. A personal favourite of mine that I last saw on the second stage at Download 2013, I was excited to see them higher up the running order this year.

They surprised us by bringing out Barney Greenway from Napalm Death for their track Evelyn. Quality, though maybe we’d have expected it with a little research. It’s happened before, and conveniently, Napalm Death were also playing slightly later.

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Napalm Death – from our Instagram

Next up, we had Napalm Death themselves in the small tent at the back of the main stage area. It was packed. 

We thought being only a few rows from the front, we’d not end up in any of the pits. Wrong.

The second Napalm Death struck their first chord, the whole tent turned into one giant pit, and never stopped for the entirety of their 30 minute set. It was absolutely unreal.

Download Festival Avenged Sevenfold Mosh Pit
The pits at Avenged Sevenfold were not quite as hardcore as Napalm Death’s

Avenged Sevenfold headlined the Friday night. Some have complained that Marilyn Manson would have suited the slot better, instead being given an early Sunday set before Ozzy.

I’m not a massive Avenged fan, but I know a few of the big tracks and thought they put on a decent show. 

Avenged Sevenfold Download Festival
Avenged Sevenfold

They made the most of their pyrotechnics, at one point igniting a section of the side of the stage. Production crew rushed to put it out with fire extinguishers, and the set continued without issue. Though, a small panel was missing from the right hand side of the stage for the rest of the weekend.

Most people absolutely loved that.

After Avenged, we headed straight up to the village to hit the Doghouse once again. After picking up some of those £7 bottles of wine from the onsite Co-op, we headed in.

Suicide Girls had integrated fire-breathing into their already demanding dance routines, which was seriously impressive. I’m told they have to inhale what is essentially petrol to do this, which doesn’t sound fun at the best of times.

We stayed in the Doghouse until it closed around 3am. I don’t remember much else about it, but it was amazing.


Blue Camp
Saturday morning from the blue campsite fire tower

Oh yeah, we had work Saturday morning. We were due on shift at 8pm, which meant a 7am-ish arrival at the Hotbox cabin.

I did not feel good at all. We probably slept for about 3 hours at most, waking up for shift in a haze around 6:45 in the morning.

“Oh yeah, we went out last night.”

Somehow, we made it onto shift. I was manning the Blue campsite fire tower today, ironically only metres away from where I was ejected from Download 2013 on a charge of setting fires. How times change.

2013 was a total travesty of justice anyway, of course, but it was 5am Monday morning, so we weren’t too arsed. We slept it off in the car after a quick visit to Download jail (then proudly operated by G4S) then made our way home.

All the Hotbox supervisors we met were awesome, and all the other volunteers we spoke to seemed to share that opinion. Today’s understood my plight of being incredibly hungover, and was nice enough to let me run off and buy some orange juice. I’m convinced it gives you life at festivals.

I got over to the traders and thought it was my lucky day when they had all sorts of mad fresh smoothies on offer. I was immediately upsold to a £5 tropical banana smoothie of some kind.

A terrible mistake, I realised as soon as I took a sip. I was in far too much of a state to stomach it. It got wasted, and it was well after midday when I could just about stomach a meal deal from the Co-op. Though I wasted half of that too.

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Each campsite had a unique gnome

The shift was pretty cool though. I met some cool people patrolling the campsite, including these guys who’d recreated their absent friend using empty beer packaging.

Other highlights of another chill shift include the time a punter had gotten onto our radio channel and screamed “DOOOWWNNNLOOOADDD” for several minutes.

After finishing the shift at 4pm, I had a quick shower and was just in time for Babymetal’s set on the second stage. It was absolutely packed, and we couldn’t [be bothered to] get anywhere near it.

Massive crowd for Babymetal
Massive crowd for Babymetal

We went down to Black Stone Cherry on the main stage instead.

I didn’t really know much about them, but I was impressed with their set. I wasn’t expecting any Bob Marley to get worked into it.

Guns ‘N’ Roses had the Saturday headline slot, and had supposedly been paid £5 million to do it. They also had their own private backstage area the size of a football pitch, apparently.

I’d seen them before a few times, before Slash got back with them. Each time, they showed up hours late. At Leeds, they got cut off with the noise curfew. At the Manchester Arena, we missed our train home after they turned up hours late.

There was none of this at Download, with the headline set starting at the surprisingly early time of 7:20pm. This meant they actually finished pretty early, before it was even properly dark just after 10pm. This suggests Download might have expected them to start late and worked it into their timings, as the headliners usually always finish at 11.

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Slash on the Download main stage

I don’t feel qualified to say if they were worth the £5 million fee or not, but it was certainly something seeing Axel and Slash back together at Donington Park.

I ran off halfway through the set anyway, to catch Neck Deep in the larger tent.

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Neck Deep headlining the third stage

I’m glad I did, because it was way above my expectations. I didn’t expect to see the biggest pit, by diameter, of the weekend opened up. I didn’t expect to end up in four completely different parts of the crowd during the hour long set.

I loved that they’d backed the stage with a giant Guns ‘N’ Roses logo, changing the name atop it to Neck Deep.

I was glad not to lose my phone in that tent, but I did lose my reusable beer cup. Meaning I again had to spend £7 if I wanted another beer. Great. Pints are a fiver in the arena, but only available with a reusable cup that includes a £2 deposit.

I got back for the end of Guns ‘N’ Roses set, but not as much as I’d hoped, as they finished earlier than scheduled.

GnR closed their set with loads of fireworks, and we made our way back to the campsite. We hung around there for a bit before going to sleep, in no mood to visit the Doghouse again after the night before.


What's it like volunteering at Download with Hotbox? 10
Hatebreed on the main stage

We woke up Sunday feeling somewhat fresher, knowing we had a night shift coming up that night. That’d be from midnight to 8am Monday morning, and with the current heatwave, there was no chance of sleeping in a tent after that shift. 

We made the decision to start packing up camp so we could head straight back home after the night shift. After a first trip to the car, we saw Hatebreed on the main stage, or half of their set anyway.

Jesus Loves Every 1 of U Plane Download Festival
A plane circling the arena during Hatebreed

I still have no idea who paid for this plane to circle the arena during Hatebreed’s set. “Jesus Loves Every 1 Of U” it says.

Another trip back to camp to pack the tent away, drop it off at the car, and back to the arena again for Marilyn Manson.

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I really liked Manson’s knuckleduster microphone

He put on an impressive set with loads of costume and set changes. I always liked a few big tracks, but don’t think I really got Manson properly before seeing him live. He put on a great show and I’ve been listening to way more of his stuff since Download.

Next up, Rise Against on the second stage. I love Rise Against. 

They were my first ever gig, and probably my second too. I’ve seen them at Download probably more than once before, but this was their best yet. Despite the fact I haven’t really kept up with their recent discography.

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Probably still my favourite band

Their set was basked in golden sunshine and Tim McIlrath didn’t stop smiling throughout. The whole band absolutely loved it, you could tell.

Ozzy Ozbourne closed the Sunday night, and we were able to watch the full set before heading back to Hotbox land to start our shifts.

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Zakk Wylde playing with Ozzy

Ozzy did take a deserved break during his set, which was planned into the setlist. Some cool instrumental stuff went on in the meantime, which was about 15 or 20 minutes.

He closed his set with a stellar rendition of Crazy Train, before playing an encore featuring Sabbath’s Paranoid.

The night shift

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In the tower for the long haul

Sunday night can get a little rowdy, though things have calmed down since back in the day. Luckily, we got posted to the quiet campsite tower again, which was blissfully quiet. 

Word often filtered through of the fires, assaults, and thefts being dealt with by the other campsites. Gutted for them. Our night passed without incident.

I had a great halloumi wrap from the adjacent cafe, and didn’t really start to feel tired until around 4am, when the sun came up. I’d come equipped with energy drinks, but after that point, everything made me feel ill. Home seemed really far away.

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Sunrise from the tower

The last couple of hours dragged, but I started to feel more alive towards the end of the shift. Once we started walking back to Hotbox to sign out, I came back to life.

By the time I got back to the car, I felt fine, and made it back home to North Wales in a couple of hours. I thought I’d be straight off to sleep when I got home, but I made it through the whole day without a problem. Somehow even fitting in a few miles of walking up in the Clwydian Range later that afternoon. The weather was great to be fair, but I had no idea I could survive so well without sleep.

If you’re in two minds about volunteering with Hotbox, just do it. You definitely won’t regret it, and you’ll probably end up never wanting to buy a ticket for a festival again. You’ll be too used to the perks of cheaper food, nicer toilets, decent showers, and making friends to pay hundreds for a standard ticket.

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