Inside the fairy tale festival: how does Tomorrowland work?
Since its establishment in 2005, the Belgian kermesse has become one of the most important musical events in the world, thanks to an unmatchable setting, magnificient aftermovies and unparalleled identity
In social sciences, the notion of identity primarily concerns subjectivity and the society-related conceptions that a character has of itself, or rather the features that make it unique, unmistakable and different from one another. Musical festivals work in the same way; each one possesses specific traits that affect the musical genre, location or target audience.
There are, as examples, Sensation White’s dedication to hardstyle, where attendees have to wear entirely white outfits; the Glanstonbury Festival, famous for its variety of music, its longevity (the first edition took place in 1970), and its rebellious spirit due to prevalent drug use. There is then the Sziget Festival, an annual event that is held on Óbudai-sziget, an island in the middle of Danube river in Budapest, Hungary.
However, it is in Belgium that the identity linked to a music festival has reached its pinnacle. Here, inside Boom-based De Schorre Park, a small town halfway between Brussels and Antwerp, one of the most famous and important kermesse dedicated to EDM music has been taking place for over twelve years. It is called Tomorrowland, and it was founded by the Manu and Michiel Beers brothers — they are still the current owners — yearning to create an affair that could be a valiant fallback to the Dutch Mysteryland, a longtime major player inside the EDM scene. Their intuition was brilliant: the Beers brothers — Tomorrowland’s organizers along with ID&T, a Dutch company working in the entertainment industry since the Nineties — have created a product able to survive the competition and, above all, to get a solid footing thanks to a series of unparalleled features. First of all, the fantasy setting, the aspect that better than any other that makes Tomorrowland the most musical iconic event of the summer.
Every year the theme changes and the attention to the scenography is very detailed. Everything must provide an idea of an idyllic world, aimed at allowing participants to live a mystical experience in a fairytale land inside a vast natural location surrounded by rides and attractions. Accompanied by 12 hours of daily music, everyone is free to pick up a map of the park and turn it around as he wishes. It is like being in luna park — so much so that Tomorrowland has become the Disneyland of festivals — where carnival rides are replaced by the DJs ranging from Martin Garrix to Avicii, to Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike, Steve Aoki, to Angello, Axwell and Ingrosso, only to mention some of the top names.
“Four weeks and 1500 people are required to set up the whole scenography — Press Officer Debby Wilmsen starts off — and we start planning the next edition yet in September”. Reality and fiction merge together into one dreamlike dimension between the hills and rivers of the park and fireworks are fired to the rhythm of music during the nightly performances. It is like being in an imaginary world full of energy, shapes and colors, living within a spirit of brotherhood summarized by the motto of Tomorrowland PLUR (Peace, Love, Unity, Respect). Aesthetics aside, there is a zero tolerance (that is, immediate expulsion) for anyone trying to touch or damage the stands in the park and a strong sense of respect for the rules typical of the countries in Northern Europe where EDM events are particularly widespread.
The evolution of Tomorrowland has been implemented especially in the numbers. The last edition, which took place on the weekends of 21–23 and 28–30 July 2017, over 400,000 people attended. The tickets were sold out in 64 minutes on the day of the sale in early February. This is an occurrence that has regularly been happening since 2010. The festival has built its reputation solely on word of mouth on the Internet: “We do not advertise on TV or radio, we only use social media to engage our fans”, Wilmsen explains.
About 10,000 people witnessed the first edition of Tomorrowland in 2005, where the main DJ was Armin van Buuren. The second edition was moved to July (a choice that will be kept in the years to come) and brought to Belgium with 15,000 people. Nevertheless, the first signs that something was changing came in 2007, when Tomorrowland was brought into a more international scope. Word travelled across the kingdom’s borders and folks from France, Holland, Germany, and England gathered in Boom. The attendance rose to 20,000, the stages count increased to nine and for the first time ever the duration of the festival was lengthened from one to two days. This last choice, in particular, proved to be successful since in 2008 the number of participants doubled. The following year meant the first sold out crowd. Tomorrowland had reached its artistic maturity: many musical journalists began to take an interest and describe its outbreak. EDM was living one of its brighter era and Tomorrowland became an excellent showcase in which to perform. Being called by the organizers was a privilege, and to play on the main stage an ambition.
Then came 2010, where 90,000 tickets sold out, of which 25,0000 were allotted for DreamVille. It is the theme park located few hundred meters away from Tomorrowland, a meeting point for those who, in addition to the entrance fee, pay a little extra to take advantage of an additional service such as a campsite. These benefits are not cheap: Tomorrowland is a costly festival, which, at the basic ticket of 101 euros for a single day (and 281 euros for the whole weekend) then adds supplementary offers consisting of access to exclusive areas of the stages, catering services at the tables and poolside, and the Mansion, a super luxury house able to seat 12 people with all sorts of comforts for a fee of about 20,000 euros.
It is a similar case for the VIP tickets that guarantee the entrance to areas that are normally not easily accessible or off limits to the general public. However, joining the festival requires as much luck as promptness: with the exception of tickets for Global Journey — the travel packages organized by Tomorrowland, which can be purchased directly on the website six months before — the classic coupons, in their many and varied formats, require a pre — registration that allows the guests to sign up on a waiting list and wait for the sale. A box set containing an electronic bracelet is then sent home to the buyers. Once activated by entering attendees’ data, it becomes the ticket that guarantees the entry to Tomorrowland. That same bracelet, for the entire stay of the attendee, becomes his virtual wallet on which to load the pearls, the official currency used as a form of payment inside the park. Twenty euros correspond to thirteen pearls. There are about 120 food stands offering different types of food, from street food to dishes served in renowned restaurants and prepared by the best chefs in the country.
All these aspects, beginning with the scenery, to the location and the vast musical arrays, have redefined the concept of festivals of the Tomorrowland type: it is something that goes beyond standard notions, an event open to all types of customers, from the shambolic 18-year-old kid to more demanding adult, with a remarkable consideration for lifestyle and luxury. Armin van Buuren called it “the Woodstock of 2017, a movement with its own culture created by music, food and park settings”. From the small and endearing EDM festival that it was twelve years ago, Tomorrowland is now a more multifaceted and varied attraction, estimated even by local politics. Just think, for example, that in 2017 the Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel and his ministers joined in alongside the crowd for few hours through smiling selfies and a little bit of amazement.
“We know many people will come here once in a lifetime — goes on Wilmsen — so we try to make their experience unforgettable”. This is another reason as to why there is great attention towards the people’s safety and control: “We adopt a strict drug policy that forbid access to all types of drugs. Those who violate the law is sent out and banned forever”.
In the last editions the ticket requests have grown to such high levels the organizers prompted to extend the duration of the event to three days. At this time in 2011, the 180,000 tickets available were sold in less than a day. But the real turning point was in 2012, when Tomorrowland was awarded “Best Music Festival” at the International Dance Music Awards in Miami. The management also decided to create two different presale channels, one dedicated to the Belgian public (about 80% of the overall) and the other reserved to the international one. Two million people went online and tried to grab the coupons, a figure ten times higher than those actually available.
To console many who were not able to receive the ticket, the official YouTube channel of Tomorrowland launched with live DJ sets, interviews and backstage footage. And it is in multimedia that we need to trace the secret of the mainstream dimension of Tomorrowland, the one that made it the most watched music event in the world with views that have surpassed 100 million views. The credit is mostly given to the aftermovies, the video-summary which changed and was popularized as rapidly as development of the festival. From the first primitive ones were condensed in a few minutes whereas the most recent videos lasted even up to half an hour long. The first aftermovie to forge the path came out in 2011, followed up a year later by what, according to the comments under the YouTube video, seems to have been elected as the most beautiful aftermovie ever made.
Even the aftermovie had developed a strong artistic identity: at the start, in the background of a large opened book, a majestic narrating voice introduces the spectator to the world of fairy tales, the intensity and rhythm of the music go up to reach the climax and the editing becomes increasingly fast, exciting and full of details. The demiurges of this burst of sounds and images are a product of the 200 production and video editing crew who take care of, among others, Tomorrowland TV and the shootings for the site 365.tomorrowland.com.
The focus is not so much on the DJs playing and the occurrences on the stage, but rather on what is underneath and all around: they are the participants, shot in all their euphoria and desire to dance with flags and banners, the true protagonists of the show and the addressees of the thank-you note that appear at the end of each aftermovie.
The most recent editions were the most natural consequence of all this inimitable background: in 2013, the tickets were sold in literally a second and, starting from the same year, Tomorrowland managed to bring into the coffers of the Belgian economy 70 million euro, of which 19 was spent by foreign participants in travel and accommodations. “In 2016 we did even better, generating revenues of 100 million and offering 700 full-time jobs during the festival”.
The last edition was something unimaginable: more than 1000 DJs played on 16 stages, and 400,000 visitors participated from 200 different countries. The non-stop work of 12 thousand staff members arranged for a total of 6 days of music, spread over two weekends, to be fulfilled.
Having developed a unique and unparalleled identity, and in the absence of competitors on the EDM scene, the future challenges will always be addressed: “We want to improve every year, from food, to the selection of DJs to stage details”, closes with a mixture of euphoria and optimism from Wilmsen. In the meantime, the Tomorrowland 2018 organizing machine has already been launched in Boom. It’s as if the most beautiful carousel of the luna park has started to turn again, between the wait and the frenzy of thousands of people who hang on their round to jump on and never get off.