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How To Enjoy The Biggest Music Festivals for Free!

This year, I returned to work with a company I’d worked with last year: Hotbox Events. In exchange for working three shifts and paying a refundable security deposit, you get the rest of the festival to enjoy. Sounds like there’s a catch, right? There isn’t.

Hotbox events formed in 2003 and worked its first festival in 2006 with only six volunteers, and now manage two thousand members of staff and volunteers. They manage teams at several festivals, including Latitude, Reading and Leeds, Download and Rize Festival.

Volunteers work in the campsites, on fire towers, wristband exchanges and on gates, providing support and customer service to festival goers. They are the “eyes and ears” of the festivals, trained to be alert and spot any potential hazards as well as keeping customers safe.

Last month I volunteered at Download Festival, a rock music event held at Donnington Park, Derbyshire. A few weeks before the event, 17 shift patterns were released for me to put in order of preference. I ended up receiving my second choice – Tower Team Echo. This meant that my role this year was up in the fire towers – radioing in fires and potential hazards to superiors and security. Having never been up in the towers I was quite excited.

Once I’d arrived, security told me to trek through the park towards the other side to sign in – all the charities and companies had the offices on the other side of the park to the main entrance. It was a good, but tiring walk, but we managed to get a sneak peak of the arena and the main stage. It took quite a while to sign in, walking up hills to get to the campsite.

The campsite consisted of portable toilets, portable showers (a godsend, but still wear flipflops in them), a marquee which contained plug sockets, two kettles and tea, coffee and hot chocolate supplies. By Saturday, the whole campsite had exhausted the hot chocolate supply and we’d completely ran out. There was a water tap as well so water was no problem. You can buy meal vouchers before the festival, and they can be used at the on-site burger van, which was considerably cheaper than the village and arena stalls - £2.50 a burger? Yes please. We had a whole host of luxuries as volunteers that you wouldn’t get as a customer.

We’d arrived on the Tuesday – our first shift wasn’t until 8am Thursday morning – it was safe to say we had time to explore. On Wednesday, my boyfriend Mason and I explored Donnington village (and its pubs!) The local Co-op ran regularly cheap buses to and from the festival site, so we could explore outside the park.

Our Thursday shift began at 8am, with us being at the site office an hour before for briefing and zone choosing. Our first shift was in pink campsite with a supervisor I worked with last year: Chris. Once we trekked to the camp to relieve the night shift, I climbed up into the tower to take watch first, my boyfriend on the ground near our “base” (a wonderful little cabin with a kettle and plug sockets). The tower wasn’t that high up but getting up and down the ladder made me nervous. There was such a great view from the towers.

We gave directions to a few campsite goers, but that was about it for the first shift. It was reasonably quiet because not all the campers had arrived for the festival yet, so the site was half empty.

The rest of Thursday was dedicated to a wonderful food shop at Morrisons. The supervisor Chris and his wife Claire, (people I’d met last year at Leeds Festival) gave us a lift to shop. The night time was spent in the village, going to a local gig. The Lost Boys, a trio consisting of a father and his two young sons – drummer being 15, guitarist being 10. They played covers of classic rock bands, such as Metallica, Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden. The talent emanating from the room was astounding, with the 10-year-old absolutely smashing out complicated guitar solos I could only dream of doing. That night we had dragged our friend Jade along to the gig, as well as a new friend we’d made on our campsite – a quiet guy called Justin, who was so lovely. We wandered around the village for an hour, before caving in and buying a footlong hotdog from a stall called “Easy Cheesy”. It was huge and covered in melted nacho-like cheese. It was safe to say we had those again. Despite cooking the majority of our meals, we did give in and have some over-priced festival food.

Friday it began to rain – I dreaded it. If you’ve ever been to a Download Festival, you’ll know that when it rains, it pours. For three days straight. However, the showers quickly cleared up and gave way to the sun, which was peaking from behind clouds. We weren’t on shift until midnight, which gave us the whole day to listen to bands and explore the arena. Cooking a nice breakfast on our Trangia stove (a festival approved meth fuel stove) consisting of Rustler’s breakfast muffins and spaghetti, we set off to the arena.

As volunteers, we had access to the “staff routes” which are a lot quicker than the festival goers’ trek to the stages. We were searched at the staff entrance to the arena, but then were allowed through. The arena is a huge area with two huge stages, and two huge tents which had stages within them. If that wasn’t enough, food and clothing stalls decorated the arena, with the WWE NXT stage and the Kerrang! signing tent occupying spaces too. Certain bands appeared at the signing tent, which you could queue up to and get a postcard-like piece of paper signed – they do give you the paper. The same thing occurs with the wrestles at the NXT stage; you can also watch wrestling matches. The bands we saw on Friday were Dragonforce, CKY, Andrew W.K., Jonathan Davis, Bullet For My Valentine, Bad Religion and Avenged Sevenfold. We had to cut the headliner short to begin our night shift.

We made our way back to the tent to pick up noodles and tea for the night shift, which was in Gold Campsite. As soon as we were on shift this time, I spotted two security guards at the bottom of this small steep hill apprehending a drunken festival goer, who then punched one of the guards in the face. They called for backup, which arrived about 15 minutes later in a car to escort the drunken guy away. It was quite quiet after 1am, most people were stumbling into their tents and falling asleep. In the tower, we had to keep an eye out for any suspicious-looking people, because this was when a lot of thefts happen.

Halfway through the shift, I was called to put out a fire at the top of the hill where Gold and Black campsite crossover. A few customers had decided to light a fire in a suitcase and throw items in it. Having been warned once by security, they decided to re-light it. I grabbed the water backpack and held the hose as I made my way to the fire. As expected, the customers were rude and unhappy to see me put out the fire. Making my way back to the tower, I started to sing the Ghostbusters theme tune to Mason in the tower.

The rest of the night passed by slowly, with a few incidents in other campsites that we heard about from either security or our radios. It took a while for the next team to relieve us, and it was 9am before we got back to the campsite (our shift ended at 8am). It was safe to say we were glad to sleep.

After as much sleep as we could get, with the planes being incredibly noisy overheated and the sunlight transforming our tent into a sauna, we were ready to see more bands on Saturday. Since we weren’t working until 4pm on Sunday, we had the whole day and night to do what we wanted – so we started with a nice warm can of Carlsberg and some vodka vimto. The bands we saw on Saturday included Babymetal, Thunder, Black Stone Cherry and Guns ‘n’ Roses (of course). They were absolutely amazing, with Babymetal really coming out on top for Saturday’s best performance. Of course, the headline act was great – hello, Axl Rose and Slash on the same stage was brilliant. Though, it went on for over 3 hours and so we didn’t see all of them. After getting a huge portion of fish, chips and curry sauce, we spent the evening catching up with a cousin in the murky depths of Green campsite, which was interesting to say the least. A lot of shouts echoed from one part of camp, to which then everyone joined in with shouts and “woo”s. It was quite the atmosphere and was funny to listen to – if you weren’t ones trying to sleep that is.

Sunday consisted of us seeing very little bands because we were working from 4pm – Cradle of Filth and Dead Cross, before going back to the tent to pack it up. Our plan was to pack everything up so we could leave after our shift and catch the Skylink home before the rush tomorrow morning. We did treat ourselves to another footlong, cheesy hotdog each and cheesy curly fries on Sunday – fuel for the shift, okay?

The final shift went by quite quickly. We arrived to find an upset lady at the cabin who was on the phone to her ex-boyfriend. They were clearly having a disagreement. The White campsite was quiet until the music finished, and then we had a big influx of festival goers – some of which grabbing drinks, some packing up their tents to leave. The last few hours went by, with me only having to put out one small fire of beer cans – these people were understanding though. We only had three volunteers, so whoever wasn’t in the tower had to patrol with the other volunteer.

As the shift ended and we got back to camp, we were given sweets as a thank you by the Hotbox management. On the way back, we’d got some chicken fillets and chips as we were hungry (the porridge on shift left us full for an hour at most) and it was some of the best chicken we’d ever had. We’d left our belongings with the people on shift at our camp, so we collected them and proceeded to make our way to the Skylink bus stop. It was a short journey home, mostly because we fell asleep.

Though we didn’t get to explore any of the DJ events, we got the full first-hand experience of working a festival and seeing nearly all the bands we wanted to see. We saw the main ones we wanted to go there for in the first place. Overall, the experience was just amazing, Hotbox are a great company to go with, and their staff are very friendly and helpful. We would definitely volunteer again next year. It’s all about experiencing it, making new friends and helping out other people – as well as seeing music and enjoying yourself.

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