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Resilient in Pandemic, Tomorrowland Roars Back to Live Action in Belgium

But a third weekend and discounted artists fees are still not enough to overcome two years of losses, the festival's co-founder says.

BOOM, Belgium — When Michiel Beers and his brother Manu Beers set out to create Belgium’s first dedicated electronic music festival in 2005, it was supposed to be called Mysteryland.

But after the Beers printed thousands of flyers and posters advertising the name, Duncan Stutterheim, their partner and founder of Dutch festival brand ID&T, called up Michiel Beers to say he had changed his mind — he wanted to preserve “Mysteryland” for the Netherlands. Then another obstacle arose: Their featured headliner, Tiësto, the most popular DJ in the region, pulled out late in favor of a pop-rock festival about a half-hour away.

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Stunned and reeling, the Beers carried on, reprinting their materials and mounting a one-day festival for 8,700 people that year featuring Sven Väth, Ferry Corsten and a young Armin van Buuren. They named it Tomorrowland, a nod to Mysteryland’s motto: “Yesterday is history; Today is a gift; Tomorrow is a mystery.”

Some 15 years later, that resilient spirit helped Europe’s most iconic dance music festival find ways to pivot during the global pandemic and chart a future as a more-diversified company. Unlike most dance music festival companies, Tomorrowland kept its staff of 160 fully employed during the pandemic, which helped it mount a ground-breaking pay-per-view virtual stream, develop a fiction book division and launch a Tomorrowland Music record label.

Today (July 22), the festival begins the second of its historic three-weekend run, aimed at recouping some of the 25 million euros ($25.6 million) it lost from 2020-2021. The longer festival means this year a record 600,000 people are attending Tomorrowland – including 10,000 Americans, a higher-than-normal number, the organizers say. More than 800 artists are performing on 16 stages, ranging from EDM stalwarts Martin Garrix, Marshmello and Alok, to techno powerhouse Paul Kalkbrenner, to deep house producer Lost Frequencies.

In the spirit of solidarity, Beers successfully appealed to Tomorrowland’s headliners to discount their 2019-level fees by 10%. It wasn’t a tough sell, say a handful of headliners Billboard spoke to. “We’re all sticking together, because basically we’re kind of lost without each other in this game,” says Danish techno DJ Kölsch.

The extra weekend and lower artist fees won’t be enough, however, to make the company profitable again, Michiel Beers tells Billboard. “It’s an important part of a solution of being healthy again,” he says. “Does it cover a two-year loss? No.”

The festival’s last two weekends have been sold out for two years. This year, they sold all 200,000 tickets for a third weekend (July 14-17) — priced 5% higher at 114.50 euros per day or 310 euro for the weekend, to help compensate for high inflation in Europe — but it is a one-off, Beers says. The festival negotiated a 10-point plan with the towns of Boom and Rumst where Tomorrowland takes place atop the De Schorre park, which include it reverting to its normal two weekends starting next year.

As Billboard saw firsthand on weekend one, Tomorrowland is back in a big way. The sprawling festival footprint this year winds around a lake in the park and across footbridges, and meanders into enclaves in the forest and a grassy hill rising up from the mainstage. It features a Core stage, with an Indigenous-like head with his eyes closed looming overhead, and a new chillout Mesa Garden, serving upscale wine and food — which has plenty of space to dance.

The mammoth white mainstage resembled a set from Star Wars – or as Kölsch remarked, maybe the Ivory Tower in The Neverending Story — with helmeted robot-like figures trimmed in gold and donning colored sunglasses marching along a top lip during key moments at dusk and after the night had ended. Kalkbrenner held court on Sunday inside the cavernous Freedom stage, which projected his convulsed face in black and white on giant screens in between images of his fingers working the dials of his massive mixer board.

The international crowd, representing more than 200 nationalities, reveled in the blazing heat, as record temperatures washed across Europe late last weekend.

Apart from that first, challenging event in 2005, the Beers faced other challenges — including two earlier Antwerp festivals that went bankrupt, and a struggle to disentangle from ID&T. (The latter festival brand was absorbed in 2013 by SFX Entertainment, the U.S. company that went public after gobbling up various EDM properties, only to implode and declare bankruptcy itself three years later.)

The festival continued to grow in size every year, buoyed by the EDM boom of the 2010s, when it briefly expanded to São Paulo, Brazil — and to Atlanta, where a steady rain in 2015 stranded thousands of festivalgoers in the muddy forest. But after being forced to shut down in 2020 due to COVID-19 outbreaks, the situation went from bad to dire last year, when the local mayors denied a use permit for the festival, citing an uptick in virus cases. “That was a kick in the stomach,” says Debby Wilmsen, the festival’s spokesperson.

Despite the company’s financial struggles, Beers says he never considered selling out to a competitor or any other company – and wasn’t approached with any serious offers. “We’re still a little bit of a Switzerland that gets along with everybody,” he says. (As Billboard reported in November, Pasquale Rotella, CEO of Live Nation-backed Insomniac, said he was on the hunt for festival properties to acquire opportunistically.)

While other festivals have their diehard admirers, artists long associated with Tomorrowland point to the founders’ dedication to independence and a family atmosphere. “This festival is special because the people that run it are unicorns,” says Miriam Nervo, who along with sister Olivia Nervo performs as Nervo, an act Tomorrowland supported early in their careers. “It’s a positive family community, and we haven’t felt that with other festivals.”

Tomorrowland is also known for consistently promoting female producers and DJs, Nervo says, noting that techno DJ Charlotte de Witte is closing out “The Reflection of Love” mainstage on Saturday, July 30 — the first female act in the festival’s history to do that.

For attendees, the festival goes further than most in providing an immersive experience, especially for those staying in DreamVille. Atop fields normally used for planting corn, 38,000 fans camp across two sites in Rumst peppered with amenities like an outdoor Venice Beach, Calif.-style muscle beach gym, yoga classes, a supermarket, bakery, swimming pool and hot tub, two hair salons and a special stage for The Gathering, DreamVille’s exclusive pre-party each Thursday night. Upscale cabins even have electricity. (Five-day DreamVille packages range from 390 euros to 2,078 euros.)

“This has been a bucket list item ever since I saw the aftermovie from 2012,” James Mather, from San Pedro, Calif., said Saturday while sitting outside his tent with his sister Zina. “We finally made it happen 10 years later, even after all the Covid craziness.”

Attendees talk about Tomorrowland with a reverence that evokes comparisons to loyal Burning Man attendees. “At first, I was a little bit skeptical about the whole thing because it had sort of a cult kind of vibe to it,” says Kölsch. But after one of the artistic directors gave him a tour of the stages, “I noticed all the details – the lamp posts, trashcans, everything is specifically designed for this experience… You start to appreciate that it’s actually a festival made by festivalgoers for festivalgoers.”

Building Out the Tomorrowland Universe

In “the atelier” near Antwerp where the company is based, dozens of designers and technicians are toiling away at building out a multi-platform future for the festival company that will leverage its IP into potential book, movie and VR franchises.

Over the past three years, Beers has overseen the creation of an over 500-page “fantasy novel” set in the universe designed for festivalgoers, which will include dragons but not DJs, he says. He’s hoping Hollywood will be interested in the book, which is authored by a writer who specializes in the fantasy genre and is part of a planned trilogy.

In June, Tomorrowland signed with literary agency Janklow & Nesbit, and with Jason Richman, the co-head of Media Rights at UTA, to try to sell the books as possible movie or TV properties. “Most projects have a book and then they have a theme park at the end,” Beers says. “We started with the theme park somehow and went backwards. It’s a project we’re very passionate about and we had time for in pandemic. We planted those seeds and let’s see what comes out.”

The Tomorrowland Around the World editions that the company experimented with during pandemic — where DJs recorded sets in green screen rooms later painted with digital backgrounds — are also likely to continue in 2023, Beers says. “It’s difficult to just throw it away, because we feel we’re sitting on something beautiful,” he says. “But if we do it again, it can’t be a replacement for a real festival in a pandemic. Maybe it’s more heading towards an enormous promotional tool where you can also bring people into your world and maybe the world gets bigger with the fiction [novels]… Maybe things start connecting.”

Seeking to expand its ecosystem even further, the company launched a joint-venture label during pandemic with Universal Music Group’s Virgin Records. With a staff of three full-timers, Tomorrowland Music already has released tracks with Afrojack & Chico Rose, Quintino and others. “It’s really a long list of artists we’re releasing with,” Beers says, “and we use those tracks in the aftermovie,” which previously didn’t generate royalties for Tomorrowland.

A Pandemic Reinvention

While Beers and his team searched for new creative outlets during the shutdown, DJs strongly associated with the festival also worked to pivot.

Dimitri Thivaios and Michael Thivaios, the Belgian-Greek brothers known as Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike who grew up close by the festival, explored options outside of being performing DJs.

The duo’s connection to the festival dates back some 14 years. In 2008, Dimitri, while a struggling DJ, worked backstage at Tomorrowland as a sound technician, setting up DJs’ CD-J players (he was fired for putting demos in the bags of headliners like David Guetta). Beers approached them in 2009 wanting to manage them and to cast them as “the Belgian face of the festival,” Dimitri says. He has managed them ever since. The duo wrote the anthem for the 2010 Tomorrowland, “Tomorrowland (Give in to the Night),” their first big hit in Europe.

During the pandemic, Dimitri finished writing a comic-book series and continued to pursue his acting career. He did a bit part as a Maltese smuggler in the blockbuster Jurassic World Dominion, and has a leading role as a sports car-driving gambler trying to save his daughter in the film H4Z4RD, which is being released in Belgium this week. Meanwhile, his brother Mike made a hip hop album, and says he designed and built two houses. Together they invested in real estate and in tech startups, including a blockchain company.

Nervo, who began performing at Tomorrowland a dozen years ago, found time to raise their first baby daughters, who were born just before the pandemic exploded. (The famously close twins got pregnant at the same time.) Now, in recent weeks their touring “has gone from zero to hero,” Miriam says, with the duo scheduled to do 70 shows over the course of the summer.

Kölsch, who had been pondering hanging up the headphones, found the recharge he needed. “I’ve come to realize that I’m a pretty introverted person, so I find it very hard being surrounded by people 24 hours a day,” says the Danish DJ, who has been playing Tomorrowland since 2016. “And doing that 150 times a year became too much for me. But then after a while [during pandemic], I came to realize that I love music. I live for the music.”

And there was sorrow.

Last year the Thivaios’ father died on their mother’s birthday, and Mike’s partner lost their unborn daughter. Beers organized their father’s funeral. Like Mike told the mainstage audience on Saturday that they buried him in the valley just a few hundred feet in front of where the stage is. (The audience lit up their phones in a vigil as the duo played their own cover of Coldplay’s “The Scientist.”) On Wednesday, Beers also held a screening for Dimitri Vegas’ film at the Freedom stage, a first-ever movie premiere at Tomorrowland.

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After Tiësto’s seeming rejection the first year, Beers soon patched it up with the Dutch legend. He has since played numerous Tomorrowland editions and is headlining on Saturday and next Friday, July 29.

Recalling the disappointments of the first festival, Beers says he dodged a “Mysteryland Belgium” bullet.

“Afterwards, I thought it was probably one of the best [phone] calls we ever got,” he says, “because we were able to do our own thing and put all our love and passion and energy, with little steps, into the festival, and really make it something of our own.”