Mysteryland: Using electronic music to create an intersection of culture and creativity
A large balloon sways gently in the breeze, tethered to the ground by a 100-foot string adorned with the well wishes or worries of Mysteryland attendees. Hastily scrawled on pieces of brown paper and tied to the balloon by gift-wrapped entertainers, these notes represent the true soul of the Mysteryland experience. “Success,” “Health,” “Love,” and more are bound together on the thin piece of string, moments before the thoughts and prayers of hundreds of people are released as one into the overcast sky.
At 20 years old, Mysteryland is the longest running dance music festival in the world. In its first year, the festival had a modest attendance of 8,000 people before finally reaching the 60,000 it hosts today. As a single day event, it has also gone through a metamorphosis of sorts, one that has followed the maturing of ID&T’s founding members. What started as a group of friends promoting hardcore events on New Year’s Eve in 1993 has since grown into one of the world’s most revered festival brands. Originally a counter-culture movement inspired by its founders’ early twenties angst, ID&T and Mysteryland have since become a keystone of the music festival phenomena. “We went from a fuck it all to love it all approach,” founder Irfan van Ewijk laughs.
Irfan, the man who represents the I in ID&T, describes Mysteryland as a cross pollination of the Burning Man mindset with the dance music approach of Tomorrowland. Now in his 40s, he beams with a youthful exuberance, his excitement palpable as he discusses Mysteryland’s move to the US and its Bethel Woods home.
For the past 40 years promoters have sought to bring events to Bethel Woods, the home of the original Woodstock, but all have been denied. It was not until Irfan and his partners Duncan and Theo spoke with local officials that their tune quickly changed. Already proving their product at Mysteryland Chile’s inaugural year in the Andes Mountains, ID&T turned heads in Bethel Woods due to their dedication to fostering the local community’s arts and culture. “We want to be surprised and we want to surprise people,” Irfan discusses, “We have about 500-600 independent artists collaborating on a creative and cultural level.”
While most US festivals are oftentimes nothing more than stages erected in vacant parking lots and the occasional art installation, ID&T’s ideal reflects a much different approach. “Location is an elementary part of the experience,” Irfan imparts, “the atmosphere and the environment are the highlight, not the artists.” Perhaps no greater indicator of this ideal at work is Mysteryland itself. The actual impact of its location is hard to describe. Split into zones, the festival grounds are sprawling and significantly dwarf its younger sibling Tomorrowland. A labyrinthian maze of dirt paths intersect paved roads and wooden walkways, woven through the woods just outside of Amsterdam. The walk from one end of the festival to the other is a thirty minute journey through interactive art installations, live performance troupes, street artists, and local restauranteurs.
Spend enough time in the forest and you’ll undoubtedly run into the White Rabbit, who will drag you against your will to the exclusive Club Rabbit, a tripped out tea party with all of the characters from Alice in Wonderland. Venture further into the wooded areas that connect Mysteryland’s zones and survey the wares of local jewelers and artists who create on the fly custom screenprinted shirts and jewelry. Relax and smoke a hookah near the Bollywood Bar or dance with Dia De Muertos inspired entertainers at the San Salida taqueria – complete with tequila sunrises.
The experience here is far greater than big stages and big names. “It’s not about bigger and better” Irfan eagerly points out, “Mysteryland is a place of discovery.” The festival looks beyond the superstar DJs and instead shifts its focus on discovering and showcasing new and local talent, promoting both the economy and the culture of the cities it calls home. Dubbed “The Nomad Approach,” Mysteryland taps local brands and artists to fill its ground and stages, many of whom are unknown on the international DJ circuit.
While there is a stage designated as Main, it is not much larger than any of the festival’s other thirteen stages. Each stage and its accompanying zone have been meticulously designed by Burning Man-caliber artist collectives, all intended to suspend the disbelief of those who wander through. Crowds dance on the three-tiered iron-wrought Heineken Starclub just before they enter the Totem area, a jagged frame of repurposed scraps erected into a Bohemian inspired stage.
The North Side of Mysteryland accommodates the younger, more EDM-focused attendees with large tents, blaring sound systems and stages hosted by Chuckie’s Dirty Dutch enclave, Don’t Let Daddy Know, Resist, and more. The heavy kicks of Q-Dance are set beneath a towering pyramid at the festival’s second main stage. How do you make hardstyle more intense? You bungee jump from a crane at the highest point on the festival grounds as lasers and pyrotechnics ignite the night sky.
On the South Side, local artists and merchants embody the festival’s cultural paradigm — interweaving the Healing Garden meditation tents with small and intimate areas for Visionquest and Studio 80, where Shaun Reeves, Seth Troxler, Cassy, and 2000 and One add a soundtrack to the artistic expression that surrounds their modest stages.
Perhaps its greatest asset is Mysteryland’s ability to cultivate excitement and wonder alongside relaxation and reflection, creating a truly progressive and cultural identity that defies the US-definition of a “music festival.” Sustainability, unity, nature, and talent represent the keystones of the Mysteryland experience. From the moment you set foot on the grounds, all four facets work harmoniously, creating an unbelievable experience that transcends what a music festival is and should be. This culture and identity is what convinced officials to allow the first festival in four decades to make its home in Bethel Woods and when Mysteryland debuts in upstate New York, a very select few will get to experience the historic event. Irfan acknowledges Mysteryland US’s limited attendance, “We like to start slowly, that is why Mysteryland in the US is only going to be 20,000 people,” — further testament to ID&T’s focus on customer satisfaction and not their balance sheet.
For Irfan and ID&T the potential for Mysteryland is limitless. Not content to rest on their laurels, when asked how the festival could be any better after 20 years at number one he just laughs: “Everything can be improved.”