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After a year off, the world’s most famous music festival is back, selling out its 138,000 tickets in a record-breaking 100 minutes. V&E meets its founder Michael Eavis to find out why.
The last time we pitched up at Worthy Farm, there were more people present than currently live in Milton Keynes and we struggled to push a wheelbarrow full of Nutri-Grain bars and baby wipes through Somerset mud.
This time, it’s practically deserted, save a friendly farming family called the Eavises. We’re here to see the head of the household, Michael. Besides being the proud owner of a handsome herd of dairy cows – the highest yielding in the county, no less – he also runs the most famous music festival in the world: Glastonbury.
It’s raining. A lot. And we’ve forgotten our Hunters. Gripping a mug of Yorkshire Gold tea for its heat, we wait for Eavis. Characteristically ebullient, he greets everyone in the room – friends and newbies – with tactile warmth. He’s wearing his trademark super-short denim shorts and a raincoat, looking industrious. We sit down and he promptly closes the door telling John, the press manager, that he’ll be a while. There’s much to discuss and he doesn’t want to be disturbed.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the festival’s year off in 2012 had given the 77-year-old Eavis and co some time to put their feet up – time, maybe, to go shopping for shorts. ‘We haven’t really had a year off, as such,’ says Eavis, laughing. ‘In fact, there’s been rather a lot happening.’ One of the festival’s most notable developments is Worthy View, a subject that Eavis is keen to talk about. It’s an off-site camping area where customers pay to have their tents put up and taken down.
‘People don’t like to bring tents and we don’t like them left behind. So now people pay £120 each to have it put up and the providers use them for up to 10 years. We don’t make any money out of it, but it’s great for the environmental image of the show.’
The idea was born of a private scheme that went awry in 2011. Three separate vendors sold the service and, shortly before the festival opened, went bust. Eavis, though not bound to, felt obliged to help and provided the lodgings himself. ‘It cost me £80,000 to pick up the pieces. We’re doing it ourselves now. We’re renting the farm next door and calling it Worthy View because it’s right on top of the hill.’
The idea of a quieter, more spacious camping environment has proved popular, with its 7,500 spaces being snapped up in four days. We share with an amused Eavis our own experience of waking up in the baking heat of 2011 to see our canvas bulging with the buttocks of the occupant of next door’s tent. It can get decidedly cosy in the busier fields.
To join the two farms, Eavis thought it best to build a full-scale viaduct, which he insists on showing us. He drives his Defender as if playing an arcade game – following in a separate car, we struggle to keep up. On site, two diggers (depicted on previous spread) are carving the earth, strengthening boulders are being hoisted into place and one naïve journalist’s Chelsea boots are dying. Eavis, as is his way, races around the site, checking every detail, nodding approvingly. We follow, mincing our way through the puddles.
It is Eavis’s proclivity for overseeing everything that has led to other changes in the event’s organisation. The licensing, which Live Nation handled for a decade, was taken back in-farm this year. ‘We had to persuade the council we were the right people to run the licence. It’s been a hell of a lot of work, but it’s better. The things we stand for mean we have a different approach to commercial outfits. We know better than anyone else [how to run this festival].’
Glastonbury has long been known for operating in a rather different fashion to its more ‘commercial’ competitors. Understanding this helps to explain its appeal. Eavis is unashamed as he explains what separates Glastonbury from other festivals. ‘It sounds a bit big-headed, but we do it better. This is my home for a start, and this is our land. People behave better in a home environment and I think the same applies here.’
The other major difference is its approach to sponsorship and big-brand commercial involvement. It’s a sensitive subject for the festival. Eavis must balance the event’s requirements with its altruistic, free-spirited ethos – the bedrock of its appeal. Neglect the former and its famous smooth running will suffer; neglect the latter, and its reputation will be hit. Neither is good.
‘We do take money off the phone and beer people, but there’s no branding on the outside of the marquees themselves. A Carlsberg beer tent doesn’t have Carlsberg all over it, but they do help us financially.’
Eavis claims the sums of money involved are relatively low, however, in comparison with other festivals; ticket sales account for the bulk of revenue. ‘We need these guys here, so we do collect some money off them. It’s a mutual thing,’ he says. Using the BBC, rather than ITV or Sky, is another conscious decision. ‘There aren’t adverts all the way through, linking in. I just don’t like it. It’s not very attractive.’
Sponsorship pitches from big brands have come and gone over the years but Eavis has had no problem turning them away. Nowadays, companies know better than to ask. ‘We just say no. I mean, it’s a labour of love. We don’t need any more money. I’ve got a nice farm – we [the Eavis family] have been here for 150 years. So, I’m not short of a few quid, am I?'
It’s clear from everything he says that profit is not on of Eavis’s list of priorities. In fact, as we talk, it becomes clear that the word doesn’t really feature in his financial rhetoric at all. ‘We pay rent to the seven farms we use,’ he says. ‘Then we’re investing in the site all of the time, and we try to give away £2m a year [to charity].’
Eavis stresses that it’s important to him to ‘give something back’, but admits that he’s not sure whether the donations make much of a difference. ‘It’s probably more for my conscience than anything else, but it does work for me.’
To put the show on this year, they’ve had to borrow £15m (half the total cost of the festival) and they won’t see the return (ticket money) until 4 July – four days after the finish of this year’s festival (26-30 June). The credit card operators hold it until then in case the festival doesn’t go ahead and refunds have to be provided. Only on the fourth can they pay the bank back. Eavis doesn’t understate the gravity of the risk.
Few years have been riskier than 2008, when Jay-Z was announced as the Saturday headliner. Initially, the public didn’t take to the idea at all. And neither did Noel Gallagher. It represented a radical move away from the festival’s rock ’n’ roll roots – the Anglo-Saxon big hitters, as Eavis calls them. The effect on ticket sales was seismic.
‘We were treading water all through that time. We weren’t selling tickets. I was so scared. You only need one bad year and you’ve had it. We’ve got no reserves, you see.'
Eavis claims he lost a stone with worry, ‘which wasn’t a bad thing,’ he admits. In the end, the public got behind it. A day before the start of the festival, it sold out. ‘We were being adventurous and I think they [the public] thought, “good on them”.’
The gamble still seems to be paying off, with the festival now selling out long before any acts have been announced.
The introduction of hip-hop to the main stage is an example of how the offering – music and other assorted attractions – is in a constant process of development, keeping the Glastonbury faithful culturally satiated. This is no mean feat when you consider the vast increase in attendance over the years. Eavis has had to be equally shrewd in handling the swell.
‘We’ve been doing this for 43 years, you know. We started off small with a thousand people, and then it was 10,000, 20,000, 30,000, and so on.’ The size of the festival, now, is far bigger than Eavis had ever expected. The tally, including artists and staff, will hit 177,500 this summer in an area covering over 1000 acres of farm land. ‘It’s been a gradual process of learning how to cope with the numbers of people. We spend an enormous amount of time caring about the site.’
‘Love thy festival goer’ is all well and good, but it doesn’t explain, in practical terms, how the festival has managed to stay true to its founding ethos of bonhomie.
‘We haven’t got shareholders or anything,’ says Eavis. ‘If we did or, say, an American company came in, they’d be a little more materialistic. They wouldn’t sanction giving back £80,000, for example, like we did in 2011. Every day, all day long, we’re doing what we think is right, so we’re not considering profitability.’
This MO requires more than the benevolent direction of Mr Eavis, though. He is under no illusion about the substantial contribution that Glastonbury’s army of volunteers makes to the festival’s smooth running. Each year, 20,000 people apply, looking to help out in return for free entry. One of Eavis’ diligent friends processes the would-be volunteers. Every successful applicant must complete a steward training programme.
‘It’s only a tenner each, but it does mount up. They need a certificate. This is the way the authorities are looking at it now. Fair enough, but the training they really need, as far as I’m concerned, is to be civil and to be friendly. You can’t teach that as much.’
We regale Eavis with our own experiences of that friendliness and how much it contributed to our enjoyment of the festival. He seems genuinely pleased.
A brief interruption gives Eavis a moment to reflect on our chat. Then he says, ‘It’s difficult to explain why this show has 850,000 people pre-registering for it.’ Perhaps it’s this innocent humility that’s part of the reason why.
320 cows on the farm
1,200 food vendors on site
2,000 water taps on site
2,500 people expected to arrive by bike
4,000 temporary toilets on site
7,000 meres of perimeter fence
138,000 total festival tickets sold
This article was first printed in Square Meal Venues & Events, spring 2013.