Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006
Sacred Cow or Cash Cow? Glastonbury Festival
Sacred cow or cash cow? - Sculpture at Glastonbury Festival 2000.
Photo: Ian Hunter

'The State It's In' - Squall Editorial

Culture Cash
- Glastonbury Festival

The UK's best loved and most unusual festival has been slowly slipping towards commercialisation in recent years. Now a new set of business deals with sponsors and big promoters looks set to finish Glastonbury off.

June 2002

Glastonbury Festival has, without doubt, been the greatest annual outdoor celebration of music and arts ever seen in Britain; a cultural cornucopia justifiably classed as legendary. Since its conception as the Pilton Free Festival in 1970, the event quickly earned and increased its reputation for unfettered communal spontaneity, fostering an atmosphere no business plan could have created. And yet an event which could never be mimicked with money is now in serious of danger of being destroyed by it.

A poisonous concoction of commerce and conservative abreaction is threatening to throttle the phenomenon.

In its heyday you could walk through the ally's of Glastonbury Festival in awe; an instant city full of cultural promise and activity. You could affordably drink at an idiosyncratic bar, eat at a bizarre 'restaurant' and meet some refreshing nutter who would help remind you that you weren't the only weirdo in town. In a society dangerously devoid of opportunities for creative release, it was a wonderland.

During the seventies and much of the eighties, there were a multitude of other festivals of similar spirit in Britain but the full onslaught of Tory malice and culture-cracking legislation decimated the scene. Glastonbury survived, run by a Methodist organic dairy farmer called Michael Eavis, whose first ever festival experience was when he and his late wife, Jean, crawled under a fence at a blues festival in the sixties and were smitten. The festival they gave birth too grew beyond all expectations and big music promoters were hungry for a slice of the action. And yet an event which had developed so organically was not repeatable out of context. Not that commercial promoters didn't try.

Vince Power and the Mean Fiddler Organisation made strenuous efforts to emulate Glastonbury's success by organising multi artform festivals with new-agey names like 'The Phoenix' and 'Tribal Gathering'. But they were plastic affairs; big money spent on eye-catching celebrity line ups but grotesquely organised. Heavy security teams and strict rules. Steep entry prices, expensive poor quality beer, unaffordable food. We weren't people, we were punters. It was sickening. The Mean Fiddler's press release for the first Tribal Gathering read: "Join with us on our epic onslaught as we strike back against the establishment and the creeping corporate capitalisation of our cosmic counter culture." Laughably the Tribal Gathering was sponsored, lock stock and logo by a multitude of corporations including Sony and Marlboro. It was a blatant culture cash in.

At the first ever Phoenix Festival in Stratford Upon Avon, heavy duty security went round with hoses putting out open fires and turning off boogie boxes at midnight. It was ridiculous. Punters were offered freedom for a price, paid their money and got a heavily policed nightmare. Riots broke out and the walls around the main stages were torn down.

For a while the celebrity line-ups guaranteed a certain number of ticket sales and the commercial festivals faltered on but 'plastic' festivals don't last long and they certainly don't attract the loyalty or high regard which Glastonbury continues to inspire. As any music business agent will tell you, Glastonbury actually attracts big name stars for less money than commercial promoters simply because all artists want to play there. This alone is unusual amongst events.

When Michael Eavis was diagnosed with colonic cancer five years ago, big promoters like Vince Power and Harvey Goldsmith circled like sharks smelling blood and opportunities. Michael Eavis made an appearance in the Green Futures Field, colostomy bag in tow, to answer questions about the future of the festival and promised that, recovery permitting, he would strive on with the festival. Eavis recovered.

Of course Glastonbury has not been without its ups and downs. There have been the big money drug dealers bringing weapons and angst. There were the muggers. They all had to be dealt with. But when steroid-fuelled security teams clashed with Thatcher-battered travellers in the late eighties, things turned ugly. The security firm were replaced. The travellers, who had traditionally been given a field to park up in, were kicked out and banned. The acrimony reverberated for years.

Eavis continued to employ many travellers on the preparation for the festival and, although maintaining an anti-traveller attitude when questioned in public, he kept aside a field for a free travellers festival for most years of the festival.

The two biggest millstones attaching themselves to the neck of the festival and weighing heavier each year, have been the rednecks and commerce.

Eavis' 400 acre Worthy Farm is situated in a highly conservative part of the country, and throughout the decades he and his fellow organisers have fought hard against redneck opposition to the festival. Despite the event's national popularity the local council, landed population and the police have provided regular objections, licence refusals, stipulations and fines. Eavis has tried hard to accommodate local concerns and brings a lot of business into the locality by hiring local contractors to work on the festival wherever possible. The festival has also funded local housing projects in Somerset. But the anti-brigade have never gone away.

The second millstone throttling the spirit of Glastonbury Festival has been the corruptive creep of capitalist operation techniques into the body of a festival. Commercial alcohol sponsors insist on exclusive bar rights to the whole festival, and the organiser’s increasing determination to fully comply with their demands has resulted in the closure of all the unusual vibrant small scale shabeens which used to provide the festival with so much colour and diversity. With pitches at the Festival costing many £thousands, non-commercial venues and spaces have been increasingly squeezed off the main drag, to the periphery and then out all together. Gone is the Vibe Bar, the Squall tent, Guilfin, The Shaggy Tits Bar, Ecotrip and the Out to Lunch Café. All these were affordable vibrant venues which forsook profit for cultural clamour. These days it’s hard to find a plate of food for less than a fiver. Hard to find a beer that isn't pitched at commercial club prices. It’s harder to get by without becoming a capitalist.

But still the sheer size of the festival meant it was not possible for commerce to take over completely. The central area of the festival, long nicknamed 'babylon' by seasoned festival goers loomed larger each year with burgers and rubbish. But in the outer fields, from the back of trucks and cobbled tarps, little spaces sprang up to give you your most cherished memories of the event.

This year, however, commerce has sunk its biggest claw to date, and the spirit of Glastonbury is reeling from a potentially lethal blow. On 20 February, Glastonbury Festival signed a deal with the Mean Fiddler Music Group plc. From now on the Mean Fiddler will be the licensees, the site managers and the security organisers for the entire festival. They will receive 20 per cent of the net profit, rising to 40 per cent in three years time.

"Vince knows I'm in the driving seat and I've got control," assured Michael Eavis, replying to concerns about the future of the festival. "He understands because he loves the festival the way it is and he is as concerned as I am to keep it as it is. He knows the Glastonbury brand is the most valuable in the whole of the music industry."

The opportunity the Mean Fiddler have been waiting for arose for two major reasons. Firstly the number of people getting into Glastonbury Festival for free has always been an important ingredient of the festival. The benefiting charities still got their donation (£250,000 split between Greenpeace, Water Aid and Oxfam and a number of smaller donations to various local causes), everyone got their wages, and Eavis took a reasonable £60,000 for the farm. The festival finance worked well despite the vast numbers of people getting in for free.

But the organisers could not guarantee a limit on the numbers of people attending, an assurance increasingly sought after by the authorities. The death of nine people in a crowd crush at a Pearl Jam concert at Rosskilde in Denmark in 2000 sent shock waves through the industry. The redneck forces lined up against Eavis and used the uncontrolled crowd numbers for their latest objection. The authorities effectively told Eavis that if he didn't allow the Mean Fiddler Music Group to take over security and site management they would not give him a licence. Eavis had his worries about Mean Fiddler involvement, and even pulled out of the deal at one stage. However, it was 'no deal- no festival' as far as the authorities were concerned and the Mean Fiddler finally got what they'd wanted for decades. Vince Power had Reading, Leeds and Homelands, and now he'd finally got his hands on the biggest jewel in the festival crown. A 15 ft high fence costing £1 million pounds surrounds Glastonbury's five mile perimeter this year. It will be patrolled by a Bristol based security company employing ex-soldiers. Overall management of security will be conducted by the Mean Fiddler Group. As a cautionary note to all those still intent on scaling the walls, the Mean Fiddler's involvement in the event crucially depends on keeping people out. Michael Eavis had gained entry to his first festival by crawling under the fence and, up until 2000, he had personally gone down to Gate 6 at 2am each morning and let in anyone sleeping outside. From now on the rottweilers and ex-soldiers will be making sure no-one who hasn't paid got in. Furthermore, £100 Festival tickets - which sold out before the line up was even announced - were being sold by ticket touts in the small ads newspaper, Loot, months before the festival. One hundred and fifty pounds if you were lucky...most adverts wanted £300 a ticket.

The second factor paving the way for the Mean Fiddler is the necessity for better site management. The Mean Fiddler's Melvyn Benn - Vince Power's man in the field - once worked on the Glastonbury festival staff. Eavis knew him.

The old site manager, Richard Able, had been managing the festival for many years. Insiders acknowledge the swollen size of the event urgently required a more ordered, more delegated approach to site management. Melvyn Benn and his master, Vince Power, were hired in. "Mean Fiddler is pleased to play a role in assuring Glastonbury Festival's future," claimed Benn with full corporate tone. "Which will help to maintain the income for charities that have benefited the event." Yuk.

But Benn and the Mean Fiddler Group have brought more than commercial expertise to Glastonbury Festival. The number of passes available to groups putting on venues and performances have been slashed by a third across the entire festival site in order to sell more tickets to punters and touts.

For the first time there is to be a £5 charge to park your car. Corporate sponsorship of the festival has been increased, which, among other things, guarantees that US Budweiser - one of the least favourite lagers with British festival goers - is now the official beer of the festival and, in many bars, will be the only beer served.

The control of who's allowed to sell alcohol has been more strictly controlled than ever. Even Roy's Bar (Lost Vagueness), the last vestige of underground illicit shebeenary situated in one of the top fields is to be controlled by the official festival alcohol licensee's this year. The traveller's field, which was once within the festival, before being moved a few miles away after the trouble with the security guards, has been dispensed with altogether this year. The authorities - that is the police, Mendip District Council and influential local rednecks - have insisted upon it as a licence requirement.

Lastly and lethally, SQUALL has discovered the Mean Fiddler Group are hiring people who have previously worked in positions of authority within the company to be their eyes and ears in every field at Glastonbury. These people will report back to the Mean Fiddler organisation on what they think is good and what they think is bad. Michael Eavis has tried to give assurances that the Mean Fiddler's involvement will not affect the festival's authorship. A festival press release describe the event as "the only festival to reject overt commercialism". But such assurances look thin even in the first year of the new set up.

The commercial sharks, who have for so long circled Glastonbury Festival waiting for the opportunity to close in on their prey, are now feasting. And British culture will be more the poorer because of it.

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