Glastonbury: The Music Festival That Sells Out in 30 Minutes

What makes this iconic event a cultural phenomenon?

Ant Jackson
Oct 6 · 9 min read
Photo by Joe Green on Unsplash

This week, tickets for the 2020 festival go on sale. Glastonbury will celebrate its 50th anniversary and demand is expected to exceed last year, where over 150,000 tickets sold out in thirty-six minutes.

You might be thinking… Whoa! Did somebody exhume The Beatles? Who’s playing?

Nobody knows.

There are plenty of rumors, but the festival organizers famously do not reveal the acts scheduled to perform until after the tickets have been sold.

But this is no Fyre Festival shenanigans. Since it’s modest beginning in 1970, Glastonbury has grown in popularity by offering visitors a party like no other.

No one doubts that there will be huge acts. But who turns up to play is almost irrelevant. As one festival veteran explains; “The most important thing to remember is that you haven’t paid money to watch bands; you’ve paid money to be part of an experience.”

If you’ve never heard of it, or never been, or even if you went last year — grasping what makes Glastonbury a cultural phenomenon takes a moment.

What is Glastonbury?

From the official website, “Glastonbury Festival is the largest greenfield music and performing arts festival in the world and a template for all the festivals that have come after it.”

Transforming 900 acres of farmland in the south-west of England, Glastonbury is a sprawling mini-city. Miranda Sawyer describes it as “Another world. At least, that’s what it feels like when you’re there: it’s so vast, so utterly overwhelming.”

200,000 visitors and workers spread out across the entire site. Pressed up against huge stages and dotting the hills and valleys of the space, the temporary population live in relative harmony for five days in June.

The festival is organized into zones revolving around the music or entertainment on offer. Like all great cities, there is no way you can see everything in one trip. An old rail track connects parts of the site, make-shift paths and temporary tracks do the rest.

In each of these zones, there are enough food trucks or stalls to feed the masses. There are fashion stores, jewelry sellers, craft vendors, artists, and every type of bar you could hope for.

There are no VIP tickets or premium areas. If you want the front of the stage you have to get their really early. If you want to get backstage, you have to actually know somebody. Visitors are free to set-up camp wherever it is safe and reasonable to do so, bring whatever supplies they deem necessary, and go wherever the fun takes them.

And for those five days, Glastonbury offers all the fun you could ever need. It becomes the vibrant, multi-cultural, multi-generational, center of the universe.

Image by Rachel D

Glastonbury is music

Glastonbury attracts the cream of the crop; from the hippest new acts to superstars you can strike off your bucket list. Last year, the festival hosted everyone from Billie Eilish and Miley Cyrus, to The Chemical Brothers and The Cure.

The surprising thing is that the artists don’t do it for the paycheck because the festival doesn’t pay that well. At Glastonbury, it really is about the music. This gives the performance a unique quality that can’t be found at other festivals.

Millions of people watch it live on the BBC (or stream it after the fact) so an epic set can be immortalized. Performances like Radiohead’s 1997 headlining slot or David Bowie’s 2000 comeback, are still celebrated and watched today.

The artists who grace the stages recognize the magic that Glastonbury embodies and often do things a little different. Jay-Z famously began his headline slot crooning Wonderwall; a cheeky response to the claim from Oasis songwriter, Noel Gallagher, that hip-hop had no place at the festival.

Last year, Miley Cyrus transformed herself into a rock star for her big slot and announced: “in many ways this show has changed my f****** life drastically.”

Image by Russell James Smith

But Glastonbury is about more than catching one of your heroes, it’s about discovering something new. If music is a language, then Glastonbury is the Rosetta Stone for big beats and melodies.

In 2019, there were 2800 performances across 79 stages.

Every type of music, at all hours, whirling around tents, rising like a tidal wave from stages, and buzzing around bars. Huge speakers, hung like techno-dinosaurs, necks arched up, roaring bass and treble at the horde. It’s a song you haven’t heard in years at exactly the right moment. It’s masterpieces and nonsense and sometimes it might just be noise for noise sake.

Glastonbury is art

Once you step onto the Glastonbury site, you are whisked away from reality. From the design of the famous Pyramid stage to the mind-boggling installations that pop-up in each zone, the world looks and feels different.

The South-East corner, an extravaganza of the warped and weird, offers the most dazzling example of this otherworldliness. Each year, an array of artists and engineers construct a dreamland that answers the question: what if Tim Burton was put in charge of Disneyland?

As EDM pounds relentlessly from every speaker, visitors can wander around a dystopian cityscape, dodge nightmarish baby dolls, pass through heaven and hell, and take in the drag queen scene.

Then there’s the Arcadia zone — made famous by a flamethrowing spider that allowed dancers to rave underneath it. Last year, this was replaced by Pangea; an enormous crane, imported from the docks, that has been transformed into a glowing dance beacon that takes over the sky.

For those wanting a more holistic artistic experience, the festival stays true to its hippie roots; the stone circle is a focal point for those that enjoy drums, meditation, and sun salutations. A circus and theatre zone, the giant Kidz Field for families, and a craft area ensure there is something for everyone.

And then there’s the fashion. Oh the glitter! Teenagers through grandmas emerge every morning with sequined faces.

In amongst the sparkle, there’s velvet robes, stilts, hats, costumes, loud shirts, crazy shades, and masks.

The fashion only adds to the sense of happy escape. It makes you wonder if the world would be a better place if everyone dressed like this all the time.

Glastonbury is stimulants

You don’t have to partake to enjoy the festival, a sober ride is still a hell of a ride, but the majority of the revelers embrace some form of altered state.

Booze is available everywhere in all your favorite flavors and it’s not extortionately priced. There are no designated drinking or smoking areas, the entire site is fair game.

And then there’s whatever else people bring to the party. It would be naive not to think that this is a major reason for Glastonbury’s popularity. The chance to cut loose and dabble in the dark arts, on a giant farm in the middle of nowhere, is a big part of the draw.

Everyone finds a way to elevate their mood and have a good time. While someone is thinking about getting giddy with a few pints, the person next to them is on hour five of an acid trip. As the locals pound the cider, the hipsters take a bump, the old-school hippies take a toke, the veterans are snorting ket, and the ravers are on a cocktail of everything.

Time exists, in that morning follows night, but the usual rules and regulations are removed, allowing for a 120-hour party marathon if you’ve got the inclination and resources.

It would be even more naive to overlook the role these stimulants play in the overall atmosphere of the festival. Things get groovy. The freedom to experiment without judgment brings everyone a little closer.

Glastonbury is honest

Authenticity is the special ingredient that might go unnoticed while watching the highlights on TV. For all the glitz and glamour, Glastonbury remains committed to being fair and good.

On achieving success, many major organizations begin to compromise their principles. It would be easy for Glastonbury to sell-out and go the way of Coachella; add an extra weekend, offer VIP packages, hike up the prices. So far, Glastonbury has resisted this temptation. Perhaps because it takes its position as a cultural phenomenon very seriously.

Now viewed as a most-British institution, Glastonbury attempts to be the model festival. Michael and Emily Eavis, the father and daughter team that organizes Glastonbury, remain committed to its humble origins.

Michael was inspired to create the festival after attending a Led Zeppelin show. Epitomizing an ‘if you would build it, they will come’ philosophy, he imagined it as an event that was committed to peace and music. It’s a tradition that continues today.

The Eavis’s pay themselves a modest salary and donate the rest of the profits to charity. They use the festival’s platform to promote WaterAid, Oxfam, and Greenpeace (amongst others), and last year they banned the sale of water bottles at the festival in their push for sustainability.

The honesty and respect that the organizers embody trickle down to the visitors. Despite the festival operating on the same size as a small city, the crime statistics reveal very few issues.

Image by Ant Jackson

This hints toward what is possibly the essential characteristic of the festival:

Glastonbury is a collective mindset

Everyone in attendance accepts that for a few days, most social norms do not apply. The festival swallows up the myriad of personal agendas and somehow enables them to intermingle without incident. Orange-vested security ensures that everyone adheres to the rule: Do not let your fun impede or endanger anybody else’s. And it works!

This is why writers like Dorian Lynskey describe it as “an endeavor that verges on the miraculous.” It’s as though everyone is prepared to accept, and even embrace, everyone’s search for kicks at the satisfaction of their own; which makes it the closest thing to a utopia I’ve ever witnessed.

This probably sounds like a big exaggeration: a hysterical claim from someone who had a little too much fun in the sun and is having a hard time readjusting to the everyday routine.

What about the lines? What about the disgusting toilets and uncomfortable sleeping arrangments? What about the ten hours it took you to get home? What about the mud!

All I can tell you is that the good far outweighs the bad. I returned from Glastonbury a different person. Someone brighter, with new ideas and perspectives. And I am not alone.

Speak to people who have been, read blogs, scour forums and you’ll find that it is a recurring theme. One visitor recalls:

“There is a total freedom in that space, to be whoever you want to be, to act how you like, to experience whatever you want to experience. There is no class divide, no racial divide, no financial divide. I can’t think of ever having been to an event/place where that is so obvious… Glastonbury changed my life, and I’ll be forever grateful.”

This is why Glastonbury sells out in minutes. This is why its a cultural phenomenon. It offers the promise of freedom that you can sense watching on a screen, but can only fully realize by attending.

At a time when being seen to be cool is almost as important as being cool, Glastonbury offers attendees a glimpse at what life be like when you don’t have to try. You can travel back in time to some ancient celebration of the sun, where everyone in their own way finds something real inside them, for the briefest of moments.

Image by Robbie Shade

Ant Jackson

Written by

Screenwriter musing about parenting, lifestyle, and writing.

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