Scott Birch goes behind the scenes at Glastonbury – the world’s largest greenfield music and performing arts festival – with founder Michael Eavis.
It’s the beginning of May and Worthy Farm is approaching a significant landmark in its annual cycle. The award-winning dairy herd is nowhere to be seen as the first performance stage prepares to rise from the ground at Glastonbury.
Eve Trackway are busy erecting the perimeter fence to contain and control the 1,380 acre site, while Serious Stages are prepping the famous Pyramid Stage (or rather waiting for the high winds to die down so it can be dressed safely).
“This is where it starts,” says farmer and festival founding father Michael Eavis. “When the first stage goes up then we have a festival.”
Eavis is giving Access an exclusive tour around his farm, showcasing the considerable efforts and investment that goes into creating the modern Glastonbury experience. At the moment there are a few hundred people working on site, and that will increase to a staggering 45,000 come show time as hundreds of event supplier firms descend on Worthy.
Eavis is standing in his signature denim shorts, wedged between great slabs of oak 12 feet long and a foot thick, weighing a tonne a piece. These are the old lock gates – recycled by Eavis from the famous Caen Hill Flight near Devizes – that now form the Bullring arena. “This is the same oak that made HMS Victory,” says Eavis, with a mix of pride and wonder.
The fact that these locally sourced, recycled monoliths are part of this milestone seems completely appropriate for an event that wrote the book on sustainability and pioneered many of the best practices being adopted in the UK and beyond.
Back at the site office earlier, it was abuzz with men and women in hi-vis vests, sensible footwear and good spirits. Following the Easter holidays, preparations seem to have kicked up a gear, with familiar faces returning to site for the season.
Next door, a new office block is nearing completion, while out in the fields diggers and pickups are busy installing the all-important ‘architecture’ under the watchful gaze of infrastructure director Phil Miller.
“For me, the first moment in the life of Glastonbury is when the perimeter fence starts going up about six weeks out,” says Miller. “That’s when we also make a start on the first stages, the toilets, and then the all-important water supply.”
The site has expanded over the years, with new stages, camping areas, perimeter fences and facilities to consider, but Miller says the biggest change on his watch has been to the regulations regarding provision of water required by the Drinking Water Inspectorate.
“We built two reservoirs with ring mains to provide water to the site,” says Miller. “The water is collected and checks begin a month or two before the festival and it is stored in five underground tanks. Only five people have access to this supply, and there is very strict security – it is such a crucial part of the festival.
“We may have 80,000 fittings on site. There are up to 1,000 traders and they all needs sinks, connections – so there is enormous demand.”
Like many of the staff working at Glastonbury, Miller has been here for years – 14 in total, including seven working on behalf of the local council. His job is “to build the roads and the infrastructure” and right now he is getting excited about the new toilet blocks being installed across the site. These 72-seat blocks feature huge tanks 19m long, 6m wide and about 2m deep – meaning all waste from the five-day festival in these blocks can be stored on site.
“There are minimal moving parts in the new toilets,” explains Miller, “so that means there is less chance of failures and less maintenance is required. That’s good news for everyone.”
With more than 5,000 toilets across the entire site, catering to the 135,000 members of the public who attend each year, the work being carried out now is both crucial and critical to the visitor experience.
Glastonbury’s longdrops are well known, and require dedicated teams working around the clock to empty them and dispose of the waste. These new facilities means emptying during the event is not required. Hall says the plan would be for no gulley suckers (the charming term for the huge vacuums emptying the longdrops) to be on site, possibly as early as 2015. This would further improve the
Over 44 years, Michael Eavis and daughter Emily, have kept that experience front of mind. After all, there is little point having a brilliant line up of international artists if the fabric of this temporary city state crumbles at the first sign of stress. That’s why Miller presides over a site map in the site office like a general surveying his battlefield. He points out enhanced roads for 2014, improved pedestrian access points, and new performance areas.
“We are constantly trying to make the whole experience bigger, better and more spectacular,” says Miller. Out on the balcony, he points out the perimeter of the site – which goes literally as far as the eye can see to tree-lined ridges. You get the impression Miller knows every square metre of the site he is tracing with his finger.
That may well be true, but nobody knows Worthy like Eavis – not even, it seems, the tradesmen hired to help create his vision. Having inspected a freshly-dug trench for one of the new toilet blocks, Eavis pulls the LandRover over to a group of workers reinstalling drainage. They happily admit that they were wrong and Eavis was right – an earlier suggestion from him did the trick.
Of course, Eavis is in an enviable position when it comes to investing in his site. Not only is it his land, and therefore not going to be moved along (like T in the Park faces), but he is also selling 135,000 tickets within hours of them going on sale at £210 a pop. Having that sell-out audience also helps secure other commercial opportunities, with suppliers queuing up to be associated with the world’s biggest and best festival of contemporary arts.
Of course, it wasn’t always that way. So what changed? What was the tipping point?
“When I first started in 1970, nobody wanted to know,” recalls Eavis. “I would ring suppliers and I didn’t hear back from them for 10 years. For me, booking The Smiths in 1984 changed everything, then since 1994 we have sold out each year.”
Now, suppliers are falling over themselves to be associated with this jewel in the festival crown. Inevitably, this means Eavis not only gets the best people working on the event, but also the keenest prices. Success breeds success.
Talking of success, it’s fair to say Glastonbury’s rise since 1994 benefitted from the Britpop zeitgeist. The lineup that golden year included Blur and Oasis, Pulp and Radiohead, Manic Street Preachers and Echobelly. The festival was also broadcast live over the weekend by Channel 4, broadening the reach and appeal of the event. It was a huge success, despite the Pyramid stage burning down just 11 days before the festival.
But that was 20 years ago, and the face of the festivals industry has changed. In the last decade alone the number of ‘music festivals’ in the UK has risen by up to 600 per cent, according to some reports, and that during a financial crisis that saw many events come and go like one-hit wonders.
Even Eavis, in 2011, told The Times newspaper that Glastonbury was “on its way out” and only had “three or four years left” because “there is a feeling that people have seen it all before”.
The festival continues to sell out and demand outstrips supply, so it’s difficult to imagine an event like Glastonbury, which has become so ingrained in British culture, struggling. Last year’s headline slot from The Rolling Stones was proof, if needed, that people may well have seen it all before, but seeing it as part of the Glastonbury experience makes it unique.
Not that the event has been without its challenges in the past, but those days seem a distant memory. Case in point is the recent news that Glastonbury was granted a new 10-year licence by Mendip District Council, with no opposition to the ruling. Back in 1984, Michael Eavis had to fight five prosecutions brought against him by the same council. He won those battles then and it’s fair to say times have changed.
“The council appreciates not only the economic impact that the festival has on the area but also the cultural that Glastonbury brings,” says Eavis as we take a turn towards the skeleton of the Pyramid Stage – the iconic structure that epitomises Glastonbury in so many ways.
This is the third incarnation of the famous main stage (the original in 1971 was followed by a permanent structure in 1981, which burnt down in that fire in 1994) and is made out of four kilometres of steel tubing – designed and built by Bill Burroughs from the local village, Pilton. The materials and processes used all passed a Greenpeace environmental audit, and the design is based on the Great Pyramid of Giza.
Eavis climbs nimbly out of the car and strides purposefully under the 100ft frame. “This is where it all happens,” he says, matter-of-factly, and it’s hard to imagine that this field in the centre of the middle of nowhere will be such a focal point in 60 days time.
After 44 years, and standing in the shadow of the Pyramid Stage, does Eavis have any plans on retiring and stepping out of the limelight?
“I might retire after 50,” he says, before adding the caveat, “50 festivals that is, not 50 years. We have fallow years, so there are still a few to go yet.”
We arrive back at the admin block, via the cow sheds where we finally catch a glimpse of the prize herd, and Eavis pulls up suddenly outside the new offices that Miller is aiming to complete before the festival begins. On the wall outside are stones carrying the initials T, N and G.
“Do you know what that stands for?” he asks, curiously. Flummoxed, Access replies in the negative. “The Next Generation,” says Eavis with a broad smile. And while the reins may well have been passed on to daughter Emily, Access can reveal that plans seen by this magazine clearly had the words ‘Michael’s Office’ printed on at least part of the blueprints.
Glastonbury without him and his infectious passion just wouldn’t be the same. Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts takes place 25-29 June, Worthy Farm, Pilton.
This was first published in the June issue of AAA. Any comments? Email Emma Hudson