Glastonbury Festival — the biggest live music event in Europe — gets into full swing today, for the first time since 2019.
There will be 200,000 people on site in Somerset, in the west of England, watching thousands of performances across 93 different stages, including headliners Billie Eilish, Sir Paul McCartney and Kendrick Lamar, and Diana Ross in the highly prized Sunday afternoon ‘legends’ slot.
And yet, somehow, Glastonbury is even bigger than those numbers suggest. First held in 1970 – when 1,500 hippies got free milk in exchange for their £1 entrance fee – the festival has developed into a national and international institution, as much a part of the traditional British summer as Wimbledon. And it’s also a musical juggernaut, attracting the biggest names from every genre and capable of making or breaking new artists in a single set.
BBC broadcaster Jo Whiley strives to convey the festival’s sheer physical and cultural enormity. “Take Coachella,” she says. “Multiple it by a thousand, add several different dimensions and put it in multi-color…Then you might have a grasp of what Glastonbury is all about.”
Whiley will once again helm the BBC’s extensive TV programming this weekend, alongside the likes of Lauren Laverne and Clara Amfo. And if there’s one thing almost as big as Glastonbury itself, it’s the corporation’s coverage of Glastonbury.
Lorna Clarke, director of music for the BBC, and Alison Howe, executive producer for BBC Studios, which produces the BBC’s festival coverage, promise the most comprehensive programming in the public broadcaster’s 25-year history with the event. Over five days, there will be over 100 hours of broadcast across TV (BBCs One, Two, Three and Four), radio (BBC Radios 1, 1Xtra, 2 and 6 Music) and digital (BBC iPlayer, BBC Sounds). A major documentary, “Glastonbury: 50 Years & Counting,” focused on founder Michael Eavis’ relationship to the festival, is also being sold internationally.
This year will also feature technological innovations such as broadcasting the Pyramid Stage in UHD, and a dedicated Glastonbury iPlayer channel, which will allow viewers to livestream full live sets.
“It’s a mammoth production,” says Clarke. “But it’s not just about getting bigger for the sake of it, it’s about how we can improve and extend our coverage from previous years.”
Adds Howe: “It’s kind of like the Jubilee — just with different flags!”
Unlike the Queen’s 70 years on the throne, Glastonbury’s belated 50th anniversary celebration does not come with a national holiday attached, although it’ll feel like it does for the music business. Out-of-offices have been reverberating across the industry since Wednesday, as execs descend on organizers Michael and daughter Emily Eavis’ Worthy Farm site for the first time since 2019.
That’s because a successful Glastonbury performance, amplified by a high-rating TV slot, can give music careers a massive boost. After the last pre-pandemic event in 2019, huge surges in sales and streams followed for the likes of The Killers, The Cure, Lizzo and Kylie Minogue.
The festival’s enforced absence in 2020 and 2021 may have deprived many artists of such “Glastonbury moments,” but expectations are running high for this year’s line-up.
“Because everything has been on hold, this is the launchpad,” says Whiley. “This is the time when everybody’s setting out their stalls and going, ‘Here I am! This is what I do! Take a look, do you like it?’ That’s why this Glastonbury is so important for so many artists.”
Lorna Clarke, meanwhile, hopes the coverage will help “audiences to fall in love with live music again.”
“After the tough few years we’ve had,” she says, “it may result in them buying gig tickets to once again support artists and the live music scene in general.”
Steve Lamacq, whose hugely influential BBC Radio 6 Music show will be broadcasting from Glastonbury this weekend, tips the likes of Wet Leg, Glass Animals and Little Simz to capture imaginations and sales this weekend. He cites Coldplay’s early appearance in 2000 as proof of what a Glastonbury performance can do.
“From the moment they went on, you could just tell that never again would Coldplay be playing in the afternoon,” says Lamacq. “And, with the wider TV coverage now, a good show at Glastonbury sets you up very nicely indeed.”
Lamacq says the importance of timing sees artists “haggle around whether they go on in daylight or during the night-time” at what he dubs “the Holy Grail of festivals.” Meanwhile, Howe admits her phone has been running hot with inquiries from managers and labels.
“These days, artists sign up to be at Glastonbury with the BBC coverage at the back of their minds,” says Howe. “People want to be part of it.
“Come Monday, there will be artists who, from out of nowhere, will be flavor of the month,” she adds. “But none of us know who – and that’s the exciting bit.”
In 2017, the corporation and Glastonbury announced a broadcast deal through 2022, although it’s not clear if the double COVID cancellation will see that extended.
Lorna Clarke would only say “watch this space,” although Variety’s sources indicate some sort of announcement is likely in the weeks after this year’s festival. In the meantime, Clarke is “expecting healthy [audience] figures in the many millions”. In 2019, Minogue set a ratings record, peaking at 3.9 million viewers.
And one thing that does now look secure – despite two years of uncertainty – is the future of Glastonbury itself.
“It’s such an institution, I can see it still existing another 50 years down the line,” says Whiley. “By then, Billie Eilish will probably be in the ‘legends’ slot.”