Still tied to its hippie roots, Glastonbury-the inspiration for Bonnaroo, Coachella and Lollapalooza-pays less and accomplishes more than any other festival. Here's how
On Sept. 19, 1970, one day after Jimi Hendrix's death, Michael Eavis staged the first Glastonbury festival (or Pilton Pop, Blues and Folk Festival, as it was then known) at his family-owned Worthy Farm, near the village of Pilton, several miles outside the historic British town of Glastonbury.
In its inaugural year, 1,500 revellers paid £1 ($1.50 at today's rates) to attend the event, which was headlined by Marc Bolan and included the offer of free milk for everyone. From those inauspicious beginnings, Glastonbury--or the Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts, to use its full title since 1990--has grown to become the largest green-field music and performing arts festival in the world, regularly attracting A-list talent (despite paying smaller artist fees than its competitors) while also retaining a strong sense of its hippie roots. And it's become a much-copied model--the producers of Coachella, Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo have all cited Glasto as an inspiration (particularly Bonnaroo, with its tent city, whimsical vibe and performances at the Which Stage and This Tent).
For this year's event, which takes place June 26-30, 137,500 ticket holders will witness headline performances from the Rolling Stones, Mumford & Sons and Arctic Monkeys, with millions more following online or through the BBC's globally syndicated TV and radio coverage. Free milk is no longer included, but many other aspects of that original Glastonbury experience remain, including an all-ages audience, no zoning restrictions on the consumption of alcohol and a communal, green-friendly ethos that permeates every inch of its sprawling 1,000-acre site.
"There's a spirit about the festival which has been there since the beginning," says organizer Emily Eavis, who runs Glastonbury alongside Michael, her father. "It has got a real sense of history to it."
"There's something ridiculously special in the atmosphere there," says Jim Chancellor, managing director of Universal imprint Fiction Records, home to Glastonbury veterans Elbow and Snow Patrol. "It feels almost like a utopian state for a weekend."
Key to Glastonbury's unique character is its gargantuan size. Since 2002, the festival site has been housed within an 8.5-mile-long steel perimeter fence--to prevent the thousands of free-loaders who had gate-crashed in previous years. The event's total capacity, including crew, artists and staff, is nearly 180,000, but numbers only tell half the story. A better indication of the Glastonbury experience can be found in its 100-plus stages and complex of distinctly themed zones.
In addition to the main Pyramid Stage and secondary Other Stage, attractions include acoustic, theater, circus, cabaret, world music, craft, green and children areas; after-hours fantasy wonderland Shangri-La (designed and built by more than 1,500 crew and artists); a dedicated dance village (this year renamed Silver Hayes); and an apocalyptic-themed art and electronic music arena called Block9.
The cost of staging the festival is £30 million ($45 million), Eavis says, while entry to this year's event costs £205 ($310). All 137,500 tickets were sold in less than two hours when they went on sale in October-five months before the lineup was announced. To beat scalpers, Glastonbury uses a registration system where ticket holders have their photos displayed on printed tickets. Glastonbury doesn't make its numbers public, but an estimated ticket gross of $40 million would be less than Coachella's $47 million, according to Billboard Boxscore, considered the world's highest.
"It's always a struggle to keep the cost down," Eavis says. "We try to give people good value for their money, which is obviously hard because to put on a production of this scale is hugely expensive. We invest across the site and put money into each area as if it is as important as the Pyramid Stage."
In line with Glastonbury's alternative roots, each year organizers aim to donate £2 million ($3 million) to charity. Meanwhile, festival sponsorship is limited to four long-standing partners: the BBC, cellphone operator Orange, the Guardian newspaper and Danish brewing company Carlsberg, all of which maintain a relatively low-key on-site presence and, Eavis says, provide an important customer service.
"We have tried to keep [the festival] as far away from that whole commercial world as possible, but obviously it has changed and we have had to embrace certain elements like television," she says. "But we're very careful not to force any brands down people's throats."
Glastonbury's altruistic ethos and strong heritage give it cachet when it comes to attracting talent, as illustrated by the Rolling Stones' debut appearance at the festival this summer. "We totally rely on our name and good reputation," says Eavis, who adds that when it comes to artist fees Glastonbury is unable to compete with the more lucrative deals elsewhere. "We're so far removed from those sort of huge fees. When people come here, they're doing it for the right reasons."
One major attraction for artists is the massive global exposure. In the United Kingdom, a total TV audience of 19.3 million watched the BBC's extensive festival coverage in 2011, according to the BBC. The same year, the BBC's commercial wing BBC Worldwide syndicated a six-hour festival highlights package to 181 international territories. This year, the BBC will extend its online coverage to include continuous live streams from all of Glastonbury's major stages.
"When we look at developing artists and artist rollout, we always see Glastonbury as a summer tent-pole," Atlantic Records U.K. chairman Max Lousada says. "The promotion both from the BBC and online is extensive. And then editorially, from a print and image point of view, it travels all around the world."
Lousada cites the 2008 headlining slot by Jay-Z--his first as a major European festival headliner--as indicative of Glastonbury's "brave, risk-taking" music policy. Eavis also cites Jay-Z's show as "a really important moment" in the modern history of the festival. "It proved that we could have non-guitar headliners and trust our instincts," she says.
As for the long term, Eavis says she's focusing her team's energies on the next four years, after which she anticipates Glastonbury taking a year off (continuing the fallow-year practice her father introduced in 1988) to allow staff, organizers and the festival site itself, which remains a full-time working farm, to recharge before "hopefully" returning the following summer.
"We're not looking much further past that [point] at the moment," Eavis says. "We're not planning for the next 20 years. And in a way, that makes what we're doing more precious, because it is away from that world of business plans and marketing plans and commercialism."