What Glastonbury's cancellation means for Britain, live music, and anyone with a ticket

The coronavirus is crushing the world's live music scene: Glastonbury is the biggest casualty of all

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Glastonbury is the highlight of Britain's cultural calendar
Glastonbury is the highlight of Britain's cultural calendar. How will music fans cope without it? Credit: Andrew Allcock

There’s a sound that you only ever hear once a year, in late June, in Somerset. It’s the jackhammer thwacking of metal panels beneath your tyres as you drive up the temporary corrugated road into Glastonbury Festival. It is accompanied by a dull throbbing bass and the unseen hubbub of happiness rising from the valley beyond. And there’s no feeling like it in the world.

But this year there’ll be no such sensation. That glorious feeling of excitement and anticipation will have to wait. Glastonbury Festival, the world’s biggest and most famous music and arts jamboree, has been cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak.

When the announcement finally came it had a sad air of inevitability about it. 

Just six days after organiser Emily Eavis released the line-up of the first wave of acts for the Somerset festival, she said that organisers had no option but to cancel the event. Ticket holders for Glastonbury, which was scheduled to run from 24 to 28 June, have been told that their tickets will roll over to next year. 

“Clearly this was not a course of action we hoped to take for our 50th anniversary event, but following the new government measures announced this week — and in times of such unprecedented uncertainty — this is now our only viable option,” Emily and her father Michael Eavis said in a statement.

The news will be a crushing blow for the 200,000-odd attendees and the thousands of bands, performers and stallholders for whom the festival is the highlight of their calendar year. Paul McCartney, Taylor Swift and Kendrick Lamar were due to headline, with acts like Elbow, Crowded House, Pet Shop Boys and Diana Ross also set to perform. While cancelling Glastonbury was the only sensible move given the fast-moving nature of the global pandemic, the festival becomes Britain’s biggest cultural casualty of the crisis. The move represents a significant bleaching of the nation’s cultural fabric as a result of the virus.

It’s hard to overstate just how Glastonbury shapes cultural life in this country. It is where activism and hedonism collide. Yes, it’s less underground, more mainstream and significantly safer than it used to be, when thousands of travellers and music lovers routinely jumped the fence (or tunnelled beneath it) to get their fix. But as a cauldron of ideas, of political, ecological and spiritual debate, of art, of colourful creativity, of spectacle and — of course — of music, it can’t be beaten.

Where else can you see the Dalai Lama share a stage with Patti Smith? Or dance through the night under a 60-foot fire-spewing spider as acrobats fly overhead on giant bungee rope? Or watch Jay-Z take hip-hop to the masses or see Lionel Richie speechless as 100,000 people sing All Night Long back at him? Bands’ reputations can be made or cemented at Glastonbury. Look at Coldplay, Johnny Cash and Elbow, or Amy Winehouse, Idles and Lady Gaga. All have had their ‘Glastonbury moments’. This means goosebumps and career bumps. 

This year would have been my 19th Glastonbury, meaning I’ve spent around 80 days of my life down on Worthy Farm. The memories are seared in my head forever. From the post A-level celebration of my first festival in 1992 when it initially got under my skin, to the mudbath of 1997 when stages sunk and my friend Boris got trench foot and Radiohead stunned the crowd with their first OK Computer show, to going with my wife (a certified convertee) for the first time and all the various crews I’ve been with over the decades, to working there as part of Team Telegraph, Glastonbury has provided the tentpoles to my life. Racing fans have Cheltenham, car fans have Silverstone, opera fans have Glyndebourne and I and countless thousands of others have Glastonbury.

To be honest, this year’s event was never really going to happen given recent events. The writing was on the wall when Prime Minister Boris Johnson said earlier this week that emergency services will no longer be supporting mass gatherings of people. And with the peak of the pandemic in the UK due to happen in June, there was no realistic alternative to cancelling.

The Eavises said that even if the situation has improved by the end of June, they are not able to spend the next three months with thousands of crew working to build the “temporary city” in Worthy Farm following the government’s advice on social distancing. Glastonbury will therefore have an “enforced fallow year”, they said, reflecting the fact that the festival takes a break every five years to allow the pastures to recover from five days of hedonism.

The first wave of 135,000 tickets for this year’s festival sold out in 34 minutes last October. A staggering 2.4 million people registered to attend, with those lucky enough to secure tickets paying a £50 deposit. The Eavises said they wanted to make a firm decision about the festival’s future before the balance of those deposits were due to be paid in early April (and before the resale of tickets for those who decided not to proceed with their purchase).

Paul McCartney was set to headline Glastonbury 2020 Credit: AFP

It is unclear what this means for the acts that were due to headline this year. History suggests they will be asked back to perform next year. When U2 pulled out in 2010 after Bono did his back in, they returned to headline in 2011. And when Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters broke his leg in 2015, the band came back to headline in 2017. However Taylor Swift, for example, is in an album-tour cycle for last year’s Lover album and it’s unclear what her availability for 2021 is (global tours are planned, if not announced, many months in advance).

By the same token, will that album still feel current next summer when it’s nearly two years old? Kendrick Lamar hasn’t yet released his much-anticipated new album so it’s less of an issue for him. But Paul McCartney is 77 and Diana Ross is 75. It was a coup to get them this year and goodness knows whether they’ll feel like doing it next year. Also, asking the same headliners to return will have a displacement effect. Pity poor Coldplay, who I imagine were chomping at their eco-friendly bit to be asked to headline in 2021.

The community near the festival site will suffer. Glastonbury generates around £100 million a year for local businesses and charities. The cancellation also leaves the BBC with a massive hole in its June broadcasting schedule. Last year, the corporation broadcast over 30 hours of live coverage from the festival.

“No Glastonbury. Bummer,” said the festival fan @HoneyBearKelly on Twitter, in a comment typical of the reaction on social media. It’s precisely how I feel.

It'll be a long 15 months until the jackhammer thwacking and hubbub of hedonism fills my ears again. But, my goodness, imagine the party.

Read more:

 

Glastonbury 2019 review: the crowd were the real stars in a life-changing weekend

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The smoke-and-mirrors art of choosing Glastonbury headliners