Oh no. Glastonbury’s gone down and it feels like a particularly bitter blow. Even amidst the rolling headlines of closures and cancellations due to the coronavirus emergency, it was hard not to respond with distress and incredulity at news that this year’s 50th anniversary Glastonbury Festival has been cancelled.
Not postponed until another, safer day. This extraordinary bill, this magical moment, this half-century celebration of the oldest rock festival in Britain and the greatest annual music gathering in the world has been lost.
Comedian Michael Legge joked on Twitter: “I’d never heard of coronavirus until a couple of months ago and already it’s closing Glastonbury.” Black humour has been a pretty effective way of countering despair as an air of unreality envelops our day-to-day lives. But it is hard to laugh off this one, and I don’t think that is just because I was so looking forward to being there, to seeing Paul McCartney, Taylor Swift, Kendrick Lamar and all the other artists on a reliably fantastic bill, to reveling with the great unwashed as we let our inner freak flags fly, falling asleep to the din of distant drum and bass and waking to the first sound checks of the morning.
The thing is that Glastonbury is not just for music fans and ticket holders. It is not even just a festival. It is part of the collective fabric that holds Britain together, an annual event that everyone takes note of and holds on opinion about. It signals where we are in the year, like Cheltenham, Wimbledon, Notting Hill Carnival and Last Night of the Proms.
It’s a brand that signals something other than the event itself, in ways that have more in common with the much kitschier and less loved Eurovision than any other music festivals. Of course, Eurovision has been cancelled too. Every cloud, as they say. (Just kidding. I’ll shed a tear for the loss of our annual spectacle of national musical humiliation, too, and nul points to anyone who says otherwise.)
Glastonbury was initially defiant, insisting the festival would go on despite gathering evidence that Covid-19 would shut the whole nation down. This, after all, was a festival so hard to kill it had thrived through years of appalling weather, when it seemed like stages might sink in gloopy mud, toilets would overflow, tents would be washed away in a landslide of human detritus. Hardened road warriors would tell survivor stories about their Glastonbury sets as if they had been sent over the top at the Somme. And still the people came, wellies dangling from backpacks even in a heatwave, all in the stoic expectation that they would have a good time no matter how bad things got. What better demonstration of the British spirit could there be?
Could something as small as a bug really stop the greatest show on earth? Organisers released a lively colour poster of the major headliners just a few days ago, a tantalisingly eclectic list of many of the most thrilling names in music, young and old, new and established, from Anderson Paak to Charli XCX, a bill where Diana Ross rubs shoulders with Dua Lipa, Herbie Hancock shares hospitality with Lana Del Rey, and Noel Gallagher, The Specials and the Pet Shop Boys compete to see who can lead the biggest singalong in history (actually, I think Sir Paul McCartney had that one in the bag). If I close my eyes, I can almost see the flags flying in giddy array like a medieval rock and roll pageant, flares burning into the black sky, the moon hanging over that wondrous Pyramid stage …
Today, reality bit. Michael and Emily Eavis accepted that their Somerset farm would not be able to prepare for and host a mass gathering in such a time of uncertainty. Instead, there will be an enforced fallow year, the second in a row. The cows, at least, will be content. Does that count as a silver lining?
Tickets will be honoured next year, for a belated anniversary party, although, inevitably, the bill will be different, depending on touring commitments and artist availability. The music business, like so many sectors of the entertainment and service industries, is being decimated by this terrible virus and will not emerge unscathed.
Venues all over the country, indeed, all over the world, are nervous about whether they can survive long periods of closure. Many musicians – even relatively established ones – are barely scraping by as it is in a music economy that has already been radically transformed by the collapse in music sales and rise of online streaming. Performing live is the major source of income for most musicians and it is being wiped out at a stroke.
And then there are those who are part of the musical support industry, from road crew to bar staff, many of them temporary seasonal workers for whom Glastonbury and other festivals are a key earner in the year. It’s the case for many different industries, I know, but the ripples and reverberations of this cancellation will spread far and wide and continue for a long time to come, an aftershock of almost invisible destruction.
I fear that a year-long lay-off has the potential to change the music business completely, and I have no easy solutions to suggest. We can only hope that the powers-that-be recognise the significance of the British entertainment sector, and the importance of the many individuals operating almost below the radar to keep it thriving. It is not just about its role in the British economy. Creatively and spiritually, it represents the best of us, and it’s important to remember that it’s substantially maintained by people who reap the least financial reward.
I’m sorry if I sound gloomy. The loss of Glastonbury feels symbolic, a defeat (however temporary) for a great British institution, a tangible reminder of the challenge we are all facing. The festival will rise from the ashes, as it has done so many times before. The flags will fly again. For now, I’ll just have to leave my Wellington boots in the cupboard, and keep them clean and dry for next year.