Is Glastonbury Festival losing its magic? | Pushing the Wave

Is Glastonbury Festival losing its magic?

Reflections, 30 June 2024
by L.A. Davenport
Snoop Dogg Performing at Glastonbury 2010
Snoop Dogg performing at Glastonbury Festival in 2010.
I shouldn’t really be writing this column. Not this week, anyway. By rights, I should be in a dusty field in Somerset, soaking up the last evening of one of the greatest annual celebrations of music and arts.

But I am not at Glastonbury Festival, and not for want of trying. I and my gaggle of friends who like to make the trip down to the lost valleys of south east England every year tried for tickets late last year. As hard as you can try, that is, when the only option is to sit and wait by a screen while I website tells you that you are in a queue (if it tells you anything at all).

It’s dispiriting, as a means of selling entry to a festival. And hardly seems equitable. One could argue that it’s a kind of lottery whether your browser manages to get through the tangled mess of internet at the doors of the See Tickets website. But I honestly don’t know how the organisers can be pleased with the somewhat haphazard and farcical way in which they dispose of 200,000 places in just over an hour.

No rush, no pressure

How different it all was for my first visit to Glastonbury, in 2010 (I should have gone sooner, but my life didn’t seem to lead that way before that fateful year). In those days, the festival didn’t sell out until just before the doors opened in June, and I managed to pick up some tickets in the spring resale, when those who have reserved tickets in late autumn the year before give them up before they have to pay the whole price.

There was no rush, no pressure, and people could decide over the course of the year whether they wanted to go. I went that particular year for the first time because Blur had headlined in 2009, and I decided that, having now also missed Radiohead, The Verve, Pulp, Oasis, The Prodigy and, worst of all, David Bowie, I could wait no longer.

It is hard to imagine now, but Glastonbury Festival wasn’t as well known then, even though the headliners were often discussed in the newspapers (the most notorious being Jay-Z in 2008). Indeed, I often found myself having to explain what it was and why I came quickly to consider it a key part of my summer schedule.

Once at the festival and with your tent pitched, the atmosphere was laidback, easy. Stages never overfilled, and while it wasn’t possible to see everything on your list due to schedule clashes, there always seemed to be time. Plenty of time, in fact, to relax, to wind down, to take it all in, and to have a bit of a holiday.

The evening entertainment was there, if you wanted it. A trip to Shangri La in those days was a journey of discovery and adventure, with a thousand delights, large and small, that did something more than entertain. It was inventive, though-provoking, challenging, even, and I spent many an hour hopping from tiny bar to micro club, to minuscule art space and back again, taking in the habitués of this rarified space and wondering if I could ever express myself as boldly and delightfully as them.

A fallow period

I went to Glastonbury four years in a row, taking me through to 2014, with the fallow year in 2012. And then I didn’t go. Initially, it was because I couldn’t get tickets in 2015, and I told myself that perhaps I didn’t need to go for a while, perhaps ever again.

Watching highlights on TV was enough to dispel that nonsense, but the following year I had some work clashes and chose filthy lucre over high-jinks. I told myself that, come what may, I would be able to go again.

But I didn’t go again. And then soon enough, no one was going to Glastonbury, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It wasn’t until 2022 that I once again found myself camping in the gentle rolling hills of southern England, and revelling in the opportunity to immerse myself in four days of music, art, culture and whatever else it was that the fine minds behind the finest of festivals could devise.

Something changed

Yet something had changed. The fields and stages looked the same, so much so that I could navigate my way around practically with my eyes closed. It all sounded the same, with the usual heady mix of acts from across the creative universe. But it didn’t feel the same. Gone was the easygoing mellowness of old; replaced with a wearying sense of slog and a tiresome urgency around everything.

It was quickly apparent that it was no longer possible to turn up to a field or a tent just before an artist took to the stage and be guaranteed to experience them at any kind of proximity. Every walk to everything was accompanied by a vast army of people all trudging in the same direction, and it was almost impossible to find a relatively quiet spot to sit down and simply relax.

And the worse was to come at night, when I discovered to my eternal disappointment the Shangri La I knew had disappeared. Instead of a cornucopia of nocturnal delights were vast walkways leading in one direction past enormous entertainment spaces, with crowd control measures in between. No tiny art spaces, no minuscule clubs, no micro bars.

Too many people

Of course, that was it: the problem with Glastonbury nowadays is that it has become a victim of its own success. It is such a gigantic cultural behemoth that everyone wants to go there, not necessarily because they want to but because they think they ought to, otherwise they are missing out.

And that FOMO is driving people to want to be everywhere all at once. Throw in the steady increase in the number of ticket holders over recent years, and hiking of the entry fee to eye-watering levels, and the tension and sense of expectation has been ratcheted up fever pitch.

Don’t get me wrong, I still want to go. Indeed, I went last year, when I once again had a wonderful, joyous, raucous time. That is, when I wasn’t queuing, or trudging, or arriving slightly too close to the start time of a set and finding myself pushed so far away from the action that I gave up and went somewhere else.

Glastonbury is probably still the best music and arts festival in the world, and in many ways it has hardly changed in the fourteen years since I first went. But it is losing its sheen and little of its magic, and it comes down to the same problem that bedevils many a tourist destination: too many people.

Or maybe the problem is not so much with the festival, but rather much closer to home. Now I have written all of that, I wonder if it is simply a case of sour grapes.
© L.A. Davenport 2017-2024.

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Is Glastonbury Festival losing its magic? | Pushing the Wave