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Speaking at IFF, the Glastonbury Festival founder reflected on the first Glasto, the arrival of the Stonehenge crowd, the Benn era – and the year he thought he'd go bust
By Jon Chapple on 28 Sep 2017
Glastonbury Festival founder Michael Eavis spoke on the history and ethos behind the event, his charity work, increasing capacity and the backlash to booking Jay-Z in an entertaining, anecdote-packed keynote interview at the International Festival Forum (IFF) this morning.
Interviewed by CAA agent Emma Banks, Eavis – who wore his trademark shorts and sandals and spent the entire hour on his feet – recounted Glastonbury’s remarkable story, starting at the very beginning. As a young man, he said, “I went to sea to see the world. Unfortunately, my father died when I was 19, so I had to come back and manage the farm.”
After an epiphany at 1970’s Bath Festival – “I fell in love,” he explained. “They had Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, all these west coast [US] bands” – Eavis decided to use the newly inherited Worthy Farm for a festival of his own. “[Bath] was my road to Damascus,” he said. “The next day I was on the phone to bands.”
After a deal with the Kinks fell through, Eavis booked Tyrannosaurus Rex, whose frontman, Marc Bolan, headlined the first Glastonbury – then called Worthy Farm Pop Festival – on his way to a Butlins holiday camp. Bolan was paid £500, while 500 festivalgoers paid £1 each to attend – and were given free milk by dairy farmer Eavis. “I couldn’t pay the band,” Eavis continued. “Marc did a marvellous set, with the sun going down; it was wonderful. I told him, ‘I can’t pay you, but I’ll give you £100 per month for five months.’ He got paid, but he wasn’t happy about it.”
After a free festival in 1971 and a smaller, ad-hoc event in 1979, Glastonbury became an annual fixture in the 1980s, with Eavis organising the festival in partnership with the left-wing Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).
Eavis said Glastonbury really came into own in 1985, when then-defence secretary Michael Heseltine – a vocal opponent of the CND – ordered Stonehenge off limits to the so-called New Age travellers, resulting in the ‘Battle of the Beanfield’ between travellers and Wiltshire police.
“If you’re well off enough to live like I do, that’s enough for me”
“We’d been going half-cocked until then, breaking even and not making any money,” explained Eavis. “[After Stonehenge was closed] we had 50,000 people came down to Glastonbury instead. All that Stonehenge stuff, the hippies, the creativity, they all came down my lovely farm. It was the middle of the [Margaret] Thatcher years, there was a lot of discontent, and people saw me as a decent bloke and came to work for me for free.”
Many of the class of ’85, he added, still work for Glastonbury Festival as part of its legion of programmers and crew.
Fast-forward to 2000, and the festival had been become “huge”, said Eavis –”We were getting more and more popular, for some reason; people came to us like lemmings from Europe, we had planes full of people from Japan…” – who was by then having trouble obtaining a licence for the event.
“That was the year all those people died as Roskilde [nine people were killed in a fatal crush during a Pearl Jam show], and the police came to me and said, ‘You’re not running it properly.’ So I had to go Melvin [Benn] and Vince Power at Mean Fiddler.”
This satisfied the police, said Eavis, that “we knew what we were doing, because he [Benn] knew what he was doing!” – although Eavis added that he taught the now-Festival Republic chief “everything he knows”. (Benn parted company with Glastonbury in 2012.)
Eavis attributes the staying power of Glastonbury to the team he has assembled; in addition to his own family, there are some 100,000 staff on site (joining the 150,000 ticketholders), working in capacities ranging from crew and production staff to the programmers, each of whom have a large degree of autonomy to run their own areas (Shangri-La, Arcadia, the Green Fields, etc.) as they see fit.
“We ended up selling our last ticket on the Thursday night before the festival”
“I’ve got all this trust in all these people, and that’s really what makes the show so successful, I think,” he commented.
One of Glastonbury’s most successful recent exports is Arcadia – it of giant metal spider fame. Recalling the project’s genesis, Eavis said: “They came to me and said they needed £20,000 to buy some cranes for sale from Southampton docks because they were going to build a spider. I gave them the £20k – I didn’t even know these two boys – but it’s been a huge success, and they’re currently in Korea with it.”
“People are full of ideas,” he continued, “and what’s more, they can put them together and make them work. It’s not hippie nonsense.”
Turning to booking, Banks asked about 2008, when Eavis was persuaded by his daughter, Emily, to book Jay-Z – a decision criticised by many at the time, not least Noel Gallagher, as supposedly being against the festival’s ethos.
“That year, we were in real trouble,” Eavis remembered. “We weren’t selling. I thought we might have to cancel, as we didn’t have a headliner, but Emily said, ‘Jay-Z will do it’. I said, ‘Who’s he?’
“I spoke to his agent in LA, and he said, ‘I don’t think it’s our kind of music, Michael. [Glastonbury is] a bunch of hippies living in the Welsh mountains.’ I said, ‘We’re miles from Wales! And we come from all over, mainly from cities: Newcastle, Birmingham, London…’
“It costs about £30m to build the show, with about £2m left over – and we give away £2m to various charities”
“Eventually I talked to him into it. I said, ‘It’s the best thing you’ll ever do.’ So he said, ‘OK – we’ll do your show.’
“Then it was announced. Noel said it was rubbish, and the hoo-ha went on for months. We needed to sell another 50,000 to break even – we’d only sold 80,000 tickets by that point – and I was frantic. I thought we were going to go bust.
“We ended up selling our last ticket on the Thursday night before the festival. It was huge in the end… and it made Jay-Z, didn’t it?”
Eavis said he didn’t see any contradiction between Glastonbury’s largely (until that point) focus on rock/pop and the booking of a major hip-hop star. “It’s what Glastonbury does,” he explained. “It’s bold, it was different… and that’s what Glastonbury’s all about. Doing something different.”
He added that Jay-Z’s performance opened the floodgates to a new generation of US stars who want to play the festival. “Beyoncé couldn’t wait to do it, all her friends wanted to do it. Then we had Kanye [West], which was a great show – although I have to admit, I was watching the Moody Blues at the time…”
Looking to the future, Eavis revealed the festival is “looking at increasing the numbers by about 30,000”, pushing Glastonbury’s capacity up to 280,000 (for fans and staff combined). “We started with 100 acres; we’re now up to 1,500 acres,” he explained.
“I’ve got all this trust in these people, and that’s really what makes the show so successful, I think:
“We’re looking at increasing that, but I don’t think we need to really. I’m not desperate to increase it. There’s value in it being smaller and harder to get to – it makes it a bit more exclusive…”
While an extra 30,000 tickets – each guaranteed to sell – would be a dream come true for most festival promoters, Eavis, as Banks noted, gives the vast majority of its profits away to charity. “It costs about £30m to build the show, with about £2m left over,” said Eavis, “and we give away £2m to various charities.
“If you’re well off enough to live like I do, with a wonderful farm, a wonderful family, that’s enough for me.”
Glastonbury will in 2018 take its regular year off, or ‘fallow year’, to give the land a chance to recover, and Eavis said he will spend the year largely focusing on a new social housing development in Pilton, where he is funding 50 homes for “working-class people” in Glastonbury Festival’s home village. “They’ll always be available for rent,” he said. “They’ll never be sold.”
Agreeing with Banks it probably has roots in his Methodist faith, Eavis said his priorities have always been “on all that John Wesley stuff: to do all you can for society and give it away.
“If I can make my show work, and people have faith in me, that’s money in the bank… that’s worth a lot.”
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