Michael Eavis: Memoirs of a Dairy Farmer
May 2010 Issue 129
In the run-up to Glastonbury festival’s 40th anniversary in June, Rachel Esson speaks to founder Michael Eavis about the first ever festival, the risks he took to save it from bankruptcy and how it has grown to become the largest green field music and performing arts festival in the world...
I had anticipated that Michael Eavis would be slightly nostalgic ahead of the 40th anniversary of Glastonbury Festival this June, given that he founded it all those years ago. After all, it’s quite some achievement to have grown an event from a free event attended by 1,500 people in 1970, to become the largest green field music and performing arts festival in the world today, visited by 147,000 people each paying £185 for a ticket.
But Eavis insists that they’re “always racing on and looking ahead”. This is no more apparent than by the project he is in the midst of when
I call him for our interview seven weeks before the Festival. “We’re just in the middle of building a two mile water main and a reservoir to hold a million gallons, which is being pumped from the Mendip Hills. It’s to avoid the use of a water tank so it’s a carbon footprint job really,” he explains.
At a cost of £350,000, this is a sizeable investment that speaks volumes about their confidence in the longevity of Glastonbury Festival. “It will definitely outlive me,” laughs Eavis, who will turn 75 this year.
To celebrate 40 years in operation, the Glastonbury team have put together what Eavis believes to be “the most staggering line-up ever”. Headlined by U2, Muse and StevIe Wonder on the Pyramid Stage, other acts on the bill include LCD Sound System, Snoop Dogg, Dizzee Rascal, Scissor Sisters, Faithless, Vampire Weekend, Florence and the Machine, and Willie Nelson.
He says: “I’ve been trying to get U2 since ’82 so it’s taken them a long time to play! Muse have played before and were fantastic last time, we’ve been trying to get them back for a few years. But it was the first time we put in a request for Stevie Wonder and I think Jay-Z probably had something to do with that.”
THE JAY-Z CONTROVERSY
Jay-Z’s own headline slot at Glastonbury 2008 sparked probably the biggest ever line-up related controversy, a decision criticised in the run-up to the event by diehard fans and publicly ridiculed by Oasis’ Noel Gallagher, who felt that a hip-hop artist wasn’t right for the traditionally rock orientated festival, especially as the main headline act on the Saturday night.
Despite slow ticket sales that year and the surrounding media storm, Eavis and his team — namely daughter Emily Eavis and her husband Nick Dewey, who books the bands — stuck by their decision.
Jay-Z’s performance, which kicked off with a mock version of Oasis’ ‘Wonderwall’, received overwhelming critical acclaim. Eavis claims they always knew it was a good idea: “It was Emily’s idea and was so brilliant. I had a three-way conversation with his agent and manager which went on for about an hour and we decided to give it a go. It was a huge success story, good for him and good for us. He is headlining everything now, he did Coachella this year, but we were there first.
“I did try and get Noel to play the year after, but his agent had better ideas, but where are they now? Where’s Oasis now? They should have taken up the offer,” he says.
Glastonbury has always relied on its status to attract bands to perform, rather than financial incentive. Aside from paying seven farmers rent for their land and Eavis’ salary of £65,000 (reportedly less than he pays the cowman and his wife to run the farm), Glastonbury’s profits all go to charity; last year it donated £2 million.
“If we paid commercial rates for the bands we couldn’t succeed.” says Eavis. “And we couldn’t maintain our charity donation. I would say we pay them well, but it’s not as much as Reading or Leeds, nothing like. Bands want to play here thank God, it’s important for them to play here, they don’t do it for the money.”
This is the ethos that has underpinned the Festival since it was borne out of the free festival movement of the 1970s. It was at the start of this decade that large scale festivals emerged in Britain, most notably with the legendary Phun City featuring The Pretty Things, J.J. Jackson, Pink Fairies, Cochise and Mighty Baby.
But it was the Bath Festival Of Blues & Progressive Music — and particularly Led Zeppelin’s performance there — that inspired Methodist farmer Eavis to put on a small festival on his land at Worthy Farm in Pilton, Somerset.
The Pilton Pop, Blues & Folk Festival, as it was first named, took place the day after Jimi Hendrix died on September 19 1970. Attracting 1,500 people paying £1 a ticket (which included free milk from the farm), the Festival was headlined by Marc Bolan, Keith Christmas, Stackridge, Al Stewart and Quintessence.
It was this first-ever Festival that has given Eavis his most lasting memory. “My favourite set was Marc Bolan’s from T.Rex. It was the first Festival and I was a bit scared, but it was a lovely September evening and the sun was going down behind the stage. It was a proper farmer set-up on the back of a wagon, the stage was tied up with string and the atmosphere was very folksy.
“Quite a lot of locals turned up for that and probably 500 Londoners. It was these influential Londoners within the music stratosphere that turned up for T-Rex and came back to spearhead the second year,” he remembers.
The second Festival was re-named Glastonbury Fayre and moved to its current date to coincide with the Summer Solstice towards the end of June. Organisers Andrew Kerr and Arabella Churchill were keen to make it different from all the other over-commercialised festivals around so offered free admission to the 12,000 people that turned up to see Hawkwind, Traffic, Melanie, David Bowie, Joan Baez, Fairport Convention and Quintessence.
It was this year that Bill Harkin and his crew built the first incarnation of the Pyramid Stage out of scaffolding and expanded metal covered with plastic sheeting, situated on top of the Glastonbury Abbey-Stonehenge ley line.
Many people believe the Pyramid Stage has spiritual power as a result, drawing energy from nature. But Eavis, ever the farmer in his blood, is quick to dismiss stories of magical happenings: “The only thing that was special about it for me was that when it was a galvanised roof before it burnt down [in 1994], it was a phenomenal place to dry hay because the heat from the sun warmed up the tin sheets,” he says.
“We went back to a more traditional shape in ’79 but it didn’t really work because water came off the roof on to the middle of the stage, which wasn’t safe. People thought we should move on, but I insisted we went back to the pyramid shape in ’81. I thought the pyramid was a lovely shape and logo.”
(The current structure, built by local villager Bill Burroughs, was inspired by the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt, measures 40m x 40m and contains 4km of steel tubing weighing over 40 tonnes.)
After the second Festival, there would not be another one until 1978, when an impromptu event was cobbled together as a refuge for the travellers who were booted out of The Stonehenge Free Festival by the army and government minister Michael Heseltine acting under Thatcher.
“Half of the 500 people paid and half didn’t, so it was a Robin Hood situation where the rich paid for the poor. We ran it like that for 10 years, but it turned nasty as the drug dealers got a bit aggressive and it finished up with Molotov cocktails which wasn’t very pleasant!” laughs Eavis.
“People were stoned off their heads at those free events and it wasn’t a sustainable culture, which is why it all fizzled out. So that was the end of that. We put the fence up and got the police involved so we were more secure.”
It was in 1979 that Eavis was faced with a life-changing decision: take on the financial responsibility of the Festival to save it from bankruptcy, or let it cease to be. Bill Harkin and Arabella Churchill turned to Eavis for his support.
“They had run out of money and were going to cancel it, but we had been working on it for months and we had all the bands signed up, including Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins, so I couldn’t let them down just like that,” he says.
“I hopped in the car to see the bank manager in Wells. I needed £15,000 which wasn’t a fortune, but it was a fortune to me. They said I could have it provided I signed all the cheques myself and gave them the deeds to the farm as security, so it was a bit risky.
“I thought I’d be really worried, but to my amazement I didn’t lose a night’s sleep, so i must have been cut out for the job! I realised I had the strength to cope with the stress, but I didn’t drink or take drugs so that probably helped.”
It was at this event that Arabella Churchill created the concept for the Children’s World charity, which today works with special schools throughout Somerset and Avon. Despite 12,000 visitors paying £5 a ticket, again the Festival suffered huge financial loss.
In ’81, when the name changed to Glastonbury Festival, Eavis — who once stood as Labour candidate for Wells in the 1997 General Election — wanted the Festival to help the peace movement by raising money for National CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament).
After persuading them that the event could become profitable, he managed to keep his promise and handed over around £20,000 at the end of the three days.
The Festival continued to grow in terms of size, attendees, ticket price, stages and charitable donations, with Greenpeace, Oxfam and Water Aid becoming benefactors. In 1990, the event gained its current title, Glastonbury Festival for Contemporary Performing Arts, to reflect the diversity of its music, theatre, comedy and cultural events.
In 2002, Festival Republic took over the operational management of Glastonbury Festival, with MD Melvin Benn becoming licence holder and operational manager. Eavis explains: “I did a deal with Michael Rapino [CEO of Live Nation, which majority owns Festival Republic] for Melvin to work with us.
“He’s very good at licensing and has so much experience with handling the council and the police, there’s nobody better than him. Our production manager, Dick Tee, who I got to know when he did Reading years ago, is also great.”
Eavis’ core team of around 30 people also includes Dick Vernon who manages the traders and Robert Richards who handles sponsorship and the ticket selling operation, with Martin Elbourne.
The last decade has largely been dedicated to upping the Festival’s green credentials and improving the site’s infrastructure to cope with the huge attendance. Despite its growth and the inevitable rise in cost of production, Eavis says they have largely resisted going down the sponsorship route.
“We don’t do much sponsorship. The programme, firewood and transport from the station is free and we’re the only ones that do all that, so it is possible for a festival to be successful without being overtly commercial. I think we do the best job that we possibly can; we haven’t got shareholders, we give £2m a year to charity and we reinvest the rest, so there’s no money taken from it really.”
FIGHTING THE TOUTS
In 2007, a new ticketing system that incorporates the photo of the purchaser on the ticket was brought into effect to put an end to touting once and for all.
Says Eavis: “The person who buys the ticket is the person who comes to the event. That’s part of the reason why we’ve got such a marvellous crowd here. The bands say there’s nothing like the Glastonbury crowd; they’re so receptive, excited and appreciative, partly because they haven’t been conned twice getting a ticket.”
Eavis insists that they won’t be increasing the capacity any further, but instead will be growing its “quality and ethics” in the future. “It won’t go on forever,” he muses. “Will it get out of fashion or will people get fed up with it? I don’t think so. As long as we still get headliners and as long as they want to come here to our wonderful farm then it will go on.”
As it stands today, Glastonbury features around 1,000 acts over the five days, nine main music stages and dozens of smaller venues with music, comedy, cabaret, theatre and circus. More in common with previous years than the last two, the Festival sold out in under 24 hours for 2010.
Although Eavis has said he feels cut out for the job, organising an event of this scale 10 years past retirementage is quite remarkable. “I lose more sleep now than I did back then!” he says.
“But no way am I going to retire. Being here now after 40 years, being able to sell the show out very quickly and still being at the crest of a wave are my greatest achievements.”