Glastonbury and its vivid presence

Magda Mogilnicka and Jo Haynes

University of Bristol, UK

‘It is with great regret, we must announce that this year’s Glastonbury Festival will not take place, and that this will be another enforced fallow year for us. In spite of our efforts to move Heaven & Earth, it has become clear that we simply will not be able to make the Festival happen this year. We are so sorry to let you all down.’ (21 January 2021)


Will the summer of 2021 offer a beacon of hope for festivals? After a somewhat subdued Christmas and New Year with very little socialising with friends and family, summer was looked to as the time when the pandemic would be behind us. The assumption was that normalcy would return, social gatherings of any size would be feasible, friends and families reunited, and public spaces could again be filled with people, celebration, music and dance. It turns out, ‘summer’s lease hath all too short a date…’  For many, the above statement from Worthy Farm signalled that summer ‘21 may all be over before it has even begun.

This time last year, Glastonbury (along with other very large music and sporting events) were the first to cancel, because it requires many months of significant on-site construction of its infrastructure and securing that its complex supply-chains are in place. At the recent DCMS (Digital, Culture, Media & Sport) select committee on The Future of UK Music Festivals, Paul Reed from the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF) stated that smaller music festivals and events could leave their decisions until March. However, without a government-backed insurance scheme in place to support their business activity in the lead-up to this summer’s events, another cancellation would push many festivals further into precarious financial positions with the future of (some) music festivals looking rather bleak.

Despite the dark, foreboding clouds hanging over music festivals again this year, it is worth remembering what many festivals did in 2020 to recapture the festival community and to remake the festival space in alternative forms whether online or through other spaces and creative practices. Glastonbury was able to present a multimedia set of alternate events in 2020 in conjunction with the BBC, but can the same be repeated this year? Will the same technologies of nostalgia and collectivity work again in a second fallow festival year?  

A sheep grazing on a field with Glastonbury Tor in the distance by Chris Dorney

Watching Bowie perform on the Pyramid Stage in 2000 during GlastoAtHome 2020, and hearing him reminisce about playing there in 1971 created many intersecting layers of representations and memories of Glastonbury (and of Bowie who died in 2016). Those of us who weren’t there in 2000 or 1971 imagined how both performances were for him and the audience. Doing so enabled us to join a wider, yet largely unknown, community of festival goers, producers, workers and artists who for years have contributed to making one of the biggest music events in the world happen. It shows how virtual festivals create music’s ‘vivid presence’ (Schutz 1976) – that is, they enable a dispersed audience to share a fleeting portion of time, across a vast, networked space.

Glastonbury is a truly iconic festival, an integral part of the British summer, and indebted to the spirit, myth and reality of the original 1969 Woodstock festival, like most if not all, large scale music festivals, according to Bennett (2020:216). Its impressive 50-year-old history spans from the 1970 hippie and free festival movement – when a fledgling, unknown Bowie first appeared, through the 1990s when dance music was introduced, to the 21st century becoming one of the most famous commercial music festivals of all time, adding pop and hip hop to its musical fabric, and ensuring a plentiful supply of the eccentric, the grotesque, the strange and spectacular. With over 200,000 people on site each year, Glastonbury festival embodies the social and economic history of the changes observed in the festival industry. It is one of the most important cultural phenomena in British music history.

With large gatherings of people in fields cancelled last summer however, as an alternative the festival website offered links to numerous playlists, documentaries, activist talks, streaming dance classes, poetry, and access to its archives. The message on the website was clear, it asked people to stay away from Worthy Farm, suggesting that many might have been tempted to ‘camp out on the land’ and ‘get their soul free’ on the weekend it was due to take place. Instead, thousands of people celebrated the 50th anniversary of Glastonbury online. Social media was full of stories from previous years with hashtags (e.g. #GlastoAtHome) bringing pictures and memories from festivalgoers and artists together. Given the importance of the festival, people were invited to re-live or imagine the experiences of the past 50 years through a virtual network of the festival’s community, mediated and narrated by the BBC. The BBC provided access to past headliners with at least 10 million views on the BBC iPlayer alone.

But, for all of the multisensory experiences of art, theatre, dance, and humanity on offer at the event itself on Worthy Farm, music was the main item on the virtual menu for that weekend. It was music that united us with our friends, it was music that sutured different times, diverse memories, imaginations and spaces together. GlastoAtHome showed us what it means to experience music across time and beyond a physical festival space, as Smith (1979:16) argues music is ‘a continual becoming, in which the modalities of present, past and future are brought together not spatially only but as the emergence … of the musical phenomenon’. Music, therefore, according to David Hesmondhalgh, creates possibilities for ‘life-enhancing forms of collectivity, not only in co-present situations but across space and time’ in mediated ones (2013:85). The collective emotive experience of music at festivals creates and reinforces a sense of belonging to the festival community. Indeed, in our research, all festival organizers emphasized the importance of the community of people who produce and consume the festival. And this collectivity is not only constructed through music but also through the physical space, i.e. face to face encounters with like-minded people, sociabilities, sensory experiences and aesthetics of space. However, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted festival communities that had been maintained by these temporal proximities. The lack of physical connection meant that music, available in the virtual space, became the only sensory experience through which belonginess could be maintained.

For over twenty years Glastonbury’s community has stretched the temporal and spatial dimension of the festival’s site, with millions of viewers able to watch it live on BBC. But last summer the virtual dimension was the only one that connected people together. The community continued by the collective memory of the festival’s past that has temporarily transformed Glastonbury into a type of a nostalgia festival which expressed longing for the past. As Bennett and Woodward (2014:15) noted, ‘rather than merely celebrating a collective representation of the past, ‘nostalgiafestivals may also play an important role in helping festivalgoers to define their individual and collective identities in the present’. Nostalgia, in this sense, can be seen as a critical tool (Pickering and Keightley 2006:938), a productive means of creating security, that reinforces the sense of belonging in the times of uncertainty caused by the outbreak of COVID-19. The collective memories in the virtual space made Glastonbury 2020 real, alive, and thriving, while helping to imagine the festival’s future.

Although acknowledging the potential that music has for sociality and community, Hesmondhalgh also reminds us that music can ‘reinforce defensive and even aggressive forms of identity’ (2013:85). As much as we prefer to think of music festivals as enabling people to flourish collectively, they can also create division – we only need to remind ourselves of the Jay-Z ‘Wonderwall’ moment in 2008, where for some, rap had no place on the Pyramid stage, preferring instead a narrow, whitewashed version of headlining guitar acts. Many also remember the tensions surrounding Glastonbury’s changing status and identity in the 1990s – once a safe-haven for travellers and those supporting a free-festival ethos that became an ugly, stand-off with Michael Eavis, Worthy Farm, Pilton Village and the Avon and Somerset Constabulary. Given the increasing popularity, mediation and commercialisation of the festival, organisers were under pressure to secure, protect and refine the festival-going experience for a new generation of festival-goers wanting a shinier, slicker, celebrity encrusted version. And yet, in the virtual space of Glastonbury last year these tensions and divisions were absent as the festival celebrated its diversity showcasing a range of music genres and artists.

The unwelcome, but necessary, decision about the festival’s cancellation in March 2020 was transformed into a positive reimagining of the festival through a range of virtual platforms and spaces enabling a sense of belonging to the festival’s community amidst the loss and trauma of the global pandemic. Unlike smaller or new festivals, large, well-established festivals like Glastonbury did not have to worry about the possible threat to their integrity posed by its furlough last year, given they routinely have breaks so the pastures and land recover from the festival onslaught. However, last year there was hope that music festivals would come back in 2021 and the nostalgic reflection and participation in online festival spaces would be temporary. Will the Glastonbury festival survive another cancellation, or will it go bankrupt?

British music festivals are anxiously waiting the government’s decision about whether they can go ahead. With festivals contributing billions of pounds to the British economy each year, there is hope for the industry to survive, but only with the financial support from the government. Culturally, as the example of the virtual Glastonbury shows, there is a need for festival communities to continue. With significant negative effects of the prolonged pandemic on mental health, belonging to a community is now more important than ever. The emotional responses on social media to the loss of festivals last year demonstrate the resilience of the community. Last year’s Glastonbury’s ‘vivid presence’ constructed virtually through memories of music played an important role in giving hope for the community of artists, organizers and festival goers during the pandemic. But can the community survive another year without the festival? Will another virtual festival be enough to bring people together?

David Bowie is often heralded for his prescient views about the web.  In 1999 he said, at this point we had only witnessed ‘the tip of the iceberg’ in terms of its impact on society. Little did he know that in 2020 – and possibly again in 2021 – we would be shown how a vast network of people, times, music, memories and spaces that constitutes Glastonbury could be reimagined and remade through this medium.

References

Bennett, A. (2020) ‘Woodstock 2019: The Spirit of Woodstock in the Post-Risk Era’ Popular Music and Society 43 (2): 216-227.

Bennett, A., Woodward, I. (2014) ‘Festival Spaces, Identity, Experience and Belonging’ in A. Bennett, J. Taylor and I. Woodward (Ed.) The Festivalization of Culture. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate.

Hesmondhalgh, D. (2013) Why Music Matters Oxford: Wiley- Blackwell.

Pickering, M., Keightley, E. (2006) ‘The Modalities of Nostalgia’ Current Sociology 54 (6): 919–941.

Schutz, A (1976) Collected Papers II. Studies in Social Theory (ed. A Brodersen). The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Smith, F.J. (1979) The Experiencing of Musical Sound: A Prelude to a Phenomenology of Music London: Routledge.