Glastonbury Festival and The Variety Bazaar-is this the end of the line?

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Glastonbury 2015 (Photo credit: Jessie Colman)

Glastonbury 2015 (Photo credit: Jessie Colman)

As Glastonbury announces it will be running a new event away from the traditional site in Somerset Getintothis’ Rick Leach ponders the implications.

So it’s true. The long running rumour that the Glastonbury Festival would be moving away from the site at Worthy Farm to a new location has been confirmed by Michael and Emily Eavis.

Michael Eavis has been hinting darkly (and not so darkly) at this prospect for a number of years. ‘Maybe it’s got too big,’ he’ll muse to whatever journo happens to be hanging around with a mic and a few column inches to fill.

‘Maybe I won’t carry on with it. It’s a nightmare to organise. I’m a farmer after all and that’s my main concern. Cows. All good things come to an end. Or maybe we’ll have to do it somewhere else.’

I must stress that I’m not quoting him verbatim here; it’s more of a mish- mash of things that he’s said continually over the past decade. He’s tended to come out with these things after the festival each year; perfectly understandable.

Usually after the week of madness that can be the festival, he’s probably had enough. He just wants to get back to his cows. Like a grumpy parent who’s smiled nicely through gritted teeth at his 3 year old’s birthday party, he can’t keep it going any longer. ‘Never again,’ he’ll curse, ‘That’s really it.’ But twelve months down the line he’s back once more, going through it all just one more time.

He’s said all this so many times, it’s become a bit of the boy cries wolf. No one’s really believed it. Especially when Emily Eavis invariably refutes it days later every time, confirming the Glastonbury Festival will carry on and there are no plans to stop.

However, this rumour about it moving away gained more traction last year when it was revealed that Glastonbury were in talks with another site for a purported move. Leak after leak followed until it was pretty well known the site being considered was Longleat (home of the safari park, lions and the quite frankly bonkers Marquis of Bath.)

Now Longleat isn’t all that far away from Glastonbury – a mere fifteen miles – and there might have been a certain logic in moving slightly down the road, even if was only for the odd year as Michael Eavis mentioned.

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All these plans came to naught however when the Longleat chaps visited the festival in 2016, saw all the mud and carnage and threw up their manicured hands in horror. The deal was scuppered.

That seemed to be that.

That is until the middle of January 2017 when Michael Eavis once again raised the prospect of the festival moving during an interview with Glastonbury FM and this time he gave specific details. An unknown site had been earmarked halfway between Glastonbury and the Midlands, and it would happen every five years. He even told us the name for the new festival; The Variety Bazaar. It wouldn’t go by the name of Glastonbury and the festival at Glastonbury would still carry on as before.

This did appear to be not mere wishful thinking but something fleshed out and worked on and indeed was confirmed by Emily Eavis the next day in a tweet.

Some questions remained unanswered however. Would the new festival replace the fallow year that happens every four years or would Glastonbury itself have in effect two years off? Where exactly was it going to happen? Was it going to be as big or something a touch more bespoke? And where the fuck did they come up with that awful Variety Bazaar name?

A lot of this was clarified when Michael and Emily Eavis did a Q & A with The Guardian a few days later. They hadn’t really decided yet whether there would be two years off or not. However, 2018 would remain a fallow year with no festival anywhere, 2019 it would still take place at Glastonbury and because 2020 would be the 50th anniversary of the festival, it would be at Glastonbury then as well. The earliest The Variety Bazaar would take place would be in 2021, but ‘nothing was set in stone.’

They weren’t giving anything more away about the location but did mention that the festival would be different and more like a ‘sister festival’. It was be just as big; there’d be nothing boutique about it and it would happen at the same time of the year.

As for the name, well, it was one of Michael Eavis’ bright ideas to call it after a shop in Shepton Mallet that had the same name years ago which sold a wide variety (get it?) of stuff from cream cakes to arts and crafts and he liked it. Simple as that.

Maybe it’s a measure of the fickle nature of the public (this writer included), but what seemed to upset people more wasn’t the fact the festival might move in part or in whole, but the frankly terrible name. Adverse comments were thrown around social media like thousands of discarded cans at a festival in mainly crap attempts to be funny and/or smart. It doesn’t really matter if it sounds naff; the Eavis’ can call the spin-off festival whatever they like. After nearly half a century we think they’ve earned the right to do that.

Glastonbury 2016

Glastonbury 2016

What is significant is what this all means.

Now, it should be recognised beyond any doubt at all that a whole lot of people, a whole bunch of music fans, just aren’t arsed about Glastonbury at all. Not in the slightest. For them, Glastonbury is either irrelevant and has never been of any importance, or that it was once but now those days have gone.  For them there are better festivals, with better and more exciting line-ups and Glastonbury was only good in the ‘good old days’ before the fence and when there was a ‘bit of an edge about it all.’ and it’s all ‘too safe nowadays.’ They may not even like the whole idea of festivals.

To be honest, you hear pretty much the same things from people who go to Glastonbury year-in and year-out and wear their veteran Glastonbury going credentials as a sort of badge of pride. It really is a load of old bollocks. It’s the same old look-back-bore mentality that applies to everything and anything and not just music festivals; everything was somehow better in those far off halcyon days, but you weren’t there so you don’t understand. It’s the cultural equivalent of warm beer and cricket on the village green; the conservatism that made Britain what it is today. Ho hum.

Now some people might like entering the dark side, being a part of something that feels risky and edgy and vaguely threatening. It’s one thing about listening to music that ticks those boxes; I get that and I like say, Swans as much as the next person (even though the ‘challenging preconceptions with music’ thing is a tired old cliché in itself), but to be in an environment that’s threatening? Living life on the edge?

If I want to get into an edgy and threatening environment I’ll wander around Salford on a Saturday night wearing a Liverpool shirt while singing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. Or go to T In The Park.

I like that fact that Glastonbury is by and large, a safe place. It’s somewhere you can take your kids and grandkids and generally everybody is pretty ok. What’s wrong with that?

And then there’s the music. Glastonbury is accused every year of ‘playing it safe’ (that word again) with the line up. Last year the brickbats were thrown at Adele and Coldplay. The most boring headliners ever. And Muse.

Yes, it’s fairly obvious that these three headliners aren’t cutting edge and it’s been a while (if ever) that there’s been someone to threaten the status quo as headliners on the Pyramid Stage. But so what?

Does it really matter that much when there’s a plethora of other and definitely more challenging artists to be seen? Last year’s highlights for this writer included Floating Points, Sigur Ros and Kamasi Washington; a suitably diverse and unsafe selection for most.

So for where Glastonbury is at the moment; well, you could say it’s in pretty rude health despite all the naysayers. While other festivals are struggling and shutting up shop, they seem to go on from strength to strength, selling tickets out in hours, if not minutes of them going on sale every year and leaving all other competitors somewhat in the shade. The whole thing is incredibly popular. And before we forget and revert to sneering about the monolithic size of Glastonbury as an enterprise, then we should remember that it’s not a commercial venture, like many other festivals. Yes, it generates a whole amount of money, but it costs bucket loads to put on and all profit goes to charities.

There must be something about it to keep the Eavis’ doing it for nearly half a century. It can’t be for the money. Maybe it’s simply because they like doing it, they like supporting charities and they enjoy bringing a bit of joy to hundreds and thousands of people.

The big question is where to now? Where is the future of Glastonbury?  Will it carry on? Should it carry on? Is it somewhere near the Midlands and if so, would it still be ‘Glastonbury’, despite whatever name it’s called? And is there a future for music festivals generally? Could Glastonbury be one of the last of a dying breed?

It would be hard to see Glastonbury as a festival in Somerset finishing but it wouldn’t be entirely beyond the realms of possibilities.

Michael Eavis has now said that he has to rent land from 22 different landowners to stage the festival as the site has become so large. This must be a legal and logistical nightmare in itself. There’s also the endless rounds of negotiations with the local authorities, police and local residents to deal with. This would be enough to wear anyone out but when you’re over 80 years old, it might get a bit much, irrespective of all the support you get.

In that Q & A for the Guardian, both Emily and Michael Eavis said that Glastonbury as a festival would carry on regardless of  what would happen with The Variety Bazaar. Now that might be their intention for now and they seem to have their minds firmly set.

However, as we know, very unexpected things can happen that come right out of the blue. As an example, three tiny words; President Donald Trump. Who’d have thunk it?

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Imagine if just one of the things that stop Glastonbury falling to pieces every year actually happened.

It’s such a mammoth exercise and so finely balanced that it wouldn’t take much for it to topple over. Really bad weather, such as mass flooding, a major crime, an accident or a break out of major food poisoning (you can sense a disaster movie in the works here) or something truly horrific like Muse headlining for three consecutive nights.

That’s all it would take. Something could happen where the plug would have to be pulled and the Eavis’ might not be able to keep it going.

You always have the feeling that like chaos theory, one idly dropped ice cream at one end of the site could-like the flap of the wings of a butterfly on one side of the world causing a tidal wave on the other-is all that would be needed.

Furthermore, there’s always a sense that once the 50th anniversary has passed then it might be time anyway to call it a day. There would be a lot of upset but there’d also be a certain neatness to it; going out at the top so to speak. As Michael Eavis has said himself in the past, maybe it can’t go on forever. Maybe it shouldn’t.

Maybe it wouldn’t anyway.

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With festivals folding and struggling year after year with even the ones that carry on desperately trying to persuade us as punters that their line-ups are better than ever (when we know they’re really not), then maybe, just maybe, The Age of the Festivals is, like the dinosaurs, coming to a natural end.

Maybe they’ve become too big and unwieldy, out-footed by smarter and faster competitors. Maybe that many people don’t want to spend three or four days in the pissing down rain in a field watching the last next big things flog their comeback album over and over again.

There’s always the possibility that there’s too little money to be made out of festivals. Maybe it’s much easier-and more financially lucrative- to promote one massive gig by one band in a soulless arena in a city centre than to organise four days of mayhem out in the sticks.

Or if you’re being very cynical, maybe it’s easier to stick on a collection of bands anywhere over a couple of days and call it a festival. It’s a question of perception. You say tomato, I say…

So if festivals are about to shuffle off- and granted, that is a big if-why the Variety Bazaar?

Why launch something that might well be with a name so dreadful that even Jools Holland’s Hootenanny would reject it for sounding shite?

Why risk starting something that might be destined to fail anyway just through a process of natural evolution?

Why risk messing around with a tried and tested formula?

After all, Glastonbury at Worthy Farm does work so well and is so popular, then why potentially overstretch things as well as alienating your massed ranks of devoted followers?

It seems completely fraught with dangers. It can’t possibly work can it?

Visions of naff faux Edwardian circuses set somewhere on the outskirts of Milton Keynes do not exactly inspire confidence.

With a name like Variety Bazaar you can see whole bunches of fire eaters, jugglers and street performing artists already polishing their acts in excited anticipation.

Any band that’s on their uppers now and can see the good times receding quickly know that all they’ve got to do is to hang on in there until 2021 when Emily Eavis will appear over the horizon like the cavalry in an old Western and come to their rescue.

Fans will spurn this new venture and stay away in droves.

It’ll never fly.

And yet, however much the odds may be stacked against them, I have a very sneaky feeling that Michael and Emily Eavis will pull this one off.

They do know what they’re doing; the idealistic days of hippydom are way behind them and by setting a date of four years hence, then they’ve bought themselves a lot of time to get it right. They’ve probably said all they need to say for now; rumours have been either squashed or clarified and everyone can forget about it for a good while. In the background they’ll plan and plan and get it just right.

It’ll be better than anyone will expect.

Despite of the name, it’ll be perfect.

Roll on up for the Variety Bazaar!

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