When you think of iconic British music festivals, Glastonbury is the one that springs to mind. Some may argue that Reading is a worthy competitor because of its history. Bestival is now one of the trendiest. But, there is something about Glastonbury music festival that resonates with music fans of all tastes and ages. If we can’t attend, then we spend hours watching the footage. Glastonbury is also one of the most well-known outside of the UK because of its reputation. This helps to attract big names from the US to fill the different stages.
In fact, there is a long-running debate over which festival deserves the title of best in the world. Is it Glastonbury or is it Coachella? Coachella draws thousands of people with its VIP experiences, great scenery and major names. But, many argue that it doesn’t have the same level of magic and wonder as Glasto. Therefore, some would go as far as saying that Glastonbury is the perfect festival. Is this true or do we see the event through rose-tinted spectacles?
What makes a festival perfect?
To judge this notion of perfection, we need to look at the full experience of Glastonbury music festival. Obviously, the music is a crucial part of creating the perfect experience. Fans need plenty of choice in artists and venues across the weekend. The festival site also needs to be engaging and interesting where attendees believe this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The perfect festival should also have enough facilities to keep everyone happy and secure for five days straight. Finally, it should offer value for money. Below we will discuss these points in more details. At the end, we can re-evaluate this idea that Glastonbury is the perfect festival.
The best place to start when discussing the merits of Glastonbury is with the music.
There will always be debates over the quality of the musical acts each year and the best stages. But, there is usually something for everyone at this festival. Some British music festivals tend to focus on one or two genres. Download, for example, knows its audience and stays fairly niche. Glastonbury will throw together pop, rock, indie, EDM, folk and everything in between. Where else can you go and see Kylie Minogue, The Killers, The Cure and…David Attenborough? If you search the line-ups of the smaller stages, you can find old favourites, new stars and plenty out of the ordinary.
Major headliners on the Pyramid Stage.
Most of the hype and media attention with Glasto surrounds the headline acts on the Pyramid stage. It is a big honour to be asked to play this stage and band repay organisers with big stage-shows and high-energy performances. The three headliners each year are often pretty diverse. There have been major pop stars like Ed Sheeran and Beyonce, classic rockers like The Rolling Stones and spectacles from repeat performers like Muse and Coldplay. 2019 saw a big step forward with the first grime star to headline: Stormzy.
Unusual acts on smaller stages.
There are lots of different stages across the festival site at Glastonbury. You could camp out by the front of the Pyramid stage all day for the best spot or you could explore. The Acoustic and Avalon Stages are great places to chill out when it gets too overwhelming elsewhere. The Leftfield stage gets a little more political with debates in the afternoon. The BBC Introducing Stage offers chances for fresh new talent.
The hot new talent on the John Peel stage.
If you are too young to know who John Peel was, he was a Radio 1 DJ that provided the soundtrack to many people’s youths. He introduced the world to some incredible talent and also presented Glasto coverage for a while. Following his death, Glastonbury organisers named a stage after him. This stage is now the perfect place to discover some of the best new bands around. Hundreds of fans cram into the tent to see performances that can define careers. In years to come, they will say “I was at Glasto when…”.
The legends slot
One of the traditions of Glastonbury music festival is the legend slot that typically takes place on the Sunday afternoon. Older stars that evoke a state of nostalgia play their hits as the sun sets. Large crowds turn up, whether fans or not, for a big karaoke session. It started with Tony Bennett in 1998 and has delighted festival-goers ever since. Dolly Parton would set the bar in 2014 by embracing the significance of the moment and added prestige to the slot. It is now one of the most anticipated announcements because it really could be anyone.
The secret sets.
Then there are all the surprise sets and reunions that take place over the weekend. Some are a bigger surprise than others these days thanks to social media spoilers and rumours. The Park stage often has a gap for an additional unannounced artist. In 2008, The Last Shadow Puppets appeared with a surprise of their own in the form of Jack White. Elsewhere, Lady Gaga played a secret set in Shangri-La. These small venues mean intimate encounters for those lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.
The experience of Glastonbury is about more than the music.
If there are afternoons with little to see on the musical stages you can explore the site. There are lots of strange areas with different themes and vibes. You never quite know what is around the next corner. Shangri-La is a place to visit at least once for the sensory experience. There is even a Kids Field. As long as attendees have a map and a clear idea of their schedule for the day, they can wander the fields and see what they discover. The scale of the site and its staging and artwork is unlike any other in the UK.
When Glastonbury fans look back on their personal experience of the event, it is usually completely different from that of their friends. They found places that spoke to their needs and interests and embraced them. This maybe meant time relaxing in the healing fields as they left the real world behind. Perhaps they enjoyed all the performance art, circus skills and cabaret across the weekend.
There are all kinds of sensory experiences in store.
Glastonbury is a dream come true for those that belong to the social media generation. Everything looks great on Instagram. But, there is the risk that some people will view Glastonbury through a lens. Those that un-plug and enjoy the calmer side of Glastonbury first hand have an eye-opening experience.
These different areas also mean the chance to try lots of different types of food. It is impossible to go hungry at Glasto because there are vendors to cater to all tastes. Newbies may be forgiven for assuming that it is all about vegan and vegetarian food. There is plenty of that with a good helping of herbal tea. But, there is also plenty of meat, greasy junk food and more. There are also flavours from across the world.
Glastonbury camping is an experience in itself.
After a long day of watching bands, exploring the site and eating a little too much, Glastonbury visitors need a place to sleep. The large site at Worthy Farm has plenty of space for tents. Here revellers can form their own little communities for five days and make new friends. Those that pick the best spots can enjoy great views and access to facilities. Those that don’t may have to walk too far for a shower or find themselves too close to the toilets.
The Somerset countryside
Finally, the benefits of this stunning festival site wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the wider area of Glastonbury.
The site is about more than the Eavis’ farm. It is a chance to spend time in this Somerset countryside under the infamous Glastonbury Tor. Glastonbury has long been an important spiritual site with strong energy. This is why the festival is so well situated here. There were notions about moving Glastonbury music festival to another site to help protect the farmland. But, would another site have the same atmosphere?
Is it perfect or are there downsides?
We can look at this festival site and the eclectic mix of artists and say that Glasto is the perfect festival. However, there are some downsides that we need to address here. It is easy to romanticise Glastonbury as the ideal experience because of its location, history and the ethos behind some of the stages. However, the festival has changed over the decades and there are flaws.
It is easy to focus on the beauty of Glastonbury’s stages and décor and ignore the mud and hygiene levels. But, like any festival, the toilets and mud can get you down by day three of five. Some weekends were a complete washout with people sinking in the mud and barely able to get around the site. The toilets are a bit of a nightmare unless you pay to use the VIP ones.
Then there is the love-hate relationship with flags.
If you have only ever seen Glastonbury on the TV, you will still know about the flags. This is an on-going trend at the festival as attendees try and create the most interesting and eye-catching spectacle. There is a practical purpose to the flags. They act as a marker in a sea of similar-looking tents. They can also help groups locate each other in a crowd. But, there are just so many of them now that they take over. You have to wonder if people standing near the stage can actually see anything.
It isn’t the same as it was in the 70s.
There is a bit of a divide in the generation that went to Glastonbury in its heyday. Some will say that it has gone downhill with all the commercialisation, comfortable camping areas and regulations. It was a simpler experience back then where anyone could enjoy the music with friends over the weekend. Others will now attend in their camper vans or book an experience on a nearby glamping site.
The biggest problem with Glastonbury is the process of buying a ticket.
Not only is this festival pretty expensive, but it also sells out before the line-up is announced. There is a registration period in September before the general sale in October. Tickets for 2020 are £265 per person. Therefore, if you want to go to Glastonbury you have to pay out an excessive amount with blind faith that you will see artists you like. It can be a crushing blow for students balancing their loans to buy a ticket and find that they don’t like a single headliner. Also, the high cost means that this isn’t the accessible festival it once was. Those on low incomes will struggle to save up for the experience, especially when you factor in travel costs, food and other expenses.
Is Glastonbury music festival the perfect festival?
If you want a festival that ticks all those boxes mentioned above then no. It does offer plenty of choice with the artists across the stages. It does provide an interesting set-up that attendees won’t see elsewhere. But, the facilities aren’t always ideal – especially with the divide in the camping. Also, there are questions over value for money with the ticketing issue and high prices. If we compare it Coachella then the diversity and magic of the experience are greater. But, Coachella does provide a cleaner feel and day passes to suit people with different budgets. It also has stricter controls on alcohol for safety and a lot more sunshine. Glastonbury might benefit from a more flexible system rather than one 5-day pass.
There are downsides to Glastonbury but many of these issues are true of many major festivals. They are all out to make money from music fans, they all struggle to support the thousands in attendance, and they all get muddy. Therefore, Glastonbury music festival is still about as perfect as you are going to get.