Glastonbury on the BBC

Glastonbury Festival

It’s hard not to find mentions of Glastonbury on the BBC. Most mornings I rise to the Today programme on BBC Radio 4. This morning, sixty-nine-year-old rightwing journalist John Humphrys was at Glastonbury. But why should I be surprised? Every year the BBC turns itself into a massive PR machine for this commercial enterprise.

At around 8:45 am on the same programme, immediately after John had interviewed Sir Mick Jagger, Justin Webb read out an email from writer Ian Martin (Thick of It, Veep). He asked: “Is the BBC going to manage one, just one, remotely critical comment on Glastonbury?” John said that there’d been no water in his cabin that morning.

John Humphreys at Glastonbury on the BBC
Michael Eavis and John Humphreys

Now I love the BBC and I am a keen supporter of music festivals, even “Big Mama” Glastonbury. But even I find the relentlessly positive publicity Glastonbury receives too much to bear. It’s getting to the stage where it’s starting to look satirical.

Too much Glastonbury on the BBC?

This morning, one of the main headlines on the BBC News website was “Arctic Monkeys headline Glastonbury”. News? I think we knew that quite a long time ago. Several other Glastonbury stories follow. Then, further down the page, it is revealed that Glastonbury has its own section on the BBC Entertainment website.


I suppose I could be accused of sour grapes. From 2006, I ran a music festival for six years. After the first couple of years in which Rhythm Festival was at least listed as an event. We couldn’t get so much as a mention on the local BBC Three Counties website: “for Beds, Herts & Bucks”. That’s Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire, in case you didn’t know.

When they answered emails at all, Three Counties told me the first year that the website’s resources had been cut. The team literally had no one available to write anything. The next year, I was told it wasn’t BBC policy to promote private events (ha!). And, by the time 2012 came around, it was too late, we’d gone bust. Although it was no Glastonbury Festival, Rhythm had been the biggest annual entertainment event in Bedfordshire.

Sour Grapes? Only £10 a plastic cup to you, guv…

Aside from national coverage and the really exceptional television exposure (which I love), the local BBC Somerset website is practically on Glasto Alert all year round.

Elsewhere on the BBC, phrases like “the biggest music news story of the week is that the Rolling Stones are headlining Glastonbury” abound. Is this “news” regarded as “big news” because of the Rolling Stones or because it’s at Glastonbury? Didn’t the Stones play the Isle of Wight Festival in 2007 with far less publicity? And what about the two nights in Hyde Park, London, next month? Surely that should be highlighted? If only because it comes 44 years after the iconic free concert that followed Brian Jones’ death in 1969? Apparently not.


The BBC weren’t so keen to broadcast the news that the Stones didn’t want their set broadcast at all. Eventually, they agreed to four songs. Then a maximum of 15 minutes. And, after a lot of lobbying from the Corporation and the festival-organising Eavis team, the rumour is that the Regal Rock Royalty has graciously consented to a full hour. We’ll see… [In the end, the BBC joined the Rolling Stones set an hour in, starting with Miss You.]

Glastonbury Festival Finances

Of course, Glastonbury is a fantastic festival. Very likely the finest of its kind in the world. But it’s far from perfect. So why don’t we ever hear anything but the good stuff?

Is it because the BBC’s deal depends on a positive spin? If so, the same must go for Glastonbury’s other “media partners” like The Guardian? On the media grapevine, I’m told that if any broadcaster or journalist neglects to toe the “happy” line, they are denied free access forever afterwards. And what newspaper, magazine or radio station would want that?

Aside from the thousands of BBC staff, who gets to go to Glastonbury? Mostly it’s the multitudes who pay £216 (including compulsory booking fee and postage) for their weekend tickets. In the business, thes are known as the ‘mug punters’.

In return for jumping through hoops to get special identity cards, ticket-holders get to live for up to a week knee-deep in cow-slurry and mud. Another, less trumpeted group of festival-goers, are the “VIPs”. Literally “very important people”.

But not all of these higher beings are connected to the media and the higher echelons of the music industry.

Very Important Liggers

VIPs are very well looked after. They get to use facilities generally untainted by mud, body odours and human and/or animal waste. Some even receive access to luxury camping (referred to as “glamping”) in powered and plumbed yurts, Winnebagos and caravans.

Some don’t even have to pay for their gourmet food or drink. It’s not widely trumpeted but, provided you have a few spare grand, it’s possible to buy VIP access. For £5,000-£11,000 a ticket, you too can experience the luxurious side of Glasto and mix with the performers, media and many other hip celebs.

In the past, your fellow VIP revellers might have included rock ‘n’ roll icons such as Tony Blair, David Cameron, Boris Johnson and members of the Royal Family. That’s aside from the staff of various banks and multinational corporations, of course.

Don’t believe it? Here’s a post that appeared on the eFestivals festival forum on April 30th, 2013:

VIP Package Includes:

  • Festival ticket with camping in the hospitality campsite (better toilet/washing facilities and in close proximity to the pyramid stage). Guests must provide their own tent.
  • Access to the “inner circle” the VIP backstage areas of Glastonbury
  • Access to backstage hospitality areas/ undercover seating /bars and food stands
  • The opportunity to mingle with the media, press, celeb’s and Artists
  • Access to backstage VIP toilet /shower facilities

I paid £2,500 for them and am looking for the same – LET ME KNOW SOON!!!

What do you get for £2,500?

You obviously don’t get much for £2,500 a head. According to the Metro website, Wayne Rooney spent £2,000 on a Tesco “home” delivery to the festival VIP area (the price of crisps, cheese-strings and Pot Noodle these days!) and:

Coleen and her footballer hubby have spared no expense this time around. They arrived by helicopter and, along with their pals, are bedding down in three huge Winnebagos costing £15,000 for the weekend.

Living on the other side of the festival tracks are the mug punters and many of those providing entertainment or working at the festival. I know of a “name” band from the USA who played Glastonbury and ended up having to camp in a public campsite, next to over-flowing toilets. This was over a mile from the stage they were playing on. Their van could only park two miles away, in the opposite direction from the stage. This meant they had to hump their instruments and gear in and out by hand, through the crowds, without any help or transport. They were less than impressed by West Country hospitality.

Part-time Pay

Most people who work at Glastonbury don’t get paid much if anything at all. Often traders will ask for a full day’s work in return for festival access and space in a tent.

Performance budgets are low and you’d be surprised how many artists don’t get any money for appearing. And those who do get paid, receive a fraction of what they’d normally charge. Even the big names.

Chas and Dave played in 2008 for roughly half what they’d get for performing in a London pub on a wet Tuesday afternoon.

Before he pulled out, East London rapper Wiley tweeted: “I’m going to tell all the promoters how much Glastonbury get away with paying people and the other festivals will think wtf…”

In an article in The Daily Telegraph, Neil McCormick goes as far as to say:

Glastonbury Festival is not known for its financial largesse. With hundreds of bands performing, and a large portion of profits going to charities, Glastonbury has never been in a position to pay out the million pound fees offered by other more commercial festivals. “We get headliners for a tenth of their normal price,” Eavis has claimed. “They’re not being paid very much.” Paul McCartney appeared at Glastonbury in 2004 for £200,000, although his normal festival fee is rumoured to be £4 million. Coldplay received the same fee in 2011 – with the implication that the Stones are likely to receive the same.

£4m to Ride?

I doubt if McCartney would normally get £4 million per gig, but let’s not split hairs. It’s a widely held belief that, as Neil says, the festival donates “a large portion of profits” to charities. The only figures I can find are that (according to Wikipedia) in 2005, Glastonbury gave £200,000 to Oxfam who, in return, provided 2,000 stewards. A cynic might say that this works out at £100 a steward, which for very nearly a week’s work (Tuesday-Monday) is much less than the minimum wage. Nice for Oxfam, nice too for the festival finances. Luckily, I’m not a cynic.

Another cynic – not me either – might also do a simple calculation of 135,000 (the stated number of tickets sold) x £170.83 (£205 less VAT) = £23,062,499. Then there are the added bonuses of having 150,000 captives on your festival site for 3-7 days. The bar at a small music club on a single evening, say 8pm-11pm would expect to take £8-£10 a head on bar takings: make that 24 hours, add in food on top and you’re talking big money, some (most?) of which will certainly filter down to the festival organisers. Then there are other income streams, such as sponsorship, selling space for trade stands, facility fees for TV, radio, and so on…

A Very Profitable Enterprise

If a festival always sells out, if your biggest paid act is only receiving £200,000 and most of your staff are working for nothing, it seems inevitable that you’ll make money. How much of it they donate to charity is the business of the Eavis family and I’m sure they’re sincere about what they’re doing. Obviously other charities than Oxfam do benefit from Glastonbury: Greenpeace and Water Aid are two major recipients. Plus, the internet is packed with stories about schools, village halls and other worthy causes in Somerset receiving money for various projects.

I suspect that the Eavis family and Worthy Farm get to keep some of the profits – and rightly so – but that’s never mentioned in any media coverage I’ve ever seen. Like the curate’s egg, Glastonbury isn’t all good. I feel it would be much more healthy if the BBC and others admitted that Pilton isn’t the site of the Second Coming and that there’s more to festivals than simply the Gospel according to St Michael.

Having got rid of the cynics, let’s get back to enjoying the UK’s “most loved music festival” (it’s official – I just heard it said on Radio 2). There’s really nothing quite like Glastonbury anywhere else in the world and we should be proud as Punch about it being a British institution, like the BBC. I’ll finish with a video in which Julien Temple talks about the very first Glastonbury Festival (and plugs his documentary movie about it):


  1. My thoughts exactly… The BBC’s “independence” from commercial ventures looks laughable now… Selling backstage access to rub shoulders with the media/music celebrities is particularly cynical…

Comments are closed.