Has Glastonbury Sold Out?

Lucy Michaels / Corporate Watch, 18th June 2002ce

By the mid-90s, Glastonbury Festival had abandoned its hippy roots and become a perfect cultural barometer for British culture - Paul Weller

I've been trying to write this article for some time, keeping to the facts of the corporate encroachment into this much loved event, but as an environmental activist who has come of age over successive Glastonbury Festivals, it has great personal resonance for me. I'm sure that I'm not the only person who began to look at things slightly differently as a result of the weird and wacky world that is created for five days at Michael Eavis's Worthy farm in Pilton, Somerset.

On February 20th 2002, the UK's biggest live music promoters, The Mean Fiddler Music Group PLC, acquired a 20% stake in the Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Arts. This deal, initially set for five years, will see the Mean Fiddler receiving 20% of the net profit, rising 10% each year with their stake capped at 40%. In the past, the net profit from the event, around £700,000 in 2000, was wholly donated to charities such as WaterAid, Greenpeace and Oxfam. The Mean Fiddler's involvement at Glastonbury will be the operational management of the event, incorporating security, crowd control and perimeter fencing.

Michael Eavis, obviously troubled by this direct corporate involvement, had already pulled out of the deal once, concerned that the Mean Fiddler would attempt to control other aspects of the festival and destroy the laid back ambience of the place that makes it so special. It seems now that they've reached 'a fundamental understanding as to what is needed to safeguard the spirit of the Glastonbury Festival while taking the steps necessary to secure its future.'

Eavis was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, it seems. Last year he was forced to cancel the festival due to safety fears, after he was fined £6000 (+ £9000 costs) for breaching his license for people attending in 2000. The 2000 festival saw 100,000+ people jumping the fences, doubling the numbers permitted. Mendip District Council (MDC) had refused to grant Eavis a license for Glastonbury 2002 unless the Mean Fiddler, who have long time expertise in festival security, were brought in.

The Glastonbury Festival is to see some unwelcome changes this year. In a recent interview with Festival Eye, Michael Eavis stressed that these changes are not a result of direct intervention from the Mean Fiddler - who have no say on the programme or other content of the event. It seems greater forces are at work. According to many sources, both the MDC and the Somerset and Avon police are looking for any excuse to shut the festival down for good.

Now all eyes are on Glastonbury Festival 2002, to see what the result will be of the increased security, tight restrictions on numbers and lack of small radical groups who have been part of the fabric of the festival for many years. Many fear that Glastonbury 2002 will be nothing more than a Mean Fiddler-style of festival - big name bands and no soul.

Fiddling Meanly

If you are at all interested in live music, you will have come across the Mean Fiddler. From the original 'Mean Fiddler' club founded in 1982 in Harlesden, North London, its owner Vince Power has moved swiftly to bring almost all the key London venues (from the Jazz Café to the Astoria) and festivals around the country under the Mean Fiddler banner.

Power has been promoting festivals since salvaging Reading in the early Nineties. Now his domain stretches from Reading to Leeds, the Finsbury Park Fleadh to the Tribal Gathering, Homelands, Deconstruction and the National Adventure Sports show. The only jewel missing from his crown has been Glastonbury Festival.

Glastonbury is an especially big coup for Power after a knock back last August, when institutional shareholders failed to take an interest in the floatation of Mean Fiddler Holdings. They were trying to raise the money for a reverse takeover of meanfiddler.com, Power's digital TV and ticket sales business.

Much of the success of the Mean Fiddler rests with Vince Power himself (he owns around 60% of the company). His early style won him no friends among agents and managers, as he went direct to the artists themselves; cutting out the middleman. Tales of his cut-throat capitalist approach abound; from being one of the first organisations to charge support bands to play in London, to promoting the 'taps off - expensive water' scenario that came to characterise commercial rave venues. It became commonplace to have the bottle of water in your bag removed by security at Power's gigs. People have died at raves of dehydration.

Power is also the only promoter from outside the USA to beat the powerful American music unions and run American music festivals. In a recent Observer interview he explained how he managed this, 'The unions wanted to put 10 blokes on your budget when one bloke can do the same job…I had all that in the first year, but we got it sorted out. A lot of the leaders of unions are Irish, so we could talk'. It is this way of exerting influence that has earned Power and his organisation the nickname of 'the Murphia'.

Warning bells should be ringing in Eavis's ears. Time and again Power has proved a troublesome business partner. In a recent Observer interview, he crows about how he salvaged and then shafted Harold Pendleton, the previous promoter of Reading Festival. Through his enthusiasm and contacts, Power got the Reading Festival back on track, but when Pendleton wanted to go it alone, Power cried vengeance. He responded first through inaugurating the Phoenix Festival in 1993. Then he secretly bought the land on which the Reading Festival is held, applied for a license and told Pendleton to take a hike. He also had a major falling out with music promoters, Universe, over the Tribal Gathering (see below).

Changing of the Guard

For many, jumping the fence at Glastonbury is part of the tradition. In the past, fences have proved woefully inadequate to prevent a gatecrashing sea of humanity from joining in the fun. This year, however, the survival of the festival depends on ticket-only admission.

The fence-jumpers are now being cast as the villains of the piece. This year's Glastonbury Festival website blames them alone for the cancellation last year and for denying the charities their money (though it seems Mendip District Council and the police are the real party-poopers). The Mean Fiddler are now Glastonbury's knight in shining armour, ready to defend its honour and its borders. This jars considerably with most people's perception and experience of the Mean Fiddler's approach to keeping the peace.

The Phoenix Festival, which began in 1993 was direct competition to Pendleton's Reading Festival. The only licence Mean Fiddler could get for Phoenix had draconian restrictions that made any proper festival unworkable. However, Power was smarting from being dumped by Reading and pushed ahead with the prestigious line up despite the raw deal for paying punters. In sharp contrast to Glastonbury's 24 hour bustle, at Phoenix 1993 the music was stopped at 11 o'clock, and security guards ruthlessly quelled campfires and small sound systems that went on later than 12.

One night this caused a near riot, to which the security guards responded by taking off their security shirts which had identifiable numbers on that would have made them individually recognisable, and battering punters with batons and broken up pallets.

When a list of security guards was handed to the police to run checks on them after the event (something that should have been done beforehand), it showed that several of them were wanted for violent crime. The security firm involved, Specialized Security based in Livingston, Scotland, still do all the Mean Fiddler gigs. They are also involved at this years Glastonbury.

Power emphatically denied that the guards had turned on the restless crowd, blaming fence jumpers for the trouble. Photographic evidence clearly shows those beaten up had three-day wrist passes. Power knew what he was saying wasn't true, but also knew that if he admitted guilt, it would lay him open to prosecution and jeopardise future licences.

The Phoenix Festival failed to rise again after cancellation in 1998 due to poor ticket sales. However, Power had already taken thousands of pounds in ticket money from people who needed hospital treatment for injuries inflicted by security guards paid to protect them

At most corporate festivals, security guards are highly visible; ushering punters between camping areas and the main festival areas and keeping firm order at night. For many, their scowling presence is antagonistic and confrontational. At Glastonbury, apart from the perimeter security, the lack of high profile policing contributed towards the laid back atmosphere. Good security crews understand what the festival is about.

According to the Glastonbury website, this year's security is costing 2 million pounds and is reputed to include high powered surveillance, CCTV and infra-red cameras. Lets hope that the Mean Fiddler can strike the right balance, and focus on stopping tents and personal belongings from getting nicked, rather than victimising anyone who looks like a traveller. Lets also hope that the Mean Fiddler have changed their crew of security guards since Phoenix '93.

Popped in…Souled Out

After the Government introduced the dreaded Criminal Justice Act in 1994 that banned many free outdoor festivals and criminalised established (but unofficial) events like the Stonehenge celebrations, Power really saw his chance. Thousands of people still wanted to gather and dance, so why not sell them back their culture…at a price. In 1996, Mean Fiddler joined forces with former free festival organisers, Universe, to promote the first Tribal Gathering.

Disillusioned by the increasing corporatisation of the festival, Universe had a public falling out with the Mean Fiddler in 1997, which led to a protracted legal battle over the 'Tribal Gathering' name (TG has been reborn and is no longer a Mean Fiddler promotion). Universe's response was not surprising as the festival blurb and supposed 'ethos' was hugely at odds with the reality. From the Mean Fiddler's press release for the 1996 Tribal Gathering:

'With the passing of another lunar cycle, all generations are once more invited to participate in the only true original outdoor tribal house party experience, as we dance together under the sun, moon and stars in spiritual communion with Mother Earth and in ritual shamanic celebration of life, love and the universe. Join with us on our epic onslaught as we strike back against the establishment and the creeping corporate capitalisation of our cosmic counter culture'.

To help them strike back against creeping corporate capitalisation, Tribal Gathering enlisted sponsors such as Sony Playstation, Diesel clothing, Casio G-shock watches and Marlboro.

Corporations have cottoned onto the fact that festivals are an excellent way of increasing brand awareness among a captive youth audience, and this doesn't seem to bother Power. His Homelands Festival is this year sponsored by Bacardi (see link below for the Boycott Bacardi campaign) having formerly been sponsored by Ericsson. Reading and Leeds Festivals, held over the same weekend, are now known collectively as the Carling Festival, sponsored by Carling Lager. (See link to Ethical Consumer magazine for their report on beer for info on Carling's funding of US anti-abortion groups).

From Tennent's Lager 'T in the Park' Festivals to the Virgin V festivals, big corporations see a major marketing niche - associating their products with music of the moment

As festivals compete for the big names, this corporate sponsorship has become essential to pay the appearance fee for big headlining bands.

British festivals have come a long way since Marc Bolan played the first event at Glastonbury in 1970 where entry cost £1 and included free milk from Eavis' cows. Although Eavis had resisted big corporate sponsorship until now, many already expressed concern about the encroachment of Babylon on this counter cultural retreat. Many harked back to the good old days when wacky hippy spirituality, ecological awareness and great bands took precedence over free cigarettes, free branded alcopops and mobile phones tents 'where festival goers can recharge their phones, minds and bodies in peace'. New Age corporate speak such as this does not really recapture the essence of the festival.

Out with the subversives and in with the franchises!

Whilst Power is a music promoter, Eavis has always struggled to keep the Glastonbury Festival about far more than just the music. This is likely to be a clash of culture between the two. Some of the fundamental changes that will occur at Glastonbury this year as a result of tight restrictions by the police and Mendip County Council will not be lamented by Power. Besides the restrictions on numbers, and beefed up security, we will see a 25% cut in traders passes, loss of the travellers' field (that was outside the festival perimeter) and a scaling down of the Green Futures fields.

This year key radical groups, who are not big earners or big names, but nevertheless very much part of the true spirit of the festival have been denied licences for tents and free tickets. Groups like Ecotrip, Squall and the Guilfin Ambient Lounge have been key features of the Glastonbury ethos for many years and now these small non commercial - in fact, anti-commercial - stages and groups have lost out. How many shops selling velvet hats with bells on do we need?!

These groups may not be big money spinners for the Festival, but for them, as with the bigger charities, Glastonbury had been their key opportunity for fundraising and sharing alternative ideas. They are also likely to be the most vehement critics of a corporate takeover.

Guilfin, the free festival information network, have had their Ambient Lounge tent at
Glastonbury for many years, staffed by 200 volunteers. This has now fallen victim to the cuts in trader's passes and has been entirely excluded.

The Green Futures field has had its ticket allocation cut by 30%. And things will look a bit bare this year. The Ecotrip tent will not be up and running. This provided vegan food, gigs, campaign talks and info on radical campaigns as well as being a welcoming first port of call for all those about to abandon modern life for road camps and radical environmental campaigning. In the past, a team of 100 had serviced this tent. This year they were told that they could not have a tent, and could only do an information stall. When Ecotrip asked for six tickets and printing costs for leaflets, they were turned down. Squall, who also put out alternative information in their multi-media tent in the Green Fields, have been refused permission for a tent since 1999.

Corporate Watch was asked for £300 for three tickets to run a stall over the five day festival. Whilst we were told that this was the 'financial reality', with the assumption that we will be selling something to cover our costs, it is totally against our ethos to charge big bucks for information - we're a 'not-for-profit' organisation.

Greenpeace say that they and Continental Drifts will not be doing the Firestarter tent this year after complaints from others in the Green Fields that it was too noisy and dominated the rest of what went on the Green Fields. Which is probably true, but they put on great bands, and enticed new people into the Green Fields.

The Avalon stage has also had its budget cut significantly which meant less freebie tickets and no payment for performers who are not so well known. Though to be fair, Radio 1 has also had its ticket allocation cut massively, and we are told many of the band PR companies and music industry hangers-on, will also be absent and largely unmissed as they don't really make Glastonbury more than just another corporate music festival. And they can probably afford the tickets too.

All the groups we spoke to that are attending this year noted a shift away from the informality of previous years, and an increase in paperwork and organisational structure.

Eavis has permitted a traveller's field for many years, but the last two years have seen unprecedented complaints to the Council for noise levels and general lawlessness. One of the main conditions of his licence is that there is no travellers' field. Rumour on the Guilfin website from travellers' groups hint that the police, through refusing to offer Eavis help to deal with the inevitable travellers that arrive hoping to park up, may in fact be forcing Eavis to breach his licence.

Many local groups, who have seen Glastonbury as their community festival, are also concerned that things will change, and they will no longer benefit as they had done in the past when money was raised for computers in schools etc.

Whose Festival? Our Festival

Glastonbury has become a victim of its own success. People jumped the fences because it was more than just a music festival, it was our festival. It represented an escape; a glimpse into something else besides the over-corporatised world we all normally have to endure. Anarchy and co-operation. Misrule and carnival. Beautiful Chaos. It was the nearest that a large scale festival came to creating that really free festival culture.

Glastonbury, as Paul Weller said, has become a perfect cultural barometer of Britain. It has been a fantastic event representing the best in mainstream music, creativity and alternative DIY culture; diverse and tolerant. With the changes forced on it by Mendip District Council and the police, we may well get a great music festival. Lets just hope that it won't become what we all fear - the 'Reading Festival' moved to Pilton, near Shepton Mallet, Somerset.

See www.urban75.com/Rave for more on 'What's Wrong with the Mean Fiddler?'

Ethical Consumers 'Buyers' guide to beer, lager and cider', Ethical Consumer magazine issue 75 Feb/Mar 2002. http://www.ethicalconsumer.org

Boycott Bacardi campaign

Check out GuilFIN website for info on all manner of festivals around the country. In particular, the Stonehenge Solstice Gathering

Or you could jump the queues into Glastonbury this year by taking a five minute helicopter ride into the site, prices from a mere £750 + VAT, on top of your ticket price.

This article is a slightly revised version of one that originally appeared on the Corporate Watch

Corporate Watch is a radical research and publishing group, based in Oxford, UK. It supports grassroots and direct activism against large corporations, particularly multinationals. Their approach is to investigate corporate structures and the system that supports them more broadly, rather than solely criticising the individual companies for bad behaviour. They rock.