Passing Michael Eavis on the street, you might not think he was the man behind one of the world’s largest and most successful music festivals. Over 125,000 people descend upon Worthy Farm every June, but Glastonbury – which began in 1970 – has much humbler origins. Arriving at the Oxford Union in his signature shorts and loafers, Michael Eavis epitomises the humility (with a dash of irreverence) that makes Glastonbury festival what it is.
I began by asking him whether he thought anything hadn’t changed over the course of the 45 years of the festival: “Well it’s actually changing all the time. It just grows and grows. We keep moving venues around the site, as well as bringing in new stuff. But the theme always remains the same: the whole thing is driven from its roots. It’s not driven from the top down, like a Live Nation show, you know.”
This culture is reflected, Michael continued, in the development of new ideas; one that translates seamlessly into the atmosphere of the festival. “The people who work down there are always coming up with new ideas and the expanding upon them. But yes, the real beauty of the festival is that it is driven from the ground up.”
Over the years, the organisation of the festival has increasingly been delegated to other members of the Eavis family, and in particular, Michael’s daughter Emily. “Well, she has three little children and is having another baby soon. So she’s quite busy at the moment! But yes, she’s really great at the programming. When it comes to actually booking the bands, she is the team leader.” After pausing briefly, he exclaimed “and Nick [Emily’s husband] too! Nick’s good too! He’s worked in the music industry, so has always been in there too. I’ve always said that was a wise move wasn’t it – marrying a music man – instead of farmer!” He lets out a hearty chuckle. “The pair of them are really good at their job.”
For a man who deals with some of the biggest music names on the planet, Michael has remained grounded. He talks about past headliners like The Smiths, The Boomtown Rats and Van Morrison with a contented nostalgia. In almost every interview he gives, stresses that he is first and foremost a diary farmer. In 2014, he and his team at Worthy Farm won the prestigious British Dairying Gold Cup – one of the highest possible accolades recognised by the industry.
All this made me wonder whether Michael enjoyed being involved with the glitz, glamour and, no doubt, drama of liaising with the biggest artists of today. “Yes! For example, Adele came to me last year [for this year’s festival]. People like to know and see that I am involved. I still sign every cheque myself – so I control the thing really.” He chuckles. “With performers, it [the festival] kind of has a mind of its own. With all the new things around now, like grime for example. The Dance Village is changing every week. You know, catching up with the way things are going. That side is a bit beyond me anyway. I mean, I don’t do all that hip-hop stuff!”
This naturally led me on to an issue that has plagued the festival for a number of years. Despite being a festival of contemporary performing arts, many people remain critical of untraditional headliners such as Jay-Z in 2008. Last year a petition titled, “Cancel Kanye West’s headline slot and get a rock band”, received over 130,000 signatories (ironically, very close to the number of tickets sold). “Jay-Z was actually Emily’s choice. I couldn’t get a headliner that year. In fact, we were going to take the year off that year because we couldn’t get a decent headliner. She said to me, “Go for Jay-Z”. And I just said, “How do I pronounce it? Is it Jay-C? Chaysee?” So she told me how to pronounce it properly, and then I phoned up the agent. He was American. And he said he didn’t know whether it was his [Jay-Z’s] thing. The agent said, “we’re city folk, ya know. We’re really urban and you’re run by hippies from the mountains!” I don’t think he really understood what we were doing at Glastonbury. So I told him that we get loads of people from London, Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester – it’s all city folks. Anyway, we left it for a week and the agent came back and said he wanted to do it. In the end, it was a turning point for us.”
Michael was keen to stress the significance of Jay-Z’s headline performance for the trajectory of the festival. “It changed the course of our headliners. Noel Gallagher said it was a bad idea, but then again, he’s done it three or four times. You can’t just keep repeating those old Anglo-Saxon rock and roll bands, not really. We have to move on, away from that you see. It changed the whole festival scene. The whole scene changed because of that decision.”
Michael is no stranger to politics. In 1997, he ran as a Labour Party candidate for Wells in the general election, which according to him was, “good fun”. (He proudly reminds me of the 7.5% increase in Labour’s share of the vote as a result of his candidacy.) In the last few years, he has expressed concern over the declining levels of activism associated with the festival. He continued: “We’ve always been at the forefront of that kind of thing. We’re really ahead on the green energy side of things. In terms of politics, I am still campaigning against the renewal of Trident. But we’ve been campaigning against that for donkeys years now and still haven’t got anywhere. At least not substantially.” He appeared buoyed by the prospect of an appearance by Jeremy Corbyn at this year’s festival, there to talk “exclusively about Trident, and not about Labour Party policy.”
Political and environmental activism has always been associated with the festival, and is at its very core. A majority of the people working at the festival are volunteers. A significant proportion of profits are given to charities each year. However, this year’s festival has political significance for a different reason: the EU referendum will take place on the Thursday of the festival. On the topic, Michael only seemed worried that festival-goers wouldn’t be able to exercise their democratic right: “It’s a real shame that!” After which, in a tone full of concern, he asked me, “Do you think students will do the postal vote?” I did my best to re-assure him they would.
Change is on the cards for Glastonbury festival. During the main talk in the Union, Michael hinted that the festival may have to move venue – with Longleat Safari Park in Wiltshire being a likely contender. Many argue that this would damage irreparably the ‘feel’ of Glastonbury – tied up as it has been since its inception with Michael and Worthy Farm. The inimitable culture, however, fostered by the Eavis family is not inextricably linked to one location. It is that will ensure the success of the festival for many years to come, be it in Somerset or Scotland.