The Rise of Pop Music at Glastonbury

There’s always much debate about the headliners at Worthy Farm, but has the heavy pop influence in recent years had a worrying knock-on effect further down the bill? 

As another outdoor music season draws to a close, it’s fair to say that the festival industry in the UK is at a pivotal position. The last decade has seen an incredible rise in the number of smaller festivals popping up, but this year the tide is turning.

We’ve had T in the Park shelved, Secret Garden Party saying farewell, and the weather-related cancellation of Y Not to add to Festival No 6’s wet misery last year. On top of all that comes the rumours that V Festival – one of the stalwarts of the last twenty years – is to downscale in 2018.

The remaining festivals are having to fight harder than ever to find an audience – and crucially sell out tickets – which often leads to them diversifying and attempting to appeal to a wider market, resulting in the product diluting, and becoming less attractive to punters.

It can be seen directly in the number of ‘themed’ events being firmly on the decrease; whereas once individual festivals often catered for a very set genre of music fans, whether that be metal heads or bohemian hippies, the lines are being blurred more than ever.

Even the heavyweights haven’t escaped. Reading & Leeds Festival now positions itself far away from its rock origins with Kasabian, Bastille and Major Lazer all high up the bill this year to attract a younger audience, while Download, once a haven of heavy rock, saw indie stalwarts Biffy Clyro headline this year.

Which brings us to Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts, to give it its full name. While others around it have risen and now started to fall, the exponential growth that the Eavises have brought to the festival over the last fifteen years is quite remarkable.

Whereas once you could stroll into Bristol Ticket Shop in June and by a ticket over the counter, now over a million people are registered for around 150,000 places each year, and subjected to a mass online scramble each preceding October.

So if sales aren’t an issue, why is the landscape – particularly the music – at Glastonbury changing so radically? In many ways it can be traced directly back to 2002, and the start of a new era for the festival.

First, some history. Back in the 1990s, the music that filled the charts largely came in two forms – guitar driven Britpop or manufactured boy/girl bands and solo artists. But come the early 2000s, a new breed of pop emerged somewhere in-between the two: record company manipulated artists with some musical talent. Britpop turned into nu-wave emo teen guitar bands, while several acts that would once have simply been lost singer-songwriters were suddenly transformed into pop starlets.

And so to 2002 specifically. Despite Daphne and Celeste’s now legendary reception at Reading two years previously, the powers that be at Worthy Farm decided to take a chance with their own pop act on the Pyramid Stage, Nelly Furtado. Although her hit ‘I’m Like A Bird’ was a commercial radio favourite all over the world, it was a strange booking, but drew a huge audience due to curiosity as much as anything else.

Unexpectedly, a funny thing happened – the crowd loved it. Maybe it was the antidote to a weekend full of very sincere artists, or perhaps it was just the familiarity of a tune to sing along to in the sunshine. But whatever the reasoning, it started a trend.

The following year saw Sugababes perform, while 2004 saw Furtado return with Scissor Sisters, Joss Stone and Black Eyed Peas also on the main bill, with the smaller Other Stage fast becoming a sanctuary for many of the usual indie bands.

Jump forward to Glastonbury 2017, and this year we were witness to a line-up that featured a Saturday run of Katy Perry, Run The Jewels and Craig David on the Pyramid Stage, as well as performances from commercial radio favourites Lorde, Halsey, Major Lazer, Emeli Sandé, Solange, Charlie XCX, Shaggy, Rag ‘n’ Bone Man and Kodaline amongst others. We’ve even reached a point where Emily Eavis is suggesting The Courteeners – a desperate Libertines/Oasis hybrid leftover from the 2000s indie death rattle – as future headliners.

Of course, it’s not just the music that changed at Glastonbury in 2002. Following disputes with the local council about its almost open-door policy, the organisers started policing and regulating the festival more strictly, beginning with the installation of the now synonymous fence.

Over the following years, the festival – partly through its own choice, and naturally with the increasing wealth of its attendees – became more sanitised, but in-turn has started driving away some of the spontaneity and other-worldliness that made it great.

While the days of Michael Eavis allowing travellers in for free are long gone, the jump to a festival that is only affordable to the middle classes is at the other extreme.

It doesn’t help that ‘hippy’ culture has become so fashionable amongst affluent youngsters. The bohemian look has been on-trend for several years now, and while halloumi and falafels were once the food of the vegetarian, they are now the bedrock of hipster cafés everywhere.

There was a time when festivals were a place to truly lose yourself from reality, where stepping away from the outside world you could be whoever you wanted to be, even if just for a few days. Now it’s the exact opposite; for many Glastonbury is a badge of honour, and the days spent at Pilton an opportunity to fill Instagram feeds and enhance your social media persona. With 4G everywhere on site, everyone is now constantly connected and more in touch with reality than ever.

But, of course, it’s time that’s changed things the most. Many of the first generation to experience the sanitised Glastonbury over a decade ago are now parents themselves, notwithstanding the once young and naive Emily Eavis herself. It’s slowly becoming a festival of mums and dads on camping chairs, coupled with wealthy first-timers on their gap year experience.

And with that the music has organically followed. It was this generation that welcomed the pop introduction to Glastonbury with open arms, and as they naturally lose touch with new music through age, so what once was the odd novelty pop act now becomes a large proportion of the line-up – to little or no fight from the serious music fans which remain.

While 2002 was the main pivotal time for Glastonbury, in recent years the pop influx has increased dramatically. The line-ups from 2013 onwards show a distinct change to cater for this market, driven largely by the success of pop’s power couple: Jay-Z and Beyonce.

It’s hard now to separate Jay-Z from the criticism that his headliner announcement brought in 2008, most notably from Noel Gallagher. While many, including Jay-Z himself, interpreted the Oasis man’s comments to be a slur at rappers, in hindsight it seems his wider point has far greater merit.

It’s worth stating that Gallagher was responding to tickets sales being slow that year, so much that the the festival only sold out two weeks before the gates opened. But, regardless of your views of his music, allowing Jay-Z to top the bill – an artist whose act is essentially performing on a microphone to a backing track – was a brave move for Glastonbury and one that has had repercussions since.

For many it is seen as the point that opened the flood gates, that culminated in his wife, Beyoncé – unashamedly a pop act  – headlining the festival in 2011. This was no longer the endearing “curve ball” – a phrase which Gallagher had used to describe Kylie Minogue’s scheduled performance (cancelled due to ill health in 2005) – but a welcomed appearance from one of the world’s biggest stars.

And, of course, Beyoncé smashed it. Yes, it was a very much a cabaret show with dancers, lights and all the bells and whistles, but undeniably it was a huge success, crucially both for those at Worthy Farm, and those watching all over the world.

So is there really any problem with non-conventional acts playing or even headlining Glastonbury? Trying to define constantly changing public opinion makes it difficult to ever draw a line. And with the modern digital age where everyone has an opinion online, it’s impossible to keep everybody happy.

Take the common argument that musical acts at a festival should be creating their own songs and playing all their instruments. While plenty agree with this, many in that same group were vehemently opposed to Ed Sheeran – the very definition of a one-man band (albeit an incredibly popular one) – headlining this year.

Similarly, jazz and soul singers accompanied by a backing band have long been featured on Glastonbury bills, but Adele’s inclusion as a headliner – despite her hand in writing many of her own tracks, including nearly all of debut album 19 – draws much criticism.

For every critic that says festivals shouldn’t condone glorified karaoke, and that the novelty acts should stick to the Sunday legends slot, there are others who complain about serious music that doesn’t hand-feed you entertainment. This year saw exactly that, with a huge backlash about the inaccessibility of Radiohead’s headline performance because the band used the side-of-the-stage screens not to show close-ups of them playing, but ambient artistic video clips instead.

Perhaps it’s artists that don’t write their own songs that’s the issue? But in world where songs are increasingly becoming like US sitcoms and being made by committee, it’s tough to see where the boundaries of that argument lie.

Noel Gallagher, always one to share his opinion, has more recently been scathing of seemingly ‘credible’ singer-songwriter Jake Bugg for having assistance in penning his tunes, while at the same time his brother Liam – much lauded at this year’s festival – has freely admitted getting writing help on his solo album.

There’s also the issue that guitar music has effectively been dead in the water for some years now, and what is left is a mere parody of itself. All festivals have struggled with finding new headliners – indeed not since Artic Monkeys broke through in 2006 has Britain produced a rock band that has become a household name.

Music itself is a different commodity from what it once was – being produced largely for the short-term and digital streaming audiences, rather than the love and craft that used to go into making albums, when they were more often seen as literal works of art and artefacts that would last forever.

So what for Glastonbury? Of course, there’s an argument to say why not embrace pop acts on the two main stages if it keeps the festival alive – there’s great new music on both the John Peel and BBC Introducing stages, world bands over in West Holts, an incredible dance village, and hundreds of other stages with the most eclectic array of acts anywhere in the world.

Fundamentally though, there does need to be a clear line between performance and money-making. Booking an artist who’s merely a puppet for a corporate profit-driven company conflicts directly with the true morals and heart for which Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts stands.

In truth, Glastonbury could change if it wanted to, but whether it be by the Eavis family, or the huge business that it has become, a decision has been made to feed the popularity rather than fight against it. Does it matter? It depends on your integrity.