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26 June 2023

The problem with Glastonbury

With soaring ticket prices and uninspired headliners, the festival struggled to live up to its reputation.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

The most dramatic moment of this year’s Glastonbury Festival came at the end of Lana del Rey’s set on the evening of Saturday 24 June. The all-American pop songwriter had arrived on to the Other Stage more than half an hour late. During this time a group in front of me began to boo, lots more left the crowd altogether, and a woman behind me vomited on to the floor – twice. But fans can be forgiving. When she did arrive, Del Rey’s melancholic alt-pop, performed with a backdrop of balletic dancers, quickly impressed the crowd that had stuck around. “I forgive her!” said a girl from the group in front of me. She knew every lyric.

“I was so f***ing late that I am about to rush this set to death. If they cut power, they cut power, I’m super f***ing sorry. My hair takes so long to do,” Del Rey said a while later, explaining her tardiness. It was an obnoxious admission from an artist playing a festival with dozens of performances happening at any one time. Del Rey was hardly the only attraction of the multi-day affair held on Worthy Farm, Somerset. As her set’s end time approached, Del Rey was engaged in inaudible but visibly tense conversations with her band and a team offstage. At midnight, more than 15 minutes after her set was due to end, the microphones and screens were cut off. As the crowd booed again, Del Rey attempted to continue unplugged before being guided off the stage.

Fifty-three years after its first iteration, Glastonbury holds a unique place in the festival market. It is the world’s largest greenfields festival, this year attracting 210,000 attendees. It is also the only festival guaranteed to sell out before its line-up is announced. This leaves ticket holders in a strange position. The festival has a reputation for hosting superlative, one-off performances from the best in contemporary music, but no specifics are promised at the point of purchase. There is a sense that one is “lucky” to score a Glastonbury ticket, given how many miss out.

Yet this year, a general admission weekend ticket cost £335 plus a £5 booking fee, a 19 per cent rise from last year. “We have tried very hard to minimise the increase in price on the ticket but we’re facing enormous rises in the costs of running this vast show,” said Emily Eavis, the festival’s co-organiser, last October.

The Del Rey debacle revealed the multifarious tensions that make up today’s live music industry. The singer’s microphones were cut off because Glastonbury, like any live event, must follow a council licensing agreement and abide by curfews, or else pay a fine – as the festival’s founder, Michael Eavis, said he had to do in 2009 when Bruce Springsteen’s headline set overran by nine minutes. At the same time, it’s understandable that Del Rey fans would be upset with her performance being truncated.

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It was clear that Glastonbury 2023 would not be a historic edition of the festival when in March its all-male line-up of Pyramid Stage headliners was announced and widely criticised. On Friday 23 June the Sheffield rock group Arctic Monkeys returned for their third appearance in the top slot, following a recent 14-date stadium tour. On Saturday it was the turn of the Los Angeles rock band Guns n’ Roses. Neither turned in a particularly memorable performance. That either act was chosen to top the bill in 2023 suggests a severe lack of imagination, or that the sheer number of festivals competing for artists’ exclusive appearances is making it trickier than ever for Glastonbury – which, though renowned, is known for paying acts less than the industry standard – to build its customary spectacular line-ups.

[See also: Elton John at Glastonbury: the sun king’s dazzling swansong]

Elton John’s Sunday night headline slot, billed as his last UK show, felt more significant. He, too, has toured in recent weeks, but the 76-year-old’s cross-generational appeal – for a long time he has been popular with a young, queer crowd – means he isn’t a relic of the past. His guests were not as jaw-dropping as the rumours – Britney Spears did not make an appearance – but his high-energy piano-playing and countless singalong tracks made for a thrilling end to the weekend.

Some of the most memorable moments were had away from the Pyramid. On Friday afternoon the British trio Flo charmed a crowd at Woodsies (formerly the John Peel stage) with their smooth R&B-inflected pop, for which they gave the Nineties chair dance routine a Gen Z shake-up. On Saturday morning the classical composer Max Richter led a string ensemble in a divine performance of works from his 2004 record The Blue Notebooks, complete with readings from Tilda Swinton, dressed in a sky-blue suit. At Croissant Neuf, a stage run on solar power, I enjoyed a tender indie-guitar set from Rozi Plain.

Over at West Holts the Scottish group Young Fathers showcased their singular merging of pop, rock and R&B with a swaggering set that had the crowd cavorting. The band’s Graham Hastings led the audience in a chant of “Refugees are welcome here” before dedicating the next song to Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary. That track was “Shame”: “Nothing but a bare faced lie/Is all you c***s can hold on to,” Young Fathers sang, brazen and brilliant.

Lizzo celebrated Pride month in her self-love-supercharged Saturday night set, while on Thursday the drag artist Bimini led a call of “F*** the Tories” on account of the party’s erosion of transgender rights. At the Left Field, Ed Miliband appeared on a panel discussion about the part politics plays in climate action. The shadow climate change secretary was heckled by a man demanding that Miliband “be honest” about what he described as the Labour Party’s role in worsening the climate crisis by “dispossessing” natural resources from the Middle East. The audience, which had welcomed Miliband warmly, booed the heckler. After the talk activists from Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil sought new recruits.

The brands advertised at Glastonbury are environmental and humanitarian organisations – Wateraid, Greenpeace and Oxfam – rather than the lager companies or phone networks that you might find at other events. It remains proudly independent. But in terms of political interventions, the festival was quiet. No prominent speaker addressed the Pyramid crowd as Jeremy Corbyn, Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough have in recent years.

In both music and ideas, the offering at Worthy Farm was subdued. There’s no doubting that 210,000 people enjoyed a weekend of communality with live music in the warmth of the sun, but 2023 was no vintage year for Glastonbury Festival. That’s quite all right, though: not every year can be. And, of course, there’s always next time.

[See also: Emily St John Mandel’s Q&A: “I’m the person you want next to you in an emergency”]

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This article appears in the 28 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The war comes to Russia