Glastonbury organisers Michael and Emily Eavis fear they could be in serious financial danger if the festival was cancelled again due to coronavirus.
Speaking exclusively to the Guardian to mark the festival’s 50th anniversary, Michael said: “We have to run next year, otherwise we would seriously go bankrupt … It has to happen for us, we have to carry on. Otherwise it will be curtains. I don’t think we could wait another year.”
Emily said they would be in a “very serious situation if we had to cancel next year’s event, but then the whole live industry will be hanging in the balance if we have another summer without festivals, and we don’t know what level of government support there will be for this industry”.
But she said she was optimistic: “We’ve navigated choppy waters so many times. This festival has always evolved and found ways to survive, and I’m confident that we will again. Mutate to survive!”
The 2020 edition of the festival, with Paul McCartney, Taylor Swift and Kendrick Lamar lined up as headliners, was cancelled in mid-March as the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic became clear. Ticketholders could apply for refunds or roll the tickets over to next year.
Eavis, 84, said that without the income from 2020, and with charity commitments needing to be funded, the festival’s financial reserves would struggle to withstand another cancellation. “We haven’t got unlimited resources – we carry enough to float the next event.”
Emily said “cancelling 2020 obviously cost us a sizeable sum of money”. She said they had “drafted and modelled four different [contingency] plans for next year”, but couldn’t yet give further details.
She called on the government to refund 2020 event licence fees, saying “the return of those fees, which can be tens of thousands of pounds, would offer a financial lifeline to many events”.
She added: “The UK government is going to need to step up and support the British arts more broadly. This country’s venues, theatres, festivals, performers and crew bring so much to this country financially and culturally, but they need support now. Otherwise, I think we face the very real possibility of so many aspects of our culture disappearing forever.”
Michael said that the festival had “all sorts of irons in the fire” regarding approaches to run the 2021 event safely. One would be to partner with Melvin Benn, the one-time Glastonbury co-promoter who now runs festivals including Reading and Leeds, Download, Latitude and Wireless, on a testing scheme that will allow ticketholders on site after they’ve been shown to be virus-free. “We’ll piggyback on to that scheme if we can … that’s a last resort I think,” Michael said, adding that he was hopeful for a vaccine.
Emily said conversations with Benn and other promoters were still informal, “to compare notes”, but it was “too early to say which options we will take. We will certainly do whatever it takes to put on a safe, successful event.”
Benn confirmed he had spoken with Michael Eavis, and said his scheme would involve using an NHS-linked tracing app, that ticketholders would show at an extra security gate before entering the festival. He heralded the “huge step forward” of saliva-based self-testing kits, and said: “I’m 100% confident about next year, literally 100%, because the government will successfully pursue one of three options: cure, vaccine or testing,” he said, adding that app-based entry to events “will become the new norm. This isn’t just about Glastonbury, it’ll be the norm if you want to go to the movies or Pizza Express. I do think of it as plan B – plan A is a vaccine or cure.”
He acknowledged that some potential attendees might still be worried. “Those who are vulnerable will question whether it’s the right thing to do to go into one of those full, sweaty, big tops. But the vulnerable are a relatively small number of people. I don’t see any sign of fit, able people, young or middle-aged, losing any confidence, about the outdoors in particular.”
The Eavises’ costly charity work includes the building of social housing in Pilton, the village next to the festival site: “Lovely, pretty, stone-built properties – there’ll be 53 of them altogether, in this little village that was always a bit posh, really,” Michael says. “That’s something I’m really keen on doing, involving quite a lot of money. We’re also opening the first shop in the village for about 20 years, so that’s a huge thing.” He also said a new reservoir is being built for the festival to improve its water supply.
Asked if he would be marking the 50th anniversary, he said: “We’re not celebrating ourselves, because we’re working on next year at the moment, flat out. We’re so busy there’s not a moment to spare. It’s not like we’re sitting around staring into the blue sky.”
He reflected on how far the festival had come since its debut in 1970, when tickets were £1 each for 1,500 attendees – the event now attracts more than 200,000 people each year, including workers. “It’s an extraordinary journey, really,” he said. “I got the public on side with what we were doing, politically and emotionally, which was the key to success. And it wasn’t a profit-making, shareholder-dividends thing, it wasn’t that sort of show. It had a sense of purpose. But apart from all the goody-goody stuff we do, the show itself is absolutely brilliant.”
Plans for next year include an expanded version of Glastonbury-on-Sea, the seaside pier attraction that jutted out from a hillside – “It’s going to be even better next year, there’s more robots coming from Berlin” – but there was no mention of which artists might return from this year’s cancelled lineup. “We’re just looking forward to next year – we’re not regretting anything.”
Emily said that they were looking to expand their environmental initiatives regarding waste, having banned the sale of single-use plastic bottles in 2019. “People like Coca-Cola, big drinks companies, tend to be resistant to not using plastic, but we got there. It restores your faith: if you ask the public to get on board with a massive environmental move like that, people generally do. Reusable cups is our next big subject, but we also need to stick with the plastics, and retain that level of commitment,” she said.
She also said the festival is committed to diverse lineups of artists, and cited Stormzy’s headline set in 2019 as being a reminder of that commitment, particularly the moment he paid tribute to a long list of British rappers. “When he was reciting those names, I was thinking of all the people watching at home, thinking: this could be a place I could go. It felt like a turning point for us. Every now and then you need to shake off the past a bit and renew and think about the future.”
She said she received criticism for booking Stormzy, who was thought by some not to be a good match with the festival, or not worthy of a headliner slot with only one album to his name.
“One of the sides of the festival that is more challenging is the opinions that you get – the negativity,” she said. “There was a dad who came up to me at our local school, and he was like: you shouldn’t have Stormzy, you should have the Stereophonics … He started really ranting, like he was banging a hammer over my head. Somerset is a really, really white area, and it doesn’t really reflect the rest of the world, this rural farming area where we live. So to put a festival on that introduces people to a whole new type of music, but pushes it on, that’s what I want to do.
“These live events are crucial to this country’s culture. They mean so much to people, and we need to do whatever it takes to preserve them.”