One evening towards the end of 2013, I was walking up the hill from the farmhouse with my husband, Nick, when we got the email we had been waiting for. I can remember exactly where I was when we read it, looking out over the valley below. The email said that Prince had confirmed to headline Glastonbury. We walked the rest of the way in an ecstatic daze, as we’d been trying to get him to play for as long as I could remember, but it had never looked as if it was going to happen. Until now!
Prince’s promoter in the UK had even told us in a very direct manner that Prince would never play our festival. But we never gave up on it, because we knew how incredible it would be. We just thought, if we can get Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder, then why not Prince? And finally we had him! The funny thing was that there was an incredible sunset that evening, and the sky was completely purple. It felt like a sign.
But only a few days later, we got a message saying Prince had changed his mind. One of the reasons was that, not for the first time, a newspaper had run a story saying that he was playing Glastonbury, which they used to do pretty much every year, along with the Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd rumours. His lawyers thought we’d given the story to the press to promote ourselves, which we would never do. Nor was it in our interests: we’d already sold all of that year’s tickets. We deliberately don’t announce acts before they go on sale. We want people to come because they want to be here to experience the festival for everything it has to offer, not because one particular act is playing. Music is fundamental to this festival, but there is so much going on here beyond that.
The great thing about not announcing the lineup before the ticket sale is that people will discover acts they wouldn’t normally go to see: Metallica in 2014 and Stormzy in 2019. When we announced Stormzy was playing, there was a lot of outrage about him not being suitable or ready, but I think you would struggle to find anyone saying that after seeing his show. After all the drama and conflict there had been in the run-up to him headlining, there was nothing better than seeing him smash it on that Friday night and walk off the stage a superstar.
Headlining Glastonbury is a curveball for some of the more established artists, too. We have massive acts such as U2, Beyoncé or the Rolling Stones, who don’t usually play outside of their own huge shows. Suddenly they’re playing as part of a festival bill that wasn’t announced when the tickets were sold. It makes it quite nerve-racking for them. I’ve heard acts talking about the jeopardy of a big Glastonbury set. They have to come out, pumped up like a prize fighter, and work extra hard to put on a great show and win over the crowd. I think that’s a big part of what makes so many Glastonbury sets so memorable – they have a real edge.
The Jay-Z furore in 2008 probably took that to a new level, and it hasn’t really stopped since. We had it all over again in 2015 with Kanye West. As soon as we announced that he was playing, a petition sprang up – started by someone who had never been to Glastonbury – saying Kanye shouldn’t play because he wasn’t right for us. The media jumped right on it. That kind of negative story will always get clicks and attention, but the coverage becomes self-fulfilling, too. Again, we had to reassure the people around the artist that it would all work, that these stories don’t reflect the attitude of people coming to the festival – or in the UK, for that matter. It’s just a load of hot air.
The criticism we got that year was pretty extreme. And a lot of it was quite personal, as people knew I booked the acts. I was an obvious target. As the child of the founder of something, you’re always going to be criticised, because you’re perceived as doing things differently to how it was done before. I’ve had to try to develop a thick skin about it, as it can get pretty unpleasant on social media. You can’t please everyone, and the haters tend to be the ones shouting the loudest. I actually had death threats in 2015, which seemed a little harsh – especially given that we had booked what we considered to be one of the most exciting and innovative artists of his generation. But it worked out for Kanye in the end.
It was a lively night – he arrived in a whirlwind with the Kardashians, and he had plans to go up in a cherry picker crane during his set. But even five minutes before he was due to go on, he hadn’t decided whether he would actually use it. It all felt very unpredictable and I had no idea what to expect. It was probably one of the most divisive gigs we’ve had. Although it didn’t fully connect with everyone, I loved that it was totally uncompromising and original and bold: it was unlike any other show we’ve had here.
He did end up using the cherry picker. I’m not sure how well that came across on TV, but in the field, with Kanye rapping from this huge crane above the crowd, it was awesome. If you’ve ever been up in one of those things, you’ll know that it’s enough of a challenge just to stand there and hold on for dear life, let alone rap to 100,000 people. He’s incredibly ballsy.
Kanye’s set also led directly to Adele agreeing to headline the following year. I’d been trying to persuade her, but I think she was unsure. She didn’t really need to do it: she was already playing stadiums, and with her it almost seems like the less she does, the bigger she gets. But I think that deep down she wanted to, as she’d been coming to Glastonbury since she was a little kid. I walked her on to the platform next to the stage just before Kanye came on, and we looked out at this huge crowd chanting his name. I said: “Are you ready for it? Come on. Next year?” And she looked at me with a twinkle in her eye and said: “I’m gonna do it.” It was such a brilliant moment.
Part of the excitement of creating the festival year on year is that we don’t know how long it will go on for. It’s like walking a tightrope, trying to keep everyone happy: the crew, the local community, the neighbouring farmers, the council and the emergency services. In 2016, when we had the relentless rain and mud, it was one of the most challenging years we’ve ever had. I had a conference call with the authorities at 3am on the Wednesday, and some people were suggesting we should close the festival. It is really hard to make clearheaded decisions in situations like that, especially when everyone’s working incredibly hard and not getting much sleep. But we managed to convince them we were definitely going ahead, even if it did feel quite touch and go for a few hours.
The 2016 festival also saw the EU referendum result on the Friday. It was a really emotional year. There was an opinion poll done on site, which found that 83% of people at the festival had voted remain – including me and my dad – and a lot of people felt quite broken when the result came through. It was like they needed Adele and Glastonbury to help them through. And she gave us one of the most heart-wrenching headline performances I’ve ever seen. She had such a connection with the audience that it felt as if she was out there in the crowd herself. And Christine and the Queens played on the afternoon of the referendum result and seemed to capture something very wonderful and European amid the doom and gloom. She was fantastic, and the whole set was totally joyous and uplifting.
I think a lot of people stayed on site longer that year to postpone going back to the real world. It took a few months for a lot of our crew to recover. Everyone who works here pours a vast amount of energy into creating such a spectacular show; when conditions are hard it definitely takes longer to come back down to Earth afterwards. The festival completely takes over my life and the lives of my kids; there are so many reminders of how it was for me when I see it through their eyes. It can take over your whole body and soul.
I’m proud that, throughout all the changes and the dramas, we’ve stuck to our principles. We’ve had so many speakers and campaigners over the years championing the messages of equality, fairness, sustainability and caring for each other. Our roots are totally on the left. We’ve never been quiet or embarrassed about that. Throughout the 80s, we campaigned like mad, with a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament logo on top of the Pyramid stage. And that campaigning has continued, whether it’s speaking out against Brexit or pushing environmental campaigns.
Millions of people were made aware of our green initiatives and plastic bottles ban in 2019, and it’s had a genuine wider impact, particularly thanks to Sir David Attenborough talking about the ban from the Pyramid stage on the Sunday afternoon. We’ve already seen other organisations and events around the world being pressured into following suit, with the words, “Well, if Glastonbury can do it …” We’ve always wanted to use Glastonbury to make changes for the good of the planet, and it feels like we really managed it in 2019 – on a grand scale.
Who knows what lies ahead and which new paths we will take with the festival, but whatever happens, our ethos will remain true to what it has always been. As we head into the next chapter of Glastonbury, we want to keep moving forward with sustainability at the heart of it all, creating an alternative universe for five days in which you can be whoever you want to be. Surely there’s nowhere better on Earth.
Glastonbury 50 by Michael Eavis and Emily Eavis is published by Trapeze (£30). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020 3176 3837. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.