Glastonbury Festival rides live music wave

Retro future? Fans at Glastonbury take time off from their smartphones © Getty Images

As the biggest music festival of the British summer begins, fans who are usually plugged into iPods prepare to merge into a joyful, outdoor crowd. Is this why live concerts are booming?

There was no music festival near the Somerset town of Glastonbury last year. So when the gates opened yesterday on the 2013 festivities, expectations were high for a long weekend of jollity and craziness, with perhaps a little bit of campsite mud thrown in.

The Rolling Stones, one of the modern era’s most enduringly successful music acts, are officially the main attraction. But experienced festival-goers say the best moments can come when you discover a new band or singer in one of the other 100 tents where music, poetry and other creative outpourings can be seen and heard.

Rokia Traore may be the discovery of the year for some, whether they are staggering about in a field on Saturday morning, or watching the live television coverage. The singer from Mali has been invited to play as an act of solidarity, because the West African country’s musicians were banned from playing by Islamic fundamentalists who took control of its northern territories last year.

But as they enjoy the singing and the Somerset scenery, the campers may not realise that they are part of a significant economic trend: in 2008 ticket sale revenues for live music events overtook that from recordings for the first time, and since then new concert venues have opened. Even smaller British festivals like Latitude in Suffolk have blossomed.

There have been setbacks, as fans rebel against high prices for the big name tours, and exclusivity contracts limit the ability of bands to play several events during the same season.

But these business niggles cannot obscure the overall success story: perhaps we now listen to music alone through our permanently-plugged-in earphones, but more and more we then seek out a communal experience to see and hear our favourites in the flesh.

‘Compared to the way music is consumed and transmitted, it seems weirdly old fashioned and weirdly hard work,’ says music critic Alexis Petridis. ‘But you value things you’ve worked hard for.’

Others still see the concept of a ‘better’ way to hear music as altogether bogus.

High notes

For some, what matters is for the widest possible range of music to be available to the broadest possible group of people: if that means slightly declining audio quality, and everyone plugged into a solitary soundtrack on the street or the bus, then so be it.

But to a growing troupe of enthusiasts, nothing can match being immersed in a gig or a concert. The peak experience for this type of music-lover is to be found amid the damp and confusion of a summer festival in the open air, tramping through mud to find a tent from which celestial sounds and thrilling beats emerge.

You Decide

  1. Is Glastonbury still ‘cool’?
  2. ‘Live music has resisted the commoditisation that dragged down the value of recorded music, because every live concert is by definition a one-off event.’ What does this quote from the Financial Times mean?


  1. Draw up your own fantasy music festival lineup. You can include other art forms as well, if you think they would fit an outdoor country setting.
  2. Creative writing: write about an experience of listening to recorded music alone or as part of everyday life compared to any live music you have heard. Which do you prefer?

Some People Say...

“Even in a crowd, each person experiences music alone.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’ve never been to a festival or a gig.
OK, but it’s good to experience some sort of performance if you can: theatre, music or someone giving an inspiring talk. By definition, it’s a unique experience every time it happens, and it’s a way of participating in something with like-minded people. You may find listening to a recording of your favourite music is still great, but different.
Don’t criticise my earphones! I love my downloads!
Fair enough: you are certainly not alone. There are many music fans who believe each new development in technology has been an unalloyed improvement, from the first recording on a wax cylinder, through the mass production of vinyl records, then CDs, to the era of the digital download and the iPod.

Word Watch

Last year
Partly because of the London 2012 Olympic Games, 2012 was left as what the Eavis family, who have organised the Glastonbury Festival since 1970, called ‘a fallow year’. In farming, this means letting the environment recover before planting a new crop.
Campsite mud
The often awful weather of the UK summertime can result in the thousands of campers at Glastonbury taking an unintentional mud-bath: wonderful for the news photographers. Wellington boots are a festival must.
Business niggles
Of course, the biggest problem for the music industry in recent years has been piracy and crashing revenues from recordings. So this boom in live concerts has been very welcome.

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