A Conversation with Emily Eavis, Co-Organiser of the Glastonbury Festival

Emily Eavis, Glastonbury

This interview originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of British Airways ‘Business Life’

It’s 1970, the day after Jimi Hendrix died, and Michael Eavis (a dairy farmer) invites revellers to his field in Somerset.  Tickets are £1, and more than a thousand people come for dance, poetry, music, theatre and entertainment (oh, and free milk from Worthy Farm’s very own cows).  Fifty years later, the festival has turned onto something astonishing.  For those few days, a ‘city’ of more than 250,000 people emerges onto 900 acres of countryside, joined by viewers from 40 countries around the world; together they form the largest outdoor green fields event in the world, the Glastonbury Festival.

To this day, the Glastonbury Festival remains a family business.  Emily Eavis is the co-organiser of the festival. She grew up on Worthy Farm (where the Festival takes place each year) and from her teenage years onwards, she has played a vital role in every part of the organisation, booking artists across the main stages, coordinating the many different areas and making the magic happen for nearly 200,000 people on site – as well as millions watching live on the BBC. Emily founded The Park – now one of the most popular areas at the Festival – in 2007. Passionately committed to Glastonbury’s charity partners, Oxfam, Greenpeace and WaterAid, Emily has visited projects in Haiti, Mozambique, South Africa and Japan, as well as promoting many fundraising live events across the world. She also spearheaded the Festival’s 2019 much-heralded ban on the sale of single-use plastic bottles.

2020 marks 50 years since the start of the festival, and Emily and her Dad Michael chronicle their journey in their new book Glastonbury 50 (joined by contributors including Adele, JAY-Z, Dolly Parton, Chris Martin, Noel Gallagher, Lars Ulrich and Guy Garvey).   I had the pleasure of catching up with Emily to learn more about the Glastonbury Festival, and being a part of a unique, global, family business.

Q:  How do you define the Glastonbury festival?

[Emily Eavis]: The festival and the perception of it are very hard to pin down, they mean so much, in so many ways, to so many people.  If you ask one person what Glastonbury means to them, it will be a very different answer to another.  One of the most precious aspects of Glastonbury is specifically that we can’t put our finger on it.  It’s evolved slowly over 50 years to become what it is today – we’ve tried things that have worked, some have not, and allowed it to evolve.

Q: How do you feel about being custodian of the Glastonbury brand?

[Emily Eavis]:  It feels to us that the festival is owned by the people, and me and my Dad are kind-of custodians of it.  In that sense, it’s a bit like a sailing ship… me and my Dad drive it, but the ship is made of a few hundred people – our key organisers and creatives, who build each part of the ship with their own vision.  It’s actually really quite incredible

Q: How do you balance commerciality with community?

[Emily Eavis]:  Obviously, Glastonbury is a business, and as a business we want to provide the best possible experience for people and make it the best value for money.  We’ve never been driven by money though, and the culture of the festival puts the people first.  Most of the money we make is ploughed back into the festival, and we also give a lot to charity, around £2 million a year.

When it comes to the local community too, it’s important to remember these are people we know – people we live with all year long.  If someone in the village has an issue, they’ll turn up, or make an appointment, or we may see them at the bus stop you know? We’re interconnected as a rural community, and we’re close. As we’ve grown and our team has got larger, we have even better communication too – it used to be the case that they’d just call my Dad, now we have a whole office – and a team who just look after local issues too.

Glastonbury is a unique live experience – we create the largest green-field event in Europe, a city, that comes together like a parallel universe where people have these incredible, precious, live experiences.  That’s the heart of what we do.

Q:  What are your views on technology at festivals?

[Emily Eavis]: The most important part of being at a festival, is being completely present in those moments.  If you put your phone in your pocket, you’ll probably have a better time.  We don’t push social media, we don’t put hashtags on screen, we don’t encourage people to use those channels, because it’s all about being there… being present… and not missing what’s happening around you.  If people want to be in their social channels, that’s totally fine – but my view is that sometimes putting your phone away is better and enables you to have the best time!

Q:  Did you always see yourself as destined to take-over the festival?

[Emily Eavis]:  It’s easy to forget where we were in the 1990s (during my teenage years).  The festival was never designed to carry on for very long, my parents were going to stop in the year 2000- they wanted to retire and walk away from the farm, the festival… maybe have a quiet life somewhere.  When my Mum died, everything changed – I came back home, and the festival became a lifeline for me and my Dad.  Even at that point though, we never thought we’d still be doing it in 5 years… it was very much a ‘see how it goes…

I never, ever, thought – even remotely – that I would make this festival my life.  It was never seen as something that would run forever – and was something which was very much done ‘by the seat of our pants’ you know? It was a miracle if we got through, one year at a time….

Q: How have you handled the succession in leadership between you and your Dad?

[Emily Eavis]:  Succession has been a very, very gentle process.  If we’d have written a business plan and stuck to that, it would have been a disaster.  We’re not a typical business, we don’t have a board of people that are involved, every decision is pretty much me and my Dad – and that makes things a lot easier, we can guide the ship, make the turns we want and nobody can really stop us.

We’ve always been motivated by the same ethos – doing what’s right for the festival at all times, working with charity, and not being motivated by money and lifestyle.  We’re just very ordinary, down to earth people!

The relationship between me and my Dad has also meant we’ve never really had any big showdowns and disagreements, it’s been a very gentle, natural, gracious process of leading together.

Q:  How do you communicate and inject your personal passion into the festival?

[Emily Eavis]:  My Dad has always been incredibly trusting and has allowed me to do things like ban plastic bottles at the festival.  That was a huge leap, and something a lot of people didn’t think would be possible, but it was enormously satisfying, and shows organisations and festivals that you can make changes and you can pioneer ideas.  I want to make sure we are the first people to break old, negative patterns of behavior that are- in many ways- lazy.  It would be easy to not tackle things like plastic waste, but the consequences of not tackling it are huge.

Our team is made up of people who have been here for 30, 40 years and some who are new.  It’s a mix of ages, a mix of experiences, and it’s just a wonderful place to be – you never know who you’re going to find in the office each day.

Q: How can festivals pioneer social change?

[Emily Eavis]: Glastonbury is a unique set-up, it’s a city of 200,000 people within walls… it’s a place where people come to be a part of something… something greater than the sum of its parts… it’s much more than a festival.

People come to Glastonbury and can try out ways of living that can be rolled out across the country.  This year, we worked a lot with Coop – they wanted to sell sandwiches and I told them they absolutely could not use plastic packaging.  They developed a biodegradable sandwich wrapper that’s now being rolled out across stores.  Those are the kind of real-world positive changes that we can encourage people to make.

The people that come to Glastonbury are an amazing, generous crowd.  They’re positive, and social change is a joint effort between us and them.  If we can make a change at the festival, then why not across a whole city like Oxford, it’s the same size!

Q:  How do you manage your own resilience?

[Emily Eavis]:  Growing up with the festival has- I guess- made me pretty well adjusted to the highs and lows of the year, and what it takes to put on a show like Glastonbury.  It’s such a varied job, and every day we’re dealing with issues that are exciting and interesting – but you can be on a real high one day, and plummeting the next, it’s a hard job – but an amazing one – and you have to be well-adjusted to it.

Q:  What have been the most iconic moments of the festival for you?

[Emily Eavis]:  I always talk about David Bowie as being this kind of real moment in 2000, but every year there are moments which blow you away – Stormzy this year was incredible not just as a show, but as a moment of British cultural history.  Moments like that spur me on, give me energy, and make me realise we’re doing something important that has to continue, that cannot stick to safe formulas, and must expand and push boundaries.

Q:  What is the legacy of the festival?

[Emily Eavis]:  Glastonbury means different things to different people, but for me, there’s something really life affirming about bringing people together who can live peacefully, without conflict, for 5 days in the middle of the countryside with pretty basic facilities, leaving feeling like they can change the world. It’s so empowering… that feeling of people together… I hear stories all the time of life changing moments at the festival, about people who have changed their habits, their lifestyles, their campaigning…

I want to make sure we continue for as long as we can; the times we live in make the festival more precious than ever, we need it… we need to retain its integrity, its dignity, and its force for good.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.