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Is Glastonbury still worth it?
The once anti-establishment festival is now as mainstream as it gets, but that's not enough to put off 140,000 revelers
Around 140,000 people will begin piling into Worthy Farm, Pilton, today for Glastonbury 2013.
Back after a London Olympics-induced hiatus in 2012, this year’s music festival sold out in just one hour and 40 minutes, punters paying over $300 for the privilege.
Clearly, Glasto is as popular as ever.
But with mortgage-rock bores Mumford and Sons headlining, it’s hard to shake the feeling that a festival once renowned for its anti-establishment credentials and as a hangout for shower-shy hippies has become a lame, mainstream attraction.
Mobile network EE is now a sponsor but, last time out, Orange's cringeworthy “chill’n’charge” tent carried a mural about the hippie dream.
Hardly what Ken Kesey had in mind when driving across the United States with his Merry Pranksters, bombed on acid.
Corporate sponsors and exclusive camping areas make it feel less like a summer of love free for all and more like a modern city in microcosm -- complete with social inequality.
More music festivals on CNN
Poet and performer Yanny Mac, who started going to Glastonbury in 1989, says he’ll never go again and isn’t retiring when asked why.
“It's an internment camp for lost braying sheep and businessmen who profit from overpriced cigarette papers and bottled tap-water,” he says.
“Like most things it has been over-commercialized, but Glastonbury's security and prison-like walls also lend it a disgusting ‘captive market' ethos.
“If it's hot and dry near the Dance Tent, bottled water prices soar to £5 (US$7.70) an item," he adds. "If it rains, the same unscrupulous dealers will sell you poorly made gum-boots for over £30.”
Those “prison-like” walls were thrown up in the wake of the 2000 event, when the crowd swelled to 250,000 people.
Whether hiding in hay bales on the back of tractors or posing as staff, thousands managed to sneak in and catch David Bowie’s classic set, causing chaos in the process.
Since then, security has become crucial for the festival.
Tickets come with photo ID embossed on them and a registration scheme stops scalpers flooding eBay with unwanted passes. That’s led to a huge rise in prices, making Glastonbury unaffordable for many.
It’s also led to an increasingly vocal brigade of Glastonbury-goers bemoaning the passing of the good old days.
There’s always one wild-eyed trooper, wrapped in a blanket, rocking back and forth and incanting “Glastonbury ain’t what it used to be,” much to the amusement of tipsy revelers at the festival’s stunning Stonehenge-like Stone Circle.
Because while Glastonbury has changed, it still has an aura attached to it that other UK festivals simply can’t match.
A lot of that comes down to its diversity.
While the world’s most average bands might ply their trade on the Pyramid Stage, The Park still serves up must-see alt rock, while the Healing Fields remain a home away from home for folk still living the Haight Ashbury dream.
“My feeling is that people moan about how it’s changed, how it costs more money and there’s not the kind of social mix there once was,” says Joe Dunthorne, author and Glastonbury-goer since 2002.
“But in fairness to Glastonbury, they have made an amazing effort to create interesting and innovative new areas. All the late night zones are astoundingly good.
“I’ll never forget when the Shangri La area had a Blade Runner theme and it was like being part of some futuristic noir film. It had a great end of the world vibe.”
Dunthorne says it’s the wild variety of what’s on offer that makes Glastonbury so good.
The huge size of the site means you can easily escape the bits you don’t want to see, he goes on.
Don't like? Move on
“I can see why people gripe, but I would say they’re just going to the wrong bits of the festival. If you’re having a rubbish time, go somewhere else, there’s always somewhere more suited to you.”
It’s these smaller areas that stand-up poet Luke Wright, who’s performed at the festival every year for the past decade, says make Glastonbury what it is.
“I ignore the festival that gets written about in the music mags. For me it's about The Green Fields, the cabaret tent, the stone circle. I love going up to the highest point of Worthy Farm and looking down on the weird, colorful town.
“And there's always at least one music act that is unmissable. It's still magic, and it will be as long as the hippies are still there.”
There’s no escaping the fact that Glastonbury is now one expensive proposition.
The whole five-day bender can easily hit you for in excess of $1,000. And its sponsorships and demand economy can at times make it feel far less egalitarian than it was even 10 years ago.
But thanks to its scope and huge spread of acts, it’s easy to escape the so-called boring bits, the bits every other festival serves up, and experience something different.
Just remember to pack your wellies and make for the hills when Marcus Mumford’s banjo starts ringing in your ears.
Glastonbury Festival 2013 goes from June 26-30; tickets are now sold out