Glastonbury: how to sell out without ‘selling out’

Sold. Ben Birchall/PA Wire

Why did the hipster burn his tongue on his coffee? Because he drank it before it was cool.

It seems like every year there is controversy over Glastonbury line-ups, and particularly over its Pyramid Stage headliners. Metallica (2014) were too metal, Jay-Z (2008) was too hip-hop, Beyoncé, Coldplay and U2 (2011) were too pop, bland and tax-avoiding respectively, and now Kanye West (2015) is, according to a recent petition, insufficiently rock to be Worthy of Pilton’s fields.

In each case the naysayers seem to be protesting against the worst sin in popular music – that of “selling out”. But what, exactly, does this mean, and why does it apply to some acts but not others?

Perhaps it refers to artists who sell millions of recordings, get worldwide airplay and pack out enormous venues. Kanye West, Beyoncé and Jay-Z are guilty as charged, but this definition would equally apply to past headliners such as David Bowie, Van Morrison, Neil Young and Arctic Monkeys. Is it about authenticity or autonomy? All of the above artists write (or co-write) their own material, but they also all use additional producers, and distribute their products through large international corporations such as Walmart, Spotify or Apple/iTunes.

White, male and authentic?

Historically, the overwhelming majority of Glastonbury headliners have been male, white, and carried guitars. This is, perhaps, a legacy of the festival’s 1970s and 1980s roots, where early headliners such as T-Rex and Hawkwind symbolised rock as counterculture. But that was a long time ago, and in 2015 it seems remarkable that Florence and the Machine represent the first British female-fronted headline act in 16 years, and only the sixth in the festival’s 45-year history.

In those early days, even the idea of paying for musical entertainment could be a challenge for the counterculture. Joni Mitchell’s Isle of Wight 1970 performance was famously interrupted by a hippie named “Yogi Joe” who declared himself “head of the official committee to paint the fence invisible”. But today, when premium accommodation costs more than £5,000, and consumers demand a 4G connection with the requisite corporate partnership, does anyone still believe that attending a music festival represents a countercultural statement?

If rock ever did pose a genuine threat to large corporations (and it’s difficult to find any evidence for this), today it not only coexists with capitalism, it can only survive because of it. And this can actually support non-corporate values and causes. Michael and Emily Eavis continue to use Glastonbury’s profit margin to make substantial charitable donations to humanitarian and environmental organisations such as Water Aid, Oxfam and Greenpeace.

Sheepish

The accusation of selling out is self-aggrandising. It suggests that the critical judgement of the accuser is more sophisticated than that of the masses. Followers of successful bands are defined as drones – unsophisticated sheep that follow the path of the marketeers downward towards the lowest common denominator.

If the music lacks “edge” (whatever that is) or shows signs of showbiz values, true believers have their evidence – although sometimes such a performance is so extraordinarily good that it melts the hardest of hearts, as Beyoncé proved in 2011. Older mainstream acts such as Tony Bennett, Shirley Bassey, Neil Diamond and Dolly Parton often manage to transcend cool and sweep the crowd along, although I would argue that this is less due to retro postmodernism than outstanding songwriting craft.

But if these seasoned entertainers can win the day through slick stagecraft and enduring hits, some fans value obscurity over popularity to such an extent that they don’t even need to hear any music. This was wonderfully highlighted in 2013 by Jimmy Kimmel’s sting operation at Coachella, where interviewers asked festival-goers about various new bands. Interviewees enthusiastically endorsed artists such as Dr Schlomo and the GI Clinic, Shorty Jizzle and the Plumbercrocks, Get The Fuck Out of My Pool, The Chelsea Clintons and Regis and the Philbins, not knowing that Kimmel’s team had invented all the band names. The concept of market scarcity, taken to this cultural extreme, creates value in artists that are, as Kimmel put it, “so obscure that they do not exist”.

Coachella 2013 - Lie Witness News (Jimmy Kimmel)

Survival of the fittest

Popular music and capitalism have always been uneasy and rather confused bedfellows. On the one hand, without consumer retail (of singles, albums, tickets, downloads or streams), there would be no income for artists and therefore no product. On the other, the music is aimed primarily at teens and young adults, a time of life when many of us awaken to the idea of countercultures. In the (much paraphrased) words of French prime minister François Guizot (1787–1874): “Not to be a republican at 20 is proof of want of heart; to be one at 30 is proof of want of head.”

The music itself is a leisure product, designed (or at least chosen) to slot emotionally into our lives, whether we be dancing, meditating, driving, falling in love, going to the gym or getting stoned. And nobody is immune to the market; where there are people who challenge the “sell-outs”, someone will sell them a product that suits that worldview. If we listen to music we are consumers; where there are consumers, there is a market. Glastonbury itself provides for every demographic – if you don’t like the mainstream stuff, there’s a smaller tent for you, its capacity and musical content perfectly judged according to demand.

For me, as a lifelong pop music fan and a cultural Darwinist, I’ve always been cheerful about that inescapable adjective “popular”. A large fan base is a hive mind, something like Wikipedia; it has checked the facts, agreed on a collective view – and then democratically filtered out the nonsense (in this case, the weak songs and the boring artists). If you want to hear an unfamiliar artist’s best work, check out their top five Spotify track streams.

I have argued that the popular song sounds the way it does through what Richard Dawkins calls memetic cultural transmission. Natural selection and market forces may be directly responsible for the music that speaks most effectively to our collective human spirit. If this ecosystem feeds on money, let’s not cut off the food supply. Glastonbury will always sell out.