Welcome to the City

Stalls at night, Glastonbury. (JAMES FLINT)

Stalls at night, Glastonbury. (JAMES FLINT)

Oh is this the way they say the future’s meant to feel?
Or just 20,000 people standing in a field?
— Pulp, Sorted for E's and Wizz

I went to two festivals this summer. Sonar, and Glastonbury. Sonar is a festival in a city - in Barcelona, to be precise. Glastonbury is a festival which is a city, though it only comes into existence for five days each year (and not every year, at that).

Sonar's very cool. It's split into two sections: Sonar by Day, which happens in Barcelona's Centre of Contemporary Culture, and Sonar by Night, which takes place in an Earls Court-style complex of indoor arenas about twenty minutes drive away by taxi or complementary bus, in Montjuïc. It's where you go if you want to get up to speed on the what's happening on the hippest fringes of electronic music. There are some live bands, but many musicians play to large audiences equipped only with a laptop. There are lots of DJs. There's a record fair: the magazine The Wire - that Bible of contemporary music - has a stall there. People are dressed minimally, but very fashionably. They exude Euro-cool, and are critical and perhaps a little bit snobbish about the music that they listen to. The food is good; the drink, plentiful. There are drugs, but no one makes a big deal about them.

Glastonbury is not particularly cool. Locals try to make it more cool by referring to it as Pilton, the actual name of the village in which it's held (some way from Glastonbury proper). This festival's where you go if you want to go somewhere where you can pretend there are no rules governing the way that you behave. In contrast to Sonar, once you're in, you're in - there's no nipping back to your hotel for a shower and a few hours kip. No one's that interested in talking about the music, beyond saying whether something rocked or not. You suspend your critical faculties, more or less - what you're looking for is energy and physical intensity. The Wire doesn't have a stall, and there is no record fair. People are dressed fashionably, but practically. There are many drugs, and people talk about almost nothing else - what they've taken, what they're going to take, what they want to take, what they took last year.

The new fence dominates. It leaps out at you as you crest the hill between the festival ground and the surrounding car parks, staggering under the weight of all your kit and look down into a valley filled with tents. Twenty feet of solid metal, it rings the camp like a giant steel ribbon, an absolute line of demarkation. There's no clambering over this one, not with the metal overhang capping off the top and the secondary fence of barbed wire awaiting you inside. This, you realise as you make begin to make sense of the giant festival ground laid out before you, isn't some bunch of hippies getting folksy in the woods. This is a fully realised town, with densely packed tent suburbs, a proper street plan, an impressive infrastructure of electricity, toilets, telephones.

It's interesting to see how Glastonbury has evolved. Even though it only pops into existence for those five days each year, it's followed the classic rules for the development of any burgeoning metropolis. Starting out at an effective crossroads - part virtual, part real - between the sacred and the cultural, for a long while it was little more than a gathering place, it's importance and significance reinforced through repetition. Where there are people, though, there is trade - and soon Glastonbury became two things: a cathedral town (its cathedrals the various sound stages), and a market town, where the continual trading - of refreshments, remedies, drugs, rugs, knick-knacks - jammed the paths leading to and fro between the sites of worship.

Soon. though - like all successful towns - Glastonbury's popularity became its biggest problem, and led it inexorably towards the next stage of urban evolution: the stockade. And after that, the fortifications. And the standing army of security guards. And the taxes to pay for it. This year at Glastonbury, there was no overcrowding. There were relatively minor toilet queues. Thefts were down, tents weren't stolen. Hardly anyone was mugged (except in the carparks and just outside the gates). Paying citizens all, we strolled around happy and relaxed, surreptitiously bourgeois in the knowledge - repressed, but present all the same - that the usual thirty-thousand uninvited guests wouldn't be piling through the barricades and placing an unmanageable burden on the just about adequate resources.

In a way, then, the Glastonbury experience really is a journey back in time, though not quite the one it purports to be. It takes you back, not to some marijuana-shrouded idyll with a soundtrack by Jethro Tull, but to the actual course of development of early cities, and to the slow but inevitable ossification of trade and barter into financial capital. In this way, the festival - now that the fence and sites like the Pyramid stage have become semi-permanent structures - really has come to resemble a pop Palenque; realise the fence and pyramid in stone, and you'd have the real thing.

So Sonar and Glastonbury are both urban experiences: while Glastonbury rewinds the tape of the city and replays it from the start, Sonar grabs hold of the infrastructure of the city and bends it to create a space for music. It's no surprise then, that in terms of relaxation, cultural input, drug-taking, logistical hassle and all round enjoyment, they rank about the same. In terms of branding, too: in order to pay for its fence, Glastonbury has sold its beer license to Budweiser, and now the only places you can get a drink are the handful of monster-sized red and white tents that flog that beer and that beer alone (oh yeah, and Carlsburg. Which doesn't really count as an alternative). In response to criticism that last year's event had become too overtly corporate, Sonar toned down its branding in 2002. Still, it's hard to believe that music can carry any kind of political message when the marquee in which you're listening to it is draped with in bunting provided by Levi's, one of the worst exploiters of the developing world's Special Economic Zones. On the other hand, when it's a choice of having some compromising branding or having no music event at all… I'm sure that every one of the people working their guts off to stage these things would've preferred it if this was a compromise they didn't have to make.

The compromise means, though, that any political and economic challenge to the status quo (if any) that these festivals now make is very different to the challenges they made in the past. It's at Glastonbury that this change is most marked; the prevailing atmosphere is no longer one of freedom and release, of ecstasis, anti-capital, primitivism, but of being a responsible citizen in a participitory community. People wander round respecting each other's space without being afraid of telling strangers off for pissing in the streams or otherwise polluting the place. It's a bit like being stakeholder, if you like - an experience that for all the rhetoric is sadly missing from the very different experience of living in Blair's Britain.

Cultural themeparks of a particularly sophisticated kind, Sonar and Glastonbury are now both in the business of compensating for this acutely contemporary brand of lack. Here we gather in large numbers, relax, retune our dopamine systems with the aid of various more-or-less effective drugs, update our fashion and music files, and treat each other with respect. Then we get in our cars and planes and trains, and go back to battling our way onwards and upwards through the real city, the one that's very far from being a quiet, participatory, petit-bourgeois town, the one that stretches pretty much unbroken now from Pilton to Barcelona, the one within which Glastonbury and Sonar and are popular and pleasant blips.

mute #25, November 2002