"It was the news every 2020 ticket-holder was dreading: after Covid killed off Glastonbury Festival last summer, it won’t be returning in 2021 either. Depending on your social-media feeds, this either means cries of schadenfreudic glee or an excuse to whip out the favourite mud-splattered selfies from Pyramid Stages of yesteryear.
But those bracing themselves for another limp June weekend of archive material – and, worse, endless photos of gold leggings, captioned with hashtags such as #BigDanceEnergy – can be reassured: the prospect of a virtual Glastonbury will have been on the cards at Worthy Farm for over a year now, and the team behind the festival may have the perfect people to make it happen right on site.
While Glastonbury may have a reputation for blocked long-drops and throwaway tents, the festival has been pulling off technological marvels for decades, frequently sharpening the cutting edge of live performance every year.
This is no more the case than down in the festival’s bacchanalian south-east corner, where the night owls go after the main stages close. The so-called “naughty corner” was born of compromise: when founder Michael Eavis introduced the infamous fence in 2002, to prevent mass gatecrashing and the subsequent violence that ensued, a more lawless area was created to recreate the revelry some believed had been lost. At its heart, at the end of the old railway track that acts as Glastonbury’s artery, sits Block 9.
What emerged from a £2,000 budget a decade ago as a grubby stage-set inspired by the gay clubs of 1970s Manhattan has evolved into a juggernaut of live performance.
Founded by set designers Stephen Gallagher and Gideon Berger, who also go by the name Block 9, in 2019 the duo presented IICON, a 15,000-capacity venue that strived to re-invent the outdoor arena. “It’ll be part-gig, part-club,” Gallagher said at the time. “It’s a music venue, which is like being inside an artwork. Nothing is what it seems.”
To experience IICON was to stand in front of a gargantuan anonymous head, its eyes glazed over by a visor-like cube in which internationally renowned DJs performed, and be drenched in lasers and bass-lines before the sun came up.
“The whole thing is video-mapped,” Berger explained, “so we’re able to animate the surface of the head.” Kanye West may have floated above the Pyramid Stage in a cherry-picker designed by Es Devlin, but IICON was one of the greatest new additions Glastonbury had seen in years.
But while the festival is a beast of moving parts, all raised and lowered in a matter of weeks around the Summer Solstice, IICON had a future beyond Glastonbury. In 2020, it had been booked in for ambitious events in London, New York, Shanghai, Los Angeles and Sydney.
Obviously, the pandemic put an end to that. But Block 9’s founders have adapted to our newly Zoom-based lives and delivered something genuinely surprising: a virtual gig experience that gets near to the thing itself. The set designers have long worked with Gorillaz, Damon Albarn’s “virtual” band who have been stretching the realms of performance and animation since the late Nineties.
In December, the collaboration became truly virtual with Song Machine Live, three concerts performed over two nights in a smattering of timezones. Blending animation with Albarn and his band’s live performance, the gig raised the bar of what could be anticipated from virtual entertainment.
But Block 9’s arguably bigger triumph happened a few weeks earlier, when pop star Dua Lipa – herself something of a pandemic heroine, after the release of her kitchen-dancing album Future Nostalgia – lured in five million viewers to Studio 2054, a virtual gig that proved such things could be invigorating, rather than simply second-best.
Kylie, Miley Cyrus and FKA Twigs all appeared. Dancers defied the socially-distanced times by grinding up against one another. Elton John was beamed in. Rolling Stone magazine called it “the future of livestreaming”.
Could it be the future of Glastonbury, too? Lipa’s set was created entirely in Printworks, a club- and sound-stage complex in London’s Docklands. Surely, Glastonbury could create headline-worthy sets there for livestreamed performances in lieu of the real thing or, worse, another year of tired archive material.
The communality will be different in 2021. Rather than flags cutting the sky into rainbows, or the hiss of a flare, we will be all sat watching a live show on our sofas – or maybe projected onto a garden wall. But at least a virtual Glastonbury could offer something current and novel, something that does what the festival has long been famed for: pushing boundaries and making musical history.
That would be genuinely be something to look forward to."