“Jay-Z at Glastonbury? F’ing no chance”

 

How it is possible, with the right actions, to win over any audience

WRITTEN BY PLAYROOM CREATIVE ADVISER

TOM O’DONNELL

 

It is safe to say I am a Glastonbury veteran. I first went in 1993 when I was 16 and I have been going ever since. I haven’t missed a festival since 2003 and I even finished my honeymoon (via Venice) at Glastonbury in 2010.

For those who haven’t been, or perhaps haven’t even heard of it here in Norway, Glastonbury is a performing arts festival held on Worthy Farm in the village of Pilton, in rural Somerset. Hosted by a family of dairy farmers, not an international entertainment group, it started as a hippy gathering in 1970 and has grown to become one of the world’s biggest festivals. There are around 12 main stages but scores of other smaller stages and performance spaces that host a myriad of bands, DJs, poets, comedians, gymnasts, circus performers, politicians – you name it, you can see it at Glastonbury. 

 
 Jay-Z performing at Glastonbury. Photo by Jim Dyson

Jay-Z performing at Glastonbury. Photo by Jim Dyson

 

As an event production it takes 35,000 staff and volunteers to put on, with a further 135,000 ticket holders on-site. To put that into perspective, for one weekend a year the village of Pilton has a bigger population than the city of Middlesbrough who, until recently, had a Premier League football team. There are no corporate sponsors and the festival sells out every year, usually within ten minutes of tickets going on sale and that is before any of the acts performing have been announced. It is immense.

Anyone who has been will know that just one Glastonbury festival can provide a life-time of memories. It is almost impossible to pick out a highlight from the many years I have been going but since joining Playroom I have spent a lot of time thinking about actions and reactions. What we do, as experience creators, is to seek a reaction from an audience. We put in place a series of actions that we hope will lead to the right reaction for our brands. Applying this thinking to my personal experiences at Glastonbury I can’t think of a better action and reaction, than to that of Jay-Z in 2008.

Headlining Glastonbury’s main stage, The Pyramid, is often the highlight of an artist’s career. Bands queue up to play it even though they will earn a fraction of the money they would at their own gigs. The stage is held in such regard that it is “bigger” than any act who performs on it. When you are watching a headliner at Glastonbury you can feel their excitement. They know they are following in the footsteps of the biggest names in music. As an audience member you get the sense that it is as big a moment for them as it is for you. It is a magical two-way exchange. This is what sets Glastonbury apart from any other festival and it is what keeps me coming back every year.

Some of the biggest rock bands of all-time have performed on the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury but up until 2008, no hip-hop artist had headlined and it caused consternation to some. In particular to Noel Gallagher, who famously said in an interview “Jay-Z at Glastonbury? Fucking no chance” shortly after it was announced that he would headline the Saturday of the festival that year.

Gallagher was not alone. Many were outraged, particularly (I would imagine) the people that watch it on TV. To anyone who goes, Glastonbury is an event that is so wide-ranging that to say it belongs to a certain kind of genre is ridiculous. Jay-Z is one of the world’s biggest selling artists and he deserved his place on the stage. On the same ticket that year we were also getting Kings of Leon, The Verve, Elbow, Amy Winehouse, Editors, The Enemy, The Raconteurs and hundreds of other bands so it was not as if a guitar would not be strummed that weekend. Like most ticket holders I thought it was a great addition and a chance to see someone I might never see otherwise.

That said, I didn’t know Jay-Z. I didn’t know what he stood for, I didn’t really know his music. I was not a Jay-Z fan. I was a new audience for him and so were most of Glastonbury. The pressure was on and there is no doubting that he had an enormous issue on his hands, with artists queuing up to put the boot-in to the idea that a rapper would be headlining Glastonbury? The holy grail of rock music? The debate was front page news for weeks and whilst everyone had their say, one man was conspicuous by his absence. Jay-Z never said a word. He didn’t respond, he didn’t bite.

The lead-up to the gig was huge and the excitement in the air that night was palpable. What would Jay-Z do? How would it go? Looking at it from his point of view, the reaction he needed to create was to prove people wrong and win over this previously “rock and roll” crowd. The action he chose to create this was priceless.

 

This is the intro video that was played before Jay-Z entered the stage. It was not broadcast, apologies for the quality but it still worth watching.

 

Around the Pyramid that night, we noticed that many additional screens had been erected for Jay-Z’s performance. I think there were as many as 10 big screens all around the field. He kept us waiting long beyond his scheduled slot, as the pressure only grew, then out of the darkness a film started up. 

Featuring everyone from The Queen to the Pope, the two-minute film had a subtext of tolerance and understanding of other people and other cultures with The Beatle’s All You Need is Love gently playing in the background. It also, hilariously, included many of the terrible things that were said about Jay-Z in the lead-up to the show. It ended, in huge letters on every screen, with Noel Gallagher’s quote: “Jay-Z at Glastonbury? Fucking no chance”.

And his entrance? At the end of the film Jay-Z came out, carrying a guitar and did karaoke to Wonderwall. No words needed. The crowd went crazy and Jay-Z instantly made every one of us in that field a fan for life. He followed it up with 99 Problems at the end of which he asked the crowd, “I thought you didn’t like hip hop?” “Nooooo!” bellowed 100,000 fans back at him, and to the millions watching at home and, of course, to Noel Gallagher. 

That is one example of how the right actions create the right reactions. Google Kayne West’s performance at Glastonbury 2015 for an example of how the opposite is true.