Music

'It's not boring s**t for old people': How Glastonbury is trying to get festivalgoers to use their vote

The founder of Glastonbury festival's legendary Block9 area explains how music, politics and the general election can combine

Revellers at Block9, Glastonbury Festival

Away from TV cameras, Block9 offers a taste of Glastonbury's activist, hedonist heart. Image: Kamil Kustosz

“You shouldn’t think of it as being some boring shit for old people,” Stephen Gallagher says of voting and democracy. This year, the set designer has a new mission: getting ravers at Glastonbury to vote.

Since 2007, Gallagher has, along with Gideon Berger, put together Block9, one of Glastonbury festival’s stalwart dance areas. Perhaps more than a mere area, it’s a festival within a festival, part of the late-night South East Corner, celebrating LGBTQ+ culture and dance music. Home to the IICON stage, Genosys, and NYC Downlow, this year will see Bicep, Roni Size, Confidence Man, Eliza Rose, Honey Dijon and more perform to the tens of thousands who find themselves in the intense corner of the Somerset festival.

Returning for its 17th outing at the festival, Block9 will be hoping to channel the power of partying to something concrete. Along with hundreds of hours of pulsing beats, lasers and half-remembered conversations, Gallagher and co combine activism and protest with a good time.

 “Vote for freedom, vote for the freedom to love whoever you want to love. Vote for anti-racism, vote for a ceasefire. Vote for whatever those things are that you want, and that you’re passionate about for your life,” he says.

“Doesn’t matter what they are. This is the opportunity for you to be able to say, this is what I think and feel, and find the right party or politicians, and give them your fucking vote. That’s what it’s about. It’s not something separate to everything else.”

The IICON stage at Glastonbury, held down by 30 tonnes of ballast. Image: Martin Perry

As the Big Issue has explored, the upcoming general election could be marked by apathy, with experts predicting low turnout. The 18-24 and 25-34 age groups had the lowest turnout in the 2019 general election. Yet they are receptive – turnout among these groups has increased in each election since 2015, a trend not shared by older age groups.

With the return of the full Genosys stage this year, the bus formerly used as the Genosys Sound System will be transformed. Activist artwork from Gallagher will adorn it and it will serve as an information point, pushing festival-goers to use their vote. Alongside this, artist Katharine Hamnett will display work made specially for the festival and answer questions from would-be voters.

“I feel like the message will seep in, and there’s an opportunity to engage with it more if you want to. You can stop and talk to somebody about it and get information. It’s also a photo op – the artwork is beautiful, and I’m sure people will take photos and share it on social media, and I hope they do. That’s sort of the point really,” says Gallagher, who expects the drive will be more effective between 8pm and midnight, “before everything really kicks off.”

Music and politics aren’t as disparate as detractors might suggest, says Berger, especially with an election coming up. The momentum of the 2017 election, for example, saw zeitgeist-y artists come out for Labour in the Grime4Corbyn campaign.

Image: Kamil Kustosz

“The idea that, to separate stuff out, oh here’s the heavy stuff over here and it’s separate to the stuff which is fun. Going on a march or protest, it’s actually quite a lot of fun. It might be a march for something or against something, but if you use the tools that are available to you, you can have an amazing time while also doing something really deep and meaningful,” he says.

“I don’t think those two things are necessarily independent or separate to one another.”

One side of Glastonbury is a space for hedonism, live sets streamed on the BBC to millions, and a “you-had-to-be-there” cult appeal. But with its partnerships with Oxfam and Water Aid, there’s an activist side to the festival

Block9 combines these. Genosys, a distorted, cuboid tower block of a stage, is back after a multi-year hiatus. Legendary queer venue NYC Downlow, one of Glastonbury’s cult venues, takes the form of a “seedy New York bathhouse-cum-meatpacking warehouse circa 1982”, as it is described this year. The area is rooted in LGBTQ+ culture, and as the festival returns this year, politicians are making increasingly regressive statements, jokes and policy promises about trans rights. Against that backdrop, what’s it like running a celebration of queer life in a field in Somerset?

“I hope that the stuff down here has had a general positive influence, in terms of visibility,” says Gallagher.

“It wasn’t even about highlighting particular issues, it was just about making things visible that weren’t visible. And making them available to people. It’s about building community, and people knowing there are other people who may think or feel similarly to them. I think that is the main thing that I have personally always pushed for and championed – be who you fucking want to be. Be honest, and be true to who you want to be. For me, that’s the thing we should all be trying to push for and support. That’s the main thing for me. Anybody trying to curtail people’s rights to do anything – if it has no negative impact on people, leave them to it, support them to do it. Why not?”

Gallagher also hopes Block9 has played some role in the origins of house music being recognised more prominently.

“When house music first hit in the UK, I was 17, 18, that sort of age. No one really talked about it being born of gay clubs,” he says.

“They never really talked about it having a gay connection or heritage. That has changed. I hope that maybe NYC Downlow, the presence of the Downlow, was part of that shift, starting to talk about that stuff.”

Yet there is also a warning. “On the flipside there is the potential negative or corporate claws finding a place to grab hold of those things, and taking something that’s born of culture and people and turning it into a commodity,” he says. “And that happens all the time – you see it in all sorts of genres and walks of life. If there’s a fast buck to be made on something, people will do that. That’s something to be pushed against, and we will definitely continue to push against that. It’s not what we’re into.”

This summer has not been smooth sailing for arts festivals. Barclays pulled out of sponsoring Download, Isle of Wight, and Latitude in June, after a boycott from bands. Acts due to play Download pulled out of the metal festival in protest at Barclays work for defence firms supplying arms to Israel. The investment firm Baillie Gifford ended its sponsorship of literary festivals including the Hay Festival and Stratford Literary Festival after a campaign from Fossil Free Books.

Glastonbury does not have a corporate sponsor, and although tickets this year cost £355 – up from £248 in 2022 – Gallagher says the festival’s leadership has done well to stand firm.

“To try and do that in a world climate of commercialisation and rampant capitalism, and everything being a commodity. Buy, buy, buy on Amazon all the time. Buy more shit, get more shit made in China. Get tons and tons of crap sent over in containers,” he says.

“To try and remain independent and push against the sponsorship deals that are being offered all the time must be very difficult for them.”

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