One man’s cocktail break, they say, is another man’s expensive boutique camping meltdown. Never has this age-old truism been more apparent to me than at the Isle Of Wight Festival 2019, when I sat in the balcony bar overlooking the main stage, toasting the fact that I had an hour off rather than reviewing Jess Glynne. Instead I watched a field full of angry parents ferry dejected teenagers back to their overpriced bell tent for a 48-hour row about how they could’ve had a month in Maga for that money.
Now, no artist pulls out of a major festival appearance lightly. I’m sure Jess Glynne had legitimate reasons for cancelling her appearance at IOW 2019 at the last second, literally with her band waiting for her onstage. She’s since claimed she was suffering a haemorrhaged vocal chord, which is serious business for a singer who doesn’t fancy singing like the now universally despised Papa Lazarou for the rest of her career.
In the end, IOW organiser John Giddings issued her with an instant lifetime ban from the festival. She had pulled out of the 2015 event due to previous vocal surgery and didn’t show up to BBC Radio 1’s Big Weekend just a month before. In punctuality terms, she was starting to get a reputation as the warble-pop Pete Doherty. But crucially it was about sending a message. That you fuck around with festivals at your peril.
Festivals might feel like lawless wastelands out front – the drugs! The debauchery! The unlicensed roaming theatre troupes! – but behind the scenes they live and die by lockdown-level rules and regulations. For a start, they need to ensure a smooth-running event to maintain and develop their ticket base. Entire families will have planned their summers around that show, travelled across the country, spent their annual holiday budget and endured a full Tom Walker set to bag their spaces down the front. Why should they come back again, when Center Parcs never lets them down and you could set your watch by Dick and Dom at Pontins?
Plus, festivals have a whole bunch of flaming hoops to jump through just to keep their show up and running. Stages have big red clocks at the side and hefty fee penalties in place for turning up late or running over. One late-running set knocks the whole day’s schedule back, and if the good burghers of Ventnor are having their windows rattled by ‘Sex On Fire’ five minutes past the legally agreed curfew time, the 1950s colonels who run the Isle Of Wight might well kick the whole damn sack of hippies off the island with their Paolo Nutini and their Noasis up their arse.
Jess Glynne’s ban, then, was a necessary warning shot to keep the rabble in line and restore the trust of the IOW faithful. But she’s been more than apologetic about the whole farrago and no-one expected it to actually last a lifetime. We’re all reasonable people here; this isn’t a Twitter thread about statues. A couple of years on the bench would have made the point.
Instead, last week IOW made a u-turn akin to JK Rowling getting woke. “The Isle of Wight Festival and Jess Glynne have unfinished business,” they announced (in much the same way that I have unfinished business with Leonardo Di Caprio, having never met Leonardo Di Caprio) as they added her name to the IOW bill for 2021 – the very next event, it turns out, after her no-show. She had been ‘banned’ for precisely zero years, less of a slap on the wrist, more of a re-dated cheque. You might as well punish a four-year-old by confining them to Peppa Pig World, or revoke Channing Tatum’s shirt privileges.
By doing so, has IOW turned Jess Glynne into the Dominic Cummings of the festival season? Let one high-profile rule-breaker off scot-free, as we’ve seen from our desperate shambles of a Government, and your authority is shot to pieces.
Imagine, now, being the poor stage-managing lackey who has to go into Axl Rose’s dressing room, smash level 340,675 of Candy Crush Saga clean off of his iPad with a cricket bat and tell him he’d better have his screechy shirt-for-a-belt ass onstage 10 minutes ago because 50,000 kids have been pissing in their hands for three hours and it’s almost a new frickin’ tax year here. “Says who, asshole?” he might rightly sneer, “Jess Glynne?”
What real power now lies with the person making neck slicing gestures side of stage as The Red Hot Chili Peppers enter their 337th minute of past-curfew freeform funk jam? What’s to stop Morrissey getting out of the car 10 minutes to stage-time, noticing that he’s sharing a bill with Lambchop and flouncing off home in disgust, safe in the knowledge that he’ll be rebooked at his leisure?
And what if, like Cummings, Glynne’s booking sparks a nationwide free-for-all festival meltdown of sense and order in 2021? Like the country, it’ll be chaos. At any given weekender, The Cure will start playing on Friday afternoon and, despite all military efforts and the site being declared a hostage situation, will still be playing on Sunday night. If Foo Fighters are booked as well, expect the main stage to turn into a 48-hour endurance rock stand-off, Grohl determined to “rock all niiiight!” and Robert Smith resolutely playing ‘Pornography’ in full (three times).
Lower-bill acts will completely abandon the musical distancing guidelines of half an hour between each band and chain themselves to the amps until they’ve commandeered the slot they think they deserve. Security will quickly declare the situation ‘unpoliceable’, so every set will become a 45-minute stage invasion consisting entirely of the riff from ‘Seven Nation Army’. Reunion headliners, unable to stand the sight of each other for two hours straight since 1994, will assume they can get away with slouching on, miserably playing their one big hit, taking the money and running. After all, it can’t be one rule for Jess Glynne and another for the rest of us.
A festival, like a pandemic, requires totalitarian control for the benefit of everyone, otherwise the whole edifice collapses. So this sort of flagrant leniency poses the question, who’s really running music? Is Jess Glynne actually the shadowy puppet master behind the Isle Of Wight Festival? Find out in NME’s review of Glynne’s set at Isle Of Wight 2021, by Emily Maitlis.