“It’s the ultimate battle of the bands!” – why Glastonbury’s Emerging Talent Competition is more vital than ever

As Glastonbury returns this summer, as does its annual competition to help emerging artists onto the lineup. Emily Eavis and this year's worthy finalists discuss the need initiatives like this, and how it can change careers. Words: Rhys Buchanan

“It’s absolutely glorious down here on the farm”, beams a jubilant Emily Eavis as she picks up the phone to NME on a sun-soaked spring day in Pilton. Things might sound tranquil enough in the world-famous valley as birds chirp away in the distance, but she’s quick to chuckle at the sentiment. “We have over six hundred people on the site today alone! Every area is just packed out at the moment, with people producing these incredible creations for this year.”

She holds back a peal of giddy laughter before explaining how it feels as the festival gears up for return after two years off due to the pandemic. “It’s wonderful to be back, the whole place is buzzing with excitement and anticipation. It’s amazing how quickly everything comes flooding back, it almost feels like no time has passed at all. Everybody is more grateful than ever to have Glastonbury back and to be working on it, it’s really something we all need.”

The long-awaited 2022 festival also sees the return of its annual Emerging Talent Competition, a submission-led chance for fresh-faced talent to play at the legendary bash – looking to impress a panel of industry experts, artists and festival organisers help select the yearly winner. With past winners including the likes of Declan McKenna, Flohio and R.A.E, the process receives thousands of budding entrants all hoping to bag a slot at Worthy Farm come June.

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Eavis says the harsh climate musicians have faced through the pandemic made it essential in bringing the competition back. “There’s been such a shortage of live music and new bands have really suffered as a result. So to be able to offer something really solid and give an opportunity to play at the finals and potentially at the festival is really exciting. The new music side to the festival is something I’m really passionate about and I love opening that up to the new talent.”

For a festival that’s long provided game-changing early moments, from Oasis’ swaggering brink-of-greatness 1994 set on the NME Stage through to IDLES‘ life-affirming emergence on The Park Stage in 2019, what makes this outlet of discovery so crucial? “It’s about capturing them at the very earliest stage of their careers, right at the start,” says Eavis. She adds the process can carve a unique bond between the festival and artist, referencing 2015 winner Declan McKenna who will return again for his fourth performance at Worthy Farm this year.

“That’s a really important part of it, we feel really proud to see Declan’s career rocket like it has because we always have had that kind of special relationship with him, from when he was just a small boy,” Eavis chuckles, before casting her mind back to the performance from a fresh-faced kid with his eyes set on the stars. “He was like 15 or something! Often artist’s careers have already changed by the time June rolls around; we always make a point of going down to see the winners and finalists when they come to play the festival as well.”

Emerging Talent Competition winner, Lewis McLaughlin and Emily Eavis

Weeks later and we’re on site in the village’s beloved Working Men’s Club for this year’s event (April 30); you practically taste the cocktail of nerves and excitement as the finalists pull into the car park from around the country. Eavis describes the showcase as something of a curtain-raiser. “It’s like the opening gig to the festival because we work all year planning it and when the Emerging Talent Competition final happens, it’s like the beginning of the season of Glastonbury.”

That sentiment is shared by the finalists who are loving their glimpse of village life. Leicester based singer-songwriter SOFY explains, “we’ve just been to look at The Pyramid stage from the top of a hill and it’s so surreal because we’ve been thinking about this day for such a long time.” Leeds art-punks English Teacher are on a similar wavelength. “It’s been such a nice day that it’s calmed us down, we just went over and sat in a church yard which was really pretty. It’s like the ultimate battle of the bands!”

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Eavis says hosting the live final a stone’s throw from the site itself is also of great importance. “It’s a very unusual situation to have such an international music festival on the edge of a very small village, so when people come down, they can see that they’re playing at the local club and they get a real sense of what it’s really all about. The final is always a brilliant night; everyone comes out and there’s always a real camaraderie between the bands who perform.”

The array of talent on show tonight feels like a microcosm of the festival’s proudly diverse and genre-dispelling booking team. Take the slick punk grooves of English Teacher, the intensity of drill-infused rapper Crae Wolf or the storytelling of Amahla. Eavis says that balance is important when selecting the final eight from a longlist which have been selected by some of the country’s top music writers. “It’s always so hard whittling them down, but we’re so pleased with these finalists. It’s such a high standard and very contrasting, so it gives a real insight to the diversity and the breadth of the talent at the festival.”

It’s not just a place at the festival at stake either; the winner also receives a £5000 talent development fund from PRS Foundation. Although 2020’s competition winner R.A.E is yet to fulfil her festival performance, the Londoner is finally looking forward to her moment in the limelight. “It feels like the right time now, I never got to perform at the finals so this is my chance to prove that they chose the right person.”’ She says the funding has been game-changing. “It was so helpful because I’m completely independent and I don’t have the backing of a label. Even just being able to run campaigns around the EP and make it the best it can be.”

CEO of the PRS Foundation Joe Frankland stresses this need is intensified in the wake of the pandemic. “​​Grant funding is more vital than ever. We’ve got a great track record of being able to give support to artists and creators when they most need it and the impact of that funding has been huge but way more so over the pandemic. It’s more important than ever now that we’re coming out of that and returning to live. There’s still a massive financial need out there.”

He continues: “​​The ETC been so huge for so many different artists, the main thing is the slot at Glastonbury but we sit down with them afterwards and help them plan the next steps of their career. The instant recognition you get as the winner of this competition means having money to support that next step is really crucial.” He says making the final is invaluable even for those who don’t take the top slot. “There are very few opportunities to play to all the stage bookers at Glastonbury and some external judges like Huw Stephens under one roof.”

Come the end of the night, tears of joy are flowing as Edinburgh-based songwriter Lewis McLaughlin is announced as the winner of the 2022 Emerging Talent Competition, having instantly won the hearts of the judging panel with his gut-punching and raw indie-folk sound that takes influence from John Martyn and Frightened Rabbit. His squeal is so high you can barely make it out as he exclaims to his band – “The drinks are on me tonight, let’s get pished!” Even better: Eavis says the standard of performance “was so high” that all the finalists will get to perform at the festival this summer.

So, Lewis, how does it feel to have won the ETC? “I’m without words, am I dreaming? I’m amazed. We were up at five in the morning travelling down from Glasgow for this, I can’t believe it. I was just so happy to have made it into the final, and I’ve had amazing conversations with so many people tonight. It’s going to be a dream come true stepping out and playing at Worthy Farm, I could have never imagined this would be happening so early into my career.”

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