How the BBC’s Glastonbury coverage is bringing new audiences to artists

From June 28-30, the BBC will once again be delivering vast swathes of Worthy Farm content to the masses. Year after year, its coverage of the festival expands further and further, serving up live performances from countless acts across its live output and on-demand services. Put simply, there is no other live music event on the planet that receives such comprehensive coverage. For fans of the festival who either couldn’t get a ticket or simply prefer to watch from the comfort of their own homes, this ever-broadening spectrum of Glastonbury programming is excellent news, but it’s also come to represent a significant opportunity for artists to reach huge new audiences beyond those in the fields. Of course, for the likes of this year’s Pyramid Stage headliners Dua Lipa, Coldplay, and SZA, this may not apply to the same extent, but for those gracing the smaller stages or taking to the Pyramid or the Other stages before the sun starts to set, there is a real chance to attract new fans.

To find out how the BBC has, and continues, to set the standard for live music event coverage, Headlinercaught up with the BBC’s executive producer of Glastonbury for TV, Alison Howe (pictured far left), for a look behind the scenes at how this ground-breaking coverage is meticulously constructed…

How did you arrive at the role of executive producer for Glastonbury for TV at the BBC?

I feel quite blessed to be in this position. And I also feel quite lucky that it's been something I've done for a while. I've worked in some capacity for the BBC at the festival since 1992. I started off working on the BBC radio side of things before BBC television or indeed any television was at Glastonbury. And then I moved into television and have worked through. I think because of that, I have this beautiful synergy with the festival itself and the BBC coverage, in that we've all been allowed to sort of grow together exponentially. It's always hard when you're presented with a great big event and how to capture it. And if you've never done it before and you just go straight in, it can feel all a bit overwhelming. But we've had this nice journey together over the decades. I've grown, the festival has grown, and the BBC coverage has grown. We've taken the journey together.

And what does the role entail?

What I essentially do is keep an eye on everything, but I can't do that in intimate detail. So, like anybody who's running a big event, you have to have a lot of really talented people to do lots of different things. And you're there if they have any issues, but you can't be across everything. It's all happening at one time. So, particularly for the Thursday, the Friday, the Saturday and the Sunday, I would predominantly spend my time in what we lovingly call the BBC compound, which is the heart of our BBC operation.

A lot of the broadcast trucks are there. It's immediately behind the Pyramid Stage and not far from the Other Stage. It's where all our production teams plan and it's where our iPlayer channel is broadcast from and where all our radio networks and our colleagues are.

I essentially live there. I don't go out because that's where I need to be. I can be dealing with a broadcast issue or, primarily, what I do is deal with all the artists.

So quite often there might need to be a meeting with a headlining team in the Pyramid area about camera positions or the broadcast or just anything that comes up. So, I can't really go too far because I need to be in amongst all that.

We can give artists a really good window to a new audience. Alison Howe

How challenging is it working with headliners’ teams? Is there a degree of negotiating expectations as to how their artist’s show is represented on TV?

Every artist operates differently. And some artists will have played at Glastonbury before or been on the Pyramid Stage before. So, they'll come back with an understanding. And then there'll always be artists who have never done it before. I don't ever think of it as challenging. It's really one of the best bits for me. A lot of us work on music productions all year round. So, we don't just pick up talking with artists and then stop talking; it's sort of what we do daily, whether it's for Glastonbury or whether it's Jools Holland or other music shows.

The things that are challenging are the things that none of us can determine. The weather, the flags, all the things that, when an artist does their own show, they perhaps feel a bit more in control of in terms of what they can do. But when it's a festival, it's a multi-artist show. You've only got so much time. And the Pyramid structure itself is very unique in the world of festival stages.

And then we've got to work out all the camera angles and the best way to shoot what they want to achieve. That's the challenge every year - a big show needs to work for the people who are in the field as well as those watching offsite.

Are there any particular years or moments that stand out as being especially successful or difficult for you and the team?

The weather obviously plays a huge part. We're going back nearly 20 years, but 2005 was a pretty tough year. Coming on to site on the Friday morning, ready to do three days of live coverage with a with a brand new set that year, which had taken a lot of work, and then to be greeted by one of the security team to say, are you sure you want to come onsite today? And then to get to our BBC area to find that set underwater. That takes a long time to forget that. And, as you can tell, I haven't forgotten it!

But equally, there's been so many glorious moments. I just feel so proud of what Glastonbury means to people who watch it. I love seeing artists I would never usually get to see. Because the thing we try and do as music lovers and as TV producers is to look at the bill and then instantly start planning how to share it. There will always be the big names with big slots on television, and they're important to us. But what I also love is when you look down the other stages or you look earlier in the day and you pick out artists and you think, do you know what? We can give them a really good window to a new audience.

I was chatting this morning to Jo Wiley about a band called The Mary Wallopers who are this great Irish band. Last year, they were playing on one of the smaller stages and they came into the BBC studio and did a great late night live performance. And a whole new audience saw them that would never have seen them on television otherwise. Then subsequently, they've really grown and they're coming back this year and they've got a bigger slot on the festival and they'll be filmed properly with all the cameras. And that's the stuff to me that makes it feel really special. Who wouldn't want to do that as a job?

The thing that makes it interesting each year is the line-up, because it's always going to be different. You look at someone like Little Simz, who's got this amazing penultimate slot on the Pyramid Stage before Coldplay. Or you're talking about some totally brand new artists who are coming, or just the blessing of artists like Cyndi Lauper or Shania Twain, who just will be great fun. You always remember the last festival and we all feel incredibly proud of the Elton John show and how many people watched it and how magnificent it looked.

And I still have fond memories of Beyonce in 2011, because that just felt like a real moment. In terms of the audience who were watching the Pyramid Stage at that point and the amount of women that were in the front row. And we've all got a soft spot for Coldplay, because, as Chris Martin says, they are effectively the house band. There's just lots of different bits and it's hard to pick one or two. But I'm sure if we chat again next year, there'll be some from this year that will suddenly become new, great memories.

Do you ever have any time just to go out and explore the festival?

It is hard because the minute you think you're going to go somewhere, something happens, and you feel bad and you don't want to leave people.

On the Wednesday onsite, as long as the weather's nice, we try to have a little walk around the whole site because it has such a lovely vibe. It's just a real anticipation in the air. And you can walk around and see all manner of things that you wouldn't normally get to see. There are not many big performances. And if I can, I love trying to get to West Holts before it gets too busy, because it's such a great vibe over there. And they have such a fun mix of artists.

I will try and do that, but I'll be honest, in recent years, I've done that thing that you should never do at Glastonbury, where I've looked at the schedule and I've written down a time. And I'm thinking I'm going to go and see that act at that time. And by the time I get there, they've either just finished or the times have changed. I really just walk around at those times with no particular plan. And if I get to do that, then I'm happy.