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More than Music: The volunteer experience at music festivals

This week, Sophia Kesteven reflects on what it’s like to volunteer at one of the world’s largest music festivals, and why it's not just a free ticket.

Sophia Kesteven

I don’t like music festivals. In my experience they’ve been hot, sweaty, grimy events that smell of overused toilets and stale alcohol, where’s it’s socially unacceptable to sleep, tents turn into saunas and you sacrifice your dignity and bladder just to catch a glimpse of a band you only kind of think you like and know.

But I still wanted to go to Glastonbury.

Glastonbury, according to its world-wide reputation, is the music festival. It was up the top of my UK bucket list – a cultural experience that I needed to have at least once in my life; the kind of experience I could look back on in my old age and croakily whisper, “I was there, man.” The pedestal I put it on may have been heightened by the fact I knew it was essentially impossible to get tickets. Despite their cost (around £250), tickets to this years’ Glasto sold out in half an hour, and resale tickets in just 12 minutes. So I didn’t even try - not that I had the money to spend in the first place.

But there was an alternative route I hadn’t considered: volunteering.

A few weeks out, a friend asked if I’d want to volunteer at Glastonbury for the charity she worked for, it was a no-brainer. “It would be work!” she warned, but I didn’t care. I didn’t even care what bands were playing; I would get to experience the festival of a lifetime and all I’d have to do was talk to people about a good cause. In fact, the idea of having a job to give shape to my days made me more excited about going to a music festival; it would give me a purpose other than drinking and overcoming choice paralysis.

So, if you want to volunteer your way into Glastonbury for the free ticket, or you’re like me and want to enjoy music festivals with a purpose, the following are things you should consider before putting your hand up:


What You Know

You don’t have to know everything about the charity before you go. I didn’t know much about the organisation I worked for before I went, but I did my homework beforehand equipped myself with the basic facts, key stats and interesting figures - things that would get people in, get them interested, and ideally get them to support the organisation. And because you’re in a group of volunteers – some of whom will have done this before and actually work for the organisation – there is always someone you can turn to for support or to defer to when a punter asks a tricky question. Make sure you know enough to feel confident in at least starting a conversation - you can figure the rest out once you’re there.

That said, it pays to have past volunteering experience, the kind wherein you have to approach strangers, smile, find ways to engage them, and not be afraid of rejection or making a fool of yourself. Again, watching the more experienced volunteers in action means the nerves of approaching people soon dissipate, and you find yourself longing for a punter to give you a bit of pushback, a strange question, or an interesting hypothetical such as: “but what if the bad guys fire a nuclear missile at us? Don’t we need to fire one back?” (Answer: if the bad guys fire a nuclear missile at us, we’re screwed anyway – do we really want our last act on Earth to be the murder of innocent millions?)

The best volunteers I worked with were very personable, easy-going, and didn’t hesitate to get the attention of anyone and everyone walking by. So used to avoiding and feeling sorry for ‘charity pests’ on London sidewalks was I that I was surprised how often blatant techniques worked – simply asking if they knew much about the organisation, if they had time to chat about our campaign, that sort of thing. People in festival mode are more open, more willing to talk to strangers, and have more time to fill than they would otherwise; whether this is because of the intoxicating atmosphere or intoxicating substances, I’m not sure.


Smile Like You Mean It

I may not have known much about the organisation before I agreed to volunteer, but by the time I’d done the research and was in the middle of the festival (right next to the Pyramid Stage, I might add) I found I genuinely cared about what I was saying. This made all the difference. Had I not cared, even the six-hour shifts would have become painfully tedious. So my advice would be to volunteer for a cause/organisation you care about. It means you’ll bring energy to the work after the sleepless nights; passion to your conversations that will better engage people; conviction that will persuade people to support your cause, and also make the entire experience that much more enjoyable.

On top of that, caring about what you volunteer for means you’re more likely to make a difference. Unlike usual sidewalk-bound volunteer roles like flyering or trying to get petition signatures from people you’ll never see again, you will be able to see your efforts pay off. My most gratifying Glasto experience was when an ex-military man returned to our tent after having an intense discussion with some of our volunteers the day before. He’d been talking about what we’d said with his wife “until 4am,” and had completely changed his mind on the issue. He now wanted to sign up and support us. It’s often hard to believe you can change people’s minds, or that people will admit to having them changed, but it is possible, and these are the kind of hopeful human insights a festival like Glasto provides.


I Should Be So Lucky

As far as volunteering roles go, mine was pretty swish: an assured camping spot in a prime location with all meals catered. My shifts were at most 6 hours long with an hour lunch break in the middle, so I was finished well before most major acts were on. However, I got lucky. Not all volunteering roles are the same, and how jammy the role is depends on how involved in the overall running of Glastonbury the organisation you volunteer for is.

Oxfam is the main volunteer recruiter and carries out most of the mundane tasks – traffic co-ordination, information, crowd control, general supervision of revelry, etc. This means shifts run round the clock. I spoke to volunteers who were trying to enjoy their day off with a 2am to 10am shift looming over their heads. Depending on where you’re stationed, this could be 2am-10am sitting in a field trying to give directions to mind-addled campers.

But sitting in a field isn’t the worst job in the world. That, in my opinion, is of course that of toilet cleaner. Yes, people actually volunteer for this role. I saw some pretty gruesome things at Glasto, but the brave people with WaterAid somehow face it head-on and keep the entire festival from becoming a ‘festy’-val (not sorry).

Another necessary but frustrating job is litter-picking. Every night the crowds depart the fields in front of the main stage, and the litter pickers slowly gather all the crushed bottles, cans, wrappers, etc. just in time for the next day when the crowds amass in front of the main stage and toss away their bottles, cans, wrappers, etc… I’m sure the volunteers appreciated Tame Impala’s Feels Like We Only Go Backwards this year.

There are of course other charmed opportunities if you can get them. WaterAid also keeps people hydrated, and as far as I could tell the role simply involves manning the stalls, filling water bottles, and giving out temporary tattoos. One girl I met (I forget the group she volunteered with) simply kept watch over the cows, and another got a free ticket by babysitting while there. The chef in our camp just had to cook dinner (albeit for 22 people) and ensure sandwich ingredients were laid out in time for lunch.

So before you start looking for next year’s opportunities, look up exactly the kinds of roles you might be asked to fill, whether you could create your own (à la the babysitter), consider what skills you could bring (à la the chef), and ask yourself whether you have the stomach and stamina for them.


We Can Be Heroes

Despite the sleepless nights, despite the toilets, despite the heat and lack of showers, volunteering at Glastonbury was everything I could have hoped for. It just might have convinced me to give festivals another go.

A final thing I’d say is, depending on the organisation you’re volunteering for, you’re not just at Glastonbury for you, or to have a wild time. You’re there for the people you’re working for, for the revellers, but also for the wider world. You could be there for people without toilets and fresh water, or there for sick children, or the environment, or, as I was, for the safety and flourishing of the entire human race. If you want to get to festivals for free, volunteer. If you want to get into festivals for free and enjoy yourself and make a difference, care about what you volunteer for.

Sophia Kesteven recently did some freelance work for nfpSynergy after finishing a year of philosophy and environmental science at UCL. A recent emigre from Perth, Australia, she hopes to work in the third sector after graduating (and not just for free festival tickets). 


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