Glastonbury 2021 is yet another casualty of Covid-19. In January this year it was confirmed that for the second year running, the festival would not take place as a result of the ongoing pandemic. For the world-famous Glastonbury – as with so many other events – the impact of social distancing, restrictions on gathering and the risks of planning an event only to have to cancel it have proved too great.

In March, the festival organisers announced that an alternative event would take place, featuring live performances from globally renowned artists on famous Glastonbury landmarks (including the Pyramid Stage), live from Worthy Farm. The only difference to previous festivals is that fans would not be present on site, but would instead buy tickets to log in and watch the festivities from home.

With this announcement, Glastonbury is entering the Fourth Place – and becoming probably the most famous occupant of it.

The Fourth Place refers to leisure events and activities that have origins in the real world, but are moved online. This move changes them. Attending a pub quiz in your local or on Zoom are essentially the same activities but are very different experiences. The same goes for attending a spin class at the gym or accessing one via Peloton.

Live events – like Glastonbury – are also moving into the Fourth Place. The 2020 Proms were an online affair, and myriad galleries, museums and other festivals have moved exhibitions and shows online, allowing their audience to buy tickets and walk through their galleries or sit in their theatres while at home. What is particularly interesting about Glastonbury’s charge into the Fourth Place is the organisers’ obvious desire to keep it connected to the physical festival and to curate the experience to make it work as well as possible for the viewer at home. The performers will be stationed at iconic landmarks on the site and the event is being partially billed as a film, directed by an acclaimed film maker. This isn’t your ordinary live-streamed concert.

In the words of co-organiser Emily Eavis, the virtual event is designed to provide a connection to Worthy Farm itself: “this [year] is really us delivering a film to the public, so that people can get a different insight and view, follow this story and see the farm as they’ve never seen it.”

In keeping this connection, the organisers seem aware of the balance between risk and reward in Fourth Place activities. By going digital, the festival can reach an even larger and truly global audience. But global reach can diminish the importance of place – proximity just doesn’t matter in the Fourth Place, unlike traditional Third Places – so keeping the experience wrapped up in the venue itself is essential to preserving the essence of the festival.

In the midst of the pandemic, digital events are inevitable as venues find new ways to stay connected to their audience. The real test for the Fourth Place is whether or not these digital events evolve into hybrid offers – a choice of ‘real’ or virtual tickets – when the pandemic is firmly behind us.

For that, it may be Glastonbury 2022 – or even later – that gives us our proof.

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