Music festivals have solidified their place as true pop culture phenomenons. Traveling far and wide, 32 million people go to at least one U.S. music festival every year, according to Billboard, and millennials only make up 14.7 million of those festival-goers. So how did we get here? Climb aboard the magic bus, it’s time to travel through the evolution of music festivals.
1. 1954: Newport Jazz Festival Brings World’s First “Modern Festival”
The Newport Jazz Festival, first held in Newport, Rhode Island in 1954, has commonly been seen as the first real example of a modern music festival in the world. It created a model that other festivals would follow for years. The festival attracted an unexpectedly large following: in total, 13,000 people showed up over two days.
Newport Jazz Festival featured jazz-based discussions by day, and such legendary acts as crooner Billie Holiday and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie by night. While many might think of “counter-culture” and have rock music festivals instantly come to mind, it was this jazz festival that first made that connection. The wealthy residents of Newport were apparently aghast to see young students sleeping in tents or just sleeping tentless outdoors.
2. 1959: Newport Folk Festival Expands America’s Festival Culture
The same man that was responsible for bringing the first modern music festival to the United States, George Wein, was also the entrepreneur who introduced the second festival of its kind. Wein, the owner of a jazz bar, noticed that folk music was having a big moment. What started as an idea to bring more folk singers into his club quickly evolved into an all-out festival.
From this moment, the festival world began rapidly expanding, as people were seeing and recognizing Wein’s surprising success. The first Newport Folk Festival’s lineup included Earl Scruggs, Joan Baez (who was 18 at the time), and Sonny Terry. But it was not until 1965 that the festival really gained attention after Bob Dylan played an electric set. At a folk festival? Gasp!
3. 1963: Reading and Leeds Festival Was Open To More Genres
The English music event that is now known as the Reading and Leeds Festival found its genesis under far more humble beginnings, and under a different name. While the festival that music lovers know today officially began in 1955, it had evolved into an entirely new festival by 1963.
Reading and Leeds was known as the National Jazz Federation Festival in the early 1960s. But in 1963, organizers of the event began opening up their lineups for other, non-jazz performers, adding none other than a very young rock band called the Rolling Stones to the bill. The organizers quickly saw an uptick in ticket sales, and by 1969, there were no more jazz performers at the National Jazz Federation Festival.
4. 1967: Monterey Pop Festival Turns A Festival Into An Experience
Contrary to its name, the Monterey Pop Festival in California has largely been considered the world’s first major rock festival. It was also one of the first festivals to truly create a “you had to be there” experience, and the idea that going to a three-day music festival could be a total escape from the outside world.
And while many other festivals took years to really gain hype, the Monterey Pop Festival delivered right off the bat. Jimi Hendrix famously set his guitar on fire during a performance of “Wild Thing,” The Who played their first major U.S. performance before smashing the guitars and equipment, and Janis Joplin had what would later be called the “breakout performance” that launched her career. So yeah, one just had to be there.
5. 1968: Summerfest Draws Record-Breaking Crowds To Festivals
Milwaukee’s Summerfest was the brainchild of the city’s mayor at the time, Henry W. Maier, who wanted to bring an Oktoberfest-type event to his own city. The event would combine music acts with a film festival, pageants, and an elaborate air show. And his crazy idea ended up proving to be a success: massive crowds turned out for the first Summerfest.
While it would not reach its peak status for years, Summerfest continued to draw crowds time after time. Finally, in 1999, three decades after its creation, Summerfest set a world record for the most attendees at a North American music festival. Over 11 days, a whopping 1 million people came to the event.
6. 1968: Isle of Wight Festival Puts The UK On The Rock Festival Map
Sure, the National Jazz Federation Festival in the UK was already popular among music fans. But with so much talent coming out of the island, it was not long before the Brits began to prove themselves as real competition on the music festival front. And boy, did they make a point. The Isle of Wight Festival, which began in 1968, steadily increased in size as it gained popularity.
By 1970, the festival drew 700,000 people (that’s actually more than Woodstock, by the way). Artists like Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Miles Davis, and Jethro Tull all performed at the Isle of Wight Festival. The influx of concert-goers caused the British Parliament to pass the “Isle of Wight Act,” requiring planners to have a license for events with over 5,000 people, changing the show forever.
7. 1969: Woodstock Becomes The Most Famous Music Festival Ever
No music festival in history has changed the industry and remained in the public conscious like the Woodstock Music & Art Fair. The festival took place on a dairy farm in Bethel, New York, featuring 32 acts. In the lineup were such titans of music as The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Sly & the Family Stone, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Joan Baez, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, The Who, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, to name a few.
Jimi Hendrix closed the show after days of rain and mud, bringing his now mythical rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” to the stage. But no one knew that Woodstock would turn into the phenomenon that it ultimately did. The organizers originally sold 200,000 tickets, but when 500,000 people arrived, they were forced to improvise. The fence around the 600-acre property was removed, and Woodstock became a free concert.
8. 1970: Glastonbury Ushers In The “Free” Festival
While Woodstock ultimately turned into a free festival after an influx of attendees, tickets had originally been sold for $24 at the door (that’s about $170 today). It was actually the Glastonbury Festival in southwest England, then known as the Pilton Festival, that began the “free festival” movement in earnest.
Attendees for the festival in England only had to pay £1 for a ticket, and entry oddly enough included unlimited free milk from the farm that held the event. During these humble beginnings, only 1,500 people turned out to the Glastonbury Festival. Now, over 200,000 people attend Glastonbury each year, tickets cost about £248, and performers include Wu-Tang Clan, Kanye West, Miley Cyrus, The Killers, and Janet Jackson.
9. 1970: Pinkpop Brings Consistency To Festival Life
For most of the festivals that began in the 1950s and 1960s, there were times when the events took hiatuses. Take, for example, Glastonbury, which did not hold a festival some years because the farm where it had been held needed time to recover from thousands of dancing revelers. But not Pinkpop, one of Europe’s largest music festivals.
Pinkpop holds the record for the oldest and longest consecutive running music festival in the entire world. The festival takes place in the Netherlands, and organizers originally drew people to the show by offering free apples and a pig roast. Now the perks are a little more grand, with lineups that include the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Guns N’ Roses, and Ellie Goulding.
10. 1971: Roskilde Expands The Festival World
Denmark’s Roskilde Festival was truly an event made for the youth, by the youth. Two high school students originally came up with the idea after seeing the success of music festivals in the US and UK, and decided to bring festival culture to Scandinavia. And for years, it has continued to be Northern Europe’s largest music festival, forever expanding the festival world map.
The 1971 inaugural Roskilde Festival featured 20 bands, many of whom were Danish performers. In the beginning, the audience consisted of mostly Scandinavian attendees. But nowadays, Roskilde attracts festival-goers from all over the world to a small town in Denmark. In 2019, headliners included Bob Dylan, Cardi B, Travis Scott, Robyn, The Cure, and Janelle Monáe.
11. 1985: Live Aid Turns The Entire World Into One Festival
So does anyone need anymore proof that the 1985 Live Aid concert/benefit was one of the most incredible music events of all time? We’d guess not. The event, created to raise funds for Ethiopian famine relief, was a worldwide phenomenon. Nearly 2 billion people watched the concerts on television, and nearly 200,000 saw either of the two concerts live. Elsewhere, dozens of other benefit concerts were held all over the world.
The London concert featured performances by Elvis Costello, Sade, Sting, Phil Collins, Paul Young, U2, Dire Straits, Queen, David Bowie, The Who, Elton John, and Paul McCartney. The Philadelphia concert featured Joan Baez, Black Sabbath, Run DMC, The Beach Boys, Santana, Madonna, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, and Tina Turner. It just doesn’t get much more epic than this!
12. 1985: Rock in Rio Ushers In A Whole New Generation
Festivals are supposed to bring the embodiment of freedom — from free concerts to free love. But for the inaugural Rock in Rio, the festival marked an entirely new freedom for its host country Brazil. In 1986, Brazil regained civilian rule after 21 years of living under military reign and hosted its first Rock in Rio Festival.
And the event made quite the entrance into the festival circuit. The city built an entirely new, gigantic complex fit for stadium shows in order to host Queen and AC/DC as headliners. Rock in Rio put South America on the map, ushering in a new generation of festivals, as well as a new generation of freedom through musical expression.
13. 1987: South By Southwest Introduces The City-Wide Festival
Ever since music festivals began, their presence in whatever town they were held could be felt far beyond the festival’s entrance. Businesses surrounding the festival, as well as bars, hotels, and restaurants, all feel the pressure when a swarm of festival-goers come to town. But Austin’s South by Southwest was the first festival to become a truly city-wide event.
The concept behind South by Southwest, or SxSW for short, was that smaller concerts would take place in smaller venues throughout the Texan capital. Those with tickets could walk from location to location to watch different satellite shows, rather than spending the entire day standing in one dairy field.
14. 1990: Burning Man Turns The Public Into The Main Act
While Burning Man organizers are adamant that the event is “not a festival” (instead, they say, it is a community), it nonetheless deserves a spot on this timeline. The first version of Burning Man as it is known today took place in 1990 as a “Dadaist temporary autonomous zone” in the same Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada where it is still held.
The organizers do not book headliners or create any of the entertainment. Instead, the public are the headliners, arriving in their droves with face masks to keep out the desert sand. It is up to the people who attend the festival to create art, provide performances, and build the temporary city where the whole festival takes place, creating a radical experience that one truly has to see to believe.
15. 1991: Lollapalooza And The Touring Festival Alternative
Unlike other festivals that were either one-time concerts or annual events that took place in a set location, Lollapalooza has always set itself apart. The annual festival, planned in 1991, was originally slated to be a farewell touring festival for the punk metal band Jane’s Addiction, which would perform alongside other bands deemed “alternative.”
The traveling festival toured the United States and Canada throughout the summer. Jane’s Addiction performed with bands such as Nine Inch Nails and Ice-T. But beyond the music acts, much focus was put on the non-musical aspects of the festival, including political and environmental vendors, art installations, Shaolin monks, and a circus side show.
16. 1994: T in the Park Marks The ’90s Festival Boom
Annual festivals and single festival events were cropping up slowly but surely, but it was not until the mid 1990s that festivals in the United Kingdom experienced a true boom. The few that did take place could not compare to the colossal events that were happening on the other side of the Atlantic. In 1994, there were only two recurring music festivals in the UK.
But that was about to change in a big way. That year, Scotland’s T in the Park festival began. It paved the way for the handful of festivals that would come after. For its inaugural event, performers included such seminal artists of the decade as Björk, Rage Against The Machine, Cypress Hill, and Blur.
17. 1995: Warped Tour Brings Out The Pop-Punk Crowd
Warped Tour, now known as The Vans Warped Tour, began in 1995 and took a page out of Lollapalooza’s playbook by creating another traveling music festival. But this time, the Warped Tour wanted to cater to a new audience; namely, the growing number of pop-punk skateboarders and the music community and subculture surrounding them.
The first Warped Tour advertised performances by artists like No Doubt. But beyond the music, the festival offered other draws for the teenagers and twenty-somethings in the pop-punk community. There were giant climbing walls, a “monster half pipe” and street course for skateboarders, and professional skateboarding and BMX bikers available for meet and greets.
18. 1996: V Fest Creates The “Two For One” Festival
Two is always better than one, at least in the minds of the creators of Virgin Media’s V Festival. The new music festival added itself to the UK’s festival lineup in 1996, promising to be an event unlike any other. And they delivered on that promise. The front man of the band Pulp, Jarvis Cocker, allegedly came up with the idea for V Festival by suggesting that he would love to play two outdoor venues in one weekend.
From there, the V Festival put on two concurrent shows in Hylands Park (in the South) and Victoria Park (farther North). Bands would play at one venue, and then switch parks for the next day’s performances. This way, fans in both the North and South of the country could all get a chance to see their favorite artists.
19. 1998: Creamfields Gives Dance Festivals A Whirl
It wasn’t as though people didn’t dance at other popular music festivals. They just didn’t dance like they eventually would at the Creamfields Music Festival. The event, specifically slated as a dance music festival, was founded in 1998 by the owner of the British nightclub Cream. The premise was simple: bring people to a park and let them dance to their favorite DJs.
The idea would also turn out to be extremely successful. In its first year, 25,000 people came out to dance to sets by Daft Punk and Run DMC. By the second year of the festival, the audience had already doubled in size, and pushed the doors wide open for more festivals to cater specifically to more dance-inclined crowds looking to camp overnight and start the party all over again in the morning.
20. 1999: Coachella Turns Music Festivals Into Massive Media Events
If music festivals began as a testament to counter-culture, the Coachella Music And Arts Festival proved that times were definitely changing. The festival, held in California’s Coachella Valley, hosted its inaugural event in 1999 with a lineup that featured Beck, Rage Against the Machine, and Morrissey.
At the time, organizers said they booked artists based on their talent rather then purely for popularity. But anyone who knows how Coachella transformed knows that the festival did not stay that way. Instead, Coachella turned the music festival into a business model, propped up by mainstream society. Today, thousands of bohemian-clad festival goers and celebrities consider this event to be the place to be seen every summer.
21. 1999: Electric Daisy Carnival Caters to the Electronic Music Crowd
Rock. alternative, pop, punk, jazz, and folk all had their own events after the ’90s festival boom. But what were the electronic dance music (referred to as EDM) fans in the States to do? That’s where the Electric Daisy Carnival came into play. At first, the event was basically just a DJ-focused rave with a few carnival rides.
But since its inception in 1999, the Electric Daisy Carnival paved the way for tons of EDM festivals that would pop up soon after. While DJs at their turntables might not be as thrilling to see in person, EDC made up for this by providing art installations, carnival performers, rides, and interactive LED-lit structures for further entertainment.
22. 2002: Bonnaroo Focuses on Sustainability
In the early 2000s, there was no festival quite as popular as Bonnaroo. The first festival took place in Manchester, Tennessee, and 75,000 people traveled all the way out to the countryside in order to sleep in tents and listen to music for four straight days. Tickets were only published on Bonnaroo’s website with little advertisement, and they sold out in just 20 days.
But with all of those people, there was bound to be a whole lot of trash. From its inception, organizers of the festival were focused on sustainability. At previous festivals, the foot traffic and waste accumulation would trash the parks and fields where they were held. But Bonnaroo changed that. Everything was sold in organic and recyclable materials, encouraging other festivals to adopt a similar environmental stand.
23. 2002: Austin City Limits Merges Television and Festival Life
The Austin City Limits Festival has now made a name for itself. But in the beginning, the music festival started as an offshoot of the PBS television show of the same name. The show featured local artists in the Austin area, and helped the city gain its reputation as the “Live Music Capital of the World.”
In 2002, the first Austin City Limits Festival largely resembled the TV show, meaning that it featured lesser-known country artists. Yet despite the fact that the lineup was not filled with the heavy hitters that other festivals were offering, 42,000 people came out to the festival’s first installment.
24. 2007: Stagecoach Gives Country Music The Stage
Throughout the early 2000s, country music was becoming increasingly popular with a younger generation of fans. Soon enough, the founders of the Stagecoach Festival recognized the country industry’s success, combined with the success of festivals like Coachella, and decided to deliver a music festival specifically catered to country music fans.
The festival kicked off in 2007 with a lineup combining artists that would draw in large crowds alongside unknown or up-and-coming country music artists hoping to gain a following. Earl Scruggs, Miranda Lambert, Willie Nelson, and Kenny Chesney were among the first performers to take the stage at Stagecoach. In the years since, the lineups have become a list of all the top country performers of the year.
25. 2017: Fyre Festival Shows How Outlandish Festivals Have Become
With so much hype surrounding music festivals, it was only a matter of time until something like the infamous Fyre Festival came along. The Fyre Festival took every material aspect of what festivals had become, including multi-thousand dollar ticket pricetags, advertisements with supermodels, and promises of luxury villas on a private Bahamian island surrounded by yachts.
It was all an illusion. The Fyre Festival was so poorly planned that not only did the musical acts drop out, but those who shelled out thousands for a music festival dream saw that it was really a nightmare. Luxury lodging was replaced with FEMA tents, there were no food vendors, and attendees were stranded. The event showed how far festival culture has shifted from its original concept, and how far these festivals can fall.
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