Beyond Woodstock: The Evolution Of Music Festivals

Ah, the dawn of the music festival. 1969 probably comes to mind, 500,000 hippies sprawled out shoulder to shoulder on a dairy farm in Bethel, New York. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and The Grateful Dead take the stage. But the history of music festivals begins way before Woodstock. It begins before the dawn of the 20th century, actually.

Music has always played a big role at cultural festivals, from the Pythian Games of Ancient Greece to Scottish Mods in the 11th Century.

In a sense, today’s musical festival roots can be tied back to religion and classical music. In the 18th Century, the Three Choirs Festival brought throngs of Rossini, Mozart, and Beethoven fans to cathedrals in England. During the Second Great Awakening, evangelists would travel to musical retreats known as camp meetings to camp out and bond over prayer and hymns.  

But it wasn't until the 1950s that we saw a diverse crowd gather ‘round for a festival focused on non-secular music. In 1954, over 11,000 people gathered together for the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island, where artists like Billie Holiday and Dizzy Gillespie came to perform. It was America's first ever jazz festival. And then the 60s happened.

Elaine Mays/Monterey International Pop Festival

Contrary to what you might believe, Woodstock wasn’t the first festival of its kind, although it is the most famous. Music festivals in their modern day sense, celebrating peace, love, counterculture, and an escape from rigid conventionalism, began in 1967 with the Monterey International Pop Festival, America’s first ever major rock fest.

Jimi Hendrix set his guitar on fire, Janis Joplin launched her career, and America met The Who. And so began 1967’s “Summer of Love." 

Throughout the 70s, the popularity of music festivals spread throughout the world and these massive soundful gatherings began to pop up everywhere, from South America to Africa. The spirit of the 60s carried on through the next two decades, funneling its energy into different subgenres of rock, from punk to metal.

It wasn't until the 90s that we saw a new genre flourish, one that was bred in the underground of a Soviet-run Berlin: EDM.

With the demise of the Berlin Wall in the early 90s, electronic dance music spread its wings to infect all parts of the world. Techno from Germany, acid house from the UK, and house bring about the birth of modern rave culture. Electronic dance festivals begin to take form.

Meanwhile in the mainstream, many of the festivals we know and love today are formed, like Lollapalooza. It was planned in 1991 as a final farewell touring festival for Jane’s Addiction, featuring mostly alternative rock and nonmusical art, political, and environmental vendors.

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Coachella, too, launched in the 90s. For its first run in 1999, 10,000 people came out to see Beck, Jurassic 5, and Rage Against the Machine. Today the festival sees around 75,000 attendees and has featured a number of historic performances, from Daft Punk’s revolutionary LED-lit pyramid to Tupac’s resurrection via hologram.

And so we reach today, an age where music festivals affect industries across the board, from retail patterns to tourism.

You might argue that as festivals have gained steam in mainstream media, they’ve lost many of their counterculture ideals, forging a path that celebrates ticket sales, elaborate theatrics, and luxurious amenities, rather than political activism and expression by way of music. You’re not wrong.

But one thing that music festivals have always done, and will always do, is bring people together. In the end, it's still about the music. 

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