MAGAZINE

A (Brief) 1,000 Year History of Music Festivals

Photo by: Daniel Zetterstrom
by Patrick Chamberlain | @masonlazarus Thu September 14, 2017 | 12:45 PM

Humans have been converging for shared, communal experiences for as long as we have been humans. This social nature is a defining trait of our psychology, hard-wired into our instincts and the driving force behind much of societal development.

The term “festival” first showed up in the English language in the middle of the 16th century, derived from “feast” and most often centered around the harvest. Throughout history, music has played an important role at these mass cultural gatherings. For example: The Pythian Games of ancient Greece, dating as far back at the 6th century B.C., featured competitions of musical ability in addition for the physical feats for which they are primarily remembered.

Celtic and Gaelic cultures held cultural fairs from as far back as the year 1000, named Mods in Scotland and Feis in Ireland, of which dance competitions were major aspects. People gathered en masse throughout Europe for renditions of classical music, although these events were often reserved for the upper crust. Lastly, a fest for classical Indian music, the Tyagaraja Aradhana, has been running since 1847.

Music festivals as we currently know them in the Western world can be drawn back as far as the 1950s. The Newport Jazz Festival was founded in Rhode Island in 1952. 13,000 people attended academic panels during the day and jazz, gospel, and blues performances by Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie during the night. The fest is widely considered to be the inception of the United States’ long history with festival culture.

Festivals in modern western culture have always been strongly associated with countercultural youth movements, and blue-blooded Newport upper-crusters were aghast as their city was overrun by youths who were happy to sleep in tents or even in the open at public parks and fraternized freely between races. It seems unthinkable now, but this was a progressive notion at the time.

A sibling festival, the Newport Folk Festival , was launched in 1959, and famously set the stage for Bob Dylan to "go electric" amidst a chorus of boos, a moment that marked a sea-change in pop culture and further solidified the rock 'n roll revolution by introducing it to folk audiences.

It was in 1967, though, that anything resembling today’s music festival culture began to form. The Monterey Pop Festival in California, 1967, launched the career of Janis Joplin, introduced stateside audiences to The Who and Ravi Shankar, and was where Jimi Hendrix set his guitar aflame, one of the most celebrated cultural moments in rock history.

Monterey, the reported attendance of which varies wildly from 25,000 to 90,000, kicked off the "Summer of Love" and crystallized a social movement in the Western world. Like the beatniks before them, hippie culture championed a rejection of dominant cultural tropes like capitalism and patriarchy, and music was the lightning rod around which the culture converged.

Two years later, at Woodstock in Bethel Woods, NY, festival and counterculture were announced on a global scale. 400,000 people came together for “three days of peace and music,” and “the music festival” officially became ingrained as a societal ritual. There is no question that the western world’s relationship to counterculture can be marked as "before" or "after" Woodstock.

It could be argued, though, that Woodstock was the moment that “counterculture” became trademarked and entered the mainstream conscious. Corporate interests realized the financial gain presented by festival culture, thus setting off a chain of simulacra that would eventually water down the hippie movement into a caricature of itself. If anything, this should reiterate key lessons set forth in the festival idealism: Everything changes, joy is ephemeral, and we should always live in the moment.

The next year, 1970, the Isle of Wight Festival took place on an island just off the southern tip of the United Kingdom and attracted a whopping 700,000 people. It is still considered to be one of the largest music festivals to ever take place. That title, however, belongs to Milwaukee’s Summerfest , conceived for the first time in 1968, but drawing a total of 1,000,000 people over 11 days in 1999.

A man in the audience at the Isle of Wight festival named Andrew Kerr, along with a farmer named Michael Eavis, would go on to launch their own festival the next year, named Glastonbury. The muddy metropolis that forms every Summer (except fallow years) is one of the longest-running and most recognizable festival series in the world. It is the centerpiece of the UK’s festival season and has launched charities and political movements while serving as a microcosm of British society as a whole.

The longest continuously running music festival in the world still in existence, though, is Pinkpop in the Netherlands. Founded in 1970, making it 45 years old, the festival was traditionally held on the religious holiday Pentecost Monday, and the initial edition advertised a pig roast and free apples for attendees. Nowadays, it’s a standard pop and rock fest–– Muse and Pharrell Williams headlined the 2015 edition.

The 1980s found rock festivals going worldwide. The United States and Europe in particular were inundated with one-off extravaganzas, but still-running brands like Roskilde , Bumbershoot, and Lollapalooza were all conceived or gained traction during this period. Festivals following the "rock festival" model popped up as far as Colombia, Yugoslavia, and Zaire.

In 1985, the initial Rock in Rio in Brazil drew 1.5 million fans in total after the city of Rio de Janeiro built a 250,000-capacity complex named the City of Rock for stadium rock heroes Queen and AC/DC to headline.

On a beach in San Francisco in 1986, a few friends burned a nine-foot effigy of a man in the name of radical self-expression. They didn’t know it then, but the act set off a chain of events that would change festival culture, even society at large, forever. Four years later, on a dry lake bed in the Black Rock Desert north of Reno, Burning Man was founded as an expression a “dadaist temporary autonomous zone,” a free-form expression of community and creativity manifested through music, art, installations, social experiments and good ol' fashioned revelry.

Although the majority of modern festival culture history in the Western world holds music as the point of convergence, Burning Man made people themselves and the society they can build as the centerpiece, both in the festival grounds and in society-at-large.

Although Burning Man remained a boutique and outsider institution for a period, it entered the mainstream conscious around the turn of the millennium. In 1990, 120 individuals converged in Nevada. In 2014, there were 66,000, and the culture, lifestyle, and core values of radicalism and community have seeped into pockets of culture throughout the Western zeitgeist.

Towards the latter end of the 1980s, the fall of the Berlin wall opened up the world to the rigid electronicism of techno, while acid house and rave were concurrently bubbling up in the UK. European rave culture took styles of music that had origins in the United States –– House from Chicago and New York, techno from Detroit –– and turned them into social movements.

The incorporation of electronic music into festival culture is a decades-long progression of which we are only now feeling the climax. At the turn of the decade into the 90s, the new culture of rave took place underground and illegally, but found satellite cultures from the Bay Area to Berlin. It wasn’t until the turn of the millennium that rave culture was commercialized and brought into festival culture, a notable exception being Berlin’s initial Loveparade in 1989, when 150 individuals took to the streets in the name of political activism with a motto of “Peace, Joy, Pancakes.”

On the Crimean peninsula in 1992, KaZantip was founded, a three-week marathon of electronic dance music and outsider culture that manifests as a “virtual republic” over 15 acres, where over 300 DJs perform (it then relocated to Cambodia, then to Georgia).

Many of today’s notable festival brands were launched in the 1990s. Big Day Out in Australia, Fuji Rock Festival in Japan, Sziget in Hungary, and Coachella in California all found their start during this period.

Further, the boundaries of what can define a music festival were readdressed in the 1990s. The Vans Warped Tour popularized the notion of the traveling festival, while festivals like Austin’s SXSW introduced the city-takeover gatherings that are not limited to a singular venue, but rather satellites that at any number of venues.

The turn of the millennium set in place much of the landscape of current festival culture. Coachella led the way, the idyllic setting of which set a stunning backdrop as the music festival morphed into a major media event.

Live Aid and Earth Aid had perhaps whipped up a similar frenzy, pop sheen, and profitability, but they were one-off events held for charity. Coachella turned the festival into a yearly industry that was a reflection of mainstream society as a whole and not just countercultural niches.

By the time that the rave culture of the early 1990s reflected back on the States, it had morphed through electronica and kandi culture into proto-EDM. In 1999, Pasquale Rotella and his nascent Insomniac promotions company threw the first Electric Daisy Carnival in Los Angeles, at first just a rave with some carnival rides and a lot of ambition.

The party grew steadily at first, but as "EDM" – the commercialized, pop-friendly appropriation of rave culture – exploded into its own industry around 2010, EDC amplified into a gargantuan spectacle, the likes of which were heretofore unseen. The festival consistently brings in 100,000 individuals daily now in Las Vegas amidst otherworldly production that would have seemed impossible only years ago.

Along the same lines, By 2010, Berlin’s Loveparade had grown from 150 in 1989 to 800,000 in 2010. A spin-off festival, named Fuckparade, launched in response to Loveparade’s increasing commercialization.

By this point, commercialization had become a legitimate concern for festival culture. The proliferation of festivals presented a complete negation of the countercultural values that were a central tenet of the festival mentality . Woodstock 1999 was a prime example of a commercialized attempt to harness the collective energy of the original Woodstock, only to be blighted by the lack of traditional festival values supporting the culture.

In response to this, principles gathered from Burning man and leftist culture began to seep back into music-based festivals. The idea of “transformative" festivals , spaces in which revelers are encouraged to learn about nature, spirituality, and themselves, have become increasingly popular, as evidenced by the success of Lightning In a Bottle, Symbiosis , and Lucidity on the West Coast alone.

Further, even festivals dedicated solely to music have turned to a more boutique model that cater to specific audiences that have become jaded with the diluted, impersonal, socially-prescribed pattern offered by festival proliferation and commercialization.

Some of Everfest’s favorite festivals – Desert Hearts , Oasis Festival in Morocco, Shambala Festival in the UK, and High Sierra Music Festival – all follow an ideal that understands bigger may not always be better, and that friends made and experiences shared are as important as any lineup.

The constant that ties the entire chronology of music festival culture together is that festivals serve as the meeting ground upon which youth culture defines itself. As commercialization has slowly seeped into the milieu, today’s generation have taken cues from leftist, radical society and burrowed into the boutique in search of an experience that defines them and not corporate interests.

Festivals will continue to change as technology breaks open Pandora’s Box of possibilities, but this one key tenet will remain. So until that virtual-reality-hologram-silent-disco-on-Mars goes down, we’ll see you on the dancefloor, kickin’ up dust, just like the ancient Greeks did.