In August 1969, a mass of young people converged on upstate New York to take part in what would later be known as one of the defining moments of American youth culture. That was the Woodstock Music & Art Fair. Billed as "3 Days of Peace and Music," it was held on a dairy farm in the sleepy town of Bethel, New York, at the end of a decade marked by social unrest and upheaval. The assembly of more than 500,000 young people on those muddy hills became legendary not only for the performances by some of the greatest musical acts of the time, but also for the way the festival demonstrated the power of youth culture.
Now, more than 40 years later, many look back fondly on that event as a turning point in music history. While it remains one of the most well-known music festivals in the world, it was not the first, and certainly not the last. More recent years have seen a steady increase in American attendance at summer music festivals, thanks to the popularity of industry leaders such as Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, Coachella and Austin City Limits. With these mega-concerts routinely bringing in millions of dollars, producers around the country have begun to put on their own festivals in an attempt to cash in on the popular trend. Music lovers outside of the big cities can now buy tickets to smaller events in a myriad of towns such as Creek Fest in Cherokee, Iowa; NEBRASKAland Days in North Platte, Nebraska; and Watershed in Quincy, Massachusetts.
But how did we get here? How did a couple hundred thousand young people, caked in mud, watching Joan Baez and Jimi Hendrix perform live change the fundamental structure of the music industry? To understand that, we have to go back to the beginning of the music festival's roots in American culture.
Newport, Rhode Island
Believe it or not, the modern music festival began in the posh East Coast resort town of Newport, Rhode Island. It was there that a man by the name of George Wein first hosted the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954. At the bequest of wealthy socialites who complained of the lack of entertainment that plagued the town in the summers, Wein created a multi-day event that featured not only performances from some of the top jazz acts of the time, but also academic talks about music theory and the sociological influences of jazz music. The Newport Jazz Festival is still held every year in late summer. This year's lineup will include Bobby McFerrin, Dr. John & the Nite Trippers, and even a performance by George Wein himself.
Five years after starting the jazz festival, Wein went on to produce the Newport Folk Festival in 1959. This event become largely associated with the folk revival that popular music experienced in the 1960s. Joan Baez had her first public performance at the very first Newport Folk Festival as the guest of Bob Gibson. At the time, she was such an unknown that her name wasn't even announced. Four years later, in 1963, Baez brought along a new folk singer she had recently discovered. That young man happened to be none other than Bob Dylan, whose performance at the festival with Baez is generally regarded as his national premiere. The Newport Folk Festival is still known to launch the careers of new artists as well as celebrate the music of established musicians. This year, the lineup includes legends like Jack White and Mavis Staples alongside newer acts such as DAWES and The Milk Carton Kids.
A festival for the youth
While the Newport festivals had been very successful in the Rhode Island town, the early events were attended by a mostly older crowd. Woodstock in 1969 demonstrated that young people comprised a huge market willing to travel long distances for a music festival. In fact, the organizers of Woodstock only sold around 200,000 tickets, but were forced to open the gates and turn the event into a free concert when over 500,000 people showed up. Iconic performances from Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead opened up the possibilities of music festivals celebrating more than just jazz and folk.
This festival remains one of the most popular destination concerts in existence today. However, it started as a farewell tour dreamt up by Jane's Addiction lead singer Perry Farrell. Lolla, as it is often called, initially featured a mostly alt rock lineup when it first toured in 1991. It ran until 1997, when it took a break before permanently relocating to Chicago's Grant Park in 2005. This year's Lolla is being headlined by Eminem, Outkast and Kings of Leon, showing just how far the musical tastes of the event have shifted.
The 2000s and beyond
The success of the Lollapalooza tour from 1991-1997 led to the influx of festivals that sprang up during the new millennium. All these events owe a debt of gratitude not only to the baby boomers who assembled in the muddy fields of New York, but also to the music industry cognoscenti that promoted the idea of a music festival in Newport more than 50 years ago.
If you had to pick, what would be your favorite fest? Who headlined?