A History of Music Festivals

By Peter McNamara

The term “festival” first showed up in the English language in the middle of the 16th century. It derives from “feast” and is most often centred around the harvest. Ireland, and the wider Celtic world, has been home to massive annual gatherings and celebrations for centuries. Ancient Greece held similar festivals, where such events often involved competitions in music, arts and sports. The sorts of ticketed outdoor extravaganzas that we know today came into being in the mid-20th century, and they have been steadily growing since. 
Modern music festivals in the US grew out of the establishment and ethos of Woodstock. Though it was not the first event of its kind – the Newport Folk & Jazz Festivals and the Monterey Pop Festival predate it – the 1969 event holds a mythical place within American pop-cultural history. 
With the constant development of new audio and logistical technologies, festivals have been rapidly increasing in scale and ambition. Gone are the days when The Beatles couldn’t hear themselves playing over the screams of their fans: modern speaker set-ups can cater to hundreds and thousands of punters. Music festivals are now a major moneymaker in a competitive industry that sees hundreds of such events each year. There are the big ones – Glastonbury, Electric Picnic, Coachella, Lollapalooza – with big-ticket prices, multiple stages, camping options and nearly endless lists of performers. And alongside their rise in popularity, hundreds of smaller, niche or genre-specific festivals have flourished.
Festivals have come a long way from the peace and love ethos of Woodstock. According to Billboard, more than 32 million people attend them each year, which has given rise to huge profits and extensive corporate sponsorships. Coachella, one of the most popular festivals in the world, grossed $114.6 million in 2017, setting a major record for the first recurring festival franchise to earn more than $100 million. 

Craic of the Ancients
According to George McKay, Professor of Cultural Studies at Salford University, “music festivals are deeply rooted in the carnival tradition, which is to invert everyday expectations of normal behaviour.” Historically, carnivals would have a ‘lord of misrule’ who oversaw the revelries and subversion of the ordinary rules of life. Music festivals continue to be places where people can “escape reality and subvert the rules.”
Carnival is a Western Christian festive season that occurs before the liturgical season of Lent. The main events typically occur during February or early March, during the period historically known as Shrovetide (or Pre-Lent). Carnival typically involves public celebrations, including events such as parades, public street parties and other entertainments, combining some elements of a circus. Elaborate costumes and masks allow people to set aside their everyday individuality and experience a heightened sense of social unity. Participants often indulge in excessive consumption of alcohol –something not exactly unheard of at your modern summer romp – and foods that will be forgone during upcoming Lent.
Writing in A (Brief) 1,000 Year History of Music Festivals, Patrick Chamberlain claims that Celtic and Gaelic cultures held cultural fairs from as far back as the year 1000 AD, which were named – then as now – Feis competitions. Since ancient times, such dance and music competitions have been a central aspect of Celtic culture, and long pre-dating the European carnival tradition. 
It’s believed that the ancient Irish had four major festivals, as well as a number of smaller annual events. When Christianity came to the country around 1500 years ago, the priests and monks Christianised some of the Pagan festivals and because of that many of the ancient Irish festivals and rituals are still celebrated in an adapted form in Ireland today.
One such Irish festival has a clear ancestor in the western cultural calendar. Every October 31st the world celebrates Hallowe’en, which developed out of the Irish feast Samhain. It was the New Year of the Ancient Celts too, the most important festival of the year, when places between worlds (like islands or bogs) had a special power. The night of Samhain was between one year and the next, between summer and winter and because of that, our ancestors regarded it as outside of ordinary time. There is evidence that a huge three-day feast was held at Tara every year in celebration. The usual rules did not apply, and spirits and the souls of the dead could return to this world – a fine night for the ‘lords of misrule.’
Imbolg, which came around the start of February, was another important festival in celebration of spring and Saint Bríd, while Lúnasa, the celebration of Lugh or Lú, signals the start of Autumn. Lugh was one of the most important gods of the Celts throughout Europe. He was connected with the sun and summer and this is why he gave his name to the festival called Lúnasa on the first of August. This was a festival to welcome the growth of the corn and the beginning of the harvest season. People in Ireland often danced and built bonfires to celebrate the Feast of Lúnasa and some of these customs survived until the twentieth century – you’re likely to catch similar carry-on at Electric Picnic today.
Festivals were also a very important part of life in ancient Greece, and were a central part of worshipping the gods. They usually included a procession and a sacrifice. They also included various competitions in music, poetry, drama and also athletics – which were seen as another way to honour a god. Some of the most important festivals of ancient Greece involved athletic competition, such as the Olympic Games, which were held in honour of Zeus, and the Pythian Games, held at Delphi in honour of Apollo. One festival in Athens, held to honour Dionysos, involved a competition between playwrights. This led to the creation of some of the best known plays from ancient Greece, written by people such as Sophokles, Euripides and Aristophanes.

Festivals Go Electric
When it comes to the first large modern rock festival – the sort we know today – that honour is usually given to California’s Monterey Pop Festival of June 1967. The three-day event included the first major US appearances from The Who, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin. The festival was also notable for introducing Otis Redding to a predominantly white audience, and it saw a less-than-entirely-lucid Jimi Hendrix set his guitar on fire during his performance of “Wild Thing”. 
Attendance reports vary between 25,000 to 90,000. Regardless of numbers, Monterey Pop kicked off the “Summer of Love” and strengthened a powerful social movement. It was not only about the music, but about the experience that made America’s youth want to converge around this new culture. And this festival provided the template for what was to come two years later.
The Woodstock Music and Art Fair which took place on August 15-18, 1969 may just be the most famous music festival ever. The event attracted 32 acts that performed in front of over 500,000 people. It was intended as a for-profit venture with a capacity of 200,000 – but when half a million hippies showed up, and they found a lack of fencing, it effectively became a free concert. Considering the sheer volume of people, coupled with poor weather and inadequate facilities, it was amazing that the festival-goers were able to so peacefully co-exist. (The achievement grows more remarkable when compared with the 1999 revival event, which was heavily corporatised, and saw widespread violence, arson, and rape).
Just like with Monterey two years previous, Jimi Hendrix gave another incredible performance at Woodstock, this time with a radical reworking of the “The Star-Spangled Banner”. The festival also spawned the acclaimed film which won a 1970 Oscar for best documentary. Here’s a fun fact: this seminal event wasn’t actually held at Woodstock. Problems finding a suitable location there obliged the organisers to site it over 40 miles away, near the town of Bethel, on Yasgur’s farm.
There were festivals before Monterey and Woodstock, with their own ground-breaking moments. In 1952, the Newport Jazz Festival was founded in Rhode Island. 13,000 people came to hear jazz, gospel, and blues performances by well known singers like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Those living in Newport at the time could not believe that their youth would be willing to sleep in tents or public parks. This disbelief continued when in 1959 a sibling festival, the Newport Folk Festival, was launched. This festival was made famous when Bob Dylan decided to play electric – a moment that marked a sea change in pop culture and introduced the rock ‘n roll revolution to an outraged folk audience. 
The Isle of Wight Festival took place on (surprise, surprise) the Isle of Wight in England. It originally ran from 1968-1970, but was revived in 2002, and has been taking place continuously ever since. The 1970 Isle of Wight was by far the biggest happening: according to some 700,000 people attended. There were performances from The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, The Moody Blues, and Leonard Cohen. The unanticipated high turnout led to Parliament passing the “Isle of Wight Act” preventing gatherings of more than 5,000 people on the island without a license. 
One of the individuals in attendance was Andrew Kerr, who was heavily involved with the formation of the Glastonbury Festival. The modern-day incarnation of Glastonbury first took place near Pilton England in 1970 under the name Pilton Festival. With the exception of the odd break, the festival has been mostly continual since. It’s best known for its pyramid stage and its connection with charitable causes including Greenpeace, Oxfam and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
Lollapalooza was first conceived by Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell as a touring ‘alternative’ music festival. The first Lollapalooza took place in 1991 and it featured a lineup which included Jane’s Addiction, Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against the Machine, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Violent Femmes; and was credited with helping to promote the popularity of alternative music. The first Coachella took place in 1999 in the Coachella Valley in California. It has since become one of the more prominent North American music festivals.

Cashing in on Cumbayah
The increased commercialisation of music festivals has brought higher revenue streams for organisers, and greater possibilities. Festival planners began to consider ways in which they could transform their events, wanting attendees to become fully immersed in a new environment. In the early 2000s, festivals began to form that labeled themselves Music and Arts, creating side channels of activities and amenities such as yoga, gourmet food, installations, actors, and other special features to differentiate themselves from the other growing festivals. Companies were formed to specifically transform a traditional festival into a memorable themed experience. At the same time, modern festivals have been shaped by increasingly broad cultures and cutting-edge tech; the 1990s convergence of rock spectacle and rave dynamics proved a turning point.
Carlos Chirinos, a professor of clinical music and global health at New York University, wonders if bigger is better. “They used to be more of a communion of culture. A group of people who were into the same type of music, they would come together. That was the driving force throughout the 1970s and 1980s until it became a profitable format.”
There’s no escaping the fact that festivals in the 21st century are a feast of advertising, exclusivity and profit. In 2015, Billboard magazine reported that 32 million people attended at least one US music festival each year, with 14.7 million of those defined as ‘millennials’ – a young adult demographic particularly attractive to brand marketeers. It’s hard to deny that festivals have shifted from counter-culture to mainstream commercialism; steep ticket prices make most festivals a ‘luxury’ event (even if the experience is very different) and heavy marketing feels ubiquitous, with corporations and social media ‘influencers’ cashing in on festival themes. 
According to Chirinos, the mechanics that drove music festivals to becoming top earners have a lot to do with the effects of modern life. People are more likely now to spend money on experiences over material goods, and that “experiential economy” has grown just as brands have gravitated toward festivals. A 2019 Deloitte survey of millennials finds that most value experiences: 57% of respondents said they prioritised travel and seeing the world over owning a home.
Music itself has changed as well. Piracy has eviscerated the industry, leaving artists with only ticket sales and merchandise as a way to make a living. For artists, appearing at music festivals is an easier way to make money than depending on record sales or long tours,
On the business side, music festivals have become more streamlined by the entry of big music promoters. Putting on a festival is a challenge, between having to pay artists enough to secure their performances, needing to sell a certain number of tickets in order to be successful, the additional costs of insurance and the risks of bad weather. Large corporate live music promoters, such as Live Nation or AEG Live, have acquired hefty controlling stakes in some of the country’s biggest events.

Recapturing the Magic 
Writing in The New Yorker in 2016, Carrie Battan observed of the American festival Coachella, that “from a distance, it looks less like a haven of free-spiritedness than a catwalk of people who have decided that free-spiritedness looks good on them.”
The authenticity of music festival heritage and its deep-rooted ideals is something worth preserving. As Glastonbury’s Emily Eavis told The Guardian newspaper in 2013, “I spend a lot of time saying no to people. No to corporate sponsorship, no to brands or things that aren’t in keeping with our ethos. If I see things that have got through… then I flip.”
According to Mario Miotti, founder of Sparked Magazine, in the clamorous modern festivals scene, there’s increasing pressure to deliver that ‘life-changing’ sensation. He believed that, at their best, such events are unlike any other place on earth, “a site liberated from everyday rules, where we might bond with strangers and stumble across new sounds and sensations.”

“The best festivals take it to a new level. They are here not just to entertain you, but to heal you, to teach you, to inspire you, to give you the framework to unleash your curiosity and adventure.”

He’s not wrong. At many festivals, you can attend numerous workshops and talks by the best gurus in the world; you can learn how to eat better, how to use essential oils, and what organic really means; you can learn about the advances in bio science, spirituality, sex and intimacy; you can work on your physical being and enjoy any one of the amazing disciplines of yoga on offer. And when you want to be the ‘lord of misrule’, no one will say anything about it.
For many Irish people, not unlike their Celtic ancestors, festivals form a part of their annual rhythm. They give renewed meaning to life and offer genuine adventure. As soon as big-scale live events can safely take place again here – be it this summer or the next – you can be sure that people will throng to whatever is in the offing – legal or otherwise: the search for ecstasy will begin anew. If you’re planning on making a pilgrimage, just don’t forget to check the forecast!

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