You’ve probably read or heard about music festivals. Perhaps surprisingly, what once seemed like a bygone hippie past-time has become big business. With American festivals such as Coachella and Bonnaroo and British festivals such as Glastonbury drawing literally hundreds of thousands of visitors, they’re not just part of the counterculture anymore – music festivals are in the mainstream.
Of course, Woodstock wasn’t the first event that qualified as a “music festival.” Ancient Greek religious festivities, such as the Pythian Games (a precursor to the ancient Olympics), involved a heavy musical component, though the music was a lot more related to religious practices than most music festivals are today.
In the nineteenth century, composer Richard Wagner threw a music festival to premiere his colossal Ring Cycle, a sixteen-hour, four-part operatic extravaganza perhaps most famous for the “Ride of the Valkyries” theme. The Bayreuth Festival, so named for the small German town it was hosted in, was an immediate and massive success, drawing accomplished composers like Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Franz Liszt, as well as Kaiser Wilhelm and the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. The first Bayreuth Festival was in 1876, and it’s still being held today. Despite the fact that the last full performance of the Ring Cycle was widely panned, the waiting list for tickets is approximately eight years long.
In Europe as well as the UK and the US, electronic music festivals are a huge attraction, with people flying from different continents to attend. Ibiza, an island off the coast of Spain, has been known for years as perhaps the summer party destination for lovers of dance music. In general, Europe plays host to the biggest music festivals in the world, often dedicated to specific sub-genres of electronic dance music. Belgium’s Tomorrowland festival is one of the most popular, drawing more than 160,000 attendees in 2015. Other huge electronic music festivals include the United States’ Electric Daisy Carnival – 400,000 people attended the Electric Daisy Carnival (“EDC” for short) in 2015. (For context, Las Vegas, where the festival is held, has a metropolitan area of just over 2,000,000 people – meaning that EDC increased the population by fully 20 percent!)
Rock festivals are also a large cultural phenomenon in the US and UK. Many “jam bands,” such as Phish, were hugely popular in the 90s. Known for their highly improvisatory live performances, Phish, among other bands, hosted their own music festivals, during which they’d play multiple sets every night for a few nights in a row. Lollapalooza, in Chicago, was one of the first huge rock festivals in the US, capitalizing on the popularity of alternative rock music and featuring artists such as Pearl Jam and the Smashing Pumpkins.
Music festivals aren’t only attractive for the music, though. Many feature a number of other attractions, including artists’ exhibitions, stand-up comedy, and photo booths (getting the right photo booth hire for a music festival, like doing security, can be an elaborate undertaking). In short, “music festivals” have a lot going for them besides the popular stereotypes of drug abuse and unwashed hippies – and given the fact that they’re only increasing in popularity, they’re probably here to stay.