Arts, Music, Off Campus, Column

A Look Back: The History Of Music Festivals

For this weekend’s Boston Calling, I pulled out my high-waisted shorts, aviators, and Vans, and spent Saturday rocking out with several thousand fellow Lorde lovers.

Five years ago, I did more or less the same thing—except it wasn’t Boston. It was East Rutherford, N.J., and the droves of people weren’t fans of the “Royals” singer. They bought tickets for Fall Out Boy.

Bamboozle was the first music festival I’d ever gone to, but obviously, music festivals were around long before I was a wannabe punk.

The closest thing resembling today’s music festivals actually dates back to the sixth century BC in Greece. At these Ancient Greek paloozas, audiences would gather to watch the Pythian Games and listen to live flute performances.

Since then, music festivals have grown and evolved—almost as fast as my love for “Sugar, We’re Going Down” and black eyeliner had back in high school. (Thank god that phase of my life is over.)

Thousands of years after togas and old wind instruments were cool, large-scale events including the Newport Jazz Festival and the Newport Folk Festival were organized in the 1950s. Both are still highly successful annual shows in Rhode Island, attracting people with all kinds of musical tastes—not just old grandpas yearning for the days of Big Band and swing or bearded hipsters who like to quote Bob Dylan lyrics, as these events stereotypically do.

In August 1969, Woodstock became the most iconic festival to date—setting a precedent for contemporary culture and making two- or three-day-long outdoor concerts increasingly common as the decades progressed. It wasn’t until the ’90s, however, that they became less of a relic of the past and more of a profitable source of income for the music industry’s future.

The turn of the millennium saw festivals cropping up across the U.S. Bonnaroo, Coachella, and Sasquatch are just a few of the big-name shows that have been drawing artists and fans from all over the country for about 15 years now.

While concerts like these once attracted just niche audiences, festival planners have diversified their lineups to include performers across a range of genres. The approach not only more closely resembles today’s digital music consumption habits—allowing listeners to sample numerous songs and styles like they would on Pandora or Spotify—but, as it turns out, also brings in a ton of money.

This year, Coachella generated a record-breaking $78 million with 579,000 people in attendance over the course of the two-weekend event. With numbers like those, it’s no wonder that sponsors are lining up to pay up, just for the chance to throw their company-stamped sunglasses and beer coozies at crowds who love free promo goodies.

Festivals’ generous promoters and high ticket prices—often nearing a hefty hundred bucks a day—enable their coordinators to pay even small and old acts up to four times what they’d get for a normal club gig. Neutral Milk Hotel, for example, didn’t make a whole lot when they were playing shows in the ’90s, but in 2014 alone, the “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea” group is cashing in big after a decade-long hiatus, making it onto the bills of festivals including Pitchfork, Bonanroo, and last Friday’s Boston Calling.

Larger audiences, longer set times, and more zeroes on the paycheck are just a few reasons artists are willing to work with organizers, planning tours around festival dates.

Given the recent explosion of music festivals, it would seem as if the bubble would have to burst sooner rather than later—last year, developers launched more new festivals than ever before, according to Billboard, with over 60 scheduled to take place in the U.S. in 2014.

It’s never clear whether the younger festivals will survive against the strong, well-established ones, but the success of and high demand for Boston Calling, which is only in its second year, suggests that even the newcomers are likely to stick.

As long as there are enough people who like live music, the outdoors, and very expensive opportunities to get free stuff, these festivals won’t be going anywhere. They’ll inevitably change, but as history—and my own taste in bands has shown—that’s probably not a bad thing.


Featured Image by Emily Fahey / Heights Editor

September 7, 2014