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The Evolution Of Music Festivals: Here’s All You Need To Know

Going back in history, you will notice that music has always played a big role at cultural festivals, from the Pythian Games of Ancient Greece to Scottish Mods in the 11th Century. In a way or another, today’s music festivals go back to roots in religion and classical music. In the 18th Century, the Three Choirs Festival brought throngs of Rossini, Mozart, and Beethoven fans to cathedrals in England. During the Second Great Awakening, a Protestant religious revival during the early 19th century in the United States, evangelists would travel to musical retreats known as camp meetings to camp out and bond over prayer and hymns.

Music Festivals started at the dawn of the 20th century with religion and classical music, which evolved to include hippies in the late 60s, became quite popular in 70s, and quickly spread with electronic music after the fall of the Berlin wall.

Today, music festivals affect a long list of industries, span the globe and bring so many people from all over the world together to celebrate life, love and music. Let’s take a look at how music festivals evolved throughout the centuries, it’s a fascinating trip!

Music Festivals & The Pythian Games

Let’s go back even further to where music festivals really started, 582 BC, Ancient Greece. That was the year that marked the creation of The Pythian Games. The Pythian Games were created to celebrate the destruction of Python and the emergence of the Oracle of Delphi, which was done by several music, game-like competitions in Apollo’s name.

The games lasted six to eight days with musical events that included a Hymn addressed to Apollo, the god of Arts and Music, as well as several performances on Aulos (reed pipe) and Kithara (an ancient Greek string instrument). The games had their own team of producers or organizers, known as the Theoroi.

To be honest, fairs and festivals predate recorded time. Even when we pin their origin down to one specific event, they’re considerably much older. Festivals have always served as outlets for emotional expression, and to give people a way to break away from their monotonous lives, they have also been used as tools to give out mass entertainment, and create distraction. Early European festivals, secular and religious, drew the entire community into the streets.

Classical Music Festivals

Between the 17th and 19th centuries in Europe, the focus was of course all on classical music. We have to mention notable composers such as Bach, Mozart, and Handel. In this period, the festivals became very exclusive and changed the game.

Many festivals began to move indoors, where royal families were generally present and sitting in a high and mighty position of the audience. When they first started, festivals were for the people and created by the people to rejoice in celebration but during the 17th-19th centuries, royalty took control over the culture and gave access to these events to only the most educated. This educated class was the one benefiting and attending these events because music was made inaccessible to the common people. The wealth divide became a lot larger, new tools were rapidly speeding up the creation of new Instruments, and musicians were either high class, educated and working for royalty or poor, uneducated, roaming folk artists.

This trend continued into the 20th century. But things were about to take a sudden, unexpected turn.

How World War I Changed Music Festivals

Around World War I, things began to change especially with the major lifestyle changes all around the world. Of coursem European countries had to focus on the creation of weapons and worry about the safety of their country and people which made music and festivals disappear from the upper class’s priorities.

Lower class people, who didn’t want to fight, were the ones who picked up instruments which resulted in the creation of  folk music and jazz. This lead to small groups of like-minded musicians banding together, performing in small night clubs for similarly minded people, away from the upper class.

By the time the war was over, Jazz had become an established musical genre. Popular music festivals in the United States can be tracked back to two people: Louis and Elaine Lorillard. The couple met while in Italy during World War II, they fell in love and bonded over their love of jazz music.

When they came back to the United States they were determined to use jazz to add to the cultural fabric of Newport, Rhode Island. They offered $20,000 to fund a jazz event, built a team and co-founded the Newport Folk Festival which fused jazz, blues, country and pop music together. In 1954, over 11,000 people gathered together for the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island. It was America’s first ever jazz festival. And then the 60s happened.

Photo Credit: NewportRI


The 60s Hippies & Woodstock

Contrary to popular belief, Woodstock wasn’t the first festival of its kind, although it is the most famous. Music festivals in their modern day sense: celebrating peace, love, counterculture, and an escape from rigid conventional everyday lifestyle, also began in 1967 with the Monterey International Pop Festival which was America’s first ever major rock festival. Jimi Hendrix set his guitar on fire, Janis Joplin launched her career, and America met The Who.

And so began what is now known as 1967’s “Summer of Love.”  The Miami Pop Festival in 1968, and the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair in 1969 are all perfect examples of the festival boom.

Throughout the 70s, the popularity of music festivals spread throughout the world and these massive gatherings began to pop up everywhere. The spirit of the 60s carried on through the next two decades, bringing that energy into different subgenres of rock music, from punk to metal.

In the 1980’s and 90’s a lot of those festivals either saw a decline in attendance numbers or just disappeared. American popular music festivals hit a dry spell, but that only meant that music festivals were changing once again.

Underground Berlin & Electronic Music

With the 90s, the music scene saw a new genre of music flourish, one that was started in the underground of a Soviet-run Berlin: Electronic Music.

With the end of the Berlin Wall in the early 90s, electronic music spread its wings to infect all parts of the world. Many abandoned buildings, some without any owners, were taken over by young people who organized parties which were illegal there. The techno music style had originated in Detroit in the mid-to-late 1980s and came to West Germany in the late 1980s. Techno from the USA and Germany, acid house, and house music bring about the birth of modern rave culture.

Power plants, bunkers, hangers and underground stations all became temporary clubs. The relief and freedom people felt after the reunification was celebrated with endless parties and flourished through the strong gay, art and underground scenes. The East Berlin crowd were pushing a much harder electronic sound without vocals, and with harder basses.

On another hand, House music which was born in 1980s Chicago, found a home in the UK, where it sparked off a club culture that persists to this day and evolved to bring the current English festival culture that everyone knows.

Electronic Festivals Take Form

Electronic dance festivals at this time period slowly began to take form while still being “underground”. Meanwhile in the mainstream, many of the festivals we know and love today are formed, like Chicago’s Lollapalooza which was planned in 1991 as a final farewell touring festival for Jane’s Addiction, featuring mostly alternative rock and non-musical art, political, and environmental vendors.

Coachella, too, launched in the 90s. For its first edition in 1999, 10,000 people came out to see Beck, Jurassic 5, and Rage Against the Machine. The festival saw 75,000 attendees and has featured a number of historic performances, from Daft Punk’s revolutionary LED-lit pyramid to Tupac’s resurrection via hologram.

With the growth of dance music festivals in America, production companies also saw the growth of attendees. In 2012, 80,000-85,000 people attended each day of Coachella and 160,000 people attended Ultra Music Festival in Miami.

Today’s Music Festivals

And so we reach today, a time when festivals are setup to broadcast creativity, art, and fun. They are also used to boost tourism in cities, affect business industries, and enhance territorial trademarking. Festivals today affect industries across the board. The music industry needs festivals to help bring in more revenue as profits have dramatically declined due to the digital age. Modern technology has played a huge role in the transformation of the music industry, music itself, and festivals.

Photo Credit: Tomorrowland

On another hand, one might argue that as festivals have gained steam in mainstream media, they’ve moved away from their initial ideals, they’re now more about celebrating ticket sales, creating elaborate theatrics, and luxurious amenities, rather than using their platforms for political activism and expression by way of music as things were just a few years back.

But maybe this is, in today’s world, the best way to unite rather than divide people. To bring everyone together, as festivals still are all about the music which ca easily unite us all together.

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