The Most Famous Music Festivals in American History

With the pandemic more and more under control these days and lifesaving vaccines allowing people to return to normal life, we are now seeing the return of the summer music festival. For two years, music fans have seen their favorite festivals cancelled, but 2022 is proving to be the year that the music festival made a big comeback. Since summer is coming, we thought we’d do a deep dive into the origins of the American music festival, and the most famous music festivals from the last half century—the good, the bad, and the filthy.

How did music festivals originate?

These days, it seems like there are too many music festivals to keep track of. But this wasn’t always the case. In fact, before the 1970s music was rarely played in giant, festival-type venues because live sound had not yet

evolved to the point where it was loud enough to be heard in large venues. The Beatles were one of the first bands who attempted to play in arenas and stadiums in the mid-1960s, and the results were decidedly mixed. Most concert goers at the time reported that, while it was exciting to see the Beatles perform, they couldn’t actually hear the music over the screaming fans. So, the first music festivals were somewhat small affairs, hosting only a couple of thousand audience members at most. One of the first music festivals—and still one of the most famous music festivals in the US—is the Newport Folk Festival, which started in 1959 as an offshoot of the Newport Jazz Festival. The first few years of the Newport Folk Festival featured up and coming folk music stars like Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and Peter Paul & Mary. It didn’t take long for the Newport Folk Festival to become one of the most famous music festivals because promoters were able to book some of the biggest talent in the emerging folk scene. The festival also became somewhat infamous in 1965. In previous years, Bob Dylan had performed with Joan Baez at the festival, but in 1965 he decided to try something different. He traded his Gibson acoustic guitar for a Fender Stratocaster and all hell broke loose. Dylan was immediately met with boos from the crowd who felt as though Dylan was betraying his folk roots. Despite the crowd’s reaction, this was a pivotal performance for Dylan because it was the first time he performed Like a Rolling Stone in concert, and it signaled a major shift in his musical direction. After all these years, the Newport Folk Festival is still going strong and is scheduled to be held the weekend of July 22nd, 2022.

From Newport to Woodstock

In the 1960s when music festivals were still very new, many people wondered:

how long are music festivals? Until the Newport Folk Festivals, there had only been a handful of small music festivals, and for the most part they only lasted a single day. The first year of the Newport Folk Festival was no different, but when promoters realized the overwhelming demand for live music, they had an idea: Instead of a one-day music festival, how about a three-day music festival? This was made possible because of demand, but it was also possible because there was so much new talent at the time. Of course, not all music festivals last for multiple days, but many of the larger ones have made the weekend-long music festival the standard. By the late 60s music festivals were becoming more common, but they were still usually small affairs. When it came to famous music festivals, Michael Lang was the promoter with the biggest name in the business. He had recently put together the Miami Pop Festival which reportedly drew around 25,000 fans. At the time, that was a lot of people at on venue to listen to music. Lang and his friend Artie Kornfeld had an idea. They wanted to do something big—something really big. This was how Woodstock became one of the most famous music festivals in history. Until Lang and Kornfeld came up with their idea, music festivals had mostly been fairly small, but technology was catching up, and sound systems could handle bigger crowds. Still, there hadn’t been a famous music festival in the US that had an audience much bigger than an NBA basketball game. Lang and Kornfeld liked the idea of the Newport Folk Festival because it brought together a diverse roster of artists, but they had a feeling that if they did something similar with the biggest names in folk and rock music, they could do something even bigger. At first, they had trouble signing up big names because no one thought that anyone would show up to a music festival in rural New York State. This all changed when Creedence Clearwater Revival agreed to play the festival for $10,000. Once Creedence signed on, other acts quickly followed. This was the beginning of perhaps the most famous music festival in history. Still, this was very early in the history of music festivals, and no one really knew how it would turn out. The festival site was set after several other venues pulled out, eventually settling on Max Yasgur’s bucolic dairy farm in Bethel, New York. That’s right. Woodstock didn’t actually happen in Woodstock but near Woodstock. Despite many initial setbacks, Lang and Kornfeld were still optimistic their festival would be a success. When they announced that they planned to sell 150,000 tickets, other promoters balked, saying there was no way they could attract a crowd nearly that big to a dairy farm in upstate New York. In fact, they did sell all of those tickets, but it turned out that demand was even bigger than they had anticipated. Fans who had heard that tickets were sold out simply showed up anyway. The traffic was so bad that people abandoned their cars and walked to the venue. In total, somewhere between 400,000 and 500,000 people attended the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, and no serious injuries were reported. This overwhelming success set the stage for famous music festivals to come. But it wasn’t all peace and love…

The Stones, The Hells Angels, and the Altamont Motor Speedway

One of the most notorious and famous music festivals in the US, the free concert at the Altamont Motor Speedway in Northern California was both an amazing lineup of musicians as well as the unofficial end of the 1960s. In the halcyon days following the success of Woodstock, Michael Lang tried to replicate his magic with a free concert headlined by none other than the Rolling Stones. What could possibly go wrong? As it turned out, plenty. We asked the question earlier: how long are music festivals? After Woodstock, Michael Lang envisioned weekend-long festivals all over the country. But after securing the Altamont Speedway for what he hoped would be “Woodstock West,” problems started to arise. First, they decided to schedule the concert for December in Northern California. As a result, it was cold and rainy on the day of the concert. Second, and perhaps most troubling, the organizers of the event decided to allow the Hell’s Angels motorcycle club to handle security. The Hell’s Angels were notorious for their rowdy behavior and heavy consumption of illegal drugs. This turned out to be a deadly combination, and the events of the day didn’t help matters at all. Things turned violent early in the day, causing the Grateful Dead to pull out of their performance, only enraging the crowd more. The day didn’t get any better from there. Unfortunately, the crowd became even more rowdy, and the Hell’s Angels only contributed to the mayhem as they became more intoxicated. By the time the Rolling Stones finally arrived via helicopter, things were already out of hand. Mick Jagger was reportedly punched by a fan as he got off the helicopter, and their set was marred by numerous fights breaking out near the lip of the stage. At several points, Jagger tried to calm the crowd, but to no avail. Towards the end of their set as they played Under my Thumb, the Hell’s Angels got into a fight with a fan named Meredith Hunter, who then brandished a pistol. One of the Hell’s Angels took matters into his own hands and stabbed Hunter to death. This was one of three deaths that occurred that day, and as a result, the fate of big music festivals was seriously in question.

Famous music festivals in the US in the 1970s

When it comes to famous music festivals of the 1970s, not much comes to mind. This is partly because of the tragedies of the Altamont free concert, but also because the Woodstock festival—though famous and iconic—didn’t make any money for the promoters. This led to promoters turning away from the music festival format. In the early 80s, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak proposed the idea of a new festival that would appeal to the self-described “Me Generation,” that would bring together all of the hottest artists at two massive festivals nine months apart in San Bernardino, California. The first concert took place on Labor Day weekend 1982 and had a reported attendance of 400,000 people. Despite featuring acts like The Ramones, The Police, Santana, Tom Petty, and the Grateful Dead, the concert still ended up losing $12 million. Wozniak was not deterred from going through with the second concert on Memorial Day weekend 1983. This time, the concert would feature INXS, U2, Van Halen, and David Bowie among other huge bands. This time, the audience grew to over 670,000 people, but the event still ended up losing over $12 million. This combined with recent incidents like the Who’s infamous concert in Cincinnati that resulted in the trampling death of eleven people, led concert promoters to doubt the future of festival-style events. Famous music festival became infamous music festivals, and this led to many states passing laws that outlaws general admission festival-style seating.

Live Aid attempts to re-set the American music festival

In 1985 a famine was ravaging African countries, and several well-known musicians decided to try to raise funds by organizing a one day, dual-continent festival to help out. Helmed by English musician Bob Geldof, Live Aid would have one concert at Wembley Stadium in London and another concert at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia. There was one major difference between these festivals and anything that had come before: They would be televised live throughout the world. In addition to putting the concerts in front of a global audience, the performers all performed for free to maximize the amount of money that would go to famine relief in Africa. Then the donations began to roll in. In total it is estimated that Live Aid raised between, $130 and $150 million for Africa, and it kicked off a movement that saw rock and pop musicians unite to fight global issues. Live Aid was followed by We are the World and a number of other projects that sought to raise money for impoverished countries. Despite this, music festivals were still not seen as a viable business strategy for concert promoters looking to make money for themselves, and so the rest of the 1980s saw very few famous music festivals.

The 1990s and some inspiration from across the pond

While the music festival was largely not a part of American culture in the 1980s, an interesting thing was happening in Europe the UK. Festivals that had once been small folk events were turning into larger concerts with high profile acts. There was another difference as well: these festivals turned a profit and largely went off without a hitch. In 1991, Perry Farrell of the band Jane’s Addiction decided to try something similar in the US with a travelling festival called Lollapalooza. It brought together many of the hottest acts of the day including Pearl Jam and Nine Inch Nails. While Lollapalooza now resides solely in Chicago’s Grant Park every July, the original incarnation of the festival worked a lot more like a traditional stadium tour. This made logistics easier, and profits more predictable. Lollapalooza then toured annually for six years before having trouble attracting headlining artists who felt they could make more money touring by themselves. The festival was then revived in 2005 as a single weekend event in Chicago. So, for a while it seemed as though there was new viability for music festivals, provided they were properly organized. This theory was put to the test and failed in 1994 when promoters of the original Woodstock decided to try to recreate the magic twenty-five years later. They even hired some of the original acts from Woodstock to perform, but familiar problems began to arise. Security was a problem. The promoters sold around 165,000 tickets, but the crowd was estimated to be in excess of 500,000. Despite this, the weekend was largely incident free, so they decided to try again in 1999 for the 30th anniversary of the original Woodstock. This time things really didn’t go as planned. The event was held at an airstrip on a weekend where temperatures reached over 100 degrees. The 400,000-person crowd was initially well behaved, but things took a dark turn on Saturday night during a performance by Limp Bizkit in which singer Fred Durst encouraged fans to “break stuff.” This led to multiple fires and general destruction of the festival site. Things didn’t improve much the next night as more fires were set during a performance by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. All told, there was massive property damage, numerous assaults, and a number of reported rapes. This would be the last incarnation of Woodstock until Woodstock 2019 was cancelled before it even got started.

Coachella and the new generation of music festivals

These days, when most of us think about music festivals, Coachella is one of the first to come to mind. The festival actually has its origins in a 1993 concert by Pearl Jam at the Empire Polo Grounds in Indio, California. They chose the site because of their ongoing feud with Ticketmaster that precluded them from playing most established music venues in southern California. Concert promoters took note of the fact that people were willing to travel nearly three hours from Los Angeles to Indio for a concert. But the first official Coachella had its debut just a few months after the disaster of Woodstock ’99. Promoters of Coachella had a big change in mind, and this is what would ultimately set the stage for the modern music festival. In retrospect it seems pretty simple. They limited the crowd size and boosted security. This was based on the European method of organizing festivals, and it worked. Instead of becoming out of control like Woodstock ’99, Coachella ran smoothly and safely. The success of Coachella gave rise to a number of other long running festivals in the US including Bonnaroo, Austin City Limits, and Governor’s Ball. For a while, it seemed as though the pandemic might doom the music festival forever, but music festivals have faced an uphill battle before. With case rates on the decline, and band anxious to get back on the road, music festival will once again thrive. At , we are music’s social network. This is where you can share the music you love and discover music you’ve never heard. Create private or public dance floors and invite your friends. All you need to do is choose your avatar and join a Hangout. After all, music is better with friends.