Music Festivals: Origins and Evolution

Jul 12, 2023

The modern music festival got its start around the turn of the 20th century with religious and classical music. From there, it evolved to include “hippies” in the late ’60s; started to become quite popular in the ’70s; then spread exponentially following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Today, music festivals happen all around the globe and bring people from all cultures and ages together! But, the truth is music festivals have been going on a lot longer than just the beginning of the last century. Let’s take a look at where they really got started, and how much they’ve changed over the centuries!

The First Music Festivals: The Pythian Games

While what we think of as music festivals have only really been around for a little over one hundred years, the practice actually goes back much further. In fact, we can pinpoint the exact year and place the first recorded music festival was held: 582 BC, in Ancient Greece. What was special about that time and place? It marks the creation of the Pythian Games! Created to celebrate the destruction of Python and the appearance of the Oracle of Delphi, the games featured a number of musical, game-like competitions.

Lasting six to eight nights, the Games presented musical events like a Hymn addressed to Apollo, the god of arts and music, as well as performances on aulos (a Greek reed pipe) and kitharas (a stringed instrument). They even had people we would recognize today as producers and organizers, known then as the Theoroi!

Of course, while this was the first recorded music festival, events like this predate recorded history! The truth is, we don’t know when they started, just that they have always existed in some form.

Classical Music Festivals

By the 17th century, most of the music focus of Europe was on what we consider “classical music” today. Popular artists of the day included Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. For centuries, music festivals were for the common people to rejoice and share in celebration. But by the 17th century, the elite of society had taken control of the culture and created events that were much more exclusive; only the highly educated upper class could attend and benefit from these newer music festivals.

As the wealth divide across Europe grew, new instruments were developed by and for this elite class, and musicians were largely relegated to two groups: highly educated upper class, often royalty or working for royalty; and poor, uneducated, traveling folk musicians.

This trend continued for several hundred years until it came to an abrupt halt at the beginning of the 20th century.

World Wars

With the outbreak of the First World War, lifestyles around the globe were forced to change. With a heavier focus on producing munitions and protecting the safety of civilians, the upper class’s music festivals basically disappeared. On the other hand, the poorer classes of people, who didn’t want to fight, picked up instruments and created modern folk and jazz. Groups of like-minded musicians came together to play in small clubs and bars for others who thought the way they did; away from those who considered themselves “upper class.” By the time the war ended, jazz had established itself as a legitimate – and popular – genre.

Unfortunately, with only a few decades of peace, war once again broke out in Europe. The social strife experienced during World War I continued.

Louis & Elaine Lorillard

However, the social and economic boom that followed the wars offered new opportunities for music festivals. The couple that would become Louis and Elaine Lorillard met in Italy during World War II. Having bonded over a love of jazz, the pair were determined to use jazz to contribute to the culture of Rhode Island. With $20,000 in funding, the pair built the Newport Folk Festival, bringing jazz, blues, country, and pop music together. By 1954, more than 11,000 people attended.

The ’60s and Beyond

Despite what you may have heard, Woodstock may have been the most famous music festival, but it was not the first of its kind. Music festivals as we think of them today – an escape from everyday life – more accurately began in 1967, with the Monterey International Pop Festival. It was at this event that Jimi Hendrix set his guitar on fire, Janis Joplin catapulted her career, and America was introduced to The Who. It’s no wonder it’s considered America’s first rock festival!

From there, the Miami Pop Festival was held in 1968, followed by Woodstock in 1969. By the 1970s, modern music festivals had spread throughout the world. Massive gatherings of people came for every subgenre of popular music.

However, by the ’80s and ’90s attendance began to lag. Music festivals hit a bit of a low, signaling a change was on the way.

The Berlin Wall & Electronic Music

With the ’90s came a new popular genre: electronic music. Pioneered in the underground music scene of Soviet-controlled Berlin, electronic music was largely niche until the fall of the Berlin Wall in late 1989. But when that wall fell, electronic music spread like wildfire to the world. Illegal parties and shows, often in abandoned buildings, cropped up everywhere. Power plants, World War II bunkers, abandoned subway stations – they all became temporary music venues.

With the reunification of Germany came a sense of relief and freedom. And with that feeling of freedom cam celebrations and endless music throughout the art and underground scenes.

Music Festivals of Today

Today’s music festivals exude creativity, art, excitement, and fun. From the point of view of a city, they boost tourism, impact industry, and enhance municipal branding. Modern music festivals are big business. But it’s not just host cities that benefit; the music industry needs festivals too. Thanks to the digital age, listeners buy music differently (Spotify subscriptions vs. buying each album, for example), and the industry needs revenue from festivals to make up the difference. Thanks to this emphasis on business, some argue that music festivals have moved away from their roots; they celebrate ticket sales instead of activism and musical expression.

And while those criticisms may be valid, there is still no better way to unite people. Despite everything that goes with them, music festivals are still about the music, and nothing brings people together better!

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