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When Did Music Festivals Become So Mainstream?

Sounding OFF

It’s strange how a movement that began at a grassroots level could turn into a commercial enterprise run by corporations like AEG Live and Live Nation, but that is exactly how we ended up with a lot of the larger-scale music festivals that we see today. 

Given the massive budgets and unfettered access to the biggest names in the music industry, it’s actually quite surprising that it took until now for an artist to voice their frustration about the lineup placement.

Following the initial lineup announcement for The Governor’s Ball Music Festival 2018, earlier this week, College Park rapper 2 Chainz went online to voice his frustration regarding where the Platinum-selling recording artist had been listed on the poster.

“Whoever did this flyer need to do it over!!! No capp!! I put in too much work to settle!!” he said, posting a snapshot of the flyer to his Instagram account. “I ain’t goin’ for the buddy, buddy shit this year, give me miness!!! #prettygirlsliketrapmusic platinum #4am platinum #gooddrank platinum #vibes platinum #bigamount platinum!! Numbers don’t lie and neither do I!!!! It’s no wonder there aren’t more complaints about the line-up placement.”

Since 2 Chainz is not headlining, it makes sense he’s not at the very top, but it is rather peculiar to see him below Manchester Orchestra, Dirty Projectors, Sylvan Esso, CHVRCHESDRAM, Cut Copy, Maggie Rogers, and The Glitch Mob, to name just a few.

But how exactly did we get here? To the point where there are literally so many big names on the lineup that an artist will actually speak up about it?


Music festivals have been around for centuries but didn’t really take an impact on modern music until the late 1960’s, with when a group of entrepreneurs and promoters settled on Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel, New York, as the site for what would become the Woodstock Music & Art Fair. Billed as “an Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music,” the festival was such a success that it actually exceeded everyone’s expectations and famously became a “free concert” after drawing hundreds of thousands more than planned.

The overall success of the festival was something to be envied, which was part of the reason that The Rolling Stones and The Grateful Dead sought to bring something similar to the West Coast. The result, however, went down as one of the most disastrous performances in history, when a member of the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club stabbed an audience member, Meredith Hunter. The Altamont Free Festival was marred by violence, which also included three accidental deaths, several injured, numerous cars stolen or abandoned, and extensive property damage. 

In the years that followed many other music festivals would take form, however, nothing would ever compare to the almost 500,000 people who attended Woodstock. To mark the 25th anniversary of the festival, everyone was invited back to the farm in 1994 for the second incarnation of the festival. Following yet another successful year in Bethel, organizers attempted to bring the concert back for its 30th. However, things took a turn on the final day of the show when one of the stages caught fire. Rumors have also started to circulate that plans are in the works to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the festival in 2019 back in Bethel Woods.


Irish songwriter/political activist Sir Bob Geldof teamed up with former-Ultravox frontman Midge Ure, to create a large-scale benefit concert in 1985 to help bring aid and raise awareness to the famine in Ethiopia. The concert featured an incredible lineup of more than 50 different artists performing on one of two stages—Wembley Stadium in London and John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia, Penn. The performances were also simulcast on television around the world.

Exactly 20 years later, in 2005, Geldof tried to do it again with the hope of sending a message to the G8 Summit in South Africa in support of the aims of the UK’s Make Poverty History campaign and the Global Call for Action Against Poverty. More than 1,000 musicians performed at the Live 8 concerts, including Elton John, Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder, Coldplay, Brian Wilson, Deep Purple, Peter Gabriel, Bryan Adams, U2, and Paul McCartney, which were broadcast on 182 television networks and 2,000 radio networks across the globe.

As for the potential future of any such festival, in a recent interview with Irish newspaper The Independent, Geldof said that because of social media today, it would never work. “I don’t think that works now, there’s a whole new age. You can do something, you can start generating stuff online now, whether that’s as effective immediately or not,” he said. “It’s a terrible bromide at the same time, being online, because your rage evaporates into the ether… and it’s very useful for authority, because if everyone in this room had a bee in their bonnet right now, they could all go online and get 1,000 followers.”


Created by Jane’s Addiction singer Perry Farrell as a farewell tour, Lollapalooza went on to pave the way for such other traveling festivals as the Van’s Warped Tour, Ozzfest, Bamboozle, Sounds of the UndergroundMayhem Festival and many others. The festival has been going strong since 2003, it even spread internationally with performances in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Paris, and Berlin.

Over the year Lollapalooza has played host to such artists as Eminem, Nine Inch Nails, Kanye West, The Smashing Pumpkins, Muse, Kid Cudi, Imagine Dragons, Babes in Toyland, Beastie Boys, Kings of LeonFoo Fighters, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Pearl Jam, to name just a few.


While it was far from the first music festival to include mainstream music, the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival was the first to really travel across genres, to create an eclectic lineup of artists and musicians that one would not normally see perform on the same stage. The four-day music festival, located on 700-acre grounds in Manchester, Tennessee, was established by AC Entertainment and Superfly Productions in 2002 and has been going strong for more than 16 years.

Over the years, Bonnaroo has played host to such artists as Eminem, Phish, Radiohead, Billy Joel, Tool, The White Stripes, Neil Young, Tom Petty, The Allman Brothers Band, My Morning Jacket, Wilco, James Brown, Bon Iver, Arctic Monkeys, Arcade Fire, Dave Matthews, Ben Folds, and Of Monsters and Men.

In 2016, AC Entertainment was purchased by Live Nation, which booked performances from U2, Lorde, The Weeknd, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival also got its start around the same time. Although its origins can be traced back to 1999, it didn’t really become an annual event until 2001. Unlike most mainstream festivals, Coachella took on a life all its own, growing into a full-fledged three-day music festival in 2007, and eventually a two-weekend-long event in 2012.

Given the direction music festivals are going, it’s not unfeasible to think there will someday be an outdoor event that could attract more people than Coachella and Woodstock combined.

Sounding OFF is a weekly music column from Salute Magazine‘s Senior Editor Daniel Offner. Stay tuned for more each Friday. 

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