From Woodstock to Glastonbury: A Brief History of Music Festivals and Their Evolution over the Decades

These days when you think of a music festival, you probably think of some of the biggest names in music playing on stages that are plastered with advertising as far as the eye can see. You might also think that music festivals got started in the late 1960s when Woodstock came around, but there’s a much longer history than that. Let’s take a look at how festivals got their start and how they came to be what they are now.

Ancient Beginnings

Mass gatherings of people began long before any of us could even imagine, especially during the Middle Ages. However, the music during these times was simply played as background noise for other things taking place, namely athletic competitions. It wasn’t until the 18th century that scheduled musical acts started to take part in music-focused festivals, but the acts were all local and not really famous by any stretch.

Heading to Woodstock

As the years went on, music festivals became incredibly common throughout larger cities of the world. Like the early festivals, though, they weren’t big-name acts that were being played on the radio. That would all change in 1969 with the development of Woodstock, which was created by four men who were able to secure massive musical acts like Santana, the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, and many more.

While Woodstock ended up being a muddy mess, it was able to gather nearly half a million people in the middle of nowhere in upstate New York. With that, companies saw an opportunity to use music festivals as a way of advertising to massive swarms of people all at once. With that, the 1970s saw a huge boom in music festivals, though they wouldn’t become quite as corporate just yet.

The Digital Era Revives Festivals

There were plenty of festivals throughout major countries in the 1980s and 1990s, but the biggest musical acts didn’t feel compelled to perform at them. That’s because record sales were through the roof thanks to the ease of access that cassettes and compact discs offered for music fans. That would all change when music went digital, however, with musicians only getting a tiny cut in streaming revenue.

Because of this, music festivals started to become more popular once again with musicians making a wide majority of their money through touring. The biggest names in the business were wanting to headline festivals and the festivals themselves became a massive industry. In fact, playing festivals may be better suited for top acts who don’t want the long schedule that comes with a tour.

Musicians who aren’t looking to tens of millions by working and traveling every day can simply pop into a festival for one day, return home, and cash in a check that’s worth upwards of $1 million. This is especially beneficial for some of the A-listers who are getting up there in age and want to get a few more performances in for the retirement fund before they call it a career. 

The Current Structure

Whenever you go to a major music festival around the world, there’s a good chance that it’s going to be owned and operated by one of two companies: AEG Live or Live Nation. The former was founded in 1994 with the full name Anschutz Entertainment Group and operates festivals like Coachella while owning some of the more notable sports and music venues. The latter was founded in 2010 and owns Ticketmaster, putting together festivals like EDC in Las Vegas and Lollapalooza.

For most of these festivals, you can expect to spend hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars to see some of the top names in music, especially when ticket fees are taken into consideration. Many of these festivals make back the money without selling even a single ticket thanks to corporate sponsorships. When you see the main stage, you’re likely to see a few company logos, too.

When those logos are front and center for everyone to see while hundreds of thousands of eyes are glued to the stage, that’s a lot of money being spent for that ad space. While there are some people who don’t like the corporate structure that music festivals have compared to the Woodstock days, it’s absolutely necessary to keep tickets somewhat affordable while bringing in big-name acts.

Now, we have festivals that include the more laid-back like Coachella, the hardcore ones like Rock in Rio, and the wild ones like EDC. No matter where you go in the world, there’s a festival nearby that will likely fit what you’re looking for.

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