Eight years later, it seems like there's a major electronic music festival going on every weekend, and, ironically, the US has become the largest market for the super-sized, pyrotechnics-driven events called "EDM festivals." At the same time, the art and craft of "concert visuals" has gained broader recognition, as this merging of club culture and festival culture into "spectacle culture" has made electronic music performance as much visual as it is sonic. When Outkast flopped at this year's Coachella, some blamed the influence of EDM for changing the audience's expectations of what they get in a festival performance. And, with Seth Troxler's recent screed against EDM festivals (and Laidback Luke's reply), these festivals are fueling inter-generational debates about what electronic music and club culture mean. But how did we get here?
While Coachella 2006 was certainly a turning point for the mainstream profile of electronic music, it wasn't until about 2010 that festivals devoted exclusively to electronic music came into their own in the US. Since then, they've turned into a lucrative and culturally significant industry, which has also begun to influence the global festival circuit. But these are hardly new inventions. Some American electronic music festivals—such as DEMF/Movement in Detroit and WMC in Miami—go back to the turn of the century and even before. And these belong to a broader history of electronic music festivals that overlaps with the global rave scenes of the '90s.
Similarly, electronic music festivals are part of a longer history of music festivals that goes back right through the 20th century and even into the 19th century. A lot has changed along the way—the EDM-festival circuit would hardly be recognizable to its predecessors. So how did today's festivals come about? What has changed? What has been gained and lost?
Tracing the origins /
Depending on your definition of "music festival," you could trace their development very far back, especially if you include the music of traditional "folk" celebrations (like spring festivals, harvest festivals, adulthood rites, religious festivals and so on). But the commercialized, entertainment-plus-tourism kind of music festival—where you buy a ticket to see a list of artists advertised on a playbill and pay elevated prices for drinks and/or food—has its roots in the classical music festivals of the 19th century and the jazz festivals of the postwar 20th century. From early on in the 19th century, as the growing middle classes were developing new notions of "high culture" and "good education," interest grew in establishing a historical canon of "great" composers. For the first time, performances of classical music written several generations earlier came into fashion, starting in 1829 with concerts of J.S. Bach's music, organized and conducted by German composer Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.
Over the rest of the 19th century, a circuit of music festivals began to develop around Europe (especially in Britain and Germany), often devoted to the works of a particular composer such as J.S. Bach, Schubert, Handel, Haydn or Mozart. These were usually held in quaint villages with picturesque rural surroundings, which allowed urban cultural elites—the bourgeoisie—to gather into temporary communities of shared, "cultivated" taste while enjoying a romanticized encounter with rural peasant life. There's a technological side to this story, too: the industrial revolution brought with it advances in transportation such as the steam engine and railway networks, which helped make travel to these festivals more affordable for Europe's middle classes.
The jazz festival circuit that developed in Europe from the middle of the 20th century also catered to urban elites looking for an experience that was both cultivated and rustic—but with a few important differences. The two World Wars had left Europe in ruins and undermined people's belief in the superiority of European culture. There was a sense that the "good old days" of traditional rural life were irretrievably lost, and the nightmarish consequences of nationalism were still fresh in everyone's minds, making nostalgia for one's own folk culture politically suspect.
And so jazz, a North American genre associated with a racially marginalized underclass, provided a new focus of middle-class European fascination with "authentic" folk culture. Kristin McGee, a jazz scholar and professor at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, characterizes the earliest European jazz festivals as "both musical revivals and outdoor rituals," feeding "a postwar fascination" with these marginalized American artists as well as a "modernist nostalgia for an imagined, lost pastoral world." She describes the first European jazz festivals as "small-scale outdoor events within the privileged confines of private estates," held in resort areas such as the Côte D'Azur in France (Jazz à Juan in Juan-les-Pins, for example). Although jazz festivals would later become more open, more affordable and more commercialized, the early circuit was very much an elite phenomenon that was invested in romantic mythologies of primitivism and pastoralism—all the while paradoxically bound up with cosmopolitanism and urbanity.
Jazz music festivals were also developing in the US throughout the 1950s, and by the beginning of the 1960s the festival circuit began to include folk music events as well. The American "folk revival" started in the 1940s and provided the soundtrack to political protest, particularly for movements that were anti-war, pro-civil rights, anti-nuclear/environmentalist and pro-organized labor. Musicians like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger had the same emblematic status for young political activists as Rage Against The Machine did in the '90s. The folk revival initially manifested at political demonstrations and in coffee houses, but by the '60s it had gained enough popularity to sustain music festivals of its own. Some of the earliest folk festivals made use of the already-existing infrastructure of jazz festivals—such as the Newport Folk Festival, which started in 1959 as a companion event to the Newport Jazz Festival (since 1954).
In the US, both jazz and folk festivals shared a postwar (and cold-war-era) fascination with "authentic" American musical life, which was variously imagined as traditional, rural, pastoral and primitive. Interestingly, the folk music festival circuit was only really established after the folk revival's peak, when pop and rock had absorbed folk and folk artists (witness the famous "Judas!" moment at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1966, shortly after Bob Dylan first performed on an electric guitar).
The '60s would turn out to be an important period of transition for music festivals, as they became increasingly popular in several ways. To begin with, music festivals gradually became less elite and more mass-cultural, and accessible to a wider range of the middle classes. With the rise of American car culture and postwar economic growth, festival-going also became possible for some working-class music lovers. Festivals were also becoming younger—or, rather, they catered to a younger audience. For many historians and social scientists, it was in the '50s and '60s that the "youth culture" category first came into being. The "baby boomers" were in their adolescence during this decade, and they galvanized into a social and cultural group through political movements like the civil rights struggle, the Vietnam War and other countercultural movements. But young people were also shaping their identities around cultural matters like fashion, music, food, art and literature. And just as they became a political force, young people were becoming an economic one, too. Thanks to nearly two decades of economic growth, "youth" became a new and promising consumer market.
And so, music festivals also became more "pop culture," in the sense that newer festivals began to target the tastes of this emerging and eager audience. One of the earliest examples of this is the Monterey Pop Music Festival, held in June of 1967 in Monterey, California, for an audience of at least 25,000 people (some estimates are much higher). The festival program was a who's-who of rock, folk and pop, including The Who, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, The Mamas & The Papas, Simon & Garfunkel and the Grateful Dead. This was the festival where, at the end of his performance of "Wild Thing," Jimi Hendrix captured the imagination of American audiences by dousing his guitar in lighter fluid, setting it on fire, smashing it to pieces and then throwing the remains into the audience. Monterey is also considered by many to mark the beginning of The Summer Of Love, when the hippie movement was at its height and tens of thousands of young people were inspired to "turn on, tune in and drop out."
But the best-known rock music festival of the '60s was the legendary Woodstock Music & Art Fair, which took place August 15 - 18, 1969, on a 600-acre dairy farm in upstate New York. The festival was originally planned as a profitable business venture, organized by four investors who were expecting to turn a tidy profit on a concert of 150,000 - 200,000 tickets. In the end, nearly 500,000 people showed up across the weekend, forcing the organizers to make the festival a free event and removing the ring-fences at the last minute (don't worry, they had already sold about 186,000 advance tickets). The festival offered an impressive lineup of 32 acts, including many of those who had headlined the Monterey festival, along with Joan Baez, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jefferson Airplane, Sly & The Family Stone and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Despite overcrowding and poor weather, Woodstock still goes down as The One True Rock Festival, the one against which all other popular music festivals afterwards were to be measured. Jimi Hendrix's psychedelic rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock remains a defining moment of the '60s.
As Woodstock and Monterey show, music festivals at the end of the '60s were not only mass cultural but massive. From '67 onwards, there was an explosion in the number of popular music festivals, and audience turnout consistently exceeded the expectations (and capacities) of the organizers. This was also the case in the UK, where the Isle Of Wight Festival had been running since '67. The '70 edition of the festival exceeded Woodstock's attendance, with an estimated turnout of somewhere between 600,000 and 700,000 people. The festival ran over five days and featured around 55 acts, including The Doors, Joni Mitchell, Miles Davis and many headliners from Monterey and Woodstock. Here, too, the organizers had to declare the festival "free" and "non-profit" once it became clear the turnout would be too large to manage as a ticketed event; the financial losses from this decision as well as the numerous administrative roadblocks put in the way by local residents ensured that the festival was discontinued afterwards until 2002.
Despite the tough times for the Isle Of Wight festival, outdoor pop and rock festivals continued to flourish throughout the '70s, with dozens of new events every year. In the UK, the first Glastonbury Festival took place in '70 (originally named the Pilton Pop, Blues & Folk Festival), while in the US the Summer Jam at Watkins Glen ('73) attracted nearly 600,000 fans to hear the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers Band and The Band. Other notable festivals included the Strawberry Fields Festival ('70, Canada), Sunbury Pop Festival ('72 - '75, Australia), Festival Rock Y Ruedas De Avándaro ('71, Mexico), Ozark Music Festival ('74, USA), Florida Sunfest ('77, USA) and Canada Jam ('78). This decade also saw the emergence of the Free Festival Movement in the UK, including the Windsor Free Festival ('72 - '74) and the Stonehenge Free Festival ('74 - '84). Often organized by people from the commune scene, these festivals charged no entry fee, relied on in-kind donations and volunteer work from both audience and performers, and squatted on state property. In many ways, these free festivals were the spiritual predecessors of the UK free party scene in the early '90s.
As the years went on, the programming at these festivals adapted to reflect what was currently popular with their young audiences, but one genre was notably absent from festival stages: disco. The sound had been flourishing since the early '70s, and was already an international phenomenon by the mid-'70s. Perhaps because it was more dance music than the other music that was popular at the time, disco's associations with the dance floor of the discotheque were too strong to survive translation onto a festival stage. Also, the public image of disco didn't fit well with the pastoral and primitivist themes of music festivals. As a genre that first flourished among inner-city blacks, Latinos, gay and transgendered people, disco was the soundtrack to urban survival. It may also have been related to disco's core audience of racially- and sexually-marginalized dancers. As popular as music festivals became through the '60s and '70s, their audiences were still primarily middle-class, white and straight. The liberal, "peace and love" political orientation of the Summer Of Love and other countercultural movements elicited a commitment to egalitarianism and inclusivity, which made these festivals more welcoming to minorities than many other events at the time, but the core audience came from more or less the same place in the social hierarchy as the audiences of 19th century classical music festivals.
Although the racial and sexual profiles of music festivals didn't change substantially in the '80s, there were some shifts in social class. One of the major developments during that decade was the arrival of heavy metal (and later glam metal) to the festival stage, which attracted a more working-class audience. In the UK, the first festivals to feature exclusive hard rock/heavy metal programming were the Monsters Of Rock (1980 - 2006) and the Heavy Metal Holocaust ('81). But at the same time, more pop-oriented music festivals continued throughout the decade, such as Glastonbury Festival, Reading & Leeds Festival and the Milton Keynes Bowl concerts. Over in the US, the US Festival of '83 (organized and bankrolled by Steve Wozniak of Apple Computers fame) provides a historical cross-section of music festivals at the time, dividing its programming into four genre-specific days: new wave day, heavy metal day, rock day and country day. Notably, the new wave day was sparsely attended while the heavy metal day was packed, marking a shift in mainstream tastes in the US.
Much like disco had been conspicuously absent from '70s music festivals, post-disco dance genres from the US like house, garage, electro and techno were nowhere to be found at outdoor festivals. And then the Second Summer Of Love happened. By '88, acid house had taken the UK by storm, thriving in nightclubs in London, Sheffield, Birmingham, Manchester and elsewhere. But by early '89, these clubs were under pressure from local police, and their events were drawing crowds that exceeded the capacity of their inner-city venues. And so, as the summer weather arrived, promoters such as Biology, Eclipse, Energy and Back To The Future started organizing raves in the nearby countryside, using outdoor locations and disused industrial sites close to the recently completed M25 London Orbital motorway (which formed a ring around London).
According to many eyewitnesses, these events drew a mixed-class crowd and were more racially- and sexually-mixed than other nightlife scenes at the time. Although these raves were different from contemporary mainstream music festivals in many respects, they were certainly festival-like in their atmosphere, youthful crowds, outdoor venues and long running times. Indeed, the resemblance was close enough for many commentators to compare the explosion of outdoor raves in '89 to the explosion of outdoor pop festivals during the Summer Of Love in '67. This era didn't last very long—the British government passed new laws in '92 and '93 that effectively made it illegal to organize open-air raves. While illegal outdoor events continued through the decade, many promoters either moved into established nightclubs, moved their events to the European continent (where the law hadn't caught up with raves yet) or tried to go "legitimate" by organizing above-ground electronic music festivals.
Over in Berlin around the same time, the Wall had just come down, the German reunification process was getting underway, and a sense of radical social change—both exciting and terrifying—was thick in the air. Electronic music had already been an important part of nightlife in Berlin throughout most of the '80s, with local industrial, electro-rock, synthpop and EBM scenes providing fertile ground for a burgeoning techno and house scene. In the summer of '89, a group of party kids got the bright idea to organize a political demonstration in the form of a musical parade down West Berlin's swankiest shopping street, Kurfürstendamm. Their political motto was "peace, love and pancakes," and about 150 people showed up for what would become the very first Love Parade. The next summer, with the Wall recently fallen and reunification on the horizon, the second installment had the utopian motto "the future is ours" and attracted 2000 partygoers. By '97, the Love Parade was attended by one million people and had relocated to the nearby Tiergarten park, with the Siegessäule ("Victory Column") as the endpoint of the parade route.
Although the Love Parade was officially billed as a political demonstration, in practice it was a massive electronic music festival on wheels. There has always been controversy about whether or not the Love Parade was serious about its politics; its critics asserted that the organizers were cynically using the cover of a political demonstration to take advantage of municipal public-event laws that forced the city to pay for security and clean up after the partying. In order to get the permit, the organizers needed to make sure that the Love Parade resembled a political demonstration in particular ways, so the head promoter, Dr. Motte, would open the parade with a political speech—which was usually rather tongue-in-cheek. But "fun" was political in that context. After the tight social control and surveillance of the GDR in East Germany, and the pervasive terror of the Cold War, partying, music and dancing were urgent gestures of survival for many young people.
The Love Parade, along with Mayday ('91 - present) and Switzerland's Street Parade ('92 - present) were the largest electronic music festivals in Europe during the '90s and the early '00s. In addition to their size, they were significant because they were thoroughly urban festivals—they took place in the middle of cities, and their utopian imagery was largely techno-futuristic and post-industrial. This was part of a larger trend of city-based electronic music festivals during the '90s, such as Sónar ('94, Barcelona), Time Warp ('94, Mannheim), I Love Techno ('95, Ghent), Awakenings ('97, Amsterdam and Rotterdam) and the Hradhouse Festival ('98, Boskovice). Some cities initially saw these events as a nuisance and a drain on resources, but others began to see them as a potentially lucrative source of income and tourism.
This change of attitude became even more marked in the early 2000s, with the popularization of the "creative city" urban-renewal model, where creative events like arts festivals were seen as an ideal way to bring money and people back to struggling neighborhoods. In addition to Sónar—which had always been billed as a multimedia arts festival—the next few years saw the inauguration of several other electronic music festivals that followed the "urban arts festival" model, such as Club Transmediale ('99, Berlin), DEMF/Movement (Detroit, '00), MUTEK (Montréal, '00), EXIT (Novi Sad, '00) and the Decibel Festival ('03, Seattle). Of course, this isn't to say that outdoor, non-urban electronic music festivals didn't continue to happen: 1995 saw the beginning of KaZantip in the Ukraine as well as Destiny/World Electronic Music Festival near Toronto, Canada. Some of the outdoor music festivals that started during this era remain active and well-attended today, like Portugal's Boom Festival (since '97), Melt! in Ferropolis, Germany ('98) and Labyrinth at Naeba Greenland in Japan's Niigata Prefecture ('01).
There is also another kind of urban, festival-like electronic music event that has been around for a while: industry conferences. Miami's Winter Music Conference (WMC) began all the way back in '81 and the Amsterdam Dance Event started in '96. While other electronic music festivals have added a conference component to their programming—especially the "arts festival" ones like Sónar, Club Transmediale and MUTEK—these events are targeted to music industry professionals and structured around a sort of trade fair, with discussion panels, workshops, lectures, demonstrations of new technologies and networking events. In the evening, various nightclubs around the city host events that showcase particular labels, styles, or simply new talent. Of course, although these events were targeted towards industry people, the organizers were more than happy to have music fans show up, fill the dance floor and buy overpriced drinks. And so, these conferences tend to develop a circuit of parties (both official and unofficial), which aggregate together to take the shape of something that resembles an urban electronic music festival.
And what about today's super-sized EDM festivals? Just as they did during the pop/rock-festival boom of the '70s and the outdoor rave explosion of the '90s, promoters have moved quickly to capitalize on this growing festival circuit by flooding the market with new EDM festivals, making them larger (and thus charging more and more for admission), booking lineups packed with established "superstar" performers, and charging more and more for food, drink and souvenirs. Over the last few years there has been an explosion of new EDM festivals in the US that parallels the growth of pop/rock festivals in the '70s. In 2011, for example, the EDM festival circuit grew to include new events such as Electric Forest, Escape From Wonderland and Dancefestopia. It seems that the emergence and explosive expansion of "EDM-format" music festivals is largely a North American phenomenon. Elsewhere in the world—especially in Europe and Oceania—electronic music festivals seem to have a unbroken historical link with the late-20th-century waves of pop/rock festivals and rave-style outdoor events.
But globalization happens; in an age of ubiquitous and instantaneous telecommunications—as well as multi-national corporations and supra-national politics—nothing as big as EDM will stay within national borders. Already, there appears to be growing cross-fertilization between the North American EDM festival circuit and the larger international circuit of electronic music festivals: Belgium-based Tomorrowland launched a TomorrowWorld festival in Atlanta in 2013, while in the past two years Electric Daisy Carnival has added London and Mexico City to its roster of locations. Global Gathering started in the UK in 2001, but it has now become a self-described "global music festival brand" with festivals on nearly every continent, all of them trending towards the American style of EDM festival. The rapid expansion of music festival promoters into international "brands" is a noteworthy development in itself. But what's troubling is the way that larger entertainment conglomerates are now rushing to gobble up these festival-planning companies (such as American SFX acquiring Dutch ID&T to add to its roster of US EDM festivals, nightclubs and Beatport), which raises concerns about the music festival scene turning into an oligopoly similar to what we have in the music recording industry—with a handful of global "major" labels controlling nearly everything.
In any case, there are still some substantial differences to how the new American EDM circuit approaches the festival experience. Since the mid-to-late-'00s, there seems to have been a concertization of electronic music performance at festivals in North America. What I mean by this is that the newest breed of electronic music festival has adopted many aspects of the large-scale pop/rock concert, which has required some changes to how electronic dance music is performed and experienced. Although there were examples of festival-like events in electronic music since very early on, these have mostly been directed to a clientele who maintained the nightclub dance floor as the platonic ideal of electronic music experience. Along with that came certain expectations about how DJs perform, how the audience reacts and interacts, what kinds of visuals are appropriate or tasteful, how public/mainstream it should be, and so on.
Although the translation from dance floor to stage wasn't possible with disco in the '70s, it seems to have been successful with EDM—or, to be more precise, EDM as a new-ish, mostly-American category of electronic music has been profoundly shaped by the format of today's outdoor mega-events. (For the popular music scholars who have been using the term EDM in a very different way since the mid-'90s, this is a cause of some confusion and consternation.) A newer breed of EDM musicians have mostly abandoned the performance practices of the DJ booth to adopt those of a pop or rock stage artist: short, high-intensity musical sets that are paced like a rock concert, larger-than-life stage personae and a seemingly endless investment in visual spectacle (such as animatronics, video projections, complex LED screen arrays and pyrotechnics) to accompany the sensory overload of "brain-melting" sound.
In a way, this might be part of what some social scientists call "the festivalization of culture," where the festival model is applied to all sorts of cultural activities—much like the arts festival fad among municipal authorities, presented as a silver bullet for a failing local economy. The idea behind this strategy is that: 1) it drives tourism and consumerism to economically-weak areas; 2) it concentrates profits for the organizers (that is, there's a relatively quick and lucrative payoff, if everything goes well); 3) it helps creative folks secure funding by providing a familiar "culture is good" format that funding agencies and investors trust. But as electronic music festivals seem to be converging on a common, investor-friendly EDM festival model, is there a risk that they will end up simply recreating the same homogenized, sanitized, mass-consumer culture that we get through mainstream media already? Where is the diversity of audiences and artists? Can we expect electronic music festivals to contribute anything new to popular culture?
Although North American EDM festivals emerge from a much longer historical thread of music festivals, this latest iteration does seem to be generating new forms of popular music culture—more commercialized and hype-driven, but also more accessible and perhaps more democratic. Even if some critics are worried about how these mammoth festivals will impact the smaller, more fragile underground scenes that have been around for decades, it seems that EDM festivals have become the primary vector for attracting new music fans to electronic music.