by Mario Miotti

THE HISTORY OF MUSIC FESTIVALS

What is a music festival?

Type in Music Festival in Wikipedia and you get this definition, “A music festival is a festival oriented towards music that is sometimes presented with a theme such as musical genre, nationality, locality of musicians, or holiday. They are commonly held outdoors and are often inclusive of other attractions such as food and merchandise vending, performance art, and social activities. Many festivals are annual or repeat at some other interval. Some festivals are organized as for-profit concerts and others are benefits for a specific cause. Another type of music festival is the educative type, organized annually in local communities, regionally, or nationally, for the benefit of amateur musicians of all ages and grades of achievement.”

Type in Transformational Festival in Wikipedia and you get this definition, “A transformational festival is a counterculture festival that espouses a community-building ethic, and a value system that celebrates life, personal growth, social responsibility, healthy living, and creative expression. Transformational alludes both to personal transformation (self-realization) and steering the transformation of culture toward sustainability. Some transformational festivals resemble music festivals but are distinguished by such features as seminars, classes, drum circles, ceremonies, installation art (or other visual art), the availability of whole food and bodywork, and a Leave No Trace policy. Transformational festivals are held outdoors, often in remote locations, and are co-created by the participants. The events are psychedelic inspired, involving visionary art, speakers on topics of entheogenic substances, as well as audio and visual entertainment intended to amplify psychedelic experiences…. Many attendees disengage conservative social norms and identify as an “evolved culture”—a worldview influenced by millenarian archetypes of planetary transcendence and the evolution of consciousness.”

The term “festival” first showed up in the English language in the middle of the 16th century, derived from “feast” and most often centered around the harvest. Throughout history, music has played an important role at these mass cultural gatherings. For example: The Pythian Games at Delphi may be one of the earliest festivals known around 6th century BC, that featured competitions of musical ability in addition to the physical feats for which they are primarily remembered.

Held on a dairy farm in Bethel, NY, 1969’s Woodstock Festival was called “An Aquarian Exposition.” Age of Aquarius (1940) is an astrological epoch that is supposed to have begun in the 1960s, embodying the traits of this sign and characterized by world peace and human brotherhood. The term and the concept probably got a boost in popular culture due it’s use in this festival.

The three-day event featured 32 acts including The Grateful Dead, Canned Heat, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin. Although organizers planned for around 50,000 people, around 200,000 tickets were sold and when over 500,000 people showed up, they were forced to remove the fence and turn it into a free concert. As the most famous festival of all time, it left a legacy that captures the free-love spirit of that decade.

“It could be argued, though, that Woodstock was the moment that “counterculture” became trademarked and entered the mainstream conscious. Corporate interests realized the financial gain presented by festival culture, thus setting off a chain of simulacra that would eventually water down the hippie movement into a caricature of itself. If anything, this should reiterate key lessons set forth in the festival idealism: Everything changes, joy is ephemeral, and we should always live in the moment.” Writes Patrick Chamberlain in A (Brief) 1,000 Year History of Music Festivals for Everfest.

On a beach in San Francisco in 1986, a few friends burned a nine-foot effigy of a man in the name of radical self-expression. They didn’t know it then, but the act set off a chain of events that would change festival culture, even society at large, forever. Four years later, on a dry lake bed in the Black Rock Desert north of Reno, Burning Man was founded as an expression of a “Dadaist temporary autonomous zone,” a free-form expression of community and creativity manifested through music, art, installations, social experiments and good ol’ fashioned revelry.”

So, if the alternative, counterculture spirit of festivals has evolved into more mainstream, all-encompassing events, what were they in the time frame between counterculture and the musical competitions of the Middle Ages? Because clearly, although 1969’s Woodstock may be the most talked-about music festival in history- and its evolutionary successor in Burning man following suit-  those certainly weren’t the first of their kind.

Patrick writes, “Celtic and Gaelic cultures held cultural fairs from as far back as the year 1000 AD, named Mods in Scotland and Feis in Ireland, of which dance competitions were major aspects. People gathered en masse throughout Europe for renditions of classical music, although these events were often reserved for the upper crust.”

The two longest (continuously running) music festivals in the world still in existence are Pinkpop in the Netherlands (1970) and The Oregon County Fair (1969) in the USA. By sheer coincidence they represent the opposite ethos’ of festivals: corporate ‘multi-concert’ music festival and ‘transformational’ non-profit, charitable, educational music festival, respectively. However, neither of those are ‘true’ camping music festivals, nor are they best examples of the ‘transformational music festivals’ that we are interested in here at Sparked.

So, what is a festival to us now? and specifically a modern camping music festival? One brings to mind the music, the dancing, the art, the community, the opening up of your mind to non-conformist views as tools to live your life.

In a book titled ‘Music Festivals and the Politics of Participation,’ Roxy Robinson writes about hundreds of ’boutique’ gatherings that have popped up in the UK and all over the world, drawing hundreds of thousands of festival-goers into the fields. Why has this happened? In her richly detailed study, Dr. Roxy Robinson uncovers the dynamics that have led to the formation and evolution of the modern festival scene. Tracing the history of the culture as far back as the fifties, her book examines the tensions between authenticity and commerce as festivals grew into a widespread, professionalized industry.

At Everfest, they created a Fest Test tool to help them decide if an event is merely that — an event, or if it is something greater: a festival. These are not absolute criteria that would apply in every case, but rather philosophical qualities that are representative in most, and certainly the best, festivals.

The Everfest Fest Test rules are …

1) Festivals have an ethos of discovery and are about having fun.

2) Festivals are multi-dimensional, encourage participation, and offer various types of activities and stimuli.

3) Festivals can include anyone with the means to attend.
They may charge for admission but should not discriminate by race, age, gender, religion, or otherwise be private clubs.

4) Festivals physically occur in the real world.
They remind us that there is a human social network where we meet old and new friends.

5) Festivals should be celebrations worthy of the test of time.
They should recur or intend to recur.

George McKay, Professor of Cultural Studies at Salford University, said, “Festivals are deeply rooted in the carnival tradition, which is to invert everyday expectations of normal behavior. Historically, carnivals would have a ‘lord of misrule’ who oversaw the revelries and subversion of the ordinary rules of life. Music festivals continue to be places where we can escape reality and subvert the rules – whatever age we happen to be.

The best festivals take it to a new level. They are here not just to entertain you, but to heal you, to teach you, to inspire you, to give you the framework to unleash your curiosity and adventure. You can attend numerous workshops and talks by the best gurus in the world. You can learn how to eat better, how to use essential oils, and what organic really means. You can learn about the advances in bio science, spirituality, sex and intimacy. You can work on your physical being and enjoy any one of the amazing disciplines of yoga on offer. And when you want to be the ‘lord of misrule’, no one will say anything about it.

A music festival in the 20th century is a school of life, for young or old, where we learn from each other in a fluid and symbiotic manner. Festival culture is now an integral part of many people’s lives, from the teenagers of the world to the more discerning boutique festival goers. From parties held in the British countryside to raves in Belgium, to gatherings in the desert of Nevada, to concerts held on cruise ships in the Caribbean, the history of the music festivals has really just begun.

By Mario Miotti

Founder of Sparked Magazine

(all photography by Mario Miotti)

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