It’s been 20+ years since Cypress Hill graced the stage at the re-imagined Woodstock festival in 1994 informing (or rather instructing) the crowd in the ways in which one should ‘Hit the Bong’. That stoners’ anthem brought them to the world’s attention and they subsequently headlined just about all of the USA music festivals worth knowing at the time. Besides the line-ups and a degree of corporate infiltration, little has changed in the festival world. As each summer arrives — in all its sweaty, sun-baked, road-trip glory — music fans from across the spectrum take to the road (or the skies) to revel in the borderline hedonism in which their parents or even grandparents indulged in decades past.
USA music festivals now
While the 1960s are imagined as the big folk-rock festival’s heyday, there are more music festivals of all stripes now dotting the American landscape than ever before. From Telluride to Ultra to Summerfest, from country to electronic to classical, there are dozens of well-known events (along with a few more obscure — Camp Bisco? Salmonfest? Soupstock?). Some are long-running festivals that have managed to maintain their DIY ethics while others are newcomer corporate-sponsored see-and-be-seen mega-events.
It’s these monolithic corporate affairs that have truly transformed the national music festival scene, with Lollapalooza among the standout examples. Largely controlled by the global entertainment behemoth Live Nation Entertainment, it is one of the biggest and longest-running music festivals in America every year, putting it in competition with the Coachella Festival (promoted by fellow juggernaut AEG Live). Industry insiders have commented openly that these two companies alone are slowly consuming any festival that can be bought and for good reason: the North American concert industry is tipped to be worth a staggering $6 billion, with festivals allowing for healthy profit margins when you factor in vendor licences and merchandise. A three-day weekend pass for this year’s Coachella ranged from $375 for general admission to $899 for VIP.
Nice work if you can get it.
But whichever suits you, pick your genre, pack your tent, hop in the car (or plane) and join the throng along with the average American festival punter who, according to the Nielsen company, travels an astounding 903 miles to attend a festival by road or by air either within the USA or from overseas. In 2014, 32 million people attended at least one festival that year.
If you’re in Manchester, Tennessee and it’s June, chances are good you’re there for Bonnaroo. Not that the 10,000-person Coffee County town isn’t an interesting slice of American south-heartland – its historic downtown boasts an old courthouse and the Old Stone Fort on the western edge of town has scenic hiking trails and waterfalls. But for most of the year, these might be the only reasons to stop over in Manchester while traversing Interstate 24 between Nashville and Chattanooga.
Come summer, Bonnaroo takes Manchester’s ten thousand and raises it tenfold. The festival’s nine hundred thousand-plus attendees make it for a brief moment big enough to register as Tennessee’s seventh-largest population center.
Bonnaroo draws its name from New Orleans Creole slang for a really good time, and that it delivers. The festival sprawls over four days and across a 700-acre farm. Its conception owes something to a ’60s and ’70s art rock concert heritage – some compare it to a modern-day to Woodstock, the granddaddy of all music festivals in the American imagination. As one of the pioneers in the American festival resurgence of the early-2000s, it’s grown out from its folk-rock roots to host acts ticking all the major music boxes: indie and classic rock, bluegrass, jazz, hip-hop, country, electronica, gospel, and more.
Half a continent away from Bonnaroo’s rural Tennessee setting, the town of Indio, California is nestled in a valley break from the Colorado stretch of the Sonoran desert. Indio grew as a Western frontier town, linked to the railways’ move toward the coast. This southern California valley – Coachella – stretches from the San Bernardino Mountains down to the Salton Sea, and is home to desert resorts like Palm Springs. It was once famous for growing dates, and while dates are still grown there, the Coachella Valley is now synonymous with one of the largest music festivals in the United States.
This fame stems from 1993, when Pearl Jam left Los Angeles in the heat of a dispute with ticket-selling giant Ticketmaster. They picked the Empire Polo Club in Indio as their new concert venue. Having thus proved its ability to host large-scale concerts, the club grew to become the site of the highest-grossing music festivals in the United States. The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, a hip, mammoth two-weekend pop-rock music festival, is the most famous, but it’s not the only show in town. Following hot on its heels every spring comes Stagecoach, Coachella’s country cousin. If that weren’t enough, the organizers behind Coachella and Stagecoach are debuting Desert Trip this year, a new double-weekend festival slated for October. Desert Trip (which some have dubbed “Oldchella” for targeting the baby boomer market) is making headlines for its star-studded classic rock lineup – counting the Rolling Stones, the Who, Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Paul McCartney among its big names – and for selling out all of its 70,000 tickets in three hours flat.
The festivals are all big-budget, glamorous events that have on-and-off allowed for camping and catered tents, making the staying on the grounds for the music-filled getaway an integral part of the festival experience. Perhaps recognizing this, Coachella last year did away with its one-day tickets, and now sells only three-day passes.
What Coachella is for pop music, Stagecoach is for country: a big umbrella with a lot of popular acts. Where Coachella has featured AC/DC and alt-J on the same ticket, Stagecoach has pulled the Eagles, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Taylor Swift in the same weekend. In both cases it’s clear that whether you fall on the “purer,” traditional side of the musical spectrum or prefer your rock and country diluted with a splash of pop, these festivals aim to please, stocking their rosters with more acts than you might otherwise see in a year.
Aside from Bonnaroo and the Indio power-trio, there are many more from which to choose. Estimates put the number of current music festivals in the hundreds, with a few dozen in California alone. Pack plenty of water, hit the open road, and get ready to add some new favorites to your summer playlist.