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Why Did American Music Festivals Almost Disappear in the 1970s and ’80s?

on July 18, 2018, 6:00am

Look, we love to complain about music festivals here at Consequence of Sound. We love it almost as much as we love attending them. During the 2018 festival season alone, we’ve taken issue with Bonnaroo’s lost identity, the latest death of rock at Coachella, and the continued existence of Post Malone.

It’s easy to focus on the negative amid such abundance. Right now, in America, there are more big-time popular music festivals than at any point in history. According to the calculations of our own Festival Outlook tracker, more than 150 are scheduled for 2018. Whether it’s a summer institution like Lollapalooza or a daring winter happening like Day for Night, festivals now come with an air of ubiquity and inevitability that make them easy to take for granted.

We should fight that impulse. If you take a look at the timeline of American music festival history, you’ll likely notice a gaping expanse, stretching from roughly December 1969 (the brutality of Altamont) to July 1991 (the first show of the inaugural Lollapalooza). During this span of nearly 22 years, stateside music festivals turned from ascendant cultural phenomena to endangered species, with the few successes vastly outnumbered by the high-profile failures. To find out how that happened, and how the festival staged a comeback, we took a dive into the archives of America’s newspaper of record, The New York Times.

1970: The Beginning of the End

The first wave of rock festivals peaked and cratered within the span of about four months. Attracting nearly 400,000 youths over three days in August 1969, the three days of Woodstock in August 1969 seemed to fulfill the era-defining promise of a burgeoning festival scene that began in earnest with San Francisco’s Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival in 1967. In those two years, more than two-dozen festivals popped up at racetracks, parks, and farms around America. With copious amount of literal sex, drugs, and rock and roll, the festivals became emblematic of late-’60s counterculture, but their power would only extend as far as the decade itself.

Held in December 1969, the Altamont Speedway Free Festival confirmed the worst fears of festival skeptics. Spurred on by violent fans and even more violent Hell’s Angels who’d been hired to work security, the festival’s defining moment wasn’t the music, but the brutal stabbing death of Meredith Hunter, an 18-year-old student from Berkeley who’d returned to the stage (allegedly armed with a .22 revolver) after a previous altercation with the Angels.

Captured in full color by the camera crew of The Rolling Stones, Hunter’s murder, and the madness that surrounded it, helped turn music festivals from curiosity into full-fledged public nuisance. Thus, though the urge to host festivals didn’t end with Altamont, the ease of organizing did. Throughout 1970, festival promoters faced vigorous legal and community opposition to their proposed festivals. Usually, the festivals lost; in an April article about the ultimately successful community resistance to the proposed May Day Festival in Carbondale, IL, reporter J. Anthony Lukas noted that “resistance developed quickly” and cited examples of festivals already thwarted by tactics ranging from the arrest of organizers in Florida to threats of injunction by county officials in Virginia.

As the year went on, similar scenes played out all over the country; in August alone, legal challenges forced the cancellation of festivals in Boston, Iowa, Philadelphia, and upstate New York, where thousands of fans were denied entry into Canada by customs officials for a festival held near Toronto “because they could not produce enough money to support themselves during their stay.” Oklahoma’s resistance was the most extreme; there, Governor Dewey Bartlett mobilized 300 National Guard members to enforce a court-ordered festival ban at Arbuckle Mountain, adding that “Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I don’t think drugs, nudity, free love, and lawlessness are needed to have a good time over the weekend.”  

While they had plenty of enemies outside the scene, the organizers and attendees of these would-be ’70s festivals created plenty of self-inflicted problems for the fests that did wind up happening. Drawn in by the cultural (if not financial) success of Woodstock, organizers were often either naive newcomers or opportunists looking to cash in on the zeitgeist. Many, such as the trio of promoters in Carbondale, had never organized a festival before, while others, such as the Warner Bros.-backed production crew behind the Medicine Ball Caravan, were accused of perverting the festival scene with commercialization and corporate money.

Valuing freedom and disdaining cash (as well as being fueled by far harder drugs than their weed-and-acid counterparts at Woodstock) meant that a music festival’s target audience was also its least likely to pay. Attendance numbers at festivals routinely included tens of thousands of gate crashers; explaining their decision to open their festival for free on its final night, an organizer from the New York Pop Festival simply said, “We’re taking the biggest bath in the history of rock festivals. […] There’s no money for security, and security has been ineffectual so far, so we might as well let everyone in free.” Coupled with the rising costs of booking top-tier talent (in a 1971 article about Louisiana’s controversial Celebration of Life festival, reporter Mike Jahn noted that booking fees for Jimi Hendrix went from $1,500 to $100,000 per festival in just a few short years), this monetary uncertainty turned every event into a maybe.

The Case of Powder Ridge

Powder Ridge Rock Festival (Hartford Courant)

Powder Ridge Rock Festival (Hartford Courant)

If Woodstock represented the quintessential ’60s festival experience, Powder Ridge holds the same title for the ’70s. It’s a dubious honor; the star-crossed 1970 festival represented failure on just about every possible level, and the prolonged legal battle that followed had a chilling effect on festivals for the rest of the decade.

The problems began early. The festival team, led by promoter Raymond Filiberti, spent most of the summer fighting an injunction meant to prevent the festival from happening at the Connecticut ski resort of the same name. They were unsuccessful, but that didn’t stop them from selling 20-30,000 tickets at $20 a pop (roughly $130, adjusted for inflation) anyway. It also didn’t stop those ticket holders from showing up anyway.

What followed was the festival equivalent of Waiting for Godot, with thousands of fans crowding onto the grounds for a concert that would never happen. They’d been promised a robust three-day lineup that included Fleetwood Mac, Janis Joplin, and The Allman Brothers Band; instead, the only musical performances included an impromptu set by Melanie (the only announced artist to ignore the injunction) and unannounced sets from two local bands (Jelba and Goodhill) that just happened to be in attendance.

Despite the lack of music, many fans opted to wait it out; a report from the grounds by reporter John Darnton finds attendees making their own fun with everything from a “free auction” (“Objects that seemed to carry a sudden value — a guitar pick, a moth, a candy bar — were brought to the auctioneer and tossed back to the person in the crowd who seemed to want it most.”) to talent-show style sing-alongs. They also got really, really stoned; as a later dispatch from reporter Joseph B. Treaster notes, “eventually boredom, frustration and resentment took over and many turned to drugs in great quantities.” More than 1,000 attendees were treated for medical crises brought on by drugs sold by dealers who “[shouted] the merits of their products and sometimes [passed] out free samples,” including 400 festivalgoers on Friday night alone. One dealer was later arrested carrying $13,000 in cash.

Thankfully, there were no deaths at Powder Ridge, but there were casualties. Chiefly, the careers of the festival’s promoters. Just days after the festival’s scheduled end date, the Internal Revenue Service filed a $204,000 tax levy against Filiberti and company, whose attempts at hosting makeup festivals everywhere from Washington, D.C.’s RFK Stadium to rural North Carolina were also successfully blocked. Ticket holders also never received refunds, resulting in the disappearance of between $400,000 and $1 million. In June 1971, Filiberti was indicted on six counts of perjury by a Manhattan grand jury. In January of the following year, he was sentenced to four years in prison.

The Lean Years

Powder Ridge wasn’t the end of ’70s festivals, but it was the symbol of their reduced cultural importance. As more and more festivals were canceled or failed, and as the spectre of addiction, Watergate, and the continued quagmire of Vietnam further soured the brief optimism of Woodstock, even successful festivals started to feel like relics of a bygone era. Although festivals like 1972’s Concert 10 and 1973’s Summer Jam at Watkins Glen were professionally run, profitable, and perfectly safe, they were also, according to critics, boring.

What is there to say about an outdoor rock festival in which almost all the acts show up, there is little violence, and the promoters expect to make a profit?” asked reporter Don Heckman in his review of Concert 10. A year later, reporter Judy Klesmerud echoed those sentiments, noting that “the Watkins Glen rock festival, like its 4‐year‐old brother, Woodstock, is going to be analyzed, sociologized, eulogized, and chastised for months to come” before admitting “What does it really all mean? Not much, this time.

In hindsight, it’s almost a relief that American rock festivals became passe when they did. By 1973, America was unknowingly staring down nearly a decade of economic instability, one that started with OPEC’s 1973 oil embargo and progressed through stagflation, the 1979 energy crisis, and the global economic recession of the early 1980s. Even millionaires weren’t immune; although they boasted an alluring tech focus, some of the best festival lineups of all time, and an eight-figure investment from Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, California’s US Festival only managed two incarnations before folding after its second installment in 1983, an event that left one fan dead and Wozniak out over $20 million.   

Already cash-strapped and politically under siege, most promoters retreated to the relative safety of smaller club and arena shows, which would go on to dominate the 1980s music scene and strengthen the multi-venue festival approach of events like the CMJ Music Marathon (founded in 1980) and South by Southwest (founded in 1987). Generally speaking, the festivals that did survive during these years had long track records (the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals), relied on regulated community partnership (Milwaukee Summerfest), or traded on a community’s musical heritage (Memphis’ Beale Street Music Festival, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival). Few sought the scale of their ’60s forebears, and few could compete with their counterparts in Europe, where events such as Denmark’s Roskilde Festival, Belgium’s Pukkelpop, and England’s Reading, Leeds, and Glastonbury festivals thrived with far fewer interruptions. Even the Woodstock brand wasn’t immune; in 1979, the festival’s 10th anniversary show took place at Madison Square Garden, and in 1989, fans marked the 20th anniversary with a simple mid-week gathering at the original festival site that recaptured the spirit (but not the bombast) of the original.

Enter Lollapalooza

Everything gets hip again if you wait long enough. After 20 years of turmoil, music festivals caught their second wind in 1991, all because Perry Farrell likes a big party.

Organized as Jane’s Addiction’s farewell tour, the first Lollapalooza sent that band and a handful of other disparate acts (including veteran goths Siouxie and the Banshees, new wavers the Violent Femmes, and rapper Ice-T) on a 21-city tour that reporter Simon Reynolds called a conscious attempt to reinvoke the 60’s sense of rock as counterculture, in defiance of today’s perception of rock as a leisure industry.

The tactics were different, of course; instead of renting farmland or invading a racetrack, Lollapalooza stuck to established venues with their own facilities and security. The fest also adjusted its scale; instead of trying to gather 500,000 people at once, it delivered what critic John Parales termed its “megawatt medicine show” in 15,000-person increments all over the country. It also relied on the kind of corporate experience and investment that made earlier audiences wary.  

Lollapalooza also captured a different form of disaffection, one as familiar now as it was in the ’90s. “As their elders lightly chide themselves about their yuppie excesses and promise to be kinder and gentler, convenience permitting, a younger generation faces an adulthood that promises nothing but bad news,” Parales said in a later column.

For a teen-ager in the 1990s, sex has been contaminated by the threat of AIDS and drugs are associated with oblivion rather than delight. Every heat wave stokes fears about holes in the ozone layer. And, with an economy in which real income hasn’t risen since 1973, they can look forward to moving back in with their parents after graduation and competing for low-paying service jobs,” he said.

That discontent clicked. Though the world didn’t get better on a macro level, Lollapalooza thrived and helped usher in a golden age of American music festivals that’s continued, with few notable threats, until today. Along the way, our festivals have become traditions, welcome annual distractions from the state of things outside the gates.

Keep that in mind the next time a schedule disappoints, a headliner underwhelms, or a bathroom line stretches halfway across the grounds. It’s okay to be critical, but it’s okay to be thankful, too.

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