Festival Trailblazers

In terms of modern day music festivals, there’s only one place to start; everything before and after can be classified as such. In 1969, Bethel Woods, two hours north of New York City, saw music festivals emerge into the mainstream as over 400,000 people gathered for the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. Woodstock needs no introduction as it has since spanned an Academy Award-winning documentary, been named as one of Rolling Stone’s 50 Moments That Changed the History of Rock and Roll, and been universally heralded as a seminal moment in both music and festival history.

Billed simply as ‘Three days of peace and music’, the idea started over a game of pool between prominent American music promoters and soon-to-be festival trailblazers Artie Kornfeld and Michael Lang. Kornfeld recounts: “He (Michael) started hanging out at my apartment; one day we were playing bumper pool and Michael turned to me and said ‘Artie you know what, you’re tainted now, you don’t go to concerts anymore’. I said ‘Michael, I’ve been doing this since 1956; I’ve played in so many clubs, I’ve played so many concerts, I’m in the studio all the time, I write, and you don’t do any of that stuff. Your way of being connected to music is to go see it; mine is to make it.”

The friends chatted and bounced ideas off each other, before Lang revealed he had tried to start something in Florida, which resonated with Kornfeld. “Michael said ‘well, I started to work on something in Miami called Miami Pop, but it folded. It was called a festival’, and that stuck in my mind: festival.”

It was Kornfeld’s wife, Linda, who suggested doing a large-scale show, a festival, outside. “That’s when a bell (in my mind) went off, and I saw it,” explains Kornfeld. “Then I actually saw the field. And I said to Michael, ‘suppose we took it outside and we got Hendrix and (Janis) Joplin and all these people, how many do you think would come?’ And Michael said, ‘oh about 50,000’. I said, ‘no, there’d have to be 100,000’, and my wife said, ‘There’d be more than 300,000’. We talked about it further for four or five months and that when we met John (Roberts) and Joel (Rosenman), and that was the start.”

The success and broadcast of the 1970 Woodstock documentary brought music festivals into the mainstream in the UK. Michael Eavis was one of the first to take up the baton that very year on Worthy Farm, as Glastonbury was born the day after Hendrix passed away. After seeing an open-air concert headlined by Led Zeppelin at the 1970 Bath Festival of Blues and Progressive Music at the nearby Bath and West Showground in 1970, Eavis launched what was then called the Pilton Festival. Free milk from the farm’s cows was handed out to the 1,500 attendees that year and while this has been replaced by £4 beer and cider nowadays, the festival is still going strong with nearly 200,000 people joining the party every June.

Eavis is in no doubt where Glastonbury’s roots came from: “My socialism and the peace group (in the 1960s) all linked in with my Methodism. Bob Dylan and all that lot were singing anti-war songs in the late Sixties, and then there was Woodstock and all sorts of lovely people writing fantastic songs about peace and love and things, and that gelled with my history.” Indeed, Eavis even spoke to The Woodstock documentary director Michael Wadleigh before starting his own, now world-renowned festival.

It was only a matter of time before Ireland became the latest destination for festival trailblazers to tap into the new-found market. While Slane, started in 1981, set the wheels in motion in terms of annual outdoor concerts, it wasn’t until Féile in the 1990s that Ireland could definitely say it had a consistently successful annual festival incorporating several genres of mainstream music. While the 90s and early noughties were very much a ‘one horse town’ in terms of multiple day music festivals in Ireland - that is to say, a singular major event (Féile, Witnness, Oxegen) took place each summer, the last number of years have seen an explosion of genre, location and type of festival. On almost every weekend of any given summer there is a medium-to-large scale music festival taking place somewhere around Ireland and the choice has never been better.

The current market-leader in terms of size, Electric Picnic began in 2004, drawing inspiration from Glastonbury as a ‘boutique’ festival, for the first time in Ireland incorporating more than just music. A ‘Body & Soul’ area, a cinema and comedy stages were on the early lineups, and the festival has expanded even further to include other arts, theatre and cultural activities. It’s current 55,000 capacity is almost guaranteed to sell out every year.

It’s been quite an evolution for mainstream music festivals, but one thing has remained constant - people coming together and sharing experiences, be it with a free glass of milk in the 70s to a Snapchat story today.