10 Most Important Music Festivals in US History

For decades, festivals have been a place where music and culture collide.  They’re easy to take for granted nowadays, with a seemingly endless supply of events running throughout the year. There was a time, however, when festivals were far less commonplace.

Prior to the ’60s, festivals were more buttoned-down affairs, often times focusing on regional talent rather than national stars. Rock music festivals, with a distinct style unto themselves, didn’t emerge until the latter part of the decade.

Since that time, the popularity of music festivals has ebbed and flowed. After a rush of fests in the late ’60s and early ’70s, things quieted down for a while. The events were often deemed uncool, or worse, unsafe – the latter a lingering effect from the tragedy at Altamont in 1969.

The ’80s saw a spattering of new festivals, several of which – like 1985’s Farm Aid – were created to serve a cause. The ’90s brought with it the touring version of Lollapalooza, but the modern-day festival boom wouldn’t ignite until the dawn of the new millennium.

These days, music festivals are big business. In some cases, headlining artists get paid millions to perform – and that’s still a pittance compared to the profits festivals rake in.

They “used to be more of a communion of culture,” Carlos Chirinos, a professor of clinical music and global health at New York University, told Time in 2019. “A group of people who were into the same type of music, they would come together. That was the driving force throughout the 1970s and 1980s until it became a profitable format.”

Here’s a look at the 10 most important music festivals in U.S. history.

From Woodstock to Coachella, and all the stops in between.

Newport Folk Festival (1965)

Jazz, folk and blues dominated the festival game long before rock took over. Things began to change in the ‘60s, and one of the early and most notable examples took place on July 25, 1965, at the Newport Folk Festival. Bob Dylan was already a legend thanks to politically minded tunes like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Only a Pawn in Their Game.” Until then, however, he was known as an acoustic act – which was fitting for this event. So it came as a shock to all those in attendance when Dylan “went electric,” delivering a trio of amped-up songs with a backing band of session musicians. Fans were so upset that Dylan had turned his back on folk – in their view, at least – that they began to boo. The moment marked a notable change in Dylan’s career, while also foreshadowing the dawn of rock festivals.

Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival (1967)

Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain took place June 10 and 11, 1967, officially making it the first rock festival in America. The event helped usher in the Summer of Love while creating the blueprint for future generations of festivals. As much attention was given to the environment surrounding the music as to the music itself. To that end, shuttle buses brought attendees to the event site at the top of picturesque Mount Tamalpais, booths housed local merchants selling everything from food to fashion, and decorations throughout the grounds played up the psychedelic theme of the festival. Jefferson Airplane, the Doors, the Byrds and Captain Beefheart were among the performers.

Monterey Pop Festival (1967)

Just one week after the Fantasy Fair, a different Northern California site played host to its own groundbreaking festival. Fantasy Fair was built on peace and love and largely made up of acts with ties to the San Francisco area, while Monterey was larger, more structured and international. The lineup of artists is stunning, with performances from the Mamas and the Papas, Simon & Garfunkel, Eric Burdon and the Animals, the Byrds, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Otis Redding, Ravi Shankar and the Who. Yet it’s best known as a career-turning moment for Jimi Hendrix, who was still making a name for himself when he played. His incendiary performance, complete with burning guitar, became the stuff of legend.

Woodstock (1969)

Woodstock is the festival by which all others are compared, and for good reason. An era-defining collision of music and culture, the festival was reflective of one of the most important societal shifts in American history. Originally billed as “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music,” Woodstock took place Aug. 15-18, 1969, on Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, N.Y. More than 500,000 people were in attendance, with many camping out or sleeping in their cars overnight. Thirty-two acts performed over three days, including Jimi Hendrix, Santana, Jefferson Airplane, the Who, Sly & the Family Stone, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Mountain, the Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin and the Band. More importantly, Woodstock’s display of communal peace and love at the time of the Vietnam War would further the national hippie-counterculture movement.

Summer Jam at Watkins Glen (1973)

Woodstock may have been the most monumental U.S. music festival, but it wasn’t the largest. The Summer Jam at Watkins Glen actually welcomed more than 600,000 fans in 1973, though it wasn’t planned that way. They only sold 150,000 tickets, but four times that number turned out. According to historical estimates, one out of every 350 people living in America at the time was at the single-day event. Only three acts were on the bill: The Allman Brothers Band, the Grateful Dead and the Band. Each group played for more than three hours, and the night closed with an hour-long jam session featuring members of every group.

Ozark Music Festival (1974)

Held at the Missouri State Fairgrounds in 1974, the Ozark Music Festival may not have the same name recognition but still deserves to be in the conversation among America’s most historically significant music festivals. For starters, Ozark boasted an impressive lineup of acts who were either already stars, or on their way to becoming household names, including Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Aerosmith, Blue Oyster Cult, Eagles, America, Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes, Jeff Beck, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Joe Walsh and Barnstorm and REO Speedwagon. But it also ranks among the most notorious events in terms of debauchery. A report by the Missouri Senate sums things up: “The Ozark Music Festival can only be described as a disaster. It became a haven for drug pushers who were attracted from throughout the United States. The scene made the degradation of Sodom and Gomorrah appear mild. Natural and unnatural sex acts became a spectator sport. Frequently, nude women promoted drugs with advertisements on their bodies.”

Us Festival (1982)

By the ‘80s, it seemed like festivals were largely out of fashion. That didn’t stop Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak from pushing forward with what he envisioned as a unifying musical event dubbed the Us Festival. He spared no expense, booking some of the biggest acts in the world to perform across Labor Day weekend in 1982. The lineup included the Ramones, Oingo Boingo, the B-52’s, Talking Heads, the Police, Eddie Money, Santana, the Cars, the Kinks, Pat Benatar, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Grateful Dead, Jackson Browne and Fleetwood Mac. Wozniak tried to organize a satellite link so that music fans inside the Soviet Union could also watch, but the broadcast wasn’t able to connect. He lost money on the fest, but Wozniak was so pleased with the event that he decided to host a second Us Festival on Memorial Day weekend in 1983. Again, the lineup was jaw-dropping, with performers including INXS, the Clash, Quiet Riot, Motley Crue, Ozzy Osbourne, Judas Priest, Scorpions, Van Halen, U2, the Pretenders, Willie Nelson, Stevie Nicks and David Bowie. Several instances of violence surrounded the second edition, which proceeded to lose even more money. So, Wozniak pulled the plug.

Farm Aid (1985)

An early example of a festival organized by artists themselves, Farm Aid was founded in 1985 by Neil Young, Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp to help family growers throughout the United States who were at risk of losing their property. The inaugural bill included Bob Dylan, John Fogerty, Foreigner, the Beach Boys, Don Henley, Billy Joel, Bon Jovi, Johnny Cash, Huey Lewis, Joni Mitchell, Lou Reed, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Farm Aid also marked the first public appearance of Sammy Hagar alongside Eddie Van Halen, after Hagar agreed to join Van Halen as their new singer. The festival was broadcast on national television and radio, raising more than $9 million. It has since become an annual event.

Lollapalooza (1991)

Conceived and created by Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell, Lollapalooza was the first festival designed for Generation X. While much of the touring event was sculpted around the budding alternative-rock genre, hip-hop, metal, punk and ska artists were also part of the lineup, foreshadowing the popularity of cross-genre festivals in the ensuing decades. The original bill featured Nine Inch Nails, Ice-T & Body Count, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Living Colour, Butthole Surfers, Rollins Band, Violent Femmes and Fishbone. The success of the 1991 edition initially led Lollapalooza to become an annual summer tour, but its popularity died as the ‘90s wore on. It would go on hiatus and was eventually reimagined as a three-day festival held in Chicago, which continues to this day.

Coachella (1999)

Modern music festivals have made a massive comeback since the turn of the millennium, and Coachella is the reason why. The inaugural Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival was held Oct. 9–10, 1999, and featured Beck, Tool, Rage Against the Machine, the Chemical Brothers and Morrissey on an eclectic bill. Still, it was a colossal failure. Organizers who had hoped for 70,000 attendees over two days got less than half of that. As a result, the festival lost nearly a million dollars, and at first it appeared there would not be another Coachella. After two years away, the festival returned in 2001, this time in April (in an effort to beat the scorching heat) and with a stronger infrastructure in place. Coachella has since become the most popular music festival in America, though its lineups eventually moved away from rock and more toward pop.

(Ultimate Classic Rock)