Two women wave their phones in the air at a crowded music festival.
Festivalgoers at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California, in April 2018. Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

The legacy of hippie Woodstock is the modern music-festival economy: materialist, driven by celebrities and social media, and increasingly urban.

Woodstock was not the first big music festival. In some respects, it repeated 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival, which also featured Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and The Who, and was also the subject of a documentary film. Before that, the 1965 Newport Folk Festival was where Bob Dylan famously went electric. And even before that, the Newport Jazz Festival started all the way back in 1954.

But Woodstock, and the mythology that grew up around it—fueled by the Joni Mitchell song and Michael Wadleigh’s documentary*—are seared in the popular mind. So it was Woodstock that inspired and set the template for the modern music festival.

The festival economy evolved slowly and from a rocky start. The tragic Altamont Free Concert in the winter of 1969, which featured the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Jefferson Airplane, and Santana, broke out in violence and saw several deaths (partly a result of having the Hells Angels provide “security”). The Watkins Glen Summer Jam in 1973 drew an estimated audience of 600,000, larger even than Woodstock. Watkins Glen was also the initial proposed site for Woodstock’s now-canceled 50th-anniversary concert.

Music festivals got a renewed boost in the late 1980s and 1990s, with the launches of South by Southwest and traveling extravaganzas such as the Lilith Fair, the Vans Warped Tour, and the early version of Lollapalooza. They really took off in the new millennium, with huge new standalone events like Coachella, Bonnaroo, and the reincarnation of Lollapalooza.

Far from the hippie, peace-and-love archetype of Woodstock, today’s music-festival economy is a seriously big business. Globally, it is projected to generated more than $20 billion in revenues by the early 2020s. Contemporary music festivals—which my colleague at the University of Toronto School of Cities, Patrick Adler, has been tracking closely as part of his ongoing research—attract more than 30 million Americans each year.

This year there will be roughly 100 large, multi-day events—attended by more than 10,000 people each—around the United States. Live Nation, the concert and festival promoter, is now arguably the most important firm in the music industry, with more revenues than most traditional record labels. It owns four of the five largest festivals. AEG, the sports and entertainment company, owns two others. In an industry beset by declining sales of recorded music, which is streamed online and available for free or at trivial cost, live musical experiences, and especially festivals, are a critical source of revenue.

Music festivals are also an important part of the star-making machinery of the industry and today’s broader celebrity-driven popular culture. (Just check the social-media accounts of celebrities during Coachella.) In 2018, nearly four in 10 of the acts or artists with the top 100 charting albums performed at one of the “big three” of SXSW, Coachella, and Lollapalooza. That’s up from fewer than a quarter of them in 2013, according to Adler’s analysis.

Music festivals, and live music generally, have also become a bigger part of city-development strategies over the past couple of decades. Cities across the U.S. have sought to use festivals to brand themselves and attract talent. Although images from Bonnaroo and Coachella make it seem like the big music festivals take place in rural locations, the reality is that many more take place in urban areas—for example, the Governor’s Ball in New York City, or Philadelphia’s Made in America festival. (Even Coachella, despite its bucolic-looking setting, is actually within the Los Angeles metropolitan area.)

Of the 26 largest music festivals, only three are rural, as the table below shows.

America’s Largest Music Festivals

Festival

Region

A3C Hip Hop Festival

Atlanta

Americanafest

Nashville

Austin City Limits

Austin

Bonnaroo

Rural

Bumbershoot

Seattle

Coachella Music Festival

Los Angeles

Country Thunder Arizona

Phoenix

Electric Daisy Carnival Orlando

Orlando

Electric Daisy Carnival Vegas

Las Vegas

Exit 111 Festival

Rural

Hard Summer/ Day of the Dead

Los Angeles

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass

San Francisco

Imagine Festival

Atlanta

Kaaboo

San Diego

Life Is Beautiful Festival

Las Vegas

Lollapalooza

Chicago

Louder Than Life

Louisville

Made in America

Philadelphia

Outside Lands

San Francisco

Rock Fest Wisconsin

Eau Claire

South By Southwest

Austin

Stagecoach Country Music Festival

Los Angeles

Summerfest*

Milwaukee

Tortuga Music Festival

Miami

Ultra

Miami

Voodoo Experience

New Orleans

We Fest

Rural

(Note: This list reflects festivals with at least 25,000 people in daily attendance.)

More than half of the 100 or so big music festivals in the U.S. take place in urban centers (55.5 percent), compared to 20 percent in suburbs or exurbs and just 14 percent in rural areas. And music festivals have skewed more urban over time. Eighty-six percent of today’s large festivals take place in metro areas, Adler’s analysis shows, up from 75 percent a decade ago.

When it comes to specific metros, Los Angeles leads with five large festivals, followed by New York City with eight and Chicago with seven. Next in line are San Jose, with six, and Las Vegas, with five. Eight metros—Nashville, Seattle, Atlanta, Philadelphia, San Diego, Miami, New Orleans, and Louisville—have three apiece; seven are home to two major festivals, and 20 more are home to one each.

Metros With the Highest Number of Major Music Festivals

Metro

Major festivals

Estimated
attendance

Share of
attendance

Los Angeles

9

724,000

8.2%

New York

8

352,000

7.3%

Chicago

7

322,000

6.4%

San Jose/ San Francisco

6

490,000

5.5%

Las Vegas

5

308,000

4.5%

San Diego

3

128,000

2.7%

Seattle

3

112,000

2.7%

Philadelphia

3

240,000

2.7%

New Orleans

3

568,000

2.7%

Atlanta

3

158,000

2.7%

Louisville

3

138,000

2.7%

Nashville

3

184,000

2.7%

Miami

3

318,000

2.7%

Des Moines

2

40,000

1.8%

Portland

2

70,000

1.8%

Phoenix

2

124,000

1.8%

Austin

2

482,000

1.8%

Denver

2

50,000

1.8%

Boston

2

50,000

1.8%

Eau Claire

2

108,000

1.8%

Columbus

2

40,000

1.8%

Washington, D.C.

1

20,000

0.9%

Houston

1

20,000

0.9%

Sacramento

1

30,000

0.9%

Chattanooga

1

20,000

0.9%

Detroit

1

30,000

0.9%

Albany

1

78,000

0.9%

Myrtle Beach

1

104,000

0.9%

Cincinnati

1

20,000

0.9%

San Antonio

1

20,000

0.9%

Memphis

1

100,000

0.9%

Virginia Beach

1

20,000

0.9%

Grand Rapids

1

20,000

0.9%

Milwaukee

1

900,000

0.9%

Lexington

1

20,000

0.9%

Minneapolis

1

20,000

0.9%

Birmingham

1

20,000

0.9%

Oklahoma City

1

78,000

0.9%

Orlando

1

150,000

0.9%

Dallas

1

20,000

0.9%

Rural or Non-Metro Areas

15

670,000

13.6%

(Note: This list reflects festivals with 10,000 or more people in daily attendance.)

Even though the ill-fated Woodstock anniversary concert has been canceled, the original Woodstock has left its mark—albeit in a way that few would have predicted. It catalyzed the rise of the modern, monetized music festival. From the original three days of peace and love on Max Yasgur’s farm came the prototype for today’s celebrity-driven music-festival economy, centered mainly in and around big, prosperous cities.

*CORRECTIONS: An earlier version of this story credited Martin Scorsese; he was, in fact, one of the film’s editors; an earlier version also incorrectly listed Milwaukee’s music festival. It is Summerfest.

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