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The history of electronic music festivals

  • Martina
  • 03 August 2022, Wednesday
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Festivals and live performances play a crucial role in the global electronic music industry, adding to the unique and magical experience of its genres and subgenres. In this article, we’ll have a look at the over two-century-long historical path of electronic music festivals that shaped them into the massive musical events they are today.

The beginning of music festivals

Festivals, as live music performances, were in development very far back, mostly in the form of traditional ‘folk’ celebrations, including festivities such as spring festivals, harvest festivals, adulthood rites, religious feasts, and festivities, and many more. The origin of festivals, in a commercial sense, which we know of today, traces back to the early 19th century and had its roots in the classical music festivals, followed by jazz festivals in the postwar times (mid-20th century). The beginning of classical music performances is marked with concerts of J. S. Bach’s music in 1829 held in Germany and conducted by German composer Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. Targeting elites and rather rich middle class, classical music festivals were developing over the rest of the 19th century across European countries, mostly in the UK and Germany, with a particular focus on a group of composers, including F. Schubert, G. F. Handel, W. A. Mozart, J. Haydn, and the aforementioned J. S. Bach.

Circuits of jazz festivals started evolving in the 1950s, both in Europe and the USA. After the two world wars, jazz, which originated in New Orleans in Afro-American communities, provided inhabitants of both continents with a new perception of ‘authentic’ folk culture that was very much ruined during the war period. In the USA, the folk culture was slowly coming back already in the 1940s and was mostly associated with protests and movements that were against the war and nuclear power, and supported civil rights and organized labor. Both the revived folk festivals as well as jazz festivals in the US were strongly dedicated to ‘real’ American music life, generally perceived as rather primitive, traditional, and rural.

1960s and 1970s: The rise of pop-culture festivals

The period of the 1960s was crucial for music festivals and their transition into mass-cultural entertainment. With the postwar economic boom and the rise of the American car industry, festivals and other cultural events had become less elite and more accessible to a wider range of middle classes and even to some working classes. Aside from political concerns, the newly arising festivals were also centered around various cultural matters popular among younger audiences, such as fashion, food, art, literature, etc. This way, music festivals started to become a valuable part of the popular culture of that time, growing in popularity as well as sizes.

One of the first ‘pop-culture’ music festivals was the Monterey Pop Music Festival that was held in June in 1967 in Monterey hosting a great variety of music stars, like Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Janis Joplin, the Who or Simon & Garfunkel. However, the greatest musical event of the 1960s was the legendary Woodstock festival which was organized on a dairy farm in upstate New York from 15th-18th August 1969 and which, at the end, attracted almost 500,000 people. The festival offered in total 32 different performers, including those that were previously present at the Monterey festival. Some of the greatest acts at Woodstock were Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Who, Joe Cocker and the Grease Band, Ten Years After or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

Meanwhile, massive music festivals were developing in the UK, too. Some of the most renowned pop festivals in the UK have been The Isle of Wight (1967-present), Glastonbury Festival (1970-present) or Reading festival (1971-present). The 1970 edition of the Isle of Wight exceeded the attendance at Woodstock, attracting more than 700,000 participants. Even more, international festivals were being established in the 1970s, including Canadian Strawberry Fields Festival (1970), the Sunbury Pop Festival in Australia (1972-1975) or Festival Rock Y Ruedas De Avándaro in Mexico (1971).

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The main, 'Pyramid' stage at the Glastonbury festival in the UK

Experimental music and UK’s rave scene

Regarding electronic music, music festivals featuring electronic instruments started to appear in the early 1900s mostly as electronic sounds were commonly used in experimental music, particularly tape music and electroacoustic music. Live electronic music expanded more in the 1950s, alongside the use of bass and electric guitar. The rise and fall of disco in the 1970s helped to form many important sub-genres of today’s electronic music, including Eurodance, house, techno, acid house, trance, dubstep, and many more. By 1988, acid house became the most prominent music genre in the UK, blooming in nightclubs in London, Sheffield, Manchester, Birmingham, and elsewhere. However, causing conflicts with local police and attracting people exceeding the capacities of their venues, ‘raves’ were moved to the countryside near the big cities, taking place in various outdoor locations and closed and disused industrial sites.

Nevertheless, the official era of open-air raves didn’t last very long as in 1992-1993, the British government passed new laws to ban them effectively. While these events didn’t really stop the local promoters from organizing them - such illegal outdoor festivities continued through the decade -, many of these raves moved back to already established clubs or spread to the European continent (where no laws prohibiting raves existed).

The fall of Berlin Wall and Love Parade

Around the same time, political events happening in Berlin, Germany, had, unconsciously, an important impact on the development of above-ground electronic music festivals. Shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, in summer that year, a group of 150 people, organized by the Berlin underground, took part in a political demonstration in the form of a musical parade that was held in Kurfürstendamm (West Berlin), one of the most luxurious shopping streets in Berlin. Although officially billed as a political march, the parade marked the beginning of Love Parade, a massive electronic dance music festival, and techno parade. The following year, after the fall of the Wall and with German reunification on the horizon, Love Parade took place again, this time attracting around 2000 people

By 1997, Love Parade was attended by more than million partygoers and had therefore changed its location to the nearby Tiergarten park, with the parade route ending at the Siegessäule, a ‘Victory Column’. The free-access music festival featured stages as well as floats with music, DJs and dancers stirring through the audience and was held annually in Berlin from 1989-2003. Particularly in 2002 and 2003, the attendance decreased considerably and in 2004 and 2005, the Love Parade was canceled due to funding difficulties. Eventually, the parade saw its short revival in 2007 when it was organized in the Ruhr region, centered around the cities of Dortmund, Essen, Duisburg, and Gelsenkirchen.

The last Love Parade took place in 2010 in the aforementioned city of Duisburg and was marked by a fatal crowd disaster causing its attendees to die from suffocation as they were trying to leave the ramp leading to the festival area. This was the first as well as the last time that Love Parade was held in a closed-off area and the ramp situated at the end of a 240-meter-long tunnel was the only entrance and exit point of the area. The tragedy caused the deaths of 21 people and at least 500 more were injured. As a consequence, the organizers decided to cancel the festival permanently. However, in 2022, the equivalent of Love Parade was revived under the name of Rave The Planet.

Establishment of other festivals and rise of music conferences

Alongside Love Parade, Mayday (1991-present) and the Swiss festival Street Parade (1992-present) were the biggest electronic music festivals in Europe throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. As thoroughly urban festivals, they were located in the middle of big cities and had rather techno-futuristic elements and post-industrial appearance. City-based electronic music festivals were overall trendy in the 1990s and were eventually seen as potentially lucrative sources of income as well as tourism. Other most popular city-based festivals of that time were Time Warp in Mannheim (1994-present), Sónar in Barcelona (1994-present), I Love Techno in Ghent (1995-present), Awakenings in Rotterdam and Amsterdam (1997-present) or Hradhouse in Boskovice (1998-2010).

In the early 2000s, the ‘urban arts festival’ model was prominent and more festivals of such type were being established during that time, including Club Transmediale in Berlin (1999-present), EXIT in Novi Sad (2000-present), MUTEK in Montreal (2000-present) and Decibel Festival in Detroit (2003-present). However, non-urban festivals were organized, too, with the most relevant being Destiny/World Electronic Music Festival near Toronto (1995-2012), KaZantip in Ukraine (1992-2013), Boom in Portugal (1997-present), and Melt! in Germany (1998-present).

Industry conferences were another important and perhaps unusual, kind of festival-like electronic music event. They were intended for music industry professionals and had more or less a structure of a trade fair, encompassing discussion panels, networking events, workshops, lectures, and exhibitions with new industry-related technologies. One of the first music conferences was Miami's Winter Music Conference organized for the first time in 1981, followed by the Amsterdam Dance Event in 1996.

The rise of EDM festivals

The new millennium has been marked particularly by the continuous growth of electronic dance music (EDM) and its sub-genres and their expansion to the US (e. g. dubstep promoted by the American musician, Skrillex). It was mainly the French duo, Daft Punk, who changed the global perception of electronic dance music when they launched their 2006-2007 worldwide tour at Coachella festival near the city of Indio, California. While Daft Punk and Coachella 2006 definitely presented a turning point for electronic music as part of the mainstream culture - being rather a converging experience for many listeners across the United States -, it was not until 2010 that first festivals purely dedicated to electronic music started appearing in the US.

The global establishment of more festivals, with the focus on EDM subgenres, followed in the late first and second decade of the 21st century adopting elements of large-scale pop/rock concerts and taking the format of outdoor mega-events. The most popular of them have been Tomorrowland in Belgium (2005), Electric Daisy Festival in Las Vegas, US (1991), Ultra Music Festival in Miami (1999), Airbeat One Festival in Germany (2002) or Balaton Sound in Hungary (2007).

As of today, electronic music festivals, as well as electronic music artists are enjoying an ever-growing popularity, despite the industry value’s drop in 2020. It even seems, nowadays, like there’s a big electronic music festival taking place every week, with the US, ironically, being the largest market for EDM festivals today. As of 2021, It’s been reported that electronic music arts dominates the outdoor festivals, and EDM remains the most popular genre at major electronic music festivals, representing more than 20% of the lineups.

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The Belgian electronic music festival Tomorrowland

What’s next?

Having developed from classical music and jazz performances, electronic music festivals, particularly EDM festivals, have evolved into some of the biggest music events held across the globe. After facing an immense crisis in 2020 and, partly, in 2021, massive cultural affairs are back in the game, attracting electronic music fans from all over the world, as well as driving tourism and consumerism to areas that are economically weak.

As for the future, technological advances and innovation are said to play an even more important role to make festivals both more efficient for the organizers and more competitive and attractive for the attendees. Electronic ticketing and QR tickets have become a new standard over the past few years, making the entry process easier and more efficient. Regarding payments, several organizers have adopted cashless events with party goers using digital wristbands for payments and, what’s even more, some festivals have introduced their very own currency used at the festival specifically. What became particularly popular in 2022 is the digital contactless ordering using mobile phones with the aim to avoid standing and waiting in queues.

After discovering what digitalization is capable of, technology is expected to support other operational as well as creative processes at the festivals, enhancing the quality of sound, vision and the overall customer experiences, making them as immersive and consuming as possible. More converging technologies such as augmented and virtual reality as well as holography are set to be used more commonly for the visitors to dive more into the festival experience.

To find out more about electronic music, you can learn more about the historical evolution of the musical style in our ‘Electronic music’ guide or read our article about EDM and its subgenres.

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