Top 5 Music Festivals

By: Amy Hunter

A fan sings along with Edward Sharpe & Magnetic Zeros at South by Southwest 2009 in Austin, Texas.  See more music festival pictures.
Roger Kisby/Getty Images

Woodstock's 1969 muddy debauchery certainly stamped a perception of music festivals on the American psyche. But music festivals date back long before Janis Joplin and The Who, or even America. The earliest evidence of a music festival was around 6th century B.C., during the Pythian games, which threaded music and singing into the lineup of traditional athletic events.

The thing about a music festival is that it's all music all the time over a period of days. That amount of featured bands leaves plenty of room for big name musicians along with newcomers. In fact, many successful festivals limit the number of times any one band can perform at the event. This keeps the lineup fresh and relevant each year.


Some music festivals require that attendees stay in hotel or motel accommodations, but at many festivals, camping is part of the experience. So are portable toilets, drink stations and public showers where demand frequently outpaces supply. Not every music festival is an outdoor event, however. For example, you'll learn that South by Southwest, one of the largest music festivals in the United States, hosts acts in venues throughout its home base of Austin, Texas.

In fact, why don't we get right to that famed Texas festival on the next page?

5. South by Southwest

South by Southwest music lovers cheer on the New York Dolls.
South by Southwest music lovers cheer on the New York Dolls.
Roger Kisby/Getty Images

Over a period of four days, the city of Austin, Texas, hosts about 1,000 bands at venues spread across the entire city. The festival, South by Southwest (SXSW), is one of the largest in the United States. And it's also a major contributor to the city's economy. In 2008, the city predicted that the festival would bring a $110-million-dollar boost to its economy [source: Austin Business Journal].

South by Southwest is a bit more commercial than many other music festivals. Record labels scout this event for new sound, and musicians hope to shake hands with deal makers in the biz. But all that's lost on the crowds of festival goers who are simply there to hear live music. Passes to the festival can cost up to $700 -- not cheap. But you're sure to see some big name bands as well as fresh talents. Music acts like Van Morrison, Metallica, Tori Amos and Devo have played the gig.


The music festival is joined by an interactive and film festival. The film and music festivals are run separately but simultaneously in March. The interactive festival has gained a huge following among Web entrepreneurs. In fact, Twitter was launched at SXSW in 2007. The festival also gives away free MP3 samples of many of its featured artists.

4. Montreux Jazz Festival

Jamaican reggae group Toots and the Maytals performing at the 15th Montreux Jazz Festival in 1981.
Jamaican reggae group Toots and the Maytals performing at the 15th Montreux Jazz Festival in 1981.
Keystone/Getty Images

The Montreux Jazz Festival began as an all jazz act in 1967, but by the 1970s it had opened up to rock and pop bands. Over the years, the festival's lineup has included names like Ray Charles, Alice Cooper, Eric Clapton and Ella Fitzgerald -- a pretty diverse range of talent. The festival is held each year in early July on the banks of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. It was originally held at the Montreux Casino. But when the casino burned in 1971, the festival traveled to other venues until the casino was rebuilt in 1975. A major musical expansion in the 1980s made staging the various acts in the smaller casino a logistical problem. So today, the Montreux Jazz Festival is headquartered at the local convention center.

The event is a long one; it runs for 16 days. Attendees may buy tickets by day, venue and even artist. Although it now features a wide range of musicians -- 1,000 total in 2009 -- the festival still likes to throw a spotlight on jazz, blues and reggae greats. For example, in recent years, that light has been fixed on B.B. King and Quincy Jones.  


3. Sasquatch! Music Festival

The Sasquatch! Music Festival doesn't have quite the history of Montreux -- it began in 2002. But that doesn't put a dent in its prominence. The festival was developed to replace faltering music festivals like Lollapalooza, which was canceled in 2004 because of poor ticket sales (but did wind up returning in 2005). Sasquatch! features indie, experimental and alternative rock music.

Fans of Sasquatch! are drawn to the eclectic range of music as well as the combination of newcomers and headliners. Big names that have graced the festival include Beck and The Beastie Boys. But the festival also saves plenty of room for new artists. It places a lot of attention on singer-songwriters and dedicates one entire stage to performers who are from the Pacific Northwest.


The festival is held each year in George, Wash., at the Gorge Amphitheater during the last week of May. The amphitheater is located near the picturesque Columbia River, and camping is available for those who attend.

2. Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival

The crowd takes in the music at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival on April 27, 2008.
The crowd takes in the music at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival on April 27, 2008.
Rick Gershon/Getty Images

This three-day music festival is held on earth more accustomed to the gallop of horses -- the polo grounds in Indio, Calif. The music event features a wide range of genres, including alternative rock, hip-hop and electronic music. Artists also attend Coachella with sculpture and installation art. The first Coachella festival was held in October, but the weather in the desert climate was unbearable for fans. So the next year, the festival was moved to April, a more hospitable time for an outdoor event.

Coachella has been somewhat of a cupid for bringing together bands that have broken apart -- Jane's Addiction and Iggy Pop and The Stooges have reunited at the festival in the past. Coachella is known for its continuous live music and strong lineup.


Incidentally, if you'd like to stick around for a second festival after Coachella ends, Stagecoach, a country music festival, is also held at the Empire Polo Club.

1. Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts

Dawn rises over the festival site during day three of the Glastonbury Festival in June 2008.
Dawn rises over the festival site during day three of the Glastonbury Festival in June 2008.
Jim Dyson/Getty Images

Held the last weekend in June, Glaso, as it is often called, showcases a wide range of musical talent. All types of rock music, as well as dance, folk and punk styles are on display at this outdoor venue in Pilton, England. The event covers over 900 acres (3.6 square kilometers) and consists of more than 700 live performances on more than 80 stages. While unofficial attendance has reached upward of 250,000 concert goers, strict enforcement in recent years holds attendance at around 100,000.

Glastonbury has featured acts such as David Bowie, R.E.M., Radiohead and the Pet Shop Boys. The event, which is a tremendous undertaking, is run mainly by volunteers. OXFAM International provides volunteers to work at the concert, and in return, OXFAM receives a sizable donation from the profits. If you plan to attend the festival, check the dates. Every five years or so, the festival typically takes a year off to give the organizers and the farm a chance to recover.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Brooker, Charlie. " Oh Good, It's Raining Again." The Guardian. June 25, 2007. (March 20, 2009)
  • Coachella
  • Pecknold, Aja. "Adam Zacks: Mother of Sasquatch!" Seattle Weekly. Sept. 25, 2007. (April 1, 2009)
  • "Countdown to Coachella.
  • Montreux Jazz Festival
  • Nebehay, Stephanie. "BB King, Hancock, Black Eyed Peas Booked at Montreux." Reuters. April 2, 2009. (April 15, 2009)
  • OxFam
  • Pareles, John. "Stoking Careers in the Frenzy of South by Southwest." The New York Times. March 22, 2009. (April 15, 2009) 
  • Sasquatch! Festival
  • Sisario, Ben. "Lollapalooza Tour Canceled Amid Weak Concert Season." June 23, 2004. (April 15, 2009)
  • South by Southwest
  • "SXSW Could Have $110M Impact on Austin Economy." Austin Business Journal. Feb. 27, 2008. (April 1, 2009)