A Brief History of The UK Music Festival

It’s that time of year that people refer to as ‘festival season’, but with so many festivals on offer all year round, there’s a case to be made that every season is festival season. We’re spoilt for choice in the UK, with city festivals, seaside festivals, all-dayers, multi-venue, multi-genre, family friendly and family unfriendly events abounding at every turn, and that’s before you’ve even started to look abroad! In 2015 an estimated 1000 festivals took place in the UK alone; but it hasn’t always been like this.

So, how did this happen, and who do we have to thank for the current abundance that we enjoy? Here we look at the history of the UK music festival, and how it has evolved over the years, starting with the first ever pop festival.

Monterey International Pop Festival
Ok, so we’re starting with a festival that isn’t in the UK, but it’s impossible to talk music festivals without mentioning this one. The Monterey International Pop Festival is the earliest example (without being silly and going back to Ancient Greece or something…) of what we now deem a ‘music festival’. Taking place in 1967, it introduced the world to Otis Redding and hosted the first American performances of The Who and Jimi Hendrix (the latter famously burning the shit out of his guitar). Estimates of attendance veer from 25,000 to 90,000. One thing is for sure though: it was well over capacity, which was set at around 7,000 for the performance areas. Ouch.

Isle of Wight
The following year, Isle of Wight launched in the UK, but would only run for three consecutive years before being blocked by Parliament in 1971. To be fair, a whopping 600,000 people attended in 1970, leading to the “Isle of Wight County Council Act 1971″, preventing overnight open-air gatherings of more than 5,000 people on the island without a special licence from the council. John Giddings famously revived the festival in 2002 with The Charlatans and Robert Plant headlining and it continues to go strong with its eclectic mix of indie, pop, hip-hop and dance.

Starting life in 1970 as The Pilton Pop, Blues and Folk Festival, the first ever edition took place one year after Woodstock (with its estimated 500,000 strong crowd), and just one day after Jimi Hendrix’s death. It quickly grew in stature, hosting 12,000 people in its second year before going on to become a name synonymous with UK festivals and musical diversity. You don’t need us to tell you how amazing this one is, and each year it sells out in minutes, inevitably crashing the site of whoever is selling tickets.

Reading and Leeds
Starting life as “The National Jazz and Blues Festival” in 1961, Reading is thought to be the oldest popular music festival in existence. It wasn’t until 1971 though that it took the name ‘Reading Festival’ and adopted the format that we all know and love. Along with sister festival Leeds, set up in 1999, Reading has fiercely protected its rock and indie line-ups, with the crowd not taking well to perceived commercial pop music. Just ask Meatloaf, who was bottled off in 1988. Or 50-Cent. Or Daphne and Celeste (where the bottles were open and contained an unpleasant yellow substance). The list is quite long.

The Bowlie Weekender and Beyond
In 1999 Belle and Sebastian invited some their favourite performers and biggest influences to come and play alongside them at a weekend festival at Camber Sands Holiday Park. The event was such a success that Barry Hogan approached them about repeating the idea yearly but with a different curator each time, and All Tomorrow’s Parties was born. With the likes of Mogwai, Animal Collective, Caribou, and even Simpson’s creator Matt Groening selecting performers, these festivals have legendary status in our mind and paved the way for more alternative music events to flourish. As Barry once put it “ATP is like an excellent mixtape”. Sadly ATP, and the festival, are no more.

The Noughties Festival Boom
Following the successes of Glastonbury, Reading and Leeds, and with ATP a more alternative yearly fixture on the festival calendar, numerous others decided to try their hand at organising a festival. Download was born in 2003, Bestival in 2004, Wireless in 2005 and Lattitude the following year. Soon organisers began to challenge the scope of what a festival could be and this opened the door to seemingly infinite possibilities. Festivals like Festival No.6 in Portmeirrion or Indietracks on a heritage Steam Railway site sprung up in unorthodox locations, and elsewhere festivals sought to educate as well as entertain. Camp Bestival’s decision to go meat free in 2016 is a notable example of a festival engaging head-on with environmental politics and preaching sustainability, while Bluedot Festival at Joddrell Bank Observatory is worth a mention for its explorations into science and technology.

These days, festivals are so much more than just pitching up in a field and watching a few bands, and over the last fifty years they have made an immeasurable cultural, economic and educational contribution to the UK. Long may this continue.

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