Music Festivals by Decade

Music festivals are arguably one of the greatest cornerstones of youth culture. Online magazines reminisce about the first-ever Woodstock festival in 1969, and more than 32 million Americans – 14.7 million of them millennials – showed up to at least one music festival in 2017.

These days, music lovers have several big-name festivals to choose from, each known for their unique vibe and crowds. But of all the rumors and stereotypes associated with specific music festivals, how many of them are true? We asked 665 festivalgoers about their favorite festivals, how they spent their time there, what substances were present (is there food and water – or just shrooms?), and more. Keep scrolling for a quantitative dive into the culture of big-name events like Burning Man and Coachella and how music festivals at large have changed over time.

A Big Deal

Life-Changing Music Festival Experiences Infographic

Most famous music festivals come at a steep price. In 2018, general admission tickets for Coachella sold for $429, and producers of Iceland's Secret Solstice Music Festival have made headlines for offering music travel experiences priced at one million dollars. Even so, our survey of 665 festivalgoers suggests it’s worth it – 63 percent of respondents said attending a music festival was a “life-changing experience.” However, those who attended festivals in the 1980s and earlier were much more likely to say so. Nearly 83 percent of survey respondents attending a festival at that time believed it was life-changing, compared to 65 percent of respondents who went to festivals between 2011 and 2018.

About 82 percent of those who attended Woodstock in 1969 called their experience life-changing – the highest impact of all festivals measured. Ultra Music Festival, Electric Daisy Carnival (EDC), and Burning Man were also some of the highest-rated festivals in terms of their impact, followed by Austin City Limits, Coachella, and Lollapalooza.

Top Acts

Top 5 Most Memorable Festival Artists Graphic

Among the most obsessed of fans, festival lineups are anything but forgotten. Several online magazines have ranked their favorite festival lineups of all time, allowing attendees to reminisce about their own take on music’s golden years. But some artists certainly rank higher with festivalgoers than others. Based on our survey of 665 individuals, the top five most memorable festival artists are the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction, Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé, and Tiësto.

Festival Extracurriculars

Activities Participated In or Witnessed At Music Festivals Infographic

Were music festivals more “hardcore” in the past, or are they now more wild than ever? We asked survey participants about the activities they remembered witnessing or participating in at music festivals. Our data suggest that marijuana is far past its prime – nearly 76 percent of survey respondents remembered consuming pot at music festivals in the 1980s and earlier, compared to roughly 44 to 46 percent in the 1990s and onward.

When it comes to other activities, festivals also seem to have gotten more tame over time: Survey respondents consumed less hard drugs and witnessed less violence and rioting, sex, and nudity at festivals that happened after the 1980s. Although bad behavior might just be expected during the music festival experience, violence may be a thing of the past.

Partying Hard

Ranking the Decades and Music Festivals Partying the Hardest Infographic

Music festivals may draw in crowds for their headlining artists, but they’re also known to attract partiers interested in recreational drug use, beer chugging, and even public sex. But is that more true today than in the past?

We asked survey participants whether they witnessed or participated in eight acts during their music festival experience: consumption of alcohol, marijuana use, hard drug use, nudity, drug sales, sex, and violence. According to our survey data, music festivals in the 1980s and earlier reportedly had more moments of violence, nudity, and drug use than their contemporary counterparts.

On our eight-point scale, Burning Man stood out as the most rambunctious music festival, followed by Woodstock ’69 and Bonnaroo. Meanwhile, the most tame music festival was Warped Tour, with only 1 out of 8 of these acts mentioned on average. Austin City Limits and South by Southwest (SXSW) were also relatively tame, with less than 3 of these 8 acts reported on average.

All or Nothing

Consumption at Music Festivals Infographic

Alcohol and drugs are so common at music festivals that it’s sometimes considered a radical act to attend one sober. Yet, according to our survey results, a surprising number of music lovers have attended festivals sober – however, it depends on which festival they’re attending.

Overall, nearly 1 in 4 survey respondents were sober during their music festival experience – but, at the same time, another quarter said they mixed alcohol with multiple drugs like marijuana, cocaine, LSD, ecstasy, and mushrooms at music festivals.

Warped Tour was the most sober of festivals, with 72 percent of respondents saying they didn’t consume any substances while attending. This fact isn’t unfamiliar to Warped Tour attendees, organizers, and performers, who know the festival as one that promotes healthy environments and counseling for those in drug and addiction recovery. Meanwhile, Burning Man was the most indulgent: 45 percent of Burning Man festivalgoers said they drank and consumed drugs.

Over time, the proportion of individuals who decided to abstain from drugs and alcohol during music festivals has increased. Only around 14 percent of survey respondents said they abstained at music festivals in the 1980s and earlier, compared to roughly 25 percent who attended festivals and did so between 2011 and 2018.

Sound Superlatives

All About the Music? Graphic

Music festivals are so much more than the bands playing at them. They have entire communities built around them, after all, let alone all the vendor tents offering beer and merch. But when were music festivals best known for their music, versus atmosphere or communities?

We asked survey participants which music festivals and periods deserve certain superlatives, such as “high-quality music,” “most artistic and spiritual,” and “best for new friendships.” As it turns out, the previous decade was perhaps best in terms of performances – music festivals from 2000 to 2010 earned the “high-quality music” superlative. However, music festivals between 2011 and 2018 were considered most artistic and spiritual, while music festivals from the 1980s and earlier were considered the best for new friendships.

As of today, here’s where festivals stand: Austin City Limits and South by Southwest (SXSW) tied for the highest-quality music. Electric Daisy Carnival (EDC) was named most artistic and spiritual, which rings true according to EDM fans, who describe this musical genre as a culture of togetherness and musical appreciation. Survey respondents said Burning Man was the best festival for new friendships and, yet, the worst for high-quality music. At the same time, Warped Tour attendees had some serious complaints – it was named the least artistic and spiritual, along with the worst place to make new friends.

Festival Tradition

Every year, millions of Americans pull up to music festivals, camp out, and vibe to their favorite artists. And even though these festivals are fundamentally meant for listening to artists live, each festival brings its own unique culture and crowd to the table.

We examined how music festivals have changed over the last few decades in the United States, along with how some famous-name festivals really stand out. Whether it is understanding drug and alcohol use or the type of people who attend these major events, our survey results give us a better understanding of what makes these major events so alluring to Americans everywhere.

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Methodology and Limitations

To explore how the music festival experience has changed since the 1980s and earlier, we surveyed 665 people who had ever attended a major music festival and asked them to speak about their most memorable festival experiences. Our pool of respondents consisted of Woodstock ’69 attendees all the way to the most recent Coachella festival. Fifty-four percent of our respondents were men, and 46 percent were women. After qualifying our respondents for the survey by cross-referencing their reported dates of attendance with festival dates since the ’70s, we determined we had 26 people who attended festivals in the ’80s and earlier, 106 attendees from the ’90s, 235 who attended festivals from 2000 to 2010, and 298 who attended a music festival 2011 and 2018. We calculated rates of alcohol use, drug use, as well as other events that took place by asking respondents whether they participated or witnessed different festival activities, and then plotted the affirmative percentages by decade to compare how many people participated in X event by period. The most memorable artist asset could be a reflection of how frequently these bands perform at festivals versus other bands. Because this is a survey-executed campaign, and we asked certain respondents to reflect on their music festival experiences that potentially went back to the ’80s and ’70s or earlier, the data have certain limitations that include telescoping, selective memory, and exaggeration.


Fair Use Statement

Music festival season will be upon us soon, so share our analysis with your potential festival group for the 2019 season. Please share for noncommercial purposes though, and give us some credit by linking back to this page.

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