Today, music festivals number in the thousands, taking place around the globe and embracing all kinds of popular music. Here, we’ll look back at some of the biggest music festivals, from the mid 1950s to the present, and focus on an essential part of their culture: festival posters.
Indeed, from the very beginning, graphic design and (especially) festival posters have been an integral way to shape each festival’s unique brand and echo their creative spirit. It’s fascinating to look back and see how modern music festival poster design evolved from historical precedents. Let’s dive in.
Newport Jazz festival
Begun in 1954, the Newport Jazz Festival was not only the first annual jazz concert, but arguably the prototype for all popular music festivals continuing to this day. Over the years, the festival drew stellar acts like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis.
Its graphic design remained on par, at least through the 1970s, with Milton Glaser’s design for the 1978 show being particularly memorable.
Newport Folk Festival
This festival was founded by George Wein, the same person who started its jazz cousin, just a few years later. The 1964 show included Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Peter Paul and Mary and Pete Seeger, but its defining moment was in 1965, when Dylan’s “went electric.”
In recent years the festival’s graphic design has emphasized the maritime identity of the city of Newport, but this was not always the case.
Monterey International Pop Festival
Considered the first true rock festival, Monterey Pop was planned in just six weeks took place over the course of three days in 1967. It included bands like The Beach Boys, The Who, Simon and Garfunkel, the Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix, who iconically lit his guitar on fire while playing “Wild Thing.”
The festival poster for the show is exemplary of the “psychedelic” style developed by artists like Wes Wilson and Victor Moscoso.
The 1969 concert, held on a dairy farm in upstate New York, is arguably the most famous single music festival of all time. It included acts like The Who, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.
Revival “Woodstock” festivals took place in 1979, 1989, 1994, 1999 and 2009, but none of them was able to match the original. The 1999 iteration, which featured rowdy bands like Limp Bizkit, Korn, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, was especially disastrous. Its poster design was equally lacking in originality, possessing none of the folksy feel and vibrant color of the 1969 original.
Isle of Wight Festival
This festival, located on a small island off the English coast, began in 1968 and continued through 1970, hosting bands like The Who, The Doors and Joni Mitchell.
The 1970 version reportedly drew a crowd of 600,000, which was enough to bring the operation to a halt. However, it started up again in 2002 and has continued every year since. The new poster designs have continued to pay homage to the originals, retaining the same color palette and super detailed, off-the-wall imagery.
Andrew Kerr attended Isle of Wight and then decided to make his own festival in 1970. Originally it was called Pilton, after the town it was first held in. In 1971 David Bowie performed at the festival grounds’ now iconic pyramid stage.
Starting in 1981, it has happened almost annually (skipping every sixth year to give the organizers and the land a break). The posters have always put a heavy emphasis on text and color.
Beginning in 1970 and running every year up the present, Pinkpop in the Netherlands is officially the longest running music festival in history. Its origins were humble—it occurred on the holiday of Pentecostal Monday and advertised a pig roast to draw attendees—but it has grown into a major league festival, hosting star acts from Elvis Costello to Muse over the years. The graphic design has really run the gamut in this time span, but one underlying similarity has been, not surprisingly, the color pink.
The first iteration of this festival, which is held in Belgium, occurred in 1985 and drew only 3,000 people. It stayed small through the 80s, but picked up steam with its 1991 concert which included major alt rock bands like Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth and the Ramones.
Older posters have a punk brashness, while more recent ones have toned down the attitude and gone for a more anodyne approach. Of course, a solid 20 years separates the ’94 and ’14 posters shown above.
A lot has changed in that time, not only in terms of graphic design (i.e. the arrival of more sophisticated digital tools) but in terms of the kind of music performed at festivals. The older posters are appropriate to their alt-rock content, while the new one is better suited to the mix of rock, electronica and seamlessly produced pop that hits the Pukkelpop stages today.
Started in 1991 by Jane’s Addiction singer Perry Farrell as a farewell tour for his band, Lollapalooza soon became a full fledged festival which ran until 1997 and then was revived in 2004.
Beginning in 2005 the American iteration has always occurred in Chicago, but international spin-offs have taken root all over the globe. The 1991 poster design was very, shall we say, D.I.Y., but the same does not hold for recent versions. These are clearly the work of experts; they incorporate eye-popping, illustration, color and type.
The origins of Coachella go back to 1993, when Pearl Jam played at the Empire Polo Fields in the Californian desert due to a dispute with Ticketmaster that prevented their performing in Los Angeles proper. Four years later, while attending Glastonbury 1997, Paul Tollett, whose company Goldenvoice booked the Pearl Jam gig, thought back to the Polo Fields and decided it could be viable for festivals akin to Glastonbury.
The inaugural 1999 festival included bands like Beck, Morrissey and Rage Against the Machine. It returned in 2001 and has played every year since. Coachella is unique among music festivals in that it has stuck to a single poster design template, varying only the color scheme year after year.