A (Very) Brief History of Music Festivals

This was my column in this week’s Metro papers. It’s short, but all I get is 400 words.

On Friday, March 21, 1952, 20,000 kids piled into the Cleveland Arena at the behest of DJ Alan Freed to see almost a dozen acts perform the songs heard on his WJW-AM radio show.

Although this has been called the first-ever rock ’n’ roll concert, the sheer number of performers also allows us to call this the first rock festival.

None of the acts that night — Paul Williams, Tony Grimes and The Dominoes among them — could possibly draw that many people on their own. But when bundled together on a single bill, the appeal intensified exponentially. It was also cost-effective. Shared resources kept overhead low and margins fat.

Festivals soon went on the road. Buddy Holly was part of the Winter Dance Party with the Big Bopper, Richie Valens, Frankie Sardo, and Dion and the Belmonts when his plane went down in that Iowa cornfield. Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars took artists from Chuck Berry to the Yardbirds to the people between 1959 and 1967.

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Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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