In 1796, the Presbyterian minister James McGready arrived in Kentucky to take charge of three small congregations near the Tennessee border. The Revolutionary War had only been over for five years, and the alliance of six tribal nations that sought to block American expansion into the northwest had just recently been defeated at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. What was once enemy territory had become a frontier. Newly-minted “American” speculators were now free to claim the land’s vast resources without fear of retaliation or interference. McGready’s arrival preceded a much larger wave of migration that would see hundreds of thousands of settlers pour into the region seeking fortune. He stood ready to meet them there, Bible in hand.
McGready’s singular focus was conversion. According to his theology, it required a legitimate change of heart, not just a shift in habits or affiliation. This is because his own daily religious practice had been going on for years before he was shocked into experiencing conversion for himself. It took a bout of illness and a blunt challenge from his spiritual mentor John McMillan to inspire the kind of intense religious experience he believed was necessary to break down the instinctive resistance of the unconverted. In order to achieve this, a minister “must use every possible means to alarm and awaken Christless sinners from their security,” he later wrote. “He must use every argument to convince them of the horrors of an unconverted state; he must tell them the worst of their case. Roar the thunders of Sinai in their ears, and flash the lightnings of Jehovah’s vengeance in their faces.”
His uncompromising approach wasn’t for everyone. The transfer to Kentucky only happened in the first place because a North Carolina congregation he had been tending to went rogue and ran him out of town after enduring one too many blistering sermons about the evils of dancing. Out in the vast, bloodstained emptiness of the new frontier, though, McGready found an audience that was more receptive. The late producer Sophie Xeon used to say that “all pop music should be about who can make the loudest, brightest thing.” There wasn’t any pop music on the prairie back then. There were no railroads or radio waves around, no phonographs or electric light. The loudest, brightest thing in the land was a zealot in a log cabin bellowing about hellfire by candlelight.
In Scottish Presbyterianism, there was a tradition of annual sacramental festivals. These were sometimes called “Holy Fairs.” The custom arose in Scotland after the Knoxian reformation, and McGready brought a no-frills, scaled-down version of it with him to Kentucky. Each time he held one of these sacramental meetings, he worked tirelessly to prepare the hardest sermon he possibly could for the occasion. The approach succeeded in much the same way that it did for Bing Crosby’s character in Holiday Inn. Attendees would run home to gush about the straight-edge, hardcore style of religion they’d just witnessed, and the long gap between Holy Fairs meant that interested parties usually had time to make arrangements if they wanted to see it for themselves. Waves of spontaneous conversions followed, and word got around. People started saying there was a revival taking place on the banks of the Red River; a divinely ordained surge of growth and rebirth for Christianity meant to rescue the nascent United States from the perils of secular politics and moral decline.
The crowd got too big to fit inside his congregation’s humble meeting house, so McGready started delivering his sermons outdoors. To ensure there would be enough food and shelter for everyone, he started asking prospective attendees to bring their own camping supplies. Thousands of travelers from all over the region would converge on one location and camp out for several days to participate in these new American Holy Fairs. Today, they’re known as “camp meetings” and the era in which the tradition emerged is known as the “Second Great Awakening.” In No Man Knows My History, her scholarly biography of Jesus Christ Church of Latter-day Saints founder Joseph Smith, Fawn M. Brodie described them this way:
Evangelists had swarmed over the hill country, preaching in great open-air camp meetings where silent, lonely frontiersmen gathered to sing and shout. Revivalists knew their hell intimately — geography, climate, and vital statistics — and painted the sinner's fate so hideously that shuddering crowds surged forward to the bushel-box altars to be born again. Hundreds fell to the ground senseless, the most elegantly dressed women in Kentucky lying in the mud alongside ragged trappers. Some were seized with the "jerks," their head and limbs snapping back and forth and their bodies grotesquely distorted. Those who caught the "barks" would crawl on all fours, growling and snapping like the camp dogs fighting over garbage heaps behind the tents.
In 1801, over ten thousand people attended a revivalist camp meeting at the Cane Ridge meeting house northwest of Lexington. Some estimates put the headcount closer to twenty thousand, which would make the Cane Ridge revival about the same size as the first Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. Both events inspired a wave of copycats, but the similarities do not end there. “The simplicity of the evangelists’ message and the emotional urgency with which it was delivered were powerful sources of the revivalists’ appeal,” the historian Bill C. Malone explains in his book Country Music USA. “But music may have been even more important. The stirring congregational music that swept across the old campgrounds, belted out by farmers and frontier people who felt the rapturous release from sin, must have been one of the most dramatic spectacles of the whole camp meeting experience.”
The new evangelical movement that rose up to meet the growing public enthusiasm for camp meetings was less restrictive about music than Martin Luther or John Calvin had been. The frontier ministers leading the charge shared McGready’s contention that volume and intensity were essential to their mission, but widespread illiteracy and a lack of songbooks meant they couldn’t rely on communal singing of traditional hymns to get their message across. It became necessary to improvise. “Camp meeting song leaders usually chose song texts that were familiar to the singers and set them to folk or popular melodies that were equally familiar,” Malone wrote. “Other methods were devised to encourage rapid memorization and lend variety,” he went on to explain, noting that “choruses were added to venerable hymns” and “repetitive phrases were incorporated into songs to the point that even the most illiterate participant could sing with gusto.”
In practical terms, the camp meetings of the Second Great Awakening were the first American music festivals. Revivalists swept through the countryside and competed to serve up the brightest, loudest experiences possible in their collective quest to inspire conversions. Scripture was permitted to intermingle with extant secular musical traditions in an effort to create something broadly appealing enough to engage thousands of strangers at once. This is where the idea that pop songs can save souls came from. The revivalists established a playbook for winning over large crowds that still sees regular use. The distinctive culture of camp meetings produced new strains of religious music that eventually came to form the basis of much of what we call “pop music” today. The first recorded appearance of the phrase “rock and roll” itself occurs on a 1904 recording called “Camp Meeting Jubilee.”
According to Fawn M. Brodie, the conversions that revivalists went through all of that effort to secure were “notoriously short-lived.” She describes one particular swath of the country that became known to ministers as a “burned-over district” because “one revival after another was sweeping through the area, leaving behind a people scattered and peeled, for religious enthusiasm was literally being burnt out of them.” Brodie goes on to explain that the revivals “by their very excesses deadened a normal antipathy toward religious eccentricity,” and that the “pentecostal years” of the Second Great Awakening “were the most fertile in America’s history for the sprouting of prophets.” She wrote all of that in 1945, when that last statement may still have been true. Recording and amplification technology had yet to make it possible for the excesses of the revivalist camp meeting experience to be industrialized, mass-produced, and shipped to every corner of the world on trucks and buses. This is what happened next.
In May of 1966, a former Harvard professor called Timothy Leary made his way to the Oak Room at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. Like James McGready, he was fixated on conversion. A colleague had turned him on to psychedelic drugs like LSD and psilocybin during a trip to Mexico six years earlier, and he was desperate to bring that experience to the masses. He believes that these substances, especially when taken communally and under direction, could reshape the human mind in revolutionary new ways. He bragged about how certain he was that he could end war and hunger overnight if only the world’s most powerful men could be persuaded to drop acid with him. When attempting to make this argument to a Senate subcommittee hearing, though, he ran into rather more resistance than he had been anticipating. The guys who showed up to ridicule him that day seemed much more interested in using drugs as a scapegoat to explain away the rise of political protest movements in sixties America without taking any of it seriously. Alarmed at the prospect of a “second prohibition” that would dash his hopes for a new age of psychedelic enlightenment, Leary knew there was only one thing to be done. He had to go see Marshall McLuhan.
“Dreary Senate hearings and courtrooms are not the platforms for your message,” McLuhan told Leary, gently admonishing him. “You call yourself a philosopher, a reformer. Fine. But the key to your work is advertising. You’re promoting a product.” He underlined the point further by composing jingles on the spot that extolled the benefits of LSD the way a radio advertisement would. This is how McLuhan came up with the “tune in, turn on, drop out” slogan that Leary would later go on to become synonymous with. According to Leary’s memoir, McLuhan got there by changing the lyrics of popular product jingles to be about drugs, in much the same way that the frontier preachers of the Second Great Awakening attached religious text to popular melodies that the mass audience was sure to find familiar.
With great zeal, Leary took McLuhan’s advice deeply to heart and dutifully re-imagined himself as a Madison Avenue pitchman for psychedelic drugs. In an interview with Playboy conducted not long after, he gushed enthusiastically about how acid is “the greatest aphrodisiac ever discovered by man,” and cheerfully boasted to the magazine’s readership that it could rid the world of impotence, lesbianism, and frigidity. He incorporated a new religion called the League for Spiritual Discovery that sought to reframe the acid trip as a sacrament. The organization promoted LSD with elaborate off-Broadway stage shows that must have felt like hipster Shen Yun. The impact was more “snake oil” than “great revival,” and the unconverted masses remained as yet unmotivated to join Leary on his crusade. To shake them out of complacency and inspire a genuine change of heart, he needed scale. He needed intensity. He needed to offer an experience loud and bright enough to overpower the mechanized clamor of the industrialized world.
In January of 1967, Leary was invited to speak at the “Human Be-in,” a free concert set to take place at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. The lineup included musical heavyweights like Dizzy Gillespie, the Grateful Dead, and Janis Joplin, but it was Leary’s name that was front and center on the poster. California and Nevada had just become the first states in the nation to ban the sale of LSD, which turned San Francisco’s acid-soaked Haight-Ashbury neighborhood into a hotbed of resistance against a potential nationwide ban. Leary had been working hard to sell the nation’s youth on the transformative power of acid, and the organizers of the Be-in wanted to convince them that it could be their last chance to experience it for themselves. One of them, local head shop owner Ron Thelin, was fond of proclaiming that San Francisco was “the holy city” and would become “the Mecca of the west.” Leary’s task was to call upon the faithful to make the pilgrimage.
Over twenty thousand young people from all over the continent descended on the park that day. The spectacle was impossible for the mainstream news media of the time to ignore, and Haight-Ashbury soon acquired a national reputation as the headquarters of an emergent counterculture movement dedicated to peace, love, and partying. When colleges went on Spring Break that March, thousands of students just showed up in the neighborhood suddenly without any idea what to do or where to stay. Local entrepreneurs quickly deduced that even bigger crowds were bound to show up when classes broke again for the summer and moved to capitalize. Several successor events to the Human Be-in were organized, including the first two rock festivals to happen in California: the Magic Mountain Music Festival on June 10, and the Monterey International Pop Festival a week later. Both events were wildly successful, and as many as a hundred thousand people are thought to have traveled to the Bay Area that summer.
There had been big, outdoor music festivals before—Newport, Rhode Island’s legendary jazz and folk festivals began in the fifties—but the rock festivals that proliferated in the wake of the Human Be-in were different. The notion of a music festival that could serve as a platform for the kind of transformative spiritual experiences Leary preached about seemed to resonate strongly with the baby boom generation. The Monterey International Pop Festival spawned a hit concert film, which in turn inspired a few east coast promoters to stage and document an even bigger festival in upstate New York. Two years after the “Summer of Love” became a national news story, more Americans had heard about these events than had experienced it for themselves. To the shock of the nation, more than four hundred thousand people showed up at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair that summer. An acclaimed documentary record of the event won an Oscar and became the fifth highest-grossing feature film of 1970.
Before recordings became popular, no one ever showed up at a concert with a clear, specific, studied preconception about what a band or song was supposed to sound like. A big band in a ballroom was always going to sound more exciting than your only other option for checking out new tunes, which was to buy the sheet music and learn to play them yourself. After the success of the Woodstock film, audiences didn’t just have specific expectations about how concerts should sound, but also how they should feel. Though Jimi Hendrix’s closing performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is the doc’s most enduring clip, the real star of the picture is the audience. A sizeable chunk of the film’s three-hour running time is given over to older authority figures gushing about how impressive and historically significant it was that the young people attending the festival were able to gather in such large numbers without “making trouble” like the anti-war protesters who faced off with police outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. That framing suggests that the Woodstock audience’s greatest accomplishment was not opposing the establishment, but discovering their own place within it.
What followed was not the new age of psychedelic enlightenment Leary had hoped for. Possession of LSD was outlawed at the federal level in 1968, turning the self-styled acid priest of the Human Be-in into an international fugitive. He employed the services of militant left-wing groups like the Weathermen to stay free until the FBI finally caught up with him in Kabul, then decided to seek a reduced sentence by turning informant on his former caretakers after a few measly years in Folsom. He spent the rest of his life on the lecture circuit, palling around with the likes of Ron Paul and G. Gordon Liddy as he shifted his focus from LSD to “space colonization” and “life extension.” Some years after his death, the actress Susan Sarandon ritualistically consumed his ashes at Burning Man, a modern-day camp meeting for powerful men that many of them use as an excuse to drop acid together in precisely the way Leary once envisioned. War and hunger nevertheless continue unabated.
It turns out that the tactics Leary used to sell the flower children of the Human Be-in on the transformative power of acid trips also worked very well when it came to selling more conventional trips, like the ones you can buy from a travel agent or a time share broker. The Woodstock film is as close as anyone has ever come to bottling and mass-producing the intensity of the camp meeting experiences that inspired countless spontaneous conversions during the Second Great Awakening, and in the years that followed the doc’s release, it served as one of the most effective pieces of advertising ever created. Not for Leary’s acid agenda or McGready’s revivalist Christianity, but for the burgeoning field of concert promotion. A wave of massive rock concerts staged in newly-constructed sports stadiums across the country sought to convert the freeloading pilgrims, protestors, and dissidents of the turbulent sixties decade into paying customers. Before long, Woodstock performers like Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young and the Grateful Dead were being bussed around the country to perform for massive crowds in every major market. The business of traveling, industrialized secular camp meetings was so lucrative that even performers who had previously been synonymous with the experience of seeing live musicians in small clubs, like Miles Davis, were moved to reorient their entire careers around it.
Today, the outdoor festivals and arena shows that flourished in the seventies are the cornerstone of the live music business in America. When record sales were still touring artists’ biggest source of income, the point of these huge shows was to promote new music. Overhead and ticket prices needed to be low in order to get as many potential record buyers as possible to hear the new album without breaking the bank. Labels used to offer artists “tour support” in order to encourage them to play shows even when it was impossible to profit from them directly. In the streaming era, recordings have been devalued and concert tickets have become the hottest product in music. They are the main thing audiences will still happily pay for in a market where demand for physical music formats has collapsed and major label catalogs are available to everyone for free through ad-supported streaming. It wouldn’t be a stretch to call concert tickets the flagship product of the entire music industry.
Consequently, the live music experience has become a branded luxury product. It now comes packaged with designer-priced limited merch drops and outrageous price points for basic amenities like food and water. Last year, analyist Stephen Glagola broke down the economics for Billboard, describing tickets themselves as a “low-margin” business for promoters that primarily serves to drive “higher-margin ancillary revenue such as food and beverage and hospitality within their owned and operated venues.” That means ticket sales themselves aren’t a big moneymaker for Live Nation and Anschutz Entertainment Group. Ticket prices have risen, but so has the cost of mounting the increasingly elaborate multimedia stage shows promoters look for when booking large venues or festival main stages. Smaller, more intimate venues don’t provide the “higher-margin” income that parking lots and concessions at stadiums and arenas offer, so they’re not a priority. Huge shows in huge venues attended by huge crowds are the focus, and that approach propelled Live Nation to record-breaking profits in 2022. Stadium concert grosses in particular were up 81% over 2019, and trades like Pollstar say there’s “no reason to believe [2023’s"] stadium market won’t be even bigger.”
How is it possible that the concert industry is actually doing better now than it was before the pandemic? A widely-shared German study from 2021 proclaimed that “mass gathering events” like arena shows “contribute little to the epidemic spread of COVID-19,” but only when the audience is seated, masked, and served by a good ventilation system. That description doesn’t apply to any of the mask-free GA floor concerts that Live Nation has on the books this year.
The reality is that these promoters never feared the virus itself, only the measures that governments might take to protect us from it. An investigation by Water & Music in 2021 found that COVID data had “simply not been a factor in the concert booking process to date.” At no point in the pandemic have these companies ever had any intention of taking action to prevent the spread of COVID beyond what the law forced them to. This means that once the political will to enact bare minimum protections like mask mandates evaporated, promoters were free to see the virus as nothing more than a risk customers must accept when buying tickets. It doesn’t matter to them that the tiny profit margins available to smaller touring bands in traditional venues were utterly wiped out by the increased costs and liabilities of pandemic-era touring. Live Nation and AEG celebrated record profits last year as previously formidable mid-size touring acts like Animal Collective and Santigold canceled entire tours in protest of “an economic reality that simply does not work.” The big shows are all that matters now.
During San Francisco’s Summer of Love, an anarchist publishing project called ComCo produced an incendiary broadsheet called “Uncle Tim’$ Children.” It accused Timothy Leary and the local “Council for a Summer of Love” he had aligned with of being predatory actors. It excoriated them for inviting a hundred thousand would-be pilgrims to the Haight without any plans to provide them with basic food or shelter. “The trouble is that the hip shopkeepers have believed their own bullshit lies,” it proclaimed. “They believe that acid is the answer and neither know nor care what the question is. They think dope is the easy road to God. ‘Have you ever been raped?’ they say. ‘take acid and everything will be groovy.’ Are you ill? Take acid and find inner health. Are you cold, sleeping in doorways at night? Take acid and discover your own inner warmth. Are you hungry? Take acid and transcend those mundane needs. You can’t afford acid? Pardon me, I think I hear somebody calling me.”
On paper, COVID does present an existential threat to the concert-going experience as we’ve known it. The virus can spread through aerosol, which means it can move through the air at concerts as easily as the smell of weed does. It can wreak havoc on the immune system. It mutates quickly, which limits the effectiveness of our existing vaccines. The toll that the new normal is taking on workers and the eight entirely preventable deaths that occurred during a “crowd surge” at Live Nation’s Astroworld festival in 2021 provide further evidence that these promoters are only interested in the concept of health as it pertains to their business, but public opinion only ever seems to turn against them when eagerly-anticipated tours sell out too quickly. The financial and personal cost of attending these events is higher than it’s ever been, but so is demand for tickets. The Summer of Love refuses to end even as the air gets cold enough to render our breaths visible. How much longer can it last?