Psychedelic festivals retain spiritual appeal despite commercialization

Psychedelic music festivals have become increasingly mainstream since their countercultural beginnings in the 1960s, but the large gatherings still generate a sense of spiritual identity for their fans, according to Scott Muir. In a paper presented at the Boston meeting of the American Academy of Religion in mid-November, which RW attended, Scott Muir of Duke University traced these music festivals back to the 1960s counterculture, marked by the use of psychedelic drugs and an oppositional stance toward society. This countercultural phase of these festivals lasted until the mid-1970s, when they became subcultures based around the Grateful Dead and their “Deadhead” followers. That changed again after leading band member Jerry Garcia died in 1995, and the festivals multiplied while also gaining a more mainstream following. These gatherings were based around “jam bands.” Muir adds that, “At rates nearly as strong as those found among Deadheads, large majorities of the 709 jam festival attendees I surveyed affirmed the spiritual nature of the Scene (82 percent), their experiences within it (75 percent), and acknowledged its impact on their religious identities (65 percent).”

The festivals are now corporately sponsored and expensive to attend, while enthusiasts still partake of psychedelics as well as incorporating art into the events. Such annual festivals as Coachella and Bonnaroo have become popular, with the latter televised on the Clear Nation Channel. Muir found that 36 percent of fans at a Bonnaroo festival were first-time attenders. While the Coachella and Bonnaroo events are more mainstream and diverse, he found that attenders still derive a sense of spirituality from the festivals. In surveying 612 participants from a Bonnaroo festival, he found that “Bonnaroovians are almost as likely (76 percent) as Deadheads and jam fest participants to affirm the spiritual nature of the collective experience, but they are somewhat less likely to frame their own experiences this way. Fifty-nine percent of respondents affirm that ‘there has been a spiritual quality’ to their festival experiences, but these affirmations are more measured and hesitant. [Fifty-six] percent acknowledge that the Scene has ‘influenced [their] religious/spiritual identity,’ but only 10 percent describe that influence as strong.” Muir concludes that the recent shooting in Las Vegas may dampen the popularity of these events, but that attenders “have too much to lose by [stopping], as it involves their identity.”