8 Great Free Music Festivals on U.S. Soil

Article by: Marcus Dowling|@marcuskdowling

Wed June 08, 2016 | 00:00 AM

As opportunities for festival experiences spread across the globe, the idea that all of them must be big-budget affairs bound to put a dent in your bank account is likely also becoming an accepted reality. But it doesn't have to be that way; for every Ultra or Coachella, there are as many (or more) festivals worldwide offering top-notch lineups and incredibly life-affirming experiences that require no cash to get you through the door. Here are eight free American music festivals that are worthy of consideration.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, San Francisco, CA

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass (or HSB for short) emanates from the iconic festival location of San Francisco, California in glorious and expansive Golden Gate Park each October. The 15-year old event – which started as, truly, a strictly bluegrass festival – has been lauded as one of America’s finest free events, and such legends as Ralph Stanley, Robert Plant, Alison Krauss, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Patti Smith, Earl Scruggs perform often (and in some cases, every year) From the obvious bluegrass to jam bands its name implies, to classic rock and vibed-out EDM feels, all sounds are represented at this chill, three-day fest. The festival was founded by now deceased philanthropist F. Warren Hellman, who ideally hoped that the festival would be a “selfish gift” for himself as a bluegrass aficionado; it has evolved into something that musicians and music lovers worldwide now enjoy.

Muzikfest, Bethlehem, PA

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania’s Muzikfest claims to be “America’s Largest Non-Gated Music Festival.” The 30-plus-year-old, week-long event that occurs every August was founded by Jeff Parks in 1984, and is now presented by ArtsQuest, a nonprofit arts organization founded to "celebrate arts and culture" in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania. The area’s largely German heritage serves as a significant influence, as many of the stages have names that end in “platz,” the German word for stage. There are hundreds of performances during the week with one headlining performance each night. Classic stars including everyone from Boyz II Men to Lynyrd Skynyrd have played the festival, as well as local polka bands, and acts including Duran Duran and Snoop Dogg, too.

Chicago Blues Festival, Chicago, IL

The largest blues festival in the world occurs in Chicago every June, and though festivals like Pitchfork and Lollapalooza continue to balloon, it still remains the city's largest music festival – just think of its incredibly rich blues legacy. The event is hosted by the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, and has been held for over 30 years. During three days on five stages, acts that have included legends like B.B. King, Bo Diddley, Ray Charles and Bonnie Raitt join local blues legends and rising stars at the event. When over 500,000 blues fans converge at your event, you’re not just looking at an event that’s significant for America, but one with worldwide appeal, too.

Norman Music Festival, Norman, OK

In just under a decade, the non-profit Norman Music Alliance’s music festival has expanded from a one-day event to a three-day, 300-band festival attended by upwards of 80,000 people. Occurring in downtown Norman, Oklahoma towards the beginning of festival season in April, the event is supported by local businesses and individuals who are paid members of the alliance. In those three days, the acts play on 21 stages and include everything from DJs playing for yoga enthusiasts to top indie rock acts like Cloud Nothings, hardcore metal acts like Power Trip and a mix of punk, indie and local acts from all ranges of the musical spectrum.

Comfest, Columbus, OH

For over 40 years, festival fanatics keen on promoting acceptance and unity in a non-corporate environment have flocked to Columbus, Ohio’s Goodale Park each June for the free Comfest. Living in harmony with the environment and not working for commercial gain are huge themes here, and there’s a strong activist component alongside its musical offerings. Upwards of 200 acts with names like the Insane Jazz Posse to the Bloodthirsty Virgins, Lungu Vybz, and more provide a wide spectrum of sounds all largely sourced from Columbus’ own vibrant musical scene.

Celebrate Brooklyn!, Brooklyn, NY

A summer festival series, Celebrate Brooklyn has existed for nearly 40 years and always hosts a plethora of free events at both Prospect Park’s Bandshell as well as dance events at Brooklyn Bridge Park, too. It’s Brooklyn, so expect a lively mix of mind-blowing activities, including performances from the likes of say, legendary DJs like Bobbito Garcia playing salsa and Latin jazz to bands like Modest Mouse, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, and legends like Dr. John, Hugh Masekela and Chaka Khan, too. Attracting over 250,000 music fanatics over eight weeks of top notch music events, it’s set a national standard of excellence.

French Quarter Festival, New Orleans, LA

Nearly 800,000 people attended the more than 30-year-old French Quarter Festival in New Orleans in 2015. A premiere event in the post carnival season each April, it’s the South’s largest free music festival, held over three days on six stages. New Orleans brass bands, zydeco, blues, and jazz are represented, and acts including legends like the Dixie Cups as well as a plethora of locally and globally renowned acts attract a literal worldwide audience. And let's not forget that this free festival generates tens of millions of dollars in local tax revenue as well, making that one of French Quarter Festival’s proudest achievements.

Summerstage, New York, NY

For now just over 30 years, Central Park has hosted the free summer festival of 30-35 concert events known as Summerstage. Summerstage events span world and American music, modern dance, spoken word, electronic music, and family programming, and in 2015 included the likes of everyone from X Ambassadors and Joey Bada$$ to Maxi Priest, Lindsay Stirling, Angelique Kidjo, and many more. The stage at Rumsey Playfield in Central Park is definitely a premium destination for a festival experience.