7 Free Music Festivals in The USA

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2012 - Day 3
Anthony Pidgeon / Getty Images

The only thing better than sitting back in your lawn chair and cracking a beer while grooving to the tunes of some of your favorite artists is doing it all for free. Every year, thousands of music festivals happen across the country – some lasting over a week and tickets costing up to $500 per person for general admission. And that doesn’t include food, drink, or accommodations! So if your festival budget is looking a little slim this year, check out ones of these amazing annual free music festivals in the United States.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass – San Francisco, California

This festival is often held in October at Golden Gate Park with views of the bridge in SF. The first HSB festival was held in 2001 and was originally called “Strictly Bluegrass” until the festival expanded to include other genres and changed the name accordingly. Returning artists include Hazel Dickens, Emmylou Harris, Earl Scruggs, Moonalice, and Dry Branch Fire Squad. The festival runs for three days, and was started by millionaire philanthropist Warren Hellman because “What the hell is money for if it isn’t for something like that?” Hellman’s goal for the festival was to bring quality music acts to audiences for free, without bombarding them with too much signage or making it too commercial. His efforts have been a huge success, and the spirit of the festival continues despite his death in 2011. The festival draws an estimated 750,000 people to San Francisco each year.

ComFest – Columbus, Ohio

The Community Festival motto is “party with a purpose,” and since 1972, has been a free festival with a focus on bringing those on the fringe together, building community bridges, and promoting a more unified, tolerant, and equitable community. The festival is held over three days in June each year across 6 stages and 33 acres in Goodale Park. The emphasis is on local musicians, but every now and then a nationally-known artist like Black 47 or Michelle Shocked will sneak into the lineup. Festival goers have also enjoyed performances by hula-hoopers, poetry readers, and public speakers. Other features include the completely solar powered Peace Village and a charitable cause that changes each year. Even after all these years, ComFest has managed to retain that same 1970s hippie atmosphere.

Norman Music Festival – Norman, Oklahoma

Since 2008, NMF has provided a knock-out lineup of artists across a variety of genres. The festival started out as a single-day event, but now draws upwards of 80,000 visitors into downtown Norman each summer. While the festival itself is free, music-lovers inject millions of dollars into the local economy to enjoy music, food, and vendors. Approximately 200 performances on 20 stages will rock festival-goers’ worlds for three straight days. Past artists have included the likes of Ra Ra Riot, JUNEBUG SPADE, Oklahoma Scottish Pipes and Drums group, and Dead Sea Choir, just to name a few. Foodies will enjoy local dishes from Blu Fine Wine & Food, Abner’s Ale House, and Legend’s Restaurant while incredible local vendors and artisans set up shop in the Dust Bowl Market where attendees can find everything from home-décor to jewelry.

Festival International de Louisiane – Lafayette, Louisiana

For five days each year in April, the entire Downtown area of Lafayette, Louisiana becomes inaccessible to vehicle traffic. That is, except for the food trucks and vans carrying gear for the next band. Music lovers from all over the world flock to eight different stages. Incredibly, there are no open container laws downtown, so festival goers walk freely from event to event with the beverage of their choice proudly and freely in-hand. Festival International de Louisiane is the largest Francophone festival in the United States, and features artists from Belgium, Nova Scotia, Quebec, Nigeria, Uganda, and right here in Louisiana to name a few. Local businesses get into the scene as well, often hosting after-hours music events and opportunities to escape the heat during the day.

Musikfest – Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

One of the oldest festivals on this list, Musikfest was first held in 1986. It’s the largest, non-gated, free music festival in the U.S., with an incredible estimated attendance of over 1 million. It’s no wonder the festival is so popular with big-name performers across numerous genres, like Duran Duran, CAKE, Sheryl Crow, Ke$sha, Steve Miller Band, and Stone Temple Pilots. Even with 15 venues and stages, performances are spread out over 10 jam-packed days. In addition to epic music, the festival also offers a host of other entertainment. Comedy acts, including Jerry Seinfeld in 2015, have become part of the festival, as well as dance acts. Family-friendly fun includes karaoke, interactive displays, rides, games, and a craft tent. Festival-goers can also enjoy food from all over the world, as well as specials on Bethlehem’s Restaurant Row, featuring pubs, brew houses, grills, and other eateries.

French Quarter Festival – New Orleans, Louisiana

On a four-day weekend in the spring, the streets of New Orleans’ most famous neighborhood sprout more than a dozen stages, 60 food and beverage booths, and at least 700,000 music lovers. The French Quarter Festival has been continuously growing since its first event in 1984. Festival goers will hear primarily jazz, blues, and zydeco, but an eclectic set of genres like funk, Latin, classical, Cajun, rock, swing, and international music are often part of the lineup as well. And, of course, local NOLA favorites who play at local venues like Spotted Cat Music Club, One Eyed Jack’s, and Cajun Cabin are everywhere, too. Popular cuisine items include hurricane cocktails, jambalaya, blackened catfish po-boys, Cajun meat pies, and crawfish etouffee, plus the festival’s signature event – the “world’s largest jazz brunch.”

Chicago Blues Festival – Chicago, Illinois

For blues-lovers, there’s no substitute for the Chicago Blues Festival. As the largest free blues festival in the world, CBF draws an unbelievable 500,000 attendees to the city, proving that Chicago really is the “Blues Capital of the World.” The biggest names in blues have performed here, including Ray Charles, Bonnie Raitt, B. B. King, Koko Taylor, Buddy Guy, and Bo Diddley. The festival also draws plenty of local artists who play in local bars, blues clubs, and restaurants, making it impossible to see every single band. Each year, CBF honors a departed blues influence, like Muddy Waters, the father of Blues who died just a year before the first festival in 1984. Chicago Blue Festival currently lasts three days and has five official venues, all in Grant Park, so attendees should expect lots of large-scale shows. Mouth-watering barbecue and other local favorites keep attendees well-fed, potentially making this the tastiest free festival in the U.S.

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