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Steve Wozniak’s US Festival Predicted the Melding of Tech and Music

The US Festival, held in 1982 and 1983, was the kind of music happening where you could watch bands on giant screens while grabbing some shade under a satellite dish.

by Ernie Smith
May 17 2017, 12:36pm

Satellite dishes of the 80s were huge. Not just in the sense that they were a big deal. No, they were literally massive.

Which explains why the satellite dishes at the US Festival, with its 110°F temperatures at its San Bernardino, California park, proved such valuable territory for people to hang out under, using a box as a blanket. The festival was a spare-no-expenses approach to music, one that clearly inspired the much-more-successful Coachella, which takes place in Indio, about 85 miles to the southeast.

The names involved in the endeavor were fairly massive all the way around: Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who saw an opportunity to bring people together under a sense of unity, helped fund the $12.5 million project, which involved bulldozing a brand-new open-field venue. And famed concert promoter Bill Graham brought the acts to the stage—among them The Police, Talking Heads, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, The Grateful Dead, and Fleetwood Mac.

With Wozniak involved, there was a whole lot of tech there—including video game consoles, synthesizers, and home computers—presented in a trade show-style format. (If you wanted to buy a $6,000 digital synth to bring home with you, you could. The food, fortunately, was a bit cheaper.) And some of the tech made it to the stage, which sported a state-of-the-art sound system and two huge 50-foot video screens to ensure you could see the music from a distance. That was one advantage the show had over Woodstock.

Of course, Labor Day weekend in 1982, during a period of maximum heat, probably wasn't the best time to hold a large festival of this scale. (More than 200,000 people were reported to have attended the initial 1982 version.) Officials planned ahead of time by creating mass showers that could hold 500 people at a time, but showers only go so far.

The 1983 Memorial Day weekend version of the festival was more successful—with slightly lower temperatures, larger crowds, a different set of bands, and no Bill Graham—but both lost large amounts of money, due to those crowds largely failing to buy tickets. (Wozniak, while slightly miffed, largely didn't mind.) But the festival may have simply been early, both from the large gathering and tech standpoints.

"[I]t's certainly prescient that a festival in the early 80s attempted to meld the worlds of music and technology, something that is obviously more commonplace today with the SXSW festival and others," Shout! Factory vice president of A&R Derek Dressler told the Orange County Register in 2012. "But in 1982, who would've thought those two worlds would come to be so intertwined?"

Sometimes the state of the art is ahead of anyone's expectations.

Re-Exposure is an occasional Motherboard feature where we look back on delightful old tech photos from wire service archives.