Everything you need to know about the Roskilde Festival
Experiencing the Roskilde Festival with 130,000 of your closest friends.
Everybody likes music. It’s thought to be one of the oldest forms of art created by humans, allowing us to connect with one another on a level that goes far deeper than the simple words, notes and rhythms that make up a song.
But when it comes to experiencing music, really living it in an immersive way, there’s nothing like the spectacle and community created at large-scale music festivals. Our ancestors humming along to rhythms banged out on rocks and hollow logs thousands of years ago could never imagine the massive festivals attended by millions of people every year that modern people view as more or less routine.
But all music festivals are not created equal. While Americans and Brits may think about Coachella, Lollapalooza, and Glastonbury when the subject of music festivals comes up, one of the most under-appreciated and unique of the world’s best music festivals is Denmark’s Roskilde Festival.
The Roskilde Festival is the largest one in Northern Europe, and is said to be the first dedicated music festival ever put on in Denmark, dating all the way back to the heady, post-Summer of Love days of 1971. Every year since then, the Roskilde Festival commences at the end of June and beginning of July, when over 100,000 attendees and 30,000 volunteers descend on the town of Roskilde for eight days, temporarily making it the 4th-largest city in Denmark.
And there’s no shortage of top-tier performers willing to travel to Denmark during the lovely summer season. Past artists performing at the Roskilde Festival include such heavyweights as Bob Dylan, Iron Maiden, Radiohead, Nirvana, David Bowie, Gorillaz, Cardi B, Bruno Mars and Eminem. The 2020 Roskilde Festival line-up includes mega-superstar commercial acts like Taylor Swift, Tyler the Creator, and Thom Yorke of Radiohead fame.
But the festival’s smaller stages also host a wide variety of eclectic and experimental artists—174 acts in all played last year—who create music ranging from hip hop to electronica to metal and much more. The Roskilde Festival organizers are also attuned to providing a space for up-and-coming Nordic acts of all kinds, and there’s even special stage dedicated to performers from the region.
And the Roskilde Festival is so much more than just musical acts, camping, and partying. The festival’s organization is built on a non-profit, activist, volunteer culture that donates all revenue after expenses to charity, and each annual Roskilde Festival is themed around an activism focus. For instance, in 2019 the theme was Solidarity, and called on the people attending the festival to support one another in fighting “hopelessness and despair” in the face of climate catastrophe, inequality, and political division around the world.
The Roskilde Festival takes its themes and the mantle of leading on activism very seriously. Scattered among the music stages are a host of lectures, debates, discussions, demonstrations, sports and games, and interactive booths where young people receive training on activism and other hands-on activities.
Organizers hope that what happens over the course of a few days in the summer at the Roskilde Festival, that what people experience there will have a wider impact on the communities of attendees after they return home, long after the festival rolls up the last tent and the last volunteers say good-bye for the year.
We’ll look at the history and culture of the Roskilde Festival, the guiding principles behind it and some of the activities and initiatives the organizers lend their support to — and of course, the music as well. We’ll also get down to brass tacks on what practical matters you need to know about in order to have the most enjoyable time possible attending the Roskilde Festival.
But first, a journey back through the mists of time to the origins of this most excellent Danish musical, cultural and activist phenomenon, the Roskilde Festival, Denmark’s crown jewel of music festivals!
The history of the Roskilde Festival
While music festivals have been mainstreamed and assimilated by modern culture, with many of them having morphed into slick, commercial enterprises, cynical cash-grabs with no guiding principle aside from making money for billionaire investors (hello Fyre Festival, we’re looking at you) most of them didn’t start out that way. In fact, some of the earliest large-scale music festivals would be unrecognizable to the youth of today who attend events like the Roskilde Festival.
The earliest large-scale music festivals of the modern era started in the 1950s and were often button-down affairs dedicated to acoustic jazz and folk, like the original Newport Jazz Festival. Fast forward to mid-1960s and music festivals were taking on a whole new vibe, heavily influenced by the political and cultural movements of the era.
The prototype for the modern festival can be traced to a series of “Acid Tests” that were created in San Francisco by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey starting in 1966. These shows drew tens of thousands of attendees, and featured not only music by bands like the Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin, but also punch that had been spiked with LSD offered for free.
But Kesey and his band of “Merry Pranksters” were onto something that the organizers of the Roskilde Festival still emulate today (not the acid-punch, so don’t worry if you’re thinking of attending Roskilde). No, what Kesey and the organizers of the Roskilde Festival both understand that marrying political activism with popular music is a way to not only bring people together in the high-energy, kinetic atmosphere of a music show, but also to infuse them with a shared sense of purpose.
Kesey and company weren’t just getting people high for the hell of it; they were believers in LSD’s consciousness-expanding powers, and by putting on these festivals, were agitating for the state to keep it legal, efforts that eventually failed in October 1966. And while Roskilde Festival organizers don’t offer attendees mind-bending fruit punch, they do fully embrace the power of music to pull people together and create an atmosphere conducive to activism.
Of course the early rock festival hit its peak with the advent of Woodstock. Woodstock is still revered to this day in modern music culture, having destroyed millions of brain cells and created the jumping-off point for countless misremembered baby boomer fables that may or may not have actually happened.
Woodstock and other late-1960s counter-culture mega-festivals did not go unnoticed around the world. And as the innovative and groundbreaking music of the era spread, it also brought with it a wave of a newly activated youth culture, imbued with a push for action on issues like gender and racial equality, environmental care, and individual freedom from oppressive states.
And in 1971, a pair of Danish high school students, having witnessed second-hand the energy and connections created at festivals like Woodstock and the Monterrey Pop Festival got the idea to create a music festival of their own in the sleepy town of Roskilde, Denmark.
The Roskilde festival is born
What became known as the Roskilde Festival was created originally with the name the Sound Festival, when high school students Mogens Sandfær and Jesper Switzer Møller teamed up with promoter Carl Fischer to put on a show in the small city of Roskilde. It was a two-day event in August of 1971 that drew 20 bands and artists, and was attended by an estimated 10,000 people per day.
The following year the founders handed control over to the Roskilde Foundation, which dedicated itself to running the festival as a non-profit with a mission to promote and develop support for music, culture and a humanistic approach to global problem-solving.
No Roskilde Festival history would be complete without talking about the tragedy that occurred in 2000 while Pearl Jam was playing. Nine people aged 17 to 26 died in a crush as the audience pushed forward to get closer to the stage. While extensive investigations into the tragedy revealed no wrong-doing or negligence on the part of Roskilde Festival organizers, investigators believe what happened was that a few young men fell as the crowd surged toward the stage and were unable to get up, a difficulty that was possibly exacerbated due to slippery conditions as it had rained heavily that day.
When crowdsurfers reached the “hole” in the crowd where the victims were down, they fell also, landing on and eventually suffocating the victims to death as the bodies piled up. By the time the band had stopped playing and tried to restore order, it was too late.
The organizers of the Roskilde Festival took the tragedy very seriously and meticulously reviewed and revised their safety procedures and policies in the wake of the deaths. For one thing, they banned crowdsurfing at the festival, as that seemed to be a major factor contributing to the tragedy. That was a move that all other major festivals in Europe subsequently adopted after Roskilde Festival led the way.
And each year Roskilde Festival organizers plan, review and refine their safety procedures based on what they learned from the previous years’ festival. There is a dedicated memorial at the site of the Roskilde Festival to the nine who died, and Pearl Jam wrote a song referencing the tragic concert, “Love Boat Captain,” with the line “Lost nine friends we’ll never know.”
The logistics of Roskilde Festival
These days the Roskilde Festival remains a massive undertaking, with some 130,000 attendees as well as 30,000 volunteers, 5,000 media figures, and 2,000 artists and participants descending on the city every summer. Of festivals in Denmark, Roskilde Festival remains the biggest and the most popular, but as the festival has grown in popularity, organizers have chosen to limit ticket sales to about 125,000 to 130,000.
The area has grown so large that it has its own railway station and even straddles the tracks, and the 80-hectare campground turns into a small city for a week, with more than double the population of the actual city of Roskilde, which has a population of just 51,000 people the rest of the year.
The Roskilde Festival’s main stage, called the Orange Stage is known for its distinctive color and swooping arches. In 1978 the Roskilde Festival organization bought the stage from the Rolling Stones following a European tour, and it has been used as the primary location to showcase the festival’s headliners. Orange overlooks a massive field that can accommodate some 60,000 people at a time, while the rest of the stages are fully covered tents.
The largest of these is the Arena stage, the largest tent in Europe and capable of hosting 17,000 people. There are half a dozen other, smaller tents and stages, and you can find a variety of acts there, as well as performers wandering the crowd putting on theatrical performances, and “lone acts” playing music.
Starting in 2017 the Roskilde Festival went completely cashless, so ordering food at one of a couple dozen food stalls is fast and efficient. Another welcome recent innovation is that starting in 2018 the festival began using all flush toilets. So one of the most odious and soul-crushing aspects of attending a festival—daring to use the dreaded filthy port-a-potty after it has been abused by wildly intoxicated people for several days—is a thing of the past. The Roskilde Festival also started attaching temporary urinals to trees in certain locations to ease the lines to use the toilet.
Festival organizers are quick to point out that they take sustainability very seriously, noting that festival attendees use just 20 percent of the water used by Copenhagen residents, and that 90 percent of the food on offer is organic. They also have strong policies regarding cleanliness and packing out your own garbage whenever possible.
Meanwhile, back at the camp…
Probably the biggest logistical challenge for attendees who plan on staying for several days is dealing with the Roskilde Festival camping facilities. The good news is that with stereotypical Scandinavian orderliness, Roskilde Festival camping is highly organized, clean, and has plenty of facilities even for the hordes of concertgoers that come every year.
The vibe at the campground is by all reports convivial and chill, and the tents are laid out in tight square patterns with broad, open avenues between the blocks of tents. And the campground is watched over by numerous volunteer security people as well, so you mostly don’t need to worry about your stuff while you’re attending a show.
Indeed, if repeat customers are any kind of indication as to what the Roskilde Festival is all about, last year some 7 percent of the people staying in the campground reportedly had attended the festival at least ten times previously. It’s not uncommon to meet people who have been coming to Roskilde even longer than that!
Access to the Roskilde Festival camping area is included in the price of your ticket, and you can bring your own equipment, food and beverages and camp at no extra cost. But you can also book a rental tent from the festival if you prefer — just make sure you do so well in advance.
The campground has free cold showers as well as warm water showers for a fee, free cell phone charging, and even shopping facilities selling everything from camping gear to pharmacy items to groceries and festival merch as well — a far cry from the muddy, foodless, waterless, semi-disaster of Woodstock!
So they’re doing something right with Roskilde Festival camping, for sure. But do keep in mind that prime camping spots go quickly. In 2018 the festival installed a new gate system to help keep the selecting of camping spots as orderly as possible. There are a series of seven rows in the gate system that accommodate 1000 people each. Starting at 4:00pm on the Saturday before the music begins (the following Wednesday night is when the actual performances start) the gates open one at a time at approximately 90 second intervals, allowing each group to dash out and grab a camping spot.
Afterwards, the people remaining in the field behind the early-birds are allowed in. Keep in mind that lots of people line up for days even before the Saturday opening of the campground, although early bookings are available starting in January.
Keep in mind too that there are campsites further away—up to a 30-minute walk to the concert grounds—that will get you more space to spread out and a more tranquil vibe than the areas right in the heart of the 24/7 campground party.
The Roskilde Festival camping area also has a few specially-designated, themed campsites where you can reserve a spot, for instance the “Clean Out Loud” site where you can book a spot in return for leaving the space exactly as you found it, or the “Silent and Clean” area where music and loud noise is banned from 10pm to 10am, which also must be left spotless at the end of the week.
All told, Roskilde Festival camping—and the Roskilde Festival as a whole—offers a well-organized and amenable set-up that leaves very few people dissatisfied!
How much is a ticket to the Roskilde Festival in 2020?
A full festival ticket will run you 2250 DKK, or about US$333 (€301 or £253). That price includes camping, free access to cold showers (hot showers available for a fee), free wifi and other amenities, as well as access to the entire festival. You can also buy single day tickets for 1100 DKK, about US$166 (€147 or £123).
When is the Roskilde Festival 2020?
The campsite is open from June 27 through July 5, and the musical acts run from July 1 through July 4.
Roskilde Festival capacity
The Roskilde Festival has approximately 130,000 attendees, along with around 30,000 volunteers, 5,000 members of the press, and 2,000 artists and their support staff.
Average age of Roskilde Festival attendees is 24 years old.
How can I volunteer at the Roskilde Festival?
The festival requires some 30,000 volunteers to make everything run so smoothly, so if you are strapped for cash or simply want to take part in a more tangible way in something larger than yourself, consider signing up.
Volunteers work 32 hours broken up into shifts over the course of the eight-day event, or 24 hours over the four concert days. Roskilde Festival volunteers also have access to a special camping zone for volunteers only, free hot showers and other perks — not least of which is access to the entire festival grounds.
Who’s playing at the Roskilde Festival 2020?
Artists confirmed for the 2020 Roskilde Festival include Taylor Swift, Tyler the Creator, Thom Yorke, Alex Cameron, Cage the Elephant, Pusha-T, Deftones, The Whitest Boy Alive, Mura Masa, and TLC.
Some of the Nordic and Scandinavian bands and performers that will be featured include Anansi, Bette, Ganger, Josephin Bovien, Mekdes, Joyce and Tessa.
Don’t forget that half the fun of attending an event like the Roskilde Festival is discovering new bands you’ve never heard of or seen before. There are generally around 180 performers in total over the course the entire festival, and that doesn’t even include the musicians, actors and other performers you’ll see wandering the festival grounds and doing their thing.
How to get to the Roskilde Festival
The town of Roskilde is just a 23-minute train ride from the capital, so getting to the Roskilde Festival from Copenhagen is super easy. From Copenhagen Central Station, take the IC or RE train directly to Roskilde. Once you arrive at the Roskilde Station, there is a special train that runs during the festival that will take you directly to the Roskilde Festival location. It only takes about ten minutes or so, and costs around 25 DKK (US$3.77).
What should I pack for the Roskilde Festival?
As you may have gathered reading the above, rain in summertime in the Roskilde area is not uncommon, so rain-gear, a tarp, and waterproof boots are suggested. But of course you’re hoping for sun, so you’ll also want to include sunglasses—cheap ones you can afford to lose—sunscreen, after-sun lotion and some kind of hat since you’ll be spending a week more or less outdoors.
Here’s a by no means complete list of suggested items to pack based on comments from previous years’ attendees:
Tent, sleeping bag, mattress pad, tarp.
Rain-gear, boots, and extra plastic bags for wet clothes.
Comfy shoes (you’ll walk an estimated 20,000 steps per day, so…).
Wear layers — it can be hot during the day but it will get much cooler at night.
Pack dark t-shirts and other clothes, because according to one attendee, if you’re wearing lighter colors, “you will gross yourself out” by the end of the week.
Toilet paper, hand sanitizer, tissues.
Duct tape for all the little—and big—things that can go wrong, like ripped tents, etc.
Canned or freeze-dried food, bread, peanut butter or Nutella and other snacks for after the food booths are closed.
A plate and utensils — and a can opener!
A festival chair and a blanket.
A flashlight and/or a camping lantern.
Alcohol (and don’t forget that you can’t take more than one already open beer onto the concert grounds).
One general piece of advice for the Roskilde Festival: Don’t bring anything you can’t afford to lose, break, or otherwise part company with, as the nature of the week’s activities makes it likely you won’t return home with everything you left with, at least not in pristine condition.
What if I don’t like camping?
For people who love music but who don’t see the appeal in living out of a tent and swimming in the filth of 100,000 drunk 20-somethings for an entire week, the great thing about the Roskilde Festival is how close it is to Copenhagen.
You can try to book a room in Roskilde itself, but given the size of the town versus the mass of humanity about to descend upon it, it could be tough going to find the perfect place right in town. However, with the capital just a mere 23 minutes away by train, there’s no reason not to sleep in a clean, cozy, quiet bed each night if that’s your preference.
How is the security at the Roskilde Festival?
Much like the festival organization’s swift and serious reaction to the 2000 accidental deaths of nine attendees, the Roskilde Festival takes its concert-goers’ safety and security quite seriously. Volunteers and police are ever-present on the campground and at the rest of the festival.
And they keep finding ways to improve: In 2018 reported thefts were down to 172 from 482 the previous year, and out of 130,000 attendees, there were only 56 arrests over the course of the eight-day festival, a rather remarkable figure considering that inhibitions and decision-making facilities are likely to be somewhat impaired at an event like this.
Overall, the vast majority of attendees at the Roskilde Festival talk about what a fun, happy vibe they found there, the new friends they made, the wonderful music and dancing they enjoyed, and the inspiration the gained to help make the world a better place. Book your spot today!
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