The Ultimate Guide to 2021 Music Festivals

With CDC protocols in place, live concert events are back again.

phoebe bridgers
Phoebe Bridgers at Outside Lands 2019 | Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images
Phoebe Bridgers at Outside Lands 2019 | Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

The COVID-19 pandemic affected just about everything we love to enjoy in group settings, from dining at restaurants to watching movies in theaters. For music fans, the lack of live performances was a huge loss; nothing compares to the communal energy of seeing your favorite artists perform. Not only was it a bummer that you couldn't catch a gig at a beloved local spot on any given night, it meant venues were at risk of closing and artists were stripped of the majority of their income since so much of their livelihood depends on touring.

It also meant for a year of no music festivals, which—for fans who are always down to brave the heat in exchange for a full day of exciting sets—made summer 2020 feel a lot less like summer. As the pandemic improves in America with the rollout of vaccines and parts of the world begin to loosen its lockdown restrictions, many music festivals intended to return in 2021 with safety precautions in place.

Aside from the typical outrageous fashion, busy water bottle-filling stations, and conflicting set times, it's currently hard to say what the large-scale events will look like this year. Will vaccination cards and/or masks be required? Will there be on-site rapid testing and temperature checking? Will social distancing be enforced? A lot is up in the air right now, especially with new swells of COVID variants around the world, but many festivals are insistent on following CDC guidelines in order to put on a weekend of live music that protects the health and safety of staff, artists, and attendees.

While some popular fests, like Coachella, have opted to reschedule until 2022, the major festivals below are charging ahead with hopes of putting on an event somewhat near normal this year. Of course, everything is subject to change and we'll continue updating this list as more lineups and information becomes available—but should you be eager to dust off your flower crown, here's what to know about major music festivals in the US and abroad this year.

reading festival
Post Malone at Reading Festival 2019 | Simone Joyner/Getty Images

Reading and Leeds Festival

Where: Reading and Leeds, England
When: August 27-29
What to know: The Brits have a long history of putting together dynamic festivals, and Reading and Leeds is one of them—Reading being the world's longest-running music fest to this day. The two events run simultaneously in the English cities Reading and Leeds and feature the same lineup, which is typically rock-focused. The fest was supposed to host Rage Against the Machine in their first UK show in a decade, but they unfortunately won't be headlining in 2021. Anyone attending who is 11 or older will be required to be fully vaccinated or have proof of a negative NHS Lateral Flow Test taken the day of before traveling to the fest. Although this option hasn't gained much prevalence in the US, the UK fest also has the option of proving natural immunity by showing a positive test result from the past 180 days (and 10 days of isolation if the test was taken relatively close to the event).
Headliners: Catfish and the Bottlemen, Disclosure, Liam Gallagher, Post Malone, Queens of the Stone Age, and Stormzy
Other acts to check out: There's no other pop star in the game as forward-thinking as Charli XCX with her glistening, PC Music-influenced sound. She's one you won't want to miss—and who knows, maybe she'll swing by 100 gecs' set for an appearance since they have a handful of collabs. Regardless, you'll want to catch the gecs too, if not because you're into their maximalist electro but for the sure-to-be-wild experience.

Summerfest

Where: Milwaukee, WI
When: September 2-4, 9-11, and 16-18
What to know: The Wisconsin festival set on Lake Michigan is known as the World's Biggest Music Festival, typically spanning across 11 days in the summer and drawing millions of attendees. The event with music ranging from alternative to country to pop plans on toning it down a bit this year, slating only nine days of live music, but they still plan on organizing just as many sets as they have in the past, totaling more than 1,000 performances. The event is requiring proof of vaccination or a negative test, taken within 72 hours of attendance, in order to get in. That will be the standard for any Summerfest show, including the Wednesday Weekend Preview concerts held at the American Family Insurance Amphitheater.
Headliners: Chance the Rapper, Chris Stapleton, Dave Matthews Band, Dylan Scott, Gabby Barrett, Jonas Brothers, Luke Bryan, Miley Cyrus, Sheryl Crow, Spencer Sutherland, 24KGOLDN, and Zac Brown Band
Other acts to check out: See some TikTok music IRL: The hip-hop collective/record label/YouTubers/general music industry innovators Internet Money, who are known for their viral, genre-defying hits, will be swinging by the fest. For a totally different sound, be sure to see The Weather Station, the folk project of Tamara Lindeman, who dropped a stunning record earlier this year.

lizzo
Lizzo | Getty Images

Bonnaroo

Where: Manchester, TN
When: September 2-5
What to know: That's right, baby: The Roo is coming back. As always, its quintessential experience of camping, music from some of the biggest names today, and sets into the very late hours of the night will be in store. Like many other fests, to get in you'll need proof of vaccination or a negative test within 72 hours, and at Bonnaroo, the fest is requesting non-vaccinated guests wear a mask anywhere on the grounds.
Headliners: Foo FightersLizzo, Megan Thee Stallion, RÜFÜS DU SOLTame Impala, and Tyler, the Creator
Other acts to check out: You've probably heard Flo Mili's viral hits like "In the Party" and "Beef FloMix" on TikTok, but the Alabama-bred rapper is no passing moment. She's one of the genre's latest ones-to-watch with her clever lyrics and cheeky delivery. Waxahatchee is another great artist who also happens to be from Alabama. Katie Crutchfield turns out gorgeous, introspective music with an Americana twang for her singer-songwriter project.

Bottlerock

Where: Napa Valley, CA
When: September 3-5
What to know: A lot of festivals curate mouth-watering food lineups, but do you ever wish your music festival experience had bougie bites? Let Bottlerock serve up the ultimate fest weekend for you then. The part-food fest, part-music fest hails from culinary destination Napa Valley for a summer weekend that has it all. You'll not only be able to enjoy bites and craft cocktails from popular names in the culinary world while rocking out to indie names, you can chow down while watching big name chefs giving demos, too. To gain admittance, though, you'll have to bring proof of vaccination or a negative test. Don't forget your mask either: They'll be required at any indoor part of the festival and are suggested to be worn anywhere on the fest grounds, per state guidelines.
Headliners: Chris Stapleton, Foo Fighters, and Guns N' Roses
Other acts to check out: Chicago rapper Polo G may not be a headliner, but give it a few years: He's one of the brightest rising names in rap right now with his melodic, introspective music. Or, if you're into the legacy side of the lineup, Jimmy Eat World are '00s emo/pop punk legends at this point and you can tap into the recent nostalgia for that era by checking them out.

made in america
Made in America | Lisa Lake/Getty Images for Roc Nation

Made in America

Where: Philadelphia, PA
When: September 4-5
What to know: It's always cool when you know you're going to a highly curated festival, but what if the lineup was curated by Jay-Z? So is the case with Made in America, the festival the legendary rapper founded in 2012 and is produced by his label Roc Nation. Back for its 10th anniversary and returning on its typical Labor Day Week, the rap and hip-hop heavy lineup should give you all the best recs on who some of the greatest acts in the genre are today. Right now, the festival is working with the city of Philadelphia to develop a health and safety plan.
Headliners: Justin Bieber and Lil Baby
Other acts to check out: There's definitely reason to get excited that Doja Cat has one of the pre-headlining slots. Her new record Planet Her is like camp deluxe and every bit a fun pop album. R&B queen Tinashe is another genre-defying act on the lineup who brings a bit of darkness to her R&B-tinged music.

Pitchfork Music Festival

Where: Chicago, IL
When: September 10-12
What to know: Although Pitchfork moved its headquarters from Chicago to New York a decade ago, and subsequently purchased by Conde Nast, the music website's flagship weekend-long IRL event is still an annual Chicagoland summer staple—apart from last year, when the festival, with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Run the Jewels and The National scheduled to headline, was canceled due to the pandemic. This year, the fest pulls one of the most exciting, eclectic lineups across all fests—but know if you go, you'll be required to have proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID test within 24 hours to gain admittance. To get the rapid test needed for entry, Pitchfork suggests CVS and Walgreens as options, but there will also be a rapid test pop up from Curative available a block away from the festival grounds the entire weekend. Once inside, they're also encouraging everyone to wear masks everywhere on the grounds.
Headliners: Erykah Badu, Phoebe Bridgers, and St. Vincent
Other acts to check out: Pitchfork is one of the only fests this year with all-women headliners—all of which are must-sees—and there will be just as exciting acts throughout the day. The Fiery Furnaces (indie-pop siblings Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger's act) will play their first show in over a decade, and other groups to check out include the wonderful emo act oso oso, rising pop star Caroline Polachek (who used to front Chairlift), electronic innovators Thundercat and Yaeji, and so many more.

Life is Beautiful Music & Art Festival
Life is Beautiful Music & Art Festival | FilmMagic/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Life Is Beautiful

Where: Las Vegas, NV
When: September 17-19
What to know: Held in Downtown Las Vegas, Life Is Beautiful is as lavish and glitzy as its home stomping grounds. The three-day event rallies not just popular names in electronic music, hip-hop, and pop for live sets spanning more than a dozen blocks of the city, but also brings in comedy acts, other speakers for the "Ideas" branch of the fest, and artists commissioned to install large pieces on the grounds. Sin City and many of its hotels and casinos have been open for much of the pandemic, but Life Is Beautiful plans to share a health and safety protocol with ticket holders closer to the event.
Headliners: A$AP Rocky, Billie Eilish, Green Day, Megan Thee Stallion, HAIM, Illenium, Tame Impala, and Young Thug
Other acts to check out: California-bred Remi Wolf's take on funk-pop sounds like a hallucinogenic trip; her high, girlish voice in combination with jazzy, mind-melting production is pure euphoria. You can keep the party going at Yaeji's set, too. The Korean-American artist makes house music that has a vibe that's all its own.

Riot Fest

Where: Chicago, IL
When: September 17-19
What to know: If you're searching for the punk as hell music festival, get yourself to Riot Fest. Mosh pits are no strangers here: The Chicago festival always touts a lineup of iconic and buzz-worthy artists primarily in indie rock, emo, punk, and hardcore. Emo legends My Chemical Romance were supposed to swing by Riot Fest to headline the show on a long-awaited reunion tour that was meant to happen in 2020—but that was unfortunately rescheduled for 2022. The fest intends to put together a very metal show regardless, though, and was one of the first to outline its COVID-19 safety priorities with increased sanitation throughout the grounds. Those protocols adhere to the city of Chicago's requirements, which means vaccination or proof of a negative test are needed to enter.
Headliners: Nine Inch Nails, Pixies, Run the Jewels, and The Smashing Pumpkins
Other acts to check out: Riot Fest may be a lineup full of groups worthy of head-banging to, but few acts will get you as amped as the unadulterated Canadian pop punk band PUP. Seriously, let yourself lose your mind to their very cranky and very fun music. Plus, Beach Goons will infuse the afternoon with a bit of fast-paced surf rock, as the three-piece makesmusic that's both a product of their San Diego hometown and Mexican-American heritage.

Treefort Music Fest

Where: Boise, ID
When: September 22-26
What to know: Maybe Boise doesn't seem like the sexiest destination for a music festival, but it's home to one of the most exciting, treasured boutique festivals in the industry. Treefort Music Fest is a gem not only for its highly curated lineup, featuring rising acts across indie and lending the stage to up-and-comers, but because it highlights the culture right in Boise by inviting local acts and featuring shows at venues around the city. It's also made up of a handful of "forts," so you can round out your experience with its additional "filmfort," "comedyfort," and others. For this year's Treefort 9, the community-run festival launched a campaign to #SupportTheFort that raised enough funds to sustain itself for another year. To make sure they do so safely, as of right now the fest is just encouraging attendees to get vaccinated and asks anyone under 12 who is not eligible for the vaccine to wear a mask at any point in the event. It also intends to follow all state guidelines at the time in terms of masking, testing, and social distancing (especially since much of the fest takes place at indoor venues around Boise), but those parameters will be announced closer to late September.
Headliners: Andy Shauf, Armand Hammer, Built To Spill, Calexico, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Japanese Breakfast, Lightning Bolt, The Marías, Mdou Moctar, and Prefuse 73
Other acts to check out: Jilian Medford's project as Ian Sweet makes dream pop that feels healing with its euphoric, dizzying sound and introspective lyrics. She's one to catch, as is Wild Pink, who similarly makes tender, innovative music that takes heartland rock into psychedelic territory.

Firefly Music Festival

Where: Dover, DE
When: September 23-26
What to know: Festival fans along the East Coast looking for a big-scale fest and camping experience should make the trek to Firefly. The pop-focus fest goes down at the Woodland grounds at the Dover International Speedway and features mainstream and rising acts across EDM, pop, hip-hop, and indie rock. Last year, the fest was going to feature a bill headlined by three women artists—Billie Eilish, Halsey, and Maggie Rogers—after a history of having only one woman top-line the event since its inception in 2012. Thankfully, they were still able to book at least Eilish again this year. The fest currently has a COVID-19 section on its website, but has said it's too early to announce what mandates will be in place.
Headliners: Billie Eilish, The Killers, Lizzo, and Tame Impala
Other acts to check out: Miami-based rapper Denzel Curry always brings it. His raps are sharp and thrilling, and his Southern regional sound is sure to sound great on a festival afternoon. Kentucky's White Reaper brings it too—albeit in a very different way. They radiate a nostalgic punk, stadium rock sound that can't help but send you into a head-banging frenzy.

governors ball
The Governors Ball | Noam Galai/Getty Images

The Governors Ball

Where: New York, NY
When: September 24-26
What to know: Typically, summertime doesn't start in NYC until The Governors Ball. The indie fest draws New Yorkers to Randall's Island where they often have to brave June storms—but it's still utterly blissful, given the stellar lineup the local team behind the event puts together. Gov Ball will obviously be more of a summer send-off this year, but given that 2021 is its 10th anniversary, it should be a fun one. Festivities are moving to Citi Field this year, which is where the fest's promoters held their festival The Meadows a few years back. The event isn't sure what will be required for entry quite yet, but it plans to work with the city and make announcements in the coming month.
Headliners: A$AP Rocky, Billie Eilish, J Balvin, and Post Malone
Other acts to check out: Indie supergroups have been a trend in recent years, and one of this year's team-up projects to watch is Jay Som and Palehound's Bachelor. They'll bring some chill, lo-fi vibes. Plus, California-based indie pop band Muna are another small print gem. The three-piece is sure to get you in a good mood.

AFROPUNK

Where: Atlanta, GA
When: September 25-26
What to know: No festival has been as supportive of Black music and culture like AFROPUNK—and that's been its mission since the beginning. It actually dates back to a 2003 documentary about Black involvement in the punk scene, and that of course birthed a live event, which maintains the DIY punk values of the original movement. Basically, look no further for a fest that's as committed to activism as it is curating a lineup of genre game-changers, and it tends to have the best festival fashion of the circuit every year. Although the event has different iterations around the globe, this year it will take place in Atlanta, where it intends to comply with whatever local and national guidance comes nearing the date.
Headliners: Rico Nasty, Smino, and Wale
Other acts to check out: There's a lot of great music, but few sounds as seriously gorgeous as serpentwithfeet. The Brooklyn-based innovator has a gospel voice that pairs beautifully with experimental beats, and he frequently tells stories of queer Black love with his music. Tkay Maidza is another cool name on the act. Born in Zimbabwe and raised in Australia, the international act waivers between rapping and singing in a sweet bubblegum voice over splashy pop sounds.

kacey musgraves at austin city limits
Kacey Musgraves at Austin City Limits 2019 | SUZANNE CORDEIRO/AFP via Getty Images

Austin City Limits

Where: Austin, TX
When: October 1-3 and 8-10
What to know: Austin is one of the biggest music capitals in the nation, and ACL is one of the city's largest music celebrations. It might not be as expansive as SXSW, but the huge fest, which is thrown over two weekends from Zilker Park, always features a bill that's as massive as it is full of hitmakers with both indie upstarts and legacy acts filling it out. Right now, the Texas-based fest just notes the inherent risk of attending, and more details in terms of health and safety could come at a later date.
Headliners: Billie Eilish, Duran DuranErykah Badu, George Strait, Miley CyrusRÜFÜS DU SOL, and Tyler, the Creator
Other acts to check out: Moses Sumney's set will absolutely be transfixing—the Ghanaian-American singer-songwriter makes ethereal soul music that's unlike anything you've ever heard. Tierra Whack is another innovator who's set to make an appearance. The artist makes cunning, arty rap and has been called one-to-watch in the genre.

All Things Go

Where: Columbia, MD
When: October 16
What to know: As of this year, All Things Go will become one of the biggest independent festivals on the East Coast. The former resident DC fest is getting a major venue upgrade, moving to the 20,000-capacity Merriweather Post Pavilion in Maryland instead of its traditional setting outside of Union Market in the city. (Easy transport from The District is being offered, though.) Its woodsy, new atmosphere isn't the only draw. All Things Go was one of the first festivals to make a serious effort to add more women to its lineup, and this year pulls many exciting names with all-women headliners. In terms of safety, the fest plans to make an announcement in accordance with local and state guidelines no later than a week before.
Headliners: Charli XCX, HAIM, and St. Vincent
Other acts to check out: San Diego singer-songwriter Jelani Aryeh's playful alternative music weaves between indie folk and R&B; he'd be a lovely act to see to kick off your day. Blu DeTiger is another up-and-comer on the bill, although, she's already found fame on TikTok. Her funky bass playing has caught the attention of Gen Z (and artists like Caroline Polachek, who she plays bass on tour for), but her woozy indie pop deserves its own attention, too.

Shaky Knees

Where: Atlanta, GA
When: October 22-24
What to know: There's a handful of festivals in Atlanta, but Shaky Knees is the indie rock fan's dream come true. The mid-sized fest has been committed to bringing rock acts to the city since its inception, and this year is no different with some excellent legacy acts and buzz-worthy up-and-comers. Many attendees actually have its logo tattooed on them, since the fest used to run a promotion that a tat equaled entry for life. You can't sign up for that promo any more, but you can bet you'll see some Shaky Knees tattoos around the fest. As for its COVID-19 protocols, they just stress the inherent risk of attending and encourage guests to get vaccinated. 
Headliners: Foo FightersRun The Jewels, and The Strokes
Other acts to check out: Londoners black midi are rock auteurs, making experimental, loud punk music that holds no bounds. They're actually known for their unhinged live act, so make sure you can make it to their set. For a set that's more low-key, Atlanta locals Lunar Vacation would be sweet to check out. The four-piece makes what they call "Atlanta pool rock," or what sounds like dreamy beach music. 

outside lands
Outside Lands | FilmMagic/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Outside Lands

Where: San Francisco, CA
When: October 29-31
What to know: The Bay Area knows how to party and is known for its innovative arts scenes, so it makes sense one of the most popular and largest independent music fests is set in the city's own Golden Gate Park. Outside Lands is running later than usual this year—but that just sets it up to be a Halloween party—and its lineup that taps into impressive, new names across all genres to make for a very lively holiday weekend. It's currently encouraging attendees to get vaccinated and wear masks when necessary to ensure the fest can remain a feasible, safe possibility. Its site also notes the inherent risk of attending an event and says future guidance from the city of San Francisco could come closer to the weekend.
Headliners: Glass Animals, J Balvin, Kehlani, Lizzo, RÜFÜS DU SOL, The Strokes, Tame Impala, Vampire Weekend, Young Thug, and ZHU
Other acts to check out: Bartees Strange released one of the best albums of 2020 with his riveting alternative record Live Forever, and you can bet his powerhouse guitars will get you fired up. If you're looking to get emotional, though, Claud (who is a signee on Phoebe Bridgers' label, Saddest Factory) makes endearing, bittersweet indie pop.

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Sadie Bell is the entertainment editorial assistant at Thrillist. She's on Twitter at @mssadiebell and low-key really loves music fests.