Festival attendees walk between stages at Musikfest. This year, the festival broke its attendance record, reporting 1,330,000 attendees from 46 states and 10 countries. (Courtesy of Ted Colegrove)

Musikfest Rocks its 40th Anniversary


For the past 40 years, Paul Fistner has volunteered at Bethlehem’s annual Musikfest festival.

The former Bethlehem Steel worker said Musikfest was first staffed by friends of Musikfest founder Jeff Park — they were known as “FOJ,” Friends of Jeff.

Fistner said when the festival was founded in 1984, the original venue consisted of a few volunteers, a polka tent and a beer truck.  

Now, Musikfest is the largest free festival in the country, garnering international attention and bringing new talent and visitors to Bethlehem each year. Lasting 11 days and nights, this year’s Musikfest featured 457 performers from 26 states and eight countries, from AJR to Walker Hayes to Train. 

Record-Breaking Turnout 

Kassie Hilgert, president and CEO of ArtsQuest, said a combination of volunteer work, law enforcement cooperation, community engagement and free admission are the key elements behind this year’s success.  

This year, the festival broke its attendance record, reporting 1.33  million attendees from 46 states and 10 countries.  

Festival attendees enjoy entertainment at Musikfest, hosted by ArtsQuest and featuring 457 performers from 26 states and eight countries. (Courtesy of Ted Colegrove)

Musikfest spreads across South and North Bethlehem, with its main stage at the SteelStacks. ArtsQuest, the organization that puts on Musikfest and owns the SteelStacks, aims to increase access to the arts for all by using art and culture as elements of economic growth. 

“I will give the biggest credit to Mother Nature. It was perfect weather for 10 out of 11 nights,” said Patrick Brogan, ArtsQuest chief programming officer and manager of the ArtsQuest center, who has been with ArtsQuest since before the organization owned the SteelStacks venue.

“I do also think there is this sense of the roaring ‘20s again, as people have built up the anticipation to get out and get back into festivals and events across the country and the world,” Brogan said. 

The festival is mostly free, with 15 free stages, but two main stages require ticket purchases. 

As for the steadily growing turnout, Fistner says Musikfest’s commitment to constantly evolving keeps people coming back and new attendees interested. 

“You will never hear someone from Musikfest say our work is done,” Fistner said.  

Fistner, who started as a beer tapper and now works as a site manager, is one of over 1,000 volunteers working to put on the festival.  

He said the festival has become a part of him. 

Hilgert said the festival would not be possible without volunteers: who she calls the heart of Musikfest. 

Community Impact and Involvement  

“Musikfest is always in tune with what is happening in the community right now,” Fistner said. “One of our current goals is to focus on diversity, equality and inclusion.” 

When ArtsQuest noticed the Hispanic community was underserved at Musikfest, it created a new site called Plaza Tropical, which features Hispanic artists, beverages and food.

Hilgert said during the year-long review process for artists, representation is an important discussion. She said because there are many growing communities in the South Side, ArtsQuest wanted to ensure they represented them all. 

ArtsQuest has five main boards: ArtsQuest Board of Trustees, ArtsQuest Foundation, ArtsQuest Performing Arts Board, ArtsQuest Visual Arts Board, and Friends of the Levitt Pavilion Board SteelStacks, each with committees within them. 

Among these committees, Hilgert said hundreds of local community members have a voice in the organization. 

She said their goal is to make sure people feel welcomed, and the most valuable thing they can get is a community member raising their hand to share their opinion or to question why they are doing something.

“The growth across the music scene only improves with increased opportunities,” Brogan said. “We are more excited to have community members play at the festival than ever.”

Brogan said ArtsQuest does a lot of work with the intent to ensure the boards have access to the community and the community has access to them.

This year, South Bethlehem native Pabaolo Basista opened for El Gran Combo on the Wind Creek Steel Stage. 

He said the intersection of the right people in the public and private sectors who have the right vision to grow South Bethlehem has allowed the community and thus Musikfest to reach its current success. 

“Musikfest has a unique ability to impact the community in a way that communities our size across the country are only envious of,” Brogan said. “The festival is still doing what it was meant to do in the ‘80s: get people to North and South Bethlehem to stimulate economic growth and expose more people to the energy here.”

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