Woodstock 50 years ago changed music festivals forever — and not in a good way

After the free-for-all, promoters determined that they’d never lose control of the hot revenue-generating mess of the mass live music experience again.
Image: The Woodstock Music and Art Fair was held from Aug. 15-17, 1969, in Bethel, New York.
The Woodstock Music and Art Fair was held from Aug. 15-17, 1969, in Bethel, New York.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; Getty Images; AP
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By Jon Garelick

Thursday marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in Bethel, New York — “3 Days of Peace and Music” as the poster said.

It’s being celebrated with any number of commemorative commodities repackaging versions of the sights and sounds of Woodstock, including a PBS documentary, a 38-CD box set and shorter best-of, a Life magazine special edition, streaming packages, T-shirts. And even a box of “vintage” 1969 birthday sweets being marketed as “Woodstock Candy.”

The final stake was put through the still faintly beating heart of the mass audience free rock festival five months after Woodstock.

The commodification is fitting, since one of Woodstock’s most lasting legacies is the transformation of the live concert experience from free-form expression by music fans with an entrepreneurial bent to corporatized theme park.

Big concerts could mean big money but they often meant chaos. With Woodstock as a cautionary tale, concert promoters determined that they’d never lose control of the hot revenue-generating mess of the mass live music experience again.

Watch the PBS documentary and you can see why the “dream” of Woodstock has taken on mythic proportions. The euphoria of those three days as captured on film is undeniable. In the midst of the Vietnam War-era, this was a coming together of people “looking for answers and other people who felt the same way we did,” as one attendee says. Abbie Hoffman (famously thrown off the Woodstock stage by The Who’s Pete Townshend) was inspired to write his Yippie paean “Woodstock Nation.” Joni Mitchell wrote “Woodstock,” describing the “garden” with “bombers . . . turning into butterflies above our nation.”

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But it was also a calamity – rain, mud, food shortages, medical emergencies. “Everything that could go wrong was happening,” one of the organizers recalled. And yet, the fact that it didn’t become a major humanitarian disaster only added to the myth. Other festivals had gone wrong, even experiencing violence. Woodstock, with 400,000 attendees making it several times the size of other events of its kind, had gone right -- even though the crowd far exceeded the expected maximum of 200,000.

The event came to represent the triumph of the anarchy of self-rule. The vibe was best summed up by Arlo Guthrie’s giddy announcement from the stage about what the throngs of attendees had wrought with their cars: “The New York State Thruway is CLOSED, man!”

Overwhelmed organizers declared it a free concert. Giving up control was the only way to maintain control. If they had tried to collect tickets, it would have been a really unmanageable disaster, dividing a mellowed-out crowd. Instead, they capitalized on the vibe: This is free, but you have to work with us on this and look out for each other. Woodstock was supposed to be about freedom (signified in the improvised Richie Havens performance of that name); it was never intended to be about free entry.

The final stake was put through the still faintly beating heart of the mass audience free rock festival five months after Woodstock, when the “Altamont Speedway Free Festival” saw a concertgoer’s murder captured on film in front of the stage where the Rolling Stones were performing.

Since then, the concert business has evolved into giant package tour “festivals”: traveling extravaganzas like Lollapalooza, Lilith Fair and the Warped tour, and site-specific multiday events such as Coachella, Bonnaroo, the DJ-centric Last Lands festival and a gazillion other corporate-controlled-and-run summer amphitheaters. Traffic and crowd control, while not perfect, are handled with corporate efficiency. As are the ticket gates.

These days, as critic Ben Ratliff described Coachella in Esquire, the “event-y” musical experience brings “the unmistakable communal surge of We came all this way, and here, now, in the sweet spot — something's happening!” or, as he added, “the YOLO capitalism of this year's young people with cash.”

That’s a long way from the “garden” Joni Mitchell sang about. But the euphoric chaos of Woodstock was an impossible business model – anarchy always is. If Woodstock taught us anything, it was the meaning of crowd control, especially when there’s a potential safety hazard at every turn and millions of dollars in the balance.

I remember attending a mid-’90s Lollapalooza festival at the Great Woods amphitheater in Mansfield, Mass., now run by concert behemoth Live Nation (and long ago renamed to the Xfinity Center, natch). Sometime after sunset, with the Red Hot Chili Peppers going berserk onstage, fans on the general admission lawn began ripping apart the wooden fence that marked the property’s boundary in order to fuel a bonfire. Looking back from my primo reviewer seats, I saw what looked like a pagan rite: silhouettes of dancing youths circling the enormous glowing blaze in the night. Dark projectiles flew through the air. I later learned they were clumps of turf from the lawn.

The next time I went to Lollapalooza, it was on an abandoned naval air base in Quonset Point, Rhode Island. A huge flat, barren field, with scrubs of grass and segments of tarmac, it was as inhospitable as the flush-toilet Great Woods was posh. Capacity seemed limitless. And the message from the promoters seemed clear: You want to wreck something? Go ahead, it’s already wrecked. (And we’ll still get our money, thank you very much.)

So yes, we’re a long way from the garden, underscored in this era of soft-target mass shootings by the endless security lines that snake toward the gate of even the coziest of music festivals, like the granddaddy of them all, the Newport Jazz Festival (b. 1954, capacity 10,000). Still, given the numbers and the risks, even security checks under corporate rule, for the most part, create an efficient hum of people moving in and out of venues.

But what corporate music giveth, it also taketh away. Plans for a 50th anniversary Woodstock were scuttled this year.

But what corporate music giveth, it also taketh away. Plans for a 50th anniversary Woodstock were scuttled this year after the venue was forced to move and one headliner after another canceled due to conflicts caused by a noncompete exception that’s become standard in performance contracts: the “radius clause,” which limits both the mileage radius and the calendar date as related to said contract. Aside from Jay-Z, Miley Cyrus, the Killers and the Raconteurs, the event had been scheduled to include Woodstock veterans such as Santana, Country Joe McDonald and David Crosby.

Yet, whatever the quality of the line-up at these events or less obvious modern-day echoes of the Baby Boomers’ ground zero, there’s still the promise of a Woodstock-like buzz at music festivals, the liberating thrill of finding yourself among a mass of like-minded people on the crest of a movement in pop culture from underground to mainstream. As others have pointed out, pre-internet the experience of going to concerts was a way to find out who else you shared a musical “like” with. Sometimes the feeling was revelatory and liberating. As a way to fill a 20,000-capacity amphitheater by hiring a multitude of bands who couldn’t do it on their own, it was also marketing genius.