Welcome to Festival Outlook, a new supplemental column that will provide more in-depth analysis for the rumors found on Consequence of Sound’s Festival Outlook. In this installment, Ryan Bray responds to recent news that organizers want to resurrect Woodstock for its 50th anniversary in 2019 by asking, “At what cost?”
Driving through Rome, New York, it’s hard to picture it as the site of any kind of watershed cultural event. I’ve cut my way through Rome a few times over the past 10 or so years, most recently in a 16-hour drive back from Chicago to Massachusetts. The drive is a tough one, made more difficult by the fact that it follows one road through a seemingly endless expanse of farmland and open space. It’s like driving straight through a black hole of rural Americana.
New York is the toughest stretch of the treck, a six-hour cross-state voyage that hits you just as you thought you were nearing the finish line. Rome is about as open and quiet as any other town in Upstate New York, but I always look out for it. It might not be home of the original Woodstock (in fact it gave rise to an unfortunate series of events that almost spelled its end), but I try and picture the throngs of people, the mud, the free love movement in action, and the sound of Hendrix wailing away on his awesomely bastardized version of the “Star Spangled Banner”. It’s a lot to try and imagine in a short period of time when you’re cruising at 70 miles per hour, but for a split second, you can feel the enormity of the small town’s mark on history if you try.
Looking back, it’s hard to imagine how a festival like Woodstock actually came to be. A music festival that was actually all about music and togetherness? Three days of music not completely pinned down beneath the big, greedy thumb of corporate America? You mean there was actually a point and time where you could come out and watch all your favorite bands without $8 beers and $25 T-shirts?
With every passing year, the purity and momentousness of the original Woodstock in 1969 feels more and more like a cherished moment frozen in time, especially in an era where festival culture has completely run wild and jumped the shark. There are big festivals, small festivals and plenty of other mid-size festivals in between. There are so many summer music festivals at this point, in fact, that you can’t travel more than 100 miles in any direction without hitting one somewhere at some point. As Bonnaroo, Coachella, and Lollapalooza have proven, summer music festivals are big business, and everyone wants their chance at slaughtering the cash cow.
That said, it shouldn’t really surprise anyone that organizers want to trot out Woodstock (again) to celebrate its anniversary (again). Believe it or not, Woodstock turns 50 in 2019, and word broke this week that the fourth installment of the iconic festival is in the works. Maybe this makes sense. We attempted to recapture the glory at the 25 and 30 year marks, and if those are worth celebrating, then certainly something should be done for year 50. Now here’s why, if organizers really cared about preserving the integrity and history of Woodstock, this shouldn’t happen at all.
Woodstock wasn’t just a concert, nor was it simply a bold excuse to get overindulge in all the drugs, booze, and carefree sex you could stomach. Of course, it was all of those things, but they were only fragments of the bigger picture. Woodstock was a movement born purely out of the kind of crazed, starry-eyed idealism that only could have gathered momentum in the 1960s. The whole world was changing, and Woodstock is one of the largest enduring symbols of that period of social upheaval. When the Youngbloods sang “Everybody get together, try and love one another right now,” they weren’t force feeding cheap sentiment down people’s throats. Instead, those lyrics spoke deeply to a generation of people who clung to that all for one, and one for all ethos.
In 1994, when organizers opted to try and repeat history, it was already readily apparent that the spirit of the festival had radically shifted away from the hippie ideals of the ’60s. No one really gave too much of a fuck about togetherness, at least not in any way near the way fans did in 1969. Still, Woodstock 94 tapped into a little bit into the fun loving spirit of its predecessor. It created its own memories, from Green Day engaging fans in a mud fight on stage in the rain to memorable performances from 1969 holdovers like Joe Cocker. For what it was, namely an attempt at recreating something that really can’t be recreated, it was something of a surprising success, even if it couldn’t stand up next to the real thing.
But if Woodstock 94 served as something of a hollow spot on the Woodstock legacy, then 1999 was the year that the floor fell through. Forget the fact that the lineup was almost shamelessly blah (remember this was when rap metal was at its apex), the whole sprit of the festival had been completely gutted and overtaken by greedy promotors driven by an unbridled need to cash in at all costs. Concession prices skyrocketed, and in the end, it was this corporate perversion of the festival that turned Woodstock 99 into one of most grotesque and infamous scenes in the history of live music.
By the festival’s end, fans had long reached their breaking point. Tired of poor facilities and overpriced food and water, many quite literally took to raping and pillaging, creating bonfires and looting ATMs and concession trucks. There were four reported rapes. For good reason, the event became known as “The Day The Music Died.” The concert that once stood as the physical manifestation of one generation’s idea of the American Dream had quickly dissolved into an utter nightmare in the hands of an alternative generation years removed from thoughts of peace, love and togetherness.
You would think that Woodstock 99’s tragic undoing would have officially put the festival to rest, and for a long time that seemed to be the case. The 35th and 40th anniversaries came and went without so much as a whisper about Woodstock, and it seemed like organizers finally gave in to the reality that the time had long since come and gone for a festival built simplistically on a quest for good vibes and good tunes. But now here we are, readying ourselves for Woodstock’s 50th anniversary. There’s almost nothing to be gained from it, at least not for music fans.
What was once an epic cultural event, Woodstock 2019 will no doubt bump shoulders with the endless number of copy cat festivals sucking all of the oxygen out of the summer air. Oh, it’ll be bigger for sure. No doubt the biggest of 2019, that is unless Lolla finds a way to nearly triple its number of annual attendees. But so what? Does a bigger festival mean a better festival? Unlikely. With the festival circuit being as overcrowded as it is, it’s hard to imagine what organizers will be able to do to help it standout from its major competitors. Superfly, Goldenvoice, and C3 Presents all have pretty deep pockets, so it’s unlikely Woodstock organizers can get any headiner that Bonnaroo, Coachella, or Lollapalooza can’t already.
Look, I’m not here to rag on festivals. They work, as is evidenced by their continued growth year after year. I, for one, have had plenty of great times at Lollapalooza over the past seven or so years. But Woodstock, as noted, is more than just a festival. It’s something with serious historical significance. If you don’t believe me, ask someone who was there. I have, and I promise you they’ll talk about it with a smile, the stories they tell to this day are enough to bring tears of joy to their eyes. Time has already been plenty bad to Woodstock, so maybe the best thing that can be done to respect its legacy is to let it sleep. Another false step, and there might not be much left to save and cherish at all.