Quick! What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when I say Woodstock? Love, peace and happiness? Drugs and rock’n’roll? Or good-looking people living in perfect harmony? Yeah, same. I’ve always been a little obsessed with Woodstock. Raised by parents who were liberal twenty-somethings at that time, I grew up with their stories and their music. They didn’t go to Woodstock, of course, but I grew up with Jimi Hendrix star-spangling a banner and Joe Cocker asking for a little help from his friends. Exciting times, it seemed!
When I started working in the event industry, Woodstock was my holy grail. To host an event so monumental, it defined a whole generation and subsequently made it into history books, must be every event managers dream.
At least, until it isn’t, because the tales we hear from this seemingly larger than live weekend in August 1969 are glossed-up stories of a festival that was far, FAR from perfect. I won’t dismantle the legend that is Woodstock nor criticize the (mostly) peaceful concert goers that turned it into a success, but on its 50th Anniversary weekend, and from an event planner’s perspective, it’s time to face the truth: Woodstock was a mess!
Let’s take a trip down memory lane and look at the good, the bad and the ugly that was Woodstock. Buckle up, this is a bumpy ride.
Money makes the world go round Woodstock Ventures Inc. was founded by 4 guys in their mid-twenties looking for a lucrative investment opportunity. All of them worked in the music business, two owned a recording studio and hosting a music festival in upstate New York sounded like a bulletproof plan to meet artists and earn money on the side. The city of Woodstock was a strategic decision: they planned to open a second recording studio in the area and Bob Dylan lived close by. In the end, Bob Dylan opted out of the festival – and so did the city council. Woodstock needed a new venue, and quick!
Where do we go from here? Finding a new location big enough to accommodate 50’000 people was a task and a half. Only 29 days before Woodstock was set to begin, Max Yasgur came into play, a dairy farmer (and Republican!) from Bethel who was willing to host the festival on his land. Time was short and two days before the festival was planned to start, Woodstock Ventures had to make a decision: build a stage or a fence as there was no time for both. They chose the stage – and that seemingly unimportant decision sealed their destiny, because:
Come to Woodstock - IT’S FREE! Despite its reputation, Woodstock was initially a commercial event. The goal was to make profit with ticket sales. But when word got out that there was a festival in upstate New York without a fence or a ticket booth, people flocked to the scene! They simply walked onto the farm and set up shop. The festival was prepared to accommodate 50’000 people – almost 500’000 came! And so the chaos began:
Baby you can’t drive my car All roads lead to Rome but only one led to Bethel. The Woodstock traffic jam is still the 2nd biggest one ever recorded in history. In the end, people just abandoned their cars in the middle of the road and walked to the festival. That worked out surprisingly well, until:
What’s your emergency? The medical team at Woodstock was dangerously understaffed and ambulance cars couldn’t get through because the roads were blocked. Two people died, two babies were born and the US Army had to step in and airlift people out. What kept the medical staff busy? Drug overdoses and foot injuries, mostly. Medicals on site and volunteers who stepped in deserve all the praise in the world. Read some of their stories here but to sum it all up: Woodstock had all the luck on its side, because:
We’re out of everything There was one porta-potty for every 833 people. The wait for the toilet could take up to an hour and all of them were overflowing. Poop and pee mingled with all the mud and ran downhill. Not that it mattered, because most people eventually gave up and just defecated on the spot. This is also a good time to take a closer look at all those foot injuries: it rained on the first night. People chucked away their soaked shoes and walked around barefoot. Anyway, moving on – to food. They ran out of it on Saturday Morning. The catering company had no experience with festivals and expected no more than 50’000 people. When they eventually ran out of hot dogs, they raised their prices. Capitalism? At Woodstock? Not with the hippies! They set a hot dog stand on fire and that was that. Eventually, a group called The Hog Farm Collective stepped in and passed out thousands of cups of granola. Fun fact, we have Woodstock to thank for granola!
And then, the most unlikely of all allies turned up to save the day:
War sucks – until the US army brings food The reason why Woodstock didn’t turn into a complete disaster was because thousands of people made a right decision. One of them was local sheriff Louis Ratner. When he heard that a hot dog stand was on fire because there was no food left, he acted quickly and declared Woodstock a “national disaster zone”. That enabled the US Army to step in. In total, the Army air-dropped more than 10’000 sandwiches, canned goods, water, fruit, medical supplies and blankets. The decision to call the US army most definitely saved lives! There was certainly tension in the air when army helicopters arrived at the scene but once the people realized what they were doing, they cheered them on.
That’s garbage! Another massive problem was all the garbage. Next time a baby boomer complains about tents being left behind at festivals, casually mention that Woodstock is now an excavation site. There were still piles of garbage a month after the festival, one of which was still smoldering. 8’000 volunteers and the local community tried to “clean the air” but it has to be said: hippies in 1969 didn’t care much for the environment. They cared for music, though:
The line-up was spectacular Jimi Hendrix, Santana, The Who, Janis Joplin – just to name a few. One of the reasons why Woodstock undoubtedly deserves a superior spot in modern pop culture is the line-up. It wasn’t a smooth ride, though. Remember the traffic jam? Guess who was stuck as well? Exactly. Headliners where airlifted to the stage and the rest just played whenever they arrived. Nevertheless, here’s where we finally meet the people who ultimately turned Woodstock from a business venture into an anti-war protest: the musicians. Their songs and speeches sealed the deal – and Woodstock shall forever stand for a movement that brought us all forward.
Playing at Woodstock came with a price, though: the stage was wet and multiple musicians got electrocuted! Joe Cocker wasn’t wet because he was sweaty but because people tried to clear the stage tent from water and he happened to stand right below it and Jimi Hendrix played his now famous version of the Star Spangled Banner when most of the people already left. Not that it matter, though, because:
“If you remember Woodstock you weren’t there” Drugs and rock’n’roll but mostly drugs. LSD and Co. were so omnipresent at Woodstock, even Michael Lange, one of the organizers refused to eat and drink anything he didn’t open himself. People were drugged left and right and the medical team worried that there would be a riot soon, which brings us to the mindboggling magic that was Woodstock:
Love, Love, Love 500’000 people didn’t kill each other. That doesn’t sound impressive but given that Woodstock was short of everything (food, shelter, water) and people were mostly on drugs, it deserves a praise. There’s an interesting theory on why people didn’t riot: Woodstock Ventures booked the right bands! The musicians they chose pre-dominantly attracted white, liberal kids from middle class families. If there’s no cultural and racial differences that divide us, humans tend to get along. That said: kudos! And so much gratitude.
The Aftermath: Woodstock 50’ was cancelled because of… Woodstock! The anniversary concert of Woodstock was due to happen this weekend but got cancelled earlier this year because they lost two venues, ran out of time and the government deemed it “ill-prepared”. Sound familiar? Wait, there’s more: they also couldn’t get any of the permits required to host a “mass gathering” in upstate New York. Permits that were implemented right after (and solely because!) of Woodstock in 1969.
This brings me to my last question: will there ever be another festival as crazy and lavish and spontaneous as Woodstock? Probably not.
During my Keynote Speech at the BTI forum in Salzburg earlier this year, I used Woodstock as the perfect example for how the event business is currently evolving from an industry that always wanted to go bigger to one that genuinely wants to do better. From safety restrictions to sustainability, festivals today have little in common with the chaotic gathering they frequently cite as their number one inspiration. Woodstock, for better or for worse, was a badly organized Fyre Festival gone right. Half a century later, it’s time to take a closer, more critical look.