Today's robust festival culture owes much to Woodstock — lessons from both its incredible success and its logistical nightmares.
"It stands out in everybody's mind as the originator," said Michele Scoleri, artistic director of Bumbershoot, the annual Seattle festival that will draw tens of thousands Labour Day weekend, now in its 39th year.
The promoters of Woodstock — Michael Lang, Joel Rosenman, John Roberts and Artie Kornfeld — hoped their frantic, last-minute efforts would be enough to pull off what today would take a year to prepare. The concert — which drew more than 400,000 to Bethel, N.Y., Aug. 15 to 18, 1969 — did come off, though its many problems (the miles-long traffic, the rain, the lack of food and water) only enhanced its mythology.
Woodstock was many things — a brief, innocent moment of peace and music — but it was also a trailblazer to a festival circuit that has exploded in recent years.
"A lot of them are modelled after Woodstock — Bonnaroo and Coachella, in particular," Lang said in an interview. "There was a ritual that was created that keeps getting replicated."
Woodstock was not the first big American rock festival: Monterey Pop was. The 1967 California festival was the forerunner to rock festivals. About 200,000 attended the event, which is remembered largely for its fashionable crowds and incredible performances by Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding and others — all captured in D.A. Pennebaker's documentary Monterey Pop.
And just weeks before Woodstock was the Atlanta International Pop Festival, held at the Atlanta International Raceway. Led Zeppelin, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Janis Joplin were among those who performed.
The followup to Woodstock was Altamont, held at the Altamont Speedway in Northern California in December 1969. It was expected to be the West Coast version of Woodstock, but violence marred the festival, including a homicide that occurred while the Rolling Stones played. Altamont was an early hint at just how rare a feat Woodstock was.
In the years after Woodstock, much of the hippie culture was commercialized. So, too, was the festival experience. Though the European festival circuit continued to grow, rock festivals in the U.S. generally declined in the late '70s and '80s as the music and culture shifted. There were exceptions, of course, including 1985's international Live Aid concerts to benefit those starving in Africa.
New generation festivals
Things rebounded in the early '90s with Lollapalooza and the Warped Tour.
But in the last decade, the spirit of Woodstock has been taken up by a number of well-attended, well-organized mega-festivals such as Tennessee's Bonnaroo, Southern California's Coachella and the reincarnated, Chicago-based Lollapalooza. There are many more, too, including Austin City Limits, the Pitchfork Music Festival and the upstart All Points West, which recently held its second festival in New York.
'The feeling of people coming together in a community atmosphere around music and art will never be irrelevant.' — Michele Scoleri, Bumbershoot Festival
Now just might be the heyday of American festival-going. Lineups are well-curated, portable toilet lines are short, security is mostly handled professionally, the sound is generally good and amenities are easily purchased. Promoters are more responsible than Woodstock's were, too, taking green measures to blunt the environmental impact and clean up after themselves.
"The enthusiasm of some of the people who go to festivals today might match those who attended Woodstock, but what's lacking is the spontaneity," said Marley Brant, author of Join Together! Forty Years of the Rock Festival. "With so much corporate sponsorship involved now, it's a little harder to get down and share with your brother."
In an internet age where human contact is increasingly unnecessary, rock festivals are still bringing as many as 80,000 together — even if the events aren't as groovy as Woodstock.
"The feeling of people coming together in a community atmosphere around music and art will never be irrelevant," said Scoleri. "I still believe people do want to come together and celebrate with other people something that's larger than life."