Mention “Woodstock” to any Millennial and they’ll have a vague idea of some legendary hippie music festival in the 60s.
They wouldn’t be wrong. Although ingrained in the collective psyche of people the world over, much of what Woodstock was, the events that transpired and its lasting impact on society as a whole, is shrouded in myth, idealized memories, and polarized opinions.
Did Woodstock really change the world? Was it really that important in shaping what we know about music today? Did Woodstock make an impact on the issues of that time? The answers may vary depending on who you ask. But one thing is clear: we’re still talking about the iconic three-day festival more than 50 years after it happened.
Woodstock: The Birth of the Modern Music Festival
Woodstock wasn’t the first music festival in history, not by a long-shot: the Monterey Pop Festival, held in California’s Monterey County Fairgrounds, is touted as the first commercial music festival in history. This is despite the fact that Magic Mountain Music Festival and Fantasy Fair happened a week earlier in Mount Tamalpais, but on a smaller scale.
Historically (and if we want to be pedantic), the first music festival would have to be the Pythian Games, a precursor to the Olympics that was held in the Sanctuary of Apollo in Delphi, Greece back in the late 6th century BC. Of course, the Pythian Games was nowhere near the scale and scope of Woodstock. It’s just something worth mentioning, if not to prove our researching skills, then to dispel the myth of Woodstock being this progenitor of all things music festival.
Modernizing the Music Festival
So why do people mistakenly believe Woodstock was the first music festival? It’s simple: Woodstock modernized the music festival in such a way that other festivals that followed it took on the setup at Bethel.
To say then that Woodstock was the first modern music festival wouldn’t be too far from the truth. It introduced concepts and practices that are still alive and well today.
Woodstock was the first to have a line-up that huge (32 acts, unheard of at the time), the first to play to an audience that huge (an estimated 400,000++ people showed up across the 3-day festival, a feat even today), and it changed the way promoters and organizers treated music festivals and concerts.
One of the key aspects of Woodstock was its promotion of a sense of shared community, a concept carried over by its love-and-peace roots. This was achieved by keeping everything lean, from organization and marketing to execution and clean-up. It was a collective effort fueled by the hippie movement and given life by the youth of that time.
Revolutionizing Sound Systems
From a technical perspective, Woodstock also modernized, nay, revolutionized, a key aspect of outdoor concerts: sound systems. The organizers didn’t know they were going to have 400,000++ people in attendance, but they did plan for a crowd unlike any other. These plans included hiring the legendary audio engineer Bill Hanley, who had previous experience working with the greats like Dylan, Hendrix, the Beatles, and many more.
Hanley was able to plot out a system that combined the most advanced amplifiers of that time with superior sound control and strategically placed microphones. Even today, Woodstock is still the gold standard for sound engineers in terms of blasting music across great distances while retaining clarity, intelligibility, and quality.
Organizing a Legend
In terms of organization, Woodstock also set the bar for how future concerts of that size and scope should be organized. And it did so accidentally: the original organizers went through hell and back trying to get Woodstock off the ground without ruining themselves financially.
The entire planning stage of the Woodstock Music festival actually did come close to ruining the financiers, as the size of the festival meant that organizers could no longer fence up the area, which meant thousands, potentially tens and even hundreds of thousands, of concert-goers were there without a ticket.
But the organizers had an ace up their sleeve: they asked filmmakers to film the entire concert as part of a documentary (edited in part by a young Martin Scorsese) while retaining ownership and recording rights for the film. It was a gamble that paid off: the documentary Woodstock won an Academy Award in March 1970, grossing $50 million in box offices and making the original financiers relieved to have made back their money (and then some).
It also helped launch the careers of then-unknown artists like Joe Cocker, Country Joe and the Fish, and even the iconic Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
But while Woodstock’s financial success was accidental, future organizers looked to it for inspiration on both what to do and what not to do when organizing music festivals. Woodstock made a lot of mistakes so future music festivals won’t have to. It set festival organizational practices that are still followed today (such as, you know, securing venues waaaay in advance).
A Cultural Reset
But the legend of Woodstock is less on the size of its crowd or its financial success (both of which were very sizeable even by today’s standards), but rather in its cultural impact. There is no denying that Woodstock changed the world, but how?
The Final Days of the Counter-Culture
In the decades that followed, Woodstock became known as the peak of the Hippie Movement: the festival embodied everything the ‘60s fought for like love, peace, music. But Woodstock’s financial success also spelled the downfall of the Hippie sub-culture: the commercial gains it made, both from the festival itself and its cultural impact moving forward, meant that companies found a new cash cow and a new idea to market.
The spirit of the Hippie culture relied heavily on it being a sub-culture, a counterbalance to the mainstream. As such, the full brunt of the hippie culture was hidden away from the mainstream. Until Woodstock, that is.
After the Woodstock festival and Woodstock the movie made the 3-day hippie fest stuff of legend, romantic images of the counter-culture began to surface. This, in turn, was capitalized on by commercial brands, from fashion and music to the general ‘image’ that Woodstock festival-goers embodied.
Unfortunately, this also meant that the hippie movement’s core beliefs of anti-materialism and radical opposition to that time’s politics were undermined by the rapid commercialization of their movement in itself. Suddenly, a ‘hippie’ wasn’t someone who preached love and peace in the Age of Aquarius. After Woodstock, hippies were folded into mainstream culture, stripped of their beliefs but retained their fashion and aesthetics for commercial purposes.
In celebrating the hippie movement, the Woodstock festival inadvertently became both the zenith and anathema to it. That’s because this romantic myth of Woodstock being a spontaneous music festival organized by radical thinkers is also far from the truth. In reality, music producers set up the festival to make money. It was a successful for-profit venture that used the spirit of the hippies to generate revenue.
Is it safe to say that the hippie movement ‘died’ because of Woodstock? Well, it wouldn’t be too wrong.
The Spirit of the ‘60s Lives On
But it isn’t completely right, either: many within the hippie movement continued the fight, emboldened by the very concert that almost wiped them off the face of the earth. Woodstock became a rallying cry for many of the ideals of the movement: opposition to the Vietnam war, anti-government oppression, and civil rights, to name a few.
Yes, the capitalists got a hold of Woodstock, but to say that the hippie died because of it wouldn’t be completely right. If anything, it shone a spotlight on the struggles of the hippie movement, gave it a platform, a louder voice to shout out its message. It was an Aquarian revolution that stayed true to its name of “a 3-day festival of peace, love, and music”.
What happened after it, the commercialization and the dilution of the movement, wasn’t enough to stop people from questioning the way the U.S. government had been handling the country.
Five years after Woodstock, Nixon resigned over Watergate, amidst widespread protests. To say that Woodstock had no hand in emboldening people to voice out opposition would be wrong. It was instrumental in elevating people’s minds and reminding them that this was still the Land of the Free, and that freedom meant that we could voice our anger and disgust over the people in control. It didn’t change the system from the ground up, but it did shake it up enough to put fear in the powers-that-be.
Fifty years later, in 2019, organizers tried to get Woodstock 50 off the ground. Woodstock 50’s lineup was supposed to rival that of the original festival, with some of the best musicians of both today and yesterday. However, various issues with planning and, you guessed it, securing a venue for the event.
Woodstock became a legend. And in the hallowed halls of American mythology, it became a cultural touchstone for future generations of peace-lovers and anti-war advocates to hearken back to. An idealized memory when almost half a million people celebrated peace, love, and music on a dairy farm in Bethel, New York.