The Rise of Music Festivals

woodstock-1969Woodstock, the quintessential music festival experience, epitomizes the an alternative concert going experience. The first of its kind, the monumental event took place over a span of three days in August of 1969. It headlined dozens of iconic musicians of the hippie generation, including Janis Joplin, the Who, the Grateful Dead, Santana, and the legendary Jimi Hendrix performing as the grand finale. The event hosted over half a million attendees, and rumor has it that up to three babies were even born at the upstate New York festival. The atmosphere was a libertine, drug-friendly environment, promoting the use of marijuana and many hallucinogenics, among other substances. Many of the concert goers were in various states of undress throughout the festivities, some shedding only a few articles of clothing while others walked about bearing it all. Drugs and free love, the hall marks of the hippie generation of the 60s,made the three day festival such historic event.
The founders of Woodstock were four young business men, John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Artie Kornfeld, and Mike Lang. These inexperienced entrepreneurs had quite a lot of money to put towards an investment, and they set their sights on setting up an recording studio for major artists in the town of Woodstock, New York. However, instead of putting all their money up front towards creating the studio, they hatched an idea to host a three day long music festival in the hopes of raising even more funds for their business endeavor. They would offer multiple day passes, a ticket for one day being only $7, a ticket for two days $13, and a ticket for all three being $18. The four men had no idea that their concert would become one of the most memorable events of the twentieth century.
The concert was originally intended to have only 50,000 guests. However, thousands of people showed up two days early in anticipation. Due to a last minute change in venue, the grounds crew was incredibly behind on constructing fences to separate the concert from the general public, and the thousands who came early were easily able to get through the almost nonexistent security into the camp groups.

Lacking the sheer man power to kick all of the people who snuck in out, the founders of the concert were forced to make Woodstock a free concert, effectively making the concert a giant waste of money for themselves. Once it was announced that the concert was actually free, an estimated million people began to travel from all over the country in an effort to get to the event. There was so many cars trying to get into the event that police had to send people home because there was literally no room for them. Of the estimated million people who showed up, only 500,000 were granted admittance. Despite the fact that half were turned away, the total number of people was ten times that of what the concert was originally planned for. Drivers turned local highways into make-shift parking lots, abandoning their cars on the freeway and walking the remaining distance to the camp ground. There were worries about running out of food for the mass amount of people who planned on staying for all three days. There weren’t enough bathrooms to go around, you could expect a wait of up to two hours to get to a very-over used port-a-potty. Despite the overcrowding and shortage of resources, and the fact that fields turned to mud after some torrential rain, Woodstock was still the most legendary concert in American culture’s recent memory.

Woodstock created a model for a different kind of musical performance experience. Instead of getting dressed up to go to a concert for only a few hours for one night, guests of Woodstock fully embraced a more relaxed and grungy dress code and camped out for multiple nights in one location. This made the festival as a whole a more intimate experience. Seeing someone organizing their sleeping space or waking up first thing in the morning to go get breakfast is not something we typically see strangers doing, and interacting with others over these very mundane yet also very personal instances creates a feeling of familiarity and an almost homey atmosphere. Seeing so many others in such a genuinely human state, outside of the typically formal setting of social gatherings, instantaneously created a pseudo-community. Although this community had a lifespan of only 72 hours, it contributed so much to the entertainment experience that many have tried to recreate it.

Since Woodstock was a marvelous success (although not financially for its founders) and has morphed into such a cultural phenomenon, it is no wonder we have tried to recreate it. Festivals such as Made in America, Bonnaroo, the Electric Daisy Carnival, and Firefly are just a few of the modern imitations of Woodstock. They take the template of the three day festival and instead use iconic musicians of this generation, such as Beyoncé, Kings of Leon, Diplo, J. Cole, City Color, Cage the Elephant, and Kanye West. Although some concerts, like Made in America for example, do not allow for its guests to sleep at the venue, concerts like Bonnaroo and Firefly are held in remote locations that allow for the camping component of the genuine festival experience.

The fact that music festivals are regarded as almost a safe-haven for drug use might be one of the contributing factors to their popularization. At the original Woodstock, many of the guests experimented with drugs, which contributed to the concert’s overall alternative nature. Drugs were not frowned upon inside the concert-grounds as they were in society. In fact, the event organizers even set up a “freak out” tent, where guests experiencing a bad acid trip could go to receive help, whether vital medical attention or just someone to talk them into a calmer state of mind. Nowadays, drugs are still one of the staples of music festivals. The classics, such as marijuana and acid, are freely used out in the open at most music festivals, with little to no regard for event security.

The modern phenomenon of molly (a concentrated form of ecstasy) has had a large impact on music festivals over the past few years. With overdoses on molly unfortunately leading to two deaths at Electric Zoo in 2013, the third day of the event was canceled. Molly is a recreational drug that is very easy to overdose on, as its users usually don’t realize how dehydrated they become. Another huge issue with Molly is that it is very easy to cut with other drugs, such as cocaine, meth or ketamine, and oftentimes people taking it without knowing everything that it contains. Organizers of music festivals everywhere took the tragedy of E-Zoo as a warning and have cracked down on the selling and consumption of molly and similar drugs at their own events. This has lead to crack-down on the smuggling of all drugs, which some feel has deteriorated the relaxed vibe so essential to music festivals.

Although in the past music festivals were occasions reserved for hippies and degenerates who had the luxury of being able to shirk their responsibilities for three full days, nowadays adolescents and young adults from all walks of life converge for these concerts. It could easily be argued that the main-streaming of festivals has taken away from their authenticity, and that now more guests pay exorbitant ticket rates simply because of the fad. However, music festivals are opportunities for those who would not typically indulge in relaxed, bohemianesque culture to experience a care-free environment for a few days. These events let people come together to bond over the music of their time, and it is hard to say that one generation finding something to come together for is a bad thing.

“Bethel Woods Center for the Arts :: The Sixties.” Bethel Woods Center for the Arts :: The Sixties. Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2014.
Crowd of Woodstock. Digital image. N.p., n.d. Web.
Mckinley, James, Jr. “Overdoses of ‘Molly’ Led to Electric Zoo Deaths.” ArtsBeat Overdoses of Molly Led to Electric Zoo Deaths Comments. The New York Times, 12 Sept. 2013. Web. 14 Dec. 2014.
Naked person at Woodstock. Digital image. N.p., n.d. Web.
Woodstock Poster. Digital image. Woodstock Stroy, n.d. Web.

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