On Whatever This New Woodstock Thing Is, And Music Festivals Generally

Woodstock! The Summer of ‘69! Max Yasgur’s field! Truly, of all of the aging-rock-dudes thing to still be talking about, this is very much among the aging-rock-dude-est of them. I’ve written much previously (most notably here) about how the constant “you had to be there at the time, and nothing now will ever be as good as anything then” attitude of aging rock dudes is a direct-line contributor to the fact that rock music as a commercial and mainstream concern is basically a moribund prospect 1, and I suppose it’s inevitable that this particular well, which has only ever been profitable, even when it’s been a disaster.

The rock and roll nostalgia market seems to be turning over pretty well in a bunch of forms anyway. I mean, it’s pretty much the entirety of the portion of the rock and roll environment that does well commercially 2, even down to the most popular rock acts being straight-up flat-out nostalgia acts, for the most part, even when they’re composed of veritable children.

On top of all this, the music festival has grown from being an occasional landmark event to being a constant nightmarish plague that destroys summer touring schedules and makes it much easier for people to marginalize bands by cramming them all together on bills and staring at them idly while they take drugs or pictures of each other or whatever. But they’re commercial juggernauts for the people that put them together, between ticket prices that steal the breath out of your lungs and sponsorship deals for being seen on the livestream or whatever.

The point here being that it seems perfectly reasonable that someone would get it in their heads to try to bring back one of the biggest, most storied names in the music festival scene to try to wring some more dollars out of it, because 50 is a big, round number, and it can potentially reveal an enormous, even rounder number after a dollar sign for the people that are willing to put this together.

Woodstock, however, also comes freighted with some baggage, given that they brought the name back a couple of times already. The 1994 event went well enough that they brought it back in 1999, which event is the one that is talked about in terms of its infamy. It was a poorly-managed, cash-gouging, anti-human dystopia, full of poor sanitation, overpriced water, and ultimately people getting assaulted and setting things on fire. Depending on who you talk to, this event was either apocalyptic or the crisis was overstated, and “only” half a dozen people reported being sexually assaulted 3 and “only” some of the event was set on literal actual fire.

The person who’s putting this together is Michael Lang, one of the organizers of the original Woodstock 4, and he seems pretty willing to acknowledge that he is choosing to revive a brand that has some…baggage attached to it, in addition to the good name that will inspire, theoretically, people to dig into their wallets and assume that this is going to be a one-of-a-kind event, and pay (I’m assuming – the ticket prices haven’t been announced yet) accordingly.

Except that while Lang seems to be holding onto the idea that he can recapture the hippie magic of the first Woodstock, rather than being at all clear-headed about the things that need working on. In an interview with Rolling Stone, he seems happy to acknowledge the mercenary nature of Woodstock 99 only obliquely, stating that the problem is that, yes, it was price-gougey, but it was also “just a musical experience with no social significance” 5, which I’m sure is a big relief to those who thought that maybe an event that became publicly known for unpunished property destruction and sexual assault might be “significant” to the people who were assaulted or had their things set on fire 6.

I guess what I’m saying here is: this still seems pretty blinkered, and is clearly a case of someone not seeing the forest of infrastructural issues for the trees full of money. His concern is that people paid too much for water (which, in his defense, did become a sort of synecdoche for the whole price-gouging issue at the festival itself) and some people did some destructive and dangerous things, but it’s all going to be ok, because he’s also going to include a tent for activism 7. And this is why this seems so onerous to me: Lang has come out and said that the way to make sure that the music festival at which he’s going to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the most famous single music festival ever is to make sure that it’s engaged with more than just the music, all while not actually engaging with anything except the artists and activists that he’s paying. This is dumb.

There’s probably no way to stop this, and, honestly, it looks like it’s already not going well: the thing was sort of soft-announced in November of last year, with some publicity finally happening more-or-less now. There is no announcement of the bands beyond a cryptic acknowledgment that someone from the original Woodstock is playing, and that the dude wants some people to do tributes to Jefferson Airplane and whoever else. If there were bands clamoring to do this, they would be telling us that. If they had secured anything more than a facility, they would be telling us that. But for the love of god, don’t go to this thing, for a couple of reasons.

The first is that music festivals are awful. They’re awful for fans, who are shunted around like cows, and they’re awful for the bands that play them. While I can sort of imagine the appeal of paying an absurd amount of money to go to a field to do drugs and watch an endless procession of god-knows-who play god-knows-what in front of me, I can’t imagine doing so under the auspices of someone who 1) has said more about toilets than music in the promotional materials for this thing and 2) almost certainly has no connection to anything other than the name of the music festival that made him famous half a century ago, and it seems to me that this is just a way to have a weird, highly-public bad time.

But the second is that we all deserve better. Yes, we all deserve better from something called “Woodstock” that now appears to be a directionless, amorphous thing without any sort of clue about what it will hold, but we deserve better than most music festivals. This is another of the results of the bottom falling out of the record-selling industry: the ticket-selling industry is now trying to get the most people out there so they can make as many secondary dollars on them as possible.

Most music festivals are nightmarish, and are built to suit the people who are the least interested in the “music” part of them: a million bands playing in several simultaneous heats over the course of several full days is great for people who want to enumerate experiences for social media purposes or whatever, but terrible for anyone who wants to further any kind of relationship with a musician or set of musicians. Even your favorite act in the whole world isn’t going to be nearly as worthwhile sandwiched between “that band you kind of like” and “That rapper that had that song on the radio all the time six months ago” 8. It’s just not going to happen. It’s definitely not going to contribute meaningfully to any existing relationship you might have with any given act, and it’s highly unlikely to contribute meaningfully to any new relationships.

Music festivals are a huge part of the economy surrounding popular music, and I suppose that’s just something I’m going to have to live with. Every year I consider trying to figure out how to write about them – this is a blog, after all, focused on what is popular and honored in the culture at large, and music festivals are a part of that – and I just come up short. I don’t get it, and I don’t think anyone does outside the economies of scale: if you get enough people in a field together and make it seem exclusive enough, people with more money and more concern for being seen than sense will buy tickets, and you will make a profit.

I don’t have any particular reverence for Woodstock in any of its incarnations (see next week when I talk a bit about the music at previous Woodstocks, because that sort of thing is more in my mien hereabouts), but this is a particularly naked cash-grabbing opportunistic thing, and it is gross.

And so I’m here to say: fuck whatever this turns out to be, and fuck music festivals generally, and fuck whatever dumb brain disease makes it so that people can’t be satisfied that something happened, and keep needing to make things that are called the same thing happen again and again.

  1.  as I almost always note after this sort of statement, I think this is generally a good thing: the things that have dropped out of rock culture generally are at the margins, and the millions of people who were part of the rock “fanbase” that weren’t in fact people interested in rock music, but rather interested in the significations thereof, and that the field of rock music is now considerably more populated by people who are there intentionally, and because they want to be for its own reasons, and this is generally a good thing for any genre, with the commercial trappings being more able to view as having been their own stupid shackle in the first place. 
  2. which, again, I don’t care about, and rock bands still exist and are productive in such number and to such an extent that it’s still impossible to keep up with it all, especially in the more interesting and more experimental corners. Rock music: still pretty great, guys. 
  3.  the sexual assault at music festivals thing is a real problem, and one that mostly people just shrug their shoulders about, because I guess there’s got to be some sort of critical mass of these things before money is spent on the solution. 
  4. he’s the taller guy with the curly hair that they talk to a bunch in the movie, which, incidentally, is maybe my favorite concert movie, and which I love very much and will watch any time it is on. 
  5. he also is weirdly focused on the technological/comfort advances in portapotty technology, which is….something I guess. 
  6. this is not to come to the defense of the people that organized and/or price-gouged the business, but merely to be comfortable speculating that there could have potentially have been some collateral there that was “significant” to someone. You know, socially. 
  7. a thing that Jay-Z does at Made in America, which is fine, but is not the same thing as structurally supporting things. 
  8. and let us remember that even the original Woodstock, whose ghost is being chased here, still featured, say, Sha-Na-Na and Country Joe and the Fish, in addition to The Who and Jimi Hendrix. This dude has always been willing to just fling shit at the wall to see what would stick. 

2 thoughts on “On Whatever This New Woodstock Thing Is, And Music Festivals Generally

  1. Pingback: A Numerical Majority of Artists that Played Each Woodstock, Ranked | Ohio Needs a Train

  2. Pingback: More Like Wouldn’tstock, amirite? | Ohio Needs a Train

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