From the mud to the VIP lounge: the millionaire business of the festivals that emerged after Woodstock
"The dreams of marijuana and rock music that brought 300,000 fans and hippies to the Montes Catskills barely had any more sanity than the impulses that lead the lemmings to
- How pop explains inequality
"The dreams of marijuana and rock music that brought 300,000 fans and hippies to the Montes Catskills had little more sanity than the impulses that led the Lemmings to move towards their own death at sea. They are dreams that ended in a a nightmare of mud and laziness that paralyzed Sullivan County for a whole weekend. What kind of culture can produce that chaos? "
Thus began the editorial with which, under the title Nightmare in the Catskills , the New York Times greeted, on August 18, 1969, the Aquarium Exhibition: Three Days of Peace and Music held at a cow farm in the town of White lake. Today, 50 years later, nobody remembers the name of the Exhibition or its homage to the age of Aquarius - an astrological period theoretically marked by peace, humanitarianism and spirituality - but by a name that, in fact, does not correspond : Woodstock is a town located 70 kilometers from White Lake.
The New York Times editorial about Woodstock only got one thing right: chaos
The NYT editorial was only right on one thing: chaos . The memory of the festival is inextricably linked to the images of the public wallowing in the mud and the stories about the mass consumption of LSD - disc jockey Wavy Gravy had to go on stage to give the audience instructions on how to take that hallucinogenic drug -, but in Woodstock nobody behaved like cultural lemmings , that is, like the Arctic rodents that, according to Scandinavian legends, are grouped in herds that form huge caravans and commit collective suicide by throwing themselves into the sea. If the NYT feared - or wished? - that this was the outcome of the Woodstock movement, he was completely wrong. Pop culture came out strongly reinforced by the "nightmare of mud and laziness" of the Catskills. And, with it, the industry on which that culture is based.
Woodstock was not the consecration of counterculture, but of capitalism . It was since before Ritchie Havensa took the stage at five in the afternoon on the 15th to start a party that could not be opened by the Californian psychedelia band Sweetwater, as planned, because it was stuck on the highway. The festival was held on a 243-hectare farm where Max B. Yasgur - an Orthodox Jew who had voted for President Richard Nixon and supported the Vietnam War - had his dairy cows grazing. If Yasgur rented his field to Elliot Tiber - the main organizer of the event, and, also, a Jew -, and he even exposed a boycott of his milk by his White Lake neighbors for facilitating the arrival of hairy drugs to the town it was not the Age of Aquarius, but for the 10,000 dollars of the time paid by the promoters of the festival for doing so. Neither counterculture nor traditional values defend themselves for free.
In reality, Woodstock is neither more nor less than the foundation stone of the music festival industry . The mud bacchanal gave a nature letter to a phenomenon that already existed, and which had been gaining in popularity since the first jazz festivals of the 50s, to which in the 60s a real explosion of folk, rock events was being added , and pop. Two years earlier, at the Monterrey Festival in California, 90,000 people had already gathered to see and hear, among others, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and The Who . And a year later, the Isle of Wright, in Great Britain, would see an audience of 700,000 people - almost triple Woodstock - meet on stage at Bob Dylan, The Who or T. Rex. The lemmings of the NYT continued to emerge from the tundra. But they did not throw themselves into the sea. Now, it was only necessary for someone to milk them properly, just like Yasgur to their cows.
Half a century after Woodstock, the Lemmings flock to their financial and musical milking. According to Billboard, the magazine of the pop music industry, about 800 music festivals are held every year in the US alone . At least 32 million people attend at least one such event. Meanwhile, in Spain, the live industry - concerts and festivals - recorded in 2018 the best year in its history with a turnover of 334 million euros , according to the Association of Musical Promoters.
For artists, festivals tend to be less profitable than solo concerts. But that disadvantage is offset by the promotion that a tour gets from one or two stops at festivals. For example, the U2 tour of 2017 in the US, in which that group commemorated the 30 years of their album The Joshua Tree had as a star concert their performance at the Bonnaroo Festival, in Tennessee. Add to that the fact that a performance at a festival makes sales soar surreally. The 24 minutes that Pink Floyd played in the Live8 macroconcert, in remote 2005, multiplied by 13 the sales of their music in the following week. And there are artists, like Paul McCartney , who simply like to participate in festivals.
There is one last factor. In many cases, the groups have to act at the festivals because they are owned by the promoters of the concerts, which are also responsible for ticket sales. In the world there is a duopoly of the promotion of live music formed by AEG and Live Nation , which, in turn, owns the Ticketmaster ticket management company. These companies have been annihilating the classic promoters, who controlled local or regional markets and now it is they who manage world tours. AEG controls sports centers and concert halls from Manchester to Los Angeles, and operates the largest US festival, Coachella, and Live Nation the following four: Bonnaroo, Summerfest, Lollapalooza, and Austin City Limits. Only Live Nation directs about 100 festivals in the US and Europe.
Desert Trip, held by AEG in Coachella, in 2016 raised: 152 million euros: the record at a festival
The power of these giants to impose stops on the groups also leads them to limit their concerts in exchange for their participation in their festivals. It is what is called the radio clause under which a group or musician who performs at a festival can only play at a certain distance and for a period of time. For participating in Coachella, for example, a band may be forced to accept not to play live two months before or two months after the concert in a 400 kilometer radius , which includes, among other markets, Los Angeles - the second largest US city-, Phoenix -the fourth-, Las Vegas and San Diego.
The key to current festivals is precisely that the audience is not treated as lemmings. Unlike. First Glastonbury, and then Coachella, discovered that the axis of a festival's success is that people feel comfortable. No bluffs with naked people full of acid rolling in them, but experiences. That is the word, "experience," invented by Starbucks to convince the public that their stores were not going to be consumed, but to live, and now exploited to infinity by Facebook and other social media companies so that no one thinks which is on the Internet exposing its privacy to an algorithm that will sell it to the highest bidder .
And festival experiences are individualized and expensive. In Bonnaroo, two months ago, the Roll Like a Rock Star package cost 29,000 euros for eight people during the four nights of the event. Special buses, rooms with sauna and jacuzzi, private areas, VIP seats, bars and restaurants closed to the rest of the public are some of the great festivals offered half a century after Woodstock.
The organizers justify the prices because the risk of a festival is enormous. Of all the activities of the rock industry, they say, this is the most complicated. It is a kind of Russian roulette, in which the benefits can be immense, but the losses, too. But others do not buy that idea.
"Many of the costs of a live event - including advertising, security, lights, and setting the stage - can be amortized with several performers at a festival," says Alan Krueger, head of the Barack Obama team of economic advisors. , in his posthumous book Rockonomics , published in June. "Controlling costs is a very important economic consideration for musicians," Krueger emphasizes, so the fact that a festival allows the same teams to be used for several days "limits the costs of each show."
In fact, the festivals are beginning to become such an important economic activity that the Financial Times has published an extensive article article explaining how the landowners in the United Kingdom benefit from the rental of their properties for the celebration of festivals. Woodstock's visionary was not Hendrix, who made his archifamous interpretation of the US national anthem at nine in the morning on Monday 19, when the NYT editorial deplored the event had been at the kiosks for hours, but Yasgur and his $ 10,000 in exchange for the meadow of their cows.
And so it comes to Desert Trip , held by AEG in Coachella, on two weekends in October 2016, and in which The Who, Neil Young, Roger Waters (Pink Floyd), the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, and Bob Dylan It is the festival that has raised the most in History: 152 million euros. The least charged were The Who and Neil Young, who took seven million dollars each. The same The Who (with the exception of his drummer, Ketih Monn, died in 1978 of overdose) and the same Neil Young (now without his companions David Crosby, Steve Stills, and Graham Nash) who had acted in Woodstock.
So Woodstock did not end "the system." He just transformed it and consolidated it. Three weeks after Desert Trip, 52% of Americans who were between 18 and 38 years old when Woodstock was held gave their support, according to voting analysis studies, to one of theirs: a man who had just turned 23 in the summer of 1969 and that he had promised to build a wall on the border with Mexico, and that he had offered his followers to pay the legal costs they incur if they broke the face of someone who protested at their rallies. And, as with Woodstock, the NYT saw in the triumph of that man, Donald Trump, the end of Western civilization.
As the phrase falsely attributed to Mark Twain says, "history does not repeat itself, but often rhymes."
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