When millions flocked to a cow pasture in upstate New York 45 years ago for the first Woodstock festival, its creators couldn’t have imagined what they’d built.
“There has to be a granddaddy—and this was certainly it for the festival business,” Woodstock’s co-creator Joel Rosenman said Thursday.
Two months ago, an estimated 90,000 music fans packed tiny Manchester, Tennessee for Bonnaroo. The four-day event, which rakes in about $30 million annually, is proof music festival culture has gone mainstream.
“There’s something about festivals that is timeless and indestructible,” Rosenman said. It seems that thought is especially true in the case of Woodstock. The festival was held twice more—in 1994 and 1999—and when asked about the festival’s future, fellow co-creator Michael Lang said, “We are looking at possibilities for the 50th (anniversary, in 2019).”
Conceived by Rosenman and his business partner John Roberts, along with music business professionals Lang and Artie Kornfeld, Woodstock turned Bethel, New York (population: 4,255) into a mecca for a generation disenchanted by Vietnam and the assassinations of their civil rights heroes.
“We created an advertising campaign that showed kids they would get a vacation from all that,” Rosenman recalled from his home in New York City. “They were not going to be hassled by the police or their parents.”
Joel Rosenman in 1969. (Photo courtesy: Joel Rosenman)
When asked to talk about the iconic event’s place in pop culture history nearly five decades later, Rosenman, now 71 years old, joked, “Do you want to record the sound of a grown man crying? Is that your goal here?”
At his most proud, Rosenman said, “We put together an event that was a magnet for a generation.” At his most reserved, he described Woodstock as “a cute idea that got way out of hand.”
The conception of Woodstock has been widely reported and was even dramatized in a 2009 movie, but according to Rosenman, “Legend sometimes overshadows the reality of it.”
The venture wasn’t initially planned as a concert, much less a three-day music festival, instead the four men got together to conceive plans for a recording studio to be built in Woodstock, New York. Rosenman and Roberts had recently opened an impressive studio in Manhattan, attracting the attention of Lang and Kornfeld, who felt the upstate town would be a perfect home for popular music.
“We felt the project was dead on arrival,” Rosenman recalled. But then, Lang and Kornfeld said they had pull with Bob Dylan and could get him to show up for a fundraising cocktail party — which got Rosenman’s ear.
The four men formed Woodstock Ventures, after compromising to conduct a concert festival that would feature Dylan as one of the acts, the profits from which would be used to build the studio.
Only one snag — that bit about Lang and Kornfield’s ability to land Dylan was a complete bluff.
“(Dylan) wouldn’t even return our phone calls,” Rosenman said. “He couldn’t have had less interest in what we were doing.”
A three-day ticket for Woodstock 1969. (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Creative Commons)
The team had just more than seven months to make the festival a reality, according to Rosenman. The original site was set to be Wallkill, New York but a last-minute realization by the town’s leaders put the kibosh on that plan.
“We got evicted just five weeks before opening night,” Rosenman said. “We had almost completed building the first site and it turns out the zoning board started listening to their kids talking about the festival.”
When the board met again in June 1969, they revoked the permit they had given to Woodstock Ventures.
A dairy farmer named Max Yasgur offered to host the festival on his land in Bethel, about an hour drive from Wallkill, leaving a crew of around 1,000 people to relocate and rebuild the site.
The group’s original zoning board application estimated the festival’s maximum attendance would be 50,000 people. “We were dreaming big,” Rosenman said, as the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival in California had been the country’s biggest festival to date, with 28,000 people in the crowd. When Woodstock wrapped, an estimated 2 million people had shown up.
“It was described to us as the third-largest city in New York during the weekend,” Rosenman said, “three days earlier it had been a cow pasture.”
The field where Woodstock was held, pictured in 1999. (Photo: Kim Newton/McClatchey)
The bill of acts at Woodstock was full of stars. Friday’s performers included folk icons Richie Havens, Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie. Saturday saw rockers Santana, The Grateful Dead, The Who and Creedence Clearwater Revival take the stage. On Sunday, icons like The Band, Janis Joplin, Sly & and the Family Stone and Jimi Hendrix blew the audience away.
Already the world’s top rock star, Hendrix commanded the most money and had the most drawing power of any of the festival’s acts, according to Rosenman.
“There were some big acts but none of them were as big before Woodstock as they were after.”
Ultimately, Rosenman described Woodstock as “a financial disaster” upon first look, resulting in the proposed music studio never being built. “But because (Woodstock) was such a phenomenon and became so iconic … it has maintained its appeal throughout its life, which now seems indefinite,” he said. “There’s been a trickle of income that eventually paid back the debt we racked up during that weekend.”
Woodstock Ventures is still in operation, recently launching a new website dedicated to preserving the memory of the original 1969 festival.
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