From Woodstock To Boston Calling: How Music Festivals Evolved Since The Psychedelic '60s

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The crowds at Woodstock in Bethel, New York, in 1969. (AP)
The crowds at Woodstock in Bethel, New York, in 1969. (AP)

Music festival season is officially here, with bands and swarms of fans descending on fields and fair grounds across the U.S. This weekend it’s Boston Calling’s turn to entertain the masses in its 10th edition.

This summer also marks the 50th anniversary of what's been called the mother of American pop and rock music festivals: Woodstock. That got us thinking about how festivals have evolved since that dairy farm in Bethel, New York became the stuff of legend.

About half-a-million like-minded hippies converged at Woodstock in 1969 to see more than 30 musical acts, including Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Richie Havens.

That rainy weekend still looms large in Michael Lang’s mind. He partnered in creating the now mythic music event.

“For us, it was more of a sociological experiment than just a music festival,” Lang recalled when I spoke to him at the "Woodstock 50: Then and Now" symposium at Berklee College of Music.

“And it wasn't just about music, it was about all the arts and it was about the counterculture and all our values,” he continued. “That's why it was called ‘Three Days of Peace and Music’ and that's what happened — only on steroids. You know it was much bigger than planned, but it manifested in the kind of result that I was hoping it would.”

Even with its miles of stuck traffic, lack of amenities and over-abundance of mud, Berklee professor Jeff Dorenfeld said Woodstock laid a blueprint for massive music gatherings that followed.

Jimi Hendrix playing at Woodstock. “I got to stand on the stage: it was real bizarre and psychedelic,” Diltz remembers. (Henry Diltz)
Jimi Hendrix playing at Woodstock. (Courtesy Henry Diltz)

While the Monterey Pop Festival and Human Be-In happened in the winter and summer of '67, respectively (Dorenfeld went to the latter), he suspects if you asked folks to name the first festival, “90% would say Woodstock. That's the one. That's the festival that started everything.”

Dorenfeld is founder of the Berklee Popular Music Institute and has been going to all kinds of music festivals since the psychedelic '60s, including one that no one would ever want to repeat.

“Altamont was after Woodstock. The Rolling Stones wanted to do a free show on the West Coast,” he said, recalling how 400,000 people descended on a rundown speedway in northern California. The Hells Angels ran security which led to fights and a fatal stabbing.

Motorcycles crowd the field at the Altamont Speedway in Livermore, California, on Dec. 8, 1969. The Hells Angels motorcycle club was hired as bouncers. (AP)
Motorcycles crowd the field at the Altamont Speedway in Livermore, California, on Dec. 8, 1969. The Hells Angels motorcycle club was hired as bouncers. (AP)
Music fans gather for the Rolling Stones "Gimme Shelter" concert at Altamont Speedway. (AP)
Music fans gather for the Rolling Stones "Gimme Shelter" concert at Altamont Speedway. (AP)

Altamont marked a turning point for festivals. “From there obviously promoters started to realize that they needed more security, more controls, you know, to produce better festivals,” he said.

In his past life Dorenfeld worked with Ozzy, Sammy Hagar and the band Boston. He still goes to a lot of music festivals these days — at least six this summer and early fall, including Governor's Ball, Essence, Country LakeShake, Lollapalooza, Music Midtown and Osheaga — with Berklee musicians and his artist management students.

They're learning the rigors of touring with Berklee bands on something like a festival “boot camp.”

The music industry veteran draws a line between contemporary festivals and versions from decades past.

In the '70s, Dorenfeld said promoters staged huge stadium shows with multiple acts for upwards of 80,000 fans. They were a form of festival, but unlike today, tickets where cheap.

Jump to the '80s and you saw huge, charity benefits like Live Aid. At the Philadelphia iteration at JFK stadium, Joan Baez greeted the crowd with, “Good morning children of the '80s, this is your Woodstock, and it’s long overdue...”

As the music industry shifted to CDs and the internet was born, playing live would become an increasingly important source of revenue for artists in the '90s. Dorenfeld points to the H.O.R.D.E. tour (short for Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere) started by the band Blues Traveler.

“Lilith Fair, Lollapalooza, Warped Tour,” he went on, “all those were happening.”

Jane’s Addiction singer Perry Farrell took his multi-act, alternative rock festival Lollapalooza on the road between 1991 and '97. That roving musical carnival would ultimately redefine itself in Chicago’s Grant Park after another fest-olution turning point. In 1999 Dorenfeld said two guys who did punk shows in LA had an idea that would change the festival landscape.

“Coachella came about by the promoters taking a chance on doing a festival in the desert, and realizing a destination festival people would go to,” he remembered. Coachella helped usher in the current era of elaborate, lifestyle festivals that are owned by a handful of big conglomerates. AEG and Live Nation being the big two.

“There's been a consolidation across the industry over the last five to 10 years or so,” Brian Appel, co-founder of Boston Calling said. He knows this first hand. Boston Calling started as an independent festival on City Hall Plaza. When Appel’s group wanted to relocate and expand the fest a few years back, the Madison Square Garden Company purchased controlling interest.

“There are not a lot of like purely independently owned festivals that are out there because it's a business model that, you know, changes year after year,” he explained, “and it's good if you've got a big partner company with you to help during lean times and to be there for you during good times.”

With that support, Appel says his team can make Boston Calling a three-day, multi-genre experience.

The crowd at Boston Calling all with their hands in the air. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The crowd at Boston Calling all with their hands in the air. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

And that’s what a lot of festival-goers have come to expect, according to Dorenfeld.

“It is all about lifestyle, it’s the food, it’s the show, it’s the grounds how they do it,” he said.

It’s also the multiple stages, comedy acts, podcasts, craft beer, VIP seating, Wi-Fi and expensive headliners (like Beyonce!) who often make millions for a single appearance.

"The ticket prices are going to have to reflect that," Dorenfeld said. "Everyone wants to go see the headliners."

With well more than 100 festivals of all sizes and genres in the U.S. — from ginormous to boutique to artist-curated — it’s a highly competitive, high-stakes model. So much so, it’s unclear if Woodstock 50 will even happen. The golden anniversary festival long-planned for August is in question after its financial backers pulled out this month, leaving organizers embroiled in legal strife. But the founders are keeping the faith they’ll still be able to evoke the spirit of peace and love they created back in 1969.

This segment aired on May 24, 2019.


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Andrea Shea Correspondent, Arts & Culture
Andrea Shea is a correspondent for WBUR's arts & culture reporter.



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