Woodstock 1999, 20 years after fiasco, remains cautionary tale for organisers of music festivals

Anurag Tagat

Jul 22, 2019 16:56:40 IST

On Sunday, 25 July 1999, in a former Air Force base in upstate New York, concert promoter John Scher is telling more than 2,00,000 people “Calm down a minute” in his thickest Jersey accent.

In an interlude released on the official Woodstock 1999 album featuring live songs by bands who performed at the infamous edition, Scher is heard saying, “As you can see behind you, we have a bit of a problem. Chili Peppers are going to come back. Calm down, we got three days through. We don’t want anybody to get hurt. The relay tower is on fire, it’s not part of the show. It really is a problem.”

Scher — who ran the show alongside Woodstock festival’s co-founder Michael Lang — said firetrucks were on their way, but this was one of the final performances at the four-day festival. In 1999 and at a festival historic for its peace and love vibes, it was apparently totally okay to hand out lit candles with the expectation that there would be candlelight vigil.

Twenty years later, music festivals are going to think twice about offering any kind of candles, even if they’re sponsored by Zippo. Even with a new edition of Woodstock uneasily hovering for a 50th anniversary celebration in August (they haven’t received permits and had their funding pulled), Woodstock 1999 probably became a handy festival guidebook of all the “don’ts” in the business.

 Woodstock 1999, 20 years after fiasco, remains cautionary tale for organisers of music festivals

Scene from Woodstock 1969. Image via Facebook/@WoodstockMusicAndArtFair

At the annual metal pilgrimage that is Wacken Open Air in Germany, for example, you’ll find plenty of mud and a lot of items deep and irretrievable in that mud, but you’ll always find a garbage bin nearby and plenty of security personnel in easy-to-spot neon/indigo jackets. The audience numbers over 70,000 people — approximately a third of Woodstock 1999’s turnout — but they’re always under control and with enough space to move around, even if it’s mucky.

Twenty years ago in New York, the security personnel to attendee ratio was roughly 1:450, which should give any festival director serious jitters. There were over 40 instances of sexual and physical assault, and perhaps many more crimes that just went unreported. Like today’s festivals in India and everywhere else, private security companies step in to provide plainclothes personnel as well as designated crew who have constant eyes on the crowd for any issues. If you went to a festival and didn’t have any moment of worries around crowd control or any creeps, someone did their job right.

Perhaps the biggest lesson every future music festival organiser learnt from Woodstock 1999 was about crowd management — just in terms of how many people you’d like to gather in one space for a weekend. People sneaked into Woodstock 1994 and even the 1999 edition had problems with counterfeit ticket sales. Starting with making foolproof, technologically advanced ticketing systems today, festivals have at least always ensured the crowd never goes beyond their estimated number of sales.

Another European metal festival, Brutal Assault, lives up to its name in its sensory and physical overload. Temperatures in the town of Jaromer in Czech Republic rise to about 45 degrees Celsius and it’s just dry, dusty terrain, but thankfully water doesn’t cost $4 like it did at Woodstock (although it remains kind of expensive, at around $1.5 for a liter). We all know every food and beverage vendor is out to make sizeable profits at a music festival, but most Indian festivals we’ve been to always ensure free drinking water is available via easily located dispensers.

Coming back to the heat, every festival promoter now knows you can’t set up in a place with zero natural shade or cover. Former Air Force bases are out and more parks and farm fields have been preferred by festivals over the years. It’s almost a law of nature that if it’s not going to be hot, humid or dusty, then it’s time for rain and thunderstorms. You’ll rarely find a festivalgoer gushing about the perfect weather, even if it’s December in Pune and you’re at Bacardi NH7 Weekender. Music festivals are almost always rain or shine events, but if they’re expecting attendees to prep for all kinds of weather, it helps if the ground is evenly levelled, and there are drains to prevent waterlogging.

Of course, sometimes it just doesn’t matter to a fan as long as their favourite band is on stage. When you get to see Cannibal Corpse run through no-holds-barred death metal or Dream Theater’s finessed prog, no amount of rain or heat is going to hurt your spirit in that moment. Standing around a quickly growing bonfire or fearing for your life in violent moshpits to Insane Clown Posse and Limp Bizkit however… you probably want to make your quickest exit.

When Scher had issued a statement ahead of the festival warning: “This is not your parent’s Woodstock”, it was perhaps a bad sign to start with. Promoters have more diversity today than just putting together artists whose audience is, for example, majority teenaged or white angry wannabe rappers. It was a largely white crowd moshing, even when Ice Cube was rapping “Fuck Tha Police” or when DMX prompted the crowd to sing the N-word back to him. None of this looks good in hindsight, no matter how nostalgically you look at the ‘90s.

Festivals these days are not so much about promoting incorrigible bad boys and girls. Increasingly, music festivals around the globe have something for everyone, but they still don’t want racists and rednecks. Even out in Midwest America — predominantly Republican — the erstwhile Rock On the Range festival in Columbus, Ohio put Metallica and The Offspring on the same billing as Gojira and The Dillinger Escape Plan, as well as guitar heroes like Zakk Wylde. Every one of these has a mostly clean record and probably aren’t the type to incite crowds to do more than a wall of death.

Despite the cautionary tale of Woodstock 1999, we still saw things like Fyre Festival grab headlines around the globe when it crashed and burned. The inside story tells us that some people underestimate what running a multi-day big-ticket music festival entails. Even seasoned Indian promoters like Percept disappointed many by pulling the plug on its infamous FLY Music Festival in 2013, reportedly because they didn’t see enough ticket sales to recover costs. Is it too much to ask to do your math and have a contingency plan that doesn’t involve cancelling your event?

Read on Firstpost: Netflix and Hulu's documentaries on Fyre Festival fraud — A comparative study of ethics, narrative technique

With Woodstock 50 still aiming to keep its 16-18 August date with New York, let’s hope there’s some wisdom on their side this time around, and that the organisers aren’t merely relying on a hurriedly put-together lineup and fervent prayers that it doesn’t all go south.

Updated Date: Jul 22, 2019 16:56:40 IST