When the organisers of Woodstock 50 announced on July 31 that the commemorative festival would be called off, just two weeks before it was due to begin, it came as no surprise. The event had been plagued by difficulties since the beginning. In April, the festival’s backer Dentsu Aegis Network said it had been cancelled due to concerns over safety. Organisers denied the claim and a court battle ensued, after which the former secured new financial partners. Set to take place in Watkins Glen, New York, it was relocated to Vernon, New York and then to Maryland. Headliners Jay-Z and Miley Cyrus pulled out in quick succession, and eventually the festival conceded defeat.
In a statement, co-creator Michael Lang, said: “We are saddened that a series of unforeseen setbacks has made it impossible to put on the festival we imagined.” Lang had been one of the producers of Woodstock in 1969 and was determined to capture the magic of the original. In January he set about selling a dream, telling The New York Times, “We want this to be more than just coming to a concert.” He spoke about the spirit of activism, the cultural resonance and the need for festivals “to make a difference in the world”. While his plans were vague, the implication was clear: he wanted Woodstock 50 to establish its legacy even before a single act had played.
The littered site of Woodstock 1969
Lang and his team seemed less interested in the practicalities of the event—securing mass gathering permits, safety plans, calculating festival capacity—and that was their downfall, costing $32 million in talent fees and irreparable damage to the Woodstock brand. It’s not the only festival to have been cancelled in recent months: Blackpool’s Livewire was abandoned due to investor issues; Barcelona’s Doctor Music Festival collapsed after environmental concerns and changing venues led to requests for refunds; Chicago’s Mamby on the Beach fell through due to the presence of endangered birds on the site; and Belgium’s VestiVille was suspended as a result of security and infrastructural issues. The consensus? Instead of trying to outdo one another, these festivals needed to prioritise the safety of customers and consider their wider impact.
What is the environmental impact of festivals?
Glastonbury Festival 2016
Woodstock once symbolised a utopian return to nature, but today’s festivals are hardly idyllic. In the UK, 23,500 tons of waste are produced at festivals annually, of which only a third is recycled. Among the items deposited in landfills are single-use tents, with the Association of Independent Festivals estimating that 250,000 are abandoned at British festivals each year. Single-use festival fashion is part of the problem; as is glitter, which contains micro-plastics that contaminate water sources. Add to that excessive noise, light and air pollution from traffic, and you have an event that could upend an entire ecosystem.
Clean-up after the Glastonbury Festival
In the midst of the global climate crisis and with an increasing consumer demand for ethical practices, the race is on to adapt. Sustainability is at the heart of Bonnaroo, the four-day festival held on a farm in Tennessee, which releases annual reports detailing its efforts towards land preservation. Oslo’s Øya Festival is also making strides, having banned diesel generators and introduced “green riders” that encourage artists to curb their carbon footprint. Even Burning Man has vowed to change, releasing a 10-year sustainability roadmap to mitigate its impact on the Black Rock Desert.
What are festivals doing to remedy social division?
Burning Man is keen to rehabilitate its image in other ways too. Although its first-ever iteration in 1986 was a celebration of anti-consumerism, it has grown into a festival for the Silicon Valley set. Tickets can cost upwards of $1,400 (approx Rs 99,806), and Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are regulars. This year, rising concerns over its cultural drift have prompted a re-evaluation of ticket prices in the hope of attracting a more economically varied audience. Prices have similarly fallen at Coachella, where a general admission wristband for 2020 will cost $399 (approx Rs 28,444), compared to $429 (approx Rs 30,500) in 2019. (There’s unease about where this money is going, after it emerged that Philip Anschutz, the owner of Coachella’s parent company, has made donations to anti-LGBTQ+ groups.)
A still from Fyre
Intended as platforms for counterculture, many modern-day festivals have become bastions of privilege, pricing out locals, revelling in their own exclusivity and feeding on our fear of missing out. The biggest culprit in recent years was 2017’s Fyre Festival, which has been thrust back into the spotlight by two new documentaries, Hulu’s Fyre Fraud and Netflix’s Fyre. Using viral social-media marketing, it promised the party of a lifetime on a Bahamian island—provided you could afford the $12,000 (approx Rs 8,55,480) VIP packages. Reality arrived in the form of cancelled acts and rain-drenched tents. Worst of all was the impact on the people of Great Exuma. Maryann Rolle, a caterer interviewed in the Netflix film, used $50,000 (or Rs 35,64,500) of her own savings to pay staff after festival organisers wouldn’t. “They just wiped it out and never looked back,” she says. (She has since recouped her losses via a Go Fund Me campaign.)
Are micro-festivals the future?
As mega-festivals jostle for space, there’s a growing appetite for smaller events that adhere more closely to the laid-back spirit of 1969’s Woodstock. Eventbrite reports that over the past four years, the number of boutique festivals on their site has risen by almost 400 per cent. Paul McCrudden, the company’s head of marketing for the UK, believes that audience tastes are changing. “Mainstream festivals focus on attracting as many people as possible, but this often means catering to the lowest common denominator,” he tells Vogue. “Independent festivals have a more distinct character and their creators are driven by their passions, not simply the need to make money.” Recent successes include Sacramento’s Sol Blume, Thailand’s Wonderfruit and Ghana’s Asa Baako.
The death of Woodstock 50 provides a cautionary tale for a music industry in flux. Producers might assume blockbuster anniversaries are a safe bet, but the future of festivals relies on intimate gatherings of like-minded people that can foster a real sense of community. Bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better and in an uncertain financial climate, nothing is too big to fail.