Organizing the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival

An Iconic Music Event That Made History Despite Major Setbacks

Woodstock Celebrates 40th Anniversary Of Historic Countercultural Concert
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2019 marks the 50-year anniversary of one of the most iconic rock events of the 20th century. The Woodstock Festival (a.k.a. An Aquarian Exposition: Three Days of Peace and Music, was a three-day concert (which managed to roll into a fourth day) that took place on August 15 through 18, 1969, at Max Yasgur's dairy farm in the town of Bethel just outside White Lake, New York. The event, or "happening" as it might have been called back in the day, has since become synonymous with hippie counterculture—sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll—and lots and lots of mud.

The Organizers of Woodstock

The organizers of the Woodstock Festival were four young men: John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Artie Kornfeld, and Mike Lang. The eldest was only 27 at the time the festival took place.

Roberts, an heir to a pharmaceutical fortune, and his friend Rosenman were looking for a way to use Roberts' money to invest in an idea that would make them even more money. After placing an ad in The New York Times that stated: "Young men with unlimited capital looking for interesting, legitimate investment opportunities and business propositions," they met Kornfeld and Lang.

The Plan for the Woodstock Festival

Kornfeld and Lang's original proposal was to build a recording studio and a retreat for rock musicians in Upstate New York in the town of Woodstock, where Bob Dylan and other musicians already lived. The idea morphed into creating a two-day rock concert for 50,000 people with hopes such a concert would raise enough money to pay for the studio.

The four men got to work organizing their music festival. After finding a location for the event up in an industrial park in nearby Wallkill, New York, tickets were printed ($7 for one day, $13 for two days, and $18 for three days), that could be purchased in either in select stores or via mail order. They also worked on organizing food concessions, signing up musicians, and hiring security.

Things Go Very Wrong

The first of many things to go wrong with the Woodstock Festival was the location. No matter how the young men and their lawyers spun it, the citizens of Wallkill did not want a bunch of "drugged-out hippies" descending on their town. After much wrangling, the town of Wallkill passed a statute on July 2, 1969, that effectively banned the concert from their vicinity.

Everyone involved with Woodstock panicked. Stores refused to sell any more tickets and the negotiations with the musicians got shaky. Only a month-and-a-half before the festival was set to open, a new location had to be found. Luckily, in mid-July, before too many people began demanding refunds for their pre-purchased tickets, Max Yasgur offered up his 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel, New York as a festival site.

As lucky as the organizers were to have found a new location, the last-minute change of venue seriously set the festival timeline back. New contracts to rent the dairy farm and surrounding areas had to be drawn up and permits had to be acquired from the town. Construction of the stage, a performers' pavilion, parking lots, concession stands, and a children's playground all got a late start and were barely finished on schedule for the event. Some things—including ticket booths and gates—were not finished in time, with staggering unforeseen consequences.

Growing Numbers Add to the Headaches

As the date drew closer, more problems began to spring up. It quickly became clear that the original audience estimate of 50,000 was way too low. The revised projected estimate for attendance jumped to more than 200,000 people.

The organizers scrambled to bring in more toilets, more water, and more food. On top of that, the food concessionaires they'd contracted with were threatening to cancel at the last minute (the rookie promoters had accidentally hired people who had no experience in concessions) so they had to worry about whether or not they could airlift in rice as a backup food supply. Also troublesome was a last-minute ban that would not allow off-duty police officers to work at the festival.

The Crowd Snowballs

On Wednesday, August 13 (two days before the festival was to begin), there were already approximately 50,000 people camping near the stage. The early arrivals had walked right through the huge gaps in the fence where the gates had yet to be placed. Since there was no way to get the 50,000 people to leave the area in order to pay for tickets and no time to erect the numerous gates needed to prevent even more people from just walking in, the organizers were forced to make the event a free concert.

The declaration of a free concert had two dire effects: The first was that the organizers were going to lose huge amounts of money putting the event on. The second was that as news spread the concert was now free, an estimated one million people headed to Bethel, New York. It's estimated that about 500,000 people actually attended Woodstock. Police had to turn away thousands of cars.

No one had planned for half a million people. The highways in the area literally became parking lots as people abandoned their cars in the middle of the road and simply walked the final distance to the Woodstock Festival. Traffic was so bad that the organizers eventually had to hire helicopters to shuttle the performers from their hotels to the stage.

The Music Starts

Despite all the troubles, the Woodstock Festival got started nearly on time. On Friday evening, August 15, Richie Havens took the stage and officially opened the proceedings. Sweetwater, Joan Baez, and other folk artists also played Friday night.

The music started up again shortly after noon on Saturday with Quill and continued non-stop until Sunday morning around 9 a.m. The day of psychedelic bands continued with such musicians as Santana, Janis Joplin, Grateful Dead, and The Who, to name just a few.

It was obvious to everyone that on Sunday, the festival was winding down. The crowd began streaming out over the course of the day, leaving about 150,000 people on Sunday night. When Jimi Hendrix, the final act to play Woodstock, finished his set early Monday morning, the crowd was down to 25,000.

Despite the 30-minute lines for water and at least hour-long wait to use a toilet, the Woodstock Festival was a huge success. There were a lot of drugs, a lot of sex, nudity, and a sea of mud (created by the rain).

Post Woodstock

The organizers of Woodstock were dazed when the festival ended. They didn't really realize that they'd created arguably the most popular music event in history. They had other things on their mind, the foremost of which was the incredible debt (over $1 million) they'd incurred and the 70 lawsuits that had been filed against them.

To their great relief, the documentary film made at the festival turned into a hit movie and the box office profits covered a large chunk of their debts. By the time everything was eventually paid off, they were still $100,000 in the red.