The Woodstock Music & Art Fair hosted what was supposed to be a festival of “peace, love and music” 45 years ago. Three days turned into four, and the 100,000 fans that were expected to show up turned into 500,000. For one rainy weekend in 1969, the rural community of Bethel became the third largest city in New York state.
Woodstock supposedly defined a generation and showcased some of the greatest music of the ‘60s, or so we have been told over and over again. But did it really? The lasting legacy of Woodstock was that it became a crucible moment for a community of young people thrown into a mud bath for a weekend. It’s not that the music didn’t matter, but it wasn’t the main reason why Woodstock made history, or even the primary memory for most of the festivalgoers. Woodstock brought hundreds of thousands of people to an inconvenient location using dozens of bands as a lure – that’s the same formula for countless summer mega-festivals today. But the sheer size of these events ensures that the music becomes a soundtrack – rather than a focal point for a weekend of peace, love and partying like an extra in a Nicki Minaj video.
Woodstock-like rock and dance music festivals now so thoroughly dominate the North American and European concert business in the summer that it’s difficult to tell them apart. They are all, in a way, working off the template set by Woodstock. And as seasoned festivalgoers can attest, these gatherings often become as much about the fans interacting with one another as with the music. The rituals codified by Woodstock explain why.