Graham: Death of Woodstock 50 shows state of festival business

The 50th anniversary event was finally put out of its misery this week, a victim of its own hubris on a crowded festival landscape

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

It turns out the world didn't need another Woodstock. 

Woodstock 50, the ill-conceived 50th anniversary celebration of the original "3 days of peace and music," went down in flames this week. And its collapse is telling about the state of music festivals today. 

There are too many of them. The biggies — Coachella, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits — have carved out their place on the annual schedule. But even they're not teflon: Lollapalooza, unfolding this weekend in Chicago's Grant Park, struggled to sell out this year, where in past years tickets went faster than you can say, well, Lollapalooza. 

Beyoncé performs at the 2018 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival in Indio, Calif.

Drop down a tier and you have a slew of festivals from coast-to-coast which all compete for the same acts, with lineup posters that all end up looking the same. Headline acts can mount legitimate tours by simply playing the festival circuit; that's what OutKast did when the duo reunited in 2014, and Chance the Rapper headlined 14 U.S. festivals in 2017.  

Smaller-scale fests wisely cater to niches: Riot Fest goes after aging punks, Stagecoach wrangles country fans, Pitchfork leans toward the discerning hipster set, and West Michigan's Electric Forest festival is programmed for the EDM-hippie crowd.

But the fest market is over-saturated, and the competition is fierce. Last year, Los Angeles' FYF Festival folded after 14 years, and this year, New York's highly touted Panaroma Festival, envisioned as the East Coast's answer to Coachella, decided to take a year off. A half-dozen other U.S. festivals have called it quits this year, including Diplo's Mad Decent Block Party.

Locally, the boom year for fests was 2013, when five new festivals popped up on the radar: the American debut of Australia's Laneway Festival, Metallica's Orion Festival, Fort Wayne's Oakaloosa Festival, Mo Pop and Faster Horses. In a microcosm of what has happened to fests nationwide, only Mo Pop and Faster Horses made it past the one-year mark; both are still going strong, having mounted successful campaigns last month.

The failure of Woodstock 50 was multi-fold. The lineup, which included Jay-Z, Miley Cyrus, Halsey, Imagine Dragons and Santana, was not unique enough to stand out on the modern festival landscape. Further, name aside, it had little in common with the original 1969 festival, which raised the question, why even do it at all? 

There is still a bad taste lingering from 1999's disastrous Woodstock outing, which took the original's ideals of peace and love and lit them on fire. Any goodwill from the original event went out the door with the horrific reports of sexual assaults during the '99 weekend, which nearly snuffed out the potential for any fest to do business in the U.S.     

Those were, however, only the beginnings of Woodstock 50's blunders. Site permits were never locked down, which put the future of the festival immediately in doubt, even after its lineup was announced in March. Tickets for the event never even went on sale, and artists began backing out of their commitments to perform as organizers made a last minute scramble to find a new site. Finally on Wednesday, the inevitable happened when producer Michael Lang threw in the towel and give Woodstock 50 the mercy killing it always deserved. 

Several lessons can be learned from the death of Woodstock 50. One, American festivals are not what they were even a few years ago. Two, history — especially when leveraged as a marketing tool — doesn't carry any clout in today's marketplace. And three, "3 days of peace and music" is no longer an anomaly, it can be found on pretty much any weekend across the festival landscape.

If anything, that's Woodstock's legacy, not the failed cash-in of its 50th anniversary.