Friday, March 22, 2019

Woodstock 50 | Lefsetz Letter

It’s just another festival. Albeit with a legendary brand name, which has been tarnished by two previous anniversary iterations.

The festival business has changed. Everything doesn’t sell out. Some crater completely, like Pemberton in British Columbia. If you build it, there’s a good chance they will not come. Even if they’ve come before, they might not again.

Like Bonnaroo. Started as a jam band festival, it expanded its brand to the point of near-extinction. Phish is returning this year, and some of the Phishheads unable to fathom missing a performance will attend, but Bonnaroo peaked years ago and is one bad year away from going away.

Because it’s a lousy experience. In Tennessee in the near-summer with camping. It takes a special breed of person to want to do that, and there aren’t that many of them. People want to be pampered, and it’s about the audience, not the performers. That’s why the Fyre Festival was so successful, people bought tickets because they wanted to hang with movers and shakers, up their cred, make connections. The fact that it ended up a fraud is secondary.

Coachella continues. Because it’s the granddaddy and the first event of the festival season, taking place in April. But this is the year they switched formulas, from classic to contemporary. This may or may not work for them. Coachella may be Glastonbury, act-proof, but maybe not.

But the other mega-festivals in the U.S…

Are all located in cities. Lollapalooza in Chicago, ACL in Austin and Outside Lands in San Francisco. You’ve got to locate your festival in a metropolis, with infrastructure, people don’t want to only hear music and they don’t want to camp. This works for not only the three festivals stated above, but for JazzFest and Life Is Beautiful. Life is not beautiful sitting in the mud.

And speaking of mud, that’s always an issue with east coast festivals, the weather. Seems every year a New York City festival has to cancel a day for weather, wreaking havoc with the economics.

And it used to be festivals were a one time only experience. Now, the headliners appear at multiple events, in your region, there’s no need to travel, and if you don’t go to the festival, you can see them at your local venue.

The original Woodstock was such a legendary event because no one thought it would be so. The mainstream press did not participate in the buildup, unlike today, where the announcement of the bill is all over the web.

The original Woodstock was a cultural event, but we did not know this until after the show was over. When we saw the power of youth. All going, all being safe, all enjoying classic music.

But shortly thereafter, Meredith Hunter was killed at Altamont. And the wannabe events promoted were canceled, like Powder Ridge. And then there was the original Watkins Glen concert, with three legendary acts. The Dead and the Allmans built their careers on their live shows, the records paled in comparison, you had to be there to experience it. I was, it was not so great, the best I can say is I was there. We slept in the car and it rained and I would not want to repeat the performance.

No baby boomer would.

And millennials are all about creature comforts, lifestyle. Why would they want to camp?

Certainly the music is not enough.

In all the grosses and live experience hogwash, no one admits the music does not have the power it used to. When the Killers are headlining you yawn. Their hits are behind them and they’re not superstars to begin with.

As for Dead & Company… They play EVERYWHERE!

And Jay Z? He doesn’t go clean. We can argue whether it’s high ticket prices or demand…

The only act that seems to be somewhat about the music is Dead & Company. Didn’t Jay Z say he was a brand, man? Maybe that was someone else, but that’s everybody’s goal these days. The musicians are not aspirational for their music, but their ability to leverage that fame in other ways to make money. It’s hollow.

The acts of yore wrote their own material. Today’s acts perform “songs” written by committee, or someone else entirely, it’s not straight from the heart, but straight from the cash register.

Furthermore, in 1969, the music was exploring and exploding. It drove the culture. Jimi Hendrix played “The Star Spangled Banner” to close Woodstock. The innovation is limited today, we’re not in a heyday.

But you might argue with me.

But I’ll tell you it’s just business. Promoters don’t put up shows on a wing and a prayer, they look at the numbers, they make educated guesses, too many losses and they’re out of business. If anything, give Michael Lang credit for snookering Dentsu to pay for this. And I’m sure he told them about sponsorships, movies, the penumbra… They all came after the original Woodstock, which initially was all about the music and nothing but the music.

No one is looking at the Woodstock 50 bill and saying…WHOA, I HAVE TO BE THERE!

That was Desert Trip, with truly legendary acts in a one time only show.

The only attractive thing is the brand name. And people believe in Apple, Netflix and Instagram more than they do in Woodstock these days.

If anything, all the innovation is happening on the fringes, in the small shows, the bubbling under stuff. We’re hoping some of it blows up and inspires others thinking out of the box.

But Woodstock 50 is like a remake of “American Idol.” Or bringing back a sixties or seventies TV show because the networks are out of ideas.

I’m yearning for some disruption.

And even those not on the cutting edge don’t want to drive to nowhere to camp and see acts that won’t change their lives.

If Michael Lang really wanted to have a modern festival it would focus on the attendees, not those on stage.

But that’s a baby boomer, always locked in the past.

P.S. Jay Z said “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.” That’s all you need to know about today’s music scene.


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