This year marked the 40th anniversary of the first Woodstock. The milestone was met with an odd amount of fanfare, given its arbitrariness. Of course, this year was also the 10th anniversary of the less than vaunted Woodstock ‘99. Despite the latter event attracting major crowds, round-the-clock MTV coverage, and a generally convivial concert experience during its first two and a half days, the third day forever damned the entire festival, as rioting and widespread sexual assaults were reported. The promoters denied the reports on purely logistical grounds, which only further stoked the controversy. Limp Bizkit, one of the third day’s headlining acts, was blamed for inciting the crowd. They emphatically denied that they endorsed the violence that erupted, but never quite exonerated themselves due to the extensive documentation of their goading the crowd from the stage. As a lasting and ironic insult to Woodstock’s inspiration, even the peace wall (whatever that is) set up by the show’s coordinators was ripped apart by souvenir-seekers. The world was horrified at the spectacle and there hasn’t been a Woodstock since. Perhaps with some massaging, the 40th anniversary of the original, despite its dubious significance otherwise, overwhelmed the memory of its infamous successor.
In those first few months after the Woodstock ’99 fiasco, it probably didn’t seem likely that the following decade would be characterized by a wholehearted embrace of the music festival model. Nevertheless, endless 15-minute long sets, exorbitant prices, big sweaty throbbing masses of people and port-a-johns have become part and parcel in the average music fan’s digest in the last ten years. The list of multi-day and even touring festivals that have sprouted up this decade is remarkable: Coachella, Bonnaroo, Pitchfork, Rock the Bells, Siren, All Points West, New England Hardcore Fest, No Idea’s The Fest, Sasquatch, Blip and on and on. Lollapalooza was revived in 2003 after a six year hiatus. Marathon convention-type events like SXSW and CMJ have exploded in popularity, despite the impossibility of an attendee ever seeing more than a fraction of the performances they tout. What’s more, these fests regularly include an extremely varied assortment of musicians, comedians and performance artists from all genres. What results is a messy tableau of musical ideas running one after the other and occasionally at the same time on different stages. Rain or shine, performers and fans pile into the fairgrounds and endure the shortcomings of such shows with commendable tenacity, all to be a part of the goings on. Measures have been taken to prevent another Woodstock ’99 and despite the inevitable incidents, the lucrative potential and insatiable demand have solidified the fest’s rep as a cultural staple.
It is tempting to make the connection between the spectacle and variety of music festivals in the aughts and the era of “free,” portable and easily discovered music. Music fests are the best format to satisfy the breadth and depth of the music consumer’s taste, bolstered by the maturation of blog aggregators and the popularity of portable music devices. The liquidity of music that is so commonplace now has often been a pejorative description for members of the record industry. And yet, consumers pay upwards of a hundred dollars to see artists at these festivals, artists of whom they may only have pirated albums and songs.
Like most disciplined music fans already knew long before Napster was taken down, file sharing has always been a gateway for inquisitive listeners foremost. The consumption of music has just shifted such that the finished track, the 45-minute album, in all of their finality, have lost some of their commercial appeal. Live performances, remixes, mash-ups, covers, tributes, alternate versions, the creative output that signifies an artist’s relationship to the contemporary music landscape has gained ground. Music festivals in the aughts are not simply the complement to the over-stimulated fan’s attention span. They are the points wherein the cultural moment is crystallized and oddly commodified, in all its sweaty, loud, uneven, and uncomfortable glory. God only knows what Limp Bizkit can usher in at the next Woodstock.