Back in 1969, Woodstock organizers billed their three-day festival as "An Aquarian Exposition." But although the concert became free when an expected crowd of 200,000 grew "half a million strong," it was conceived as a business proposition.
And the business has endured. Woodstock Ventures, the firm that oversees the licensing and intellectual property related to the Woodstock festival, is still run by the original producers of the event. And for several decades now, that once ragtag group of hippies has evolved into — if they weren’t already — good businessmen with savvy instincts.
For Woodstock’s 40th anniversary — officially August 15-18 — the breadth of projects and merchandise is staggering. Rhino and Sony will deliver albums of performances, Warner Bros. will release the original film and the Ang Lee-directed narrative feature "Taking Woodstock," VH1 and the History Channel will air a documentary by Barbara Koppel, several publishers will release books, Target will sell anniversary-themed merchandise, and Sony is launching a social networking/e-commerce site, Woodstock.com.
"We’re not perfect. There are some small decisions we would have changed here and there, but for the most part, if we weren’t happy with the way something felt, then we didn’t go ahead," says Joel Rosenman, one of the original organizers and now a partner in Woodstock Ventures. "And that’s because what happened in 1969 and how it feels to us is more important than pretty much any commercial consideration."
What happened in 1969 is now rock ‘n’ roll history. Conceived by entrepreneurs Rosenman, Michael Lang, John Roberts and Artie Kornfeld amid a backdrop of social upheaval, the three-day concert had an impact that resonated far beyond the confines of Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, N.Y. With the formation of Woodstock Ventures before the festival, the producers also had the foresight to realize that the event was worth documenting in what ended up as the now-renowned Warner Bros. film and soundtrack album.
"We couldn’t get arrested when we were putting Woodstock together," Rosenman says. "We had no production credits among the four of us that would get anybody to take our phone call. The only way we booked bands was to pay them much more than they’d ever been paid before. And the only way we got a film deal was, two days before the event, Artie Kornfeld managed to talk Warner into it. (Director) Mike Wadleigh had to reach into his own pocket to buy film stock."
The weekend of the event, Rosenman had a sound truck and a 12-track recording facility on-site and camera crews ready. The resulting film has captured the imagination of music fans ever since, creating a resource that instills interest in the event in one generation of music fans after another.
Many of the products related to the 40th anniversary are endorsed by Woodstock Ventures and some are independent, such as unofficial memoirs and photographs. "Some of them are cool and some are pushing the margins a bit," Lang says. "But it’s great that there’s that interest, and the essence of what’s important is really what it means to people in their hearts. The products are just people trying to capitalize on the interest, and that’s OK. We’re a capitalist society and all. But it points to the fact that Woodstock has maintained its place in our culture and our history."
Woodstock the ideal has long interfaced with Woodstock the cash cow. Woodstock Ventures — owned primarily by Rosenman’s family and the Roberts family, with Lang retaining a minority ownership — owns the Woodstock trademarks, including the iconic dove-on-guitar logo.
And while Woodstock-related projects have tapped into consumer interest for decades, the brand has not been exploited or over-saturated, at least by its owners. "We haven’t monetized it much, to be honest," says Lang, who recently published his memoir, "The Road to Woodstock," co-written with Holly George-Warren. "You can’t describe Woodstock as a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow," Rosenman says. "It’s much more the rainbow itself."
So how has Woodstock maintained its profile in popular culture? Rosenman’s answer is properly philosophical. "We had an event that challenged people’s concept of community, and they responded to that challenge over that weekend by essentially re-creating a society that was in danger of falling apart," he says. "That’s a pretty strong beacon, and I guess that beacon continues to shine on some of the darker moments in subsequent years."
While it’s easy to be skeptical of the producers’ idealism in the context of the cash flow at stake, Woodstock Ventures does retain a guiding hand on the use of the brand.
"There are a number of different issues involved in merchandising, and many of them have to do with practical issues such as costs versus selling price, things you just can’t get away from," Rosenman says. "There have been moments in Woodstock’s past where we feel that it may have gotten away from us a little bit, but for the most part we’re pretty strict about reviewing every bit of merchandise or every activity that might come out with Woodstock’s logo or service mark on it."
Perhaps the most important angle, according to Rosenman: Does the opportunity feel like Woodstock? "That may sound a little fuzzy, but in fact there’s no more definitive way of telling whether it’s the right product for us or not than that instant visceral reaction," he says. "We trust ourselves on that because we’ve been doing it for so long."
A second consideration, which surely jibes with the original Woodstock ideals, is environmental friendliness and social impact. "Is this a green product? Does it leave a big carbon footprint? Would we be embarrassed to say we spent money developing and selling things like this back in 2009?" Rosenman asks. "We want our products to be positive, to give a boost to civilization and the community."
The most compelling Woodstock products relate to the initial audio and video recording from the 1969 event. "The record has endured because it’s great bands and great music. It’s as simple as that, and they have stood the test of time," Rosenman says.
This year, Warner and Sony are making a wealth of music available. In June, Rhino released remastered editions of the "Music From the Original Soundtrack and More: Woodstock" and "Woodstock Two" albums and is working closely with Warner Home Video, which released Lang’s "The Road to Woodstock" in July.
From Warner Home Video, a "Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music" director’s cut expands on the content of the original documentary.
On Tuesday (August 18), Rhino tees up "Woodstock — 40 Years On: Back to Yasgur’s Farm," a six-CD collection featuring the Grateful Dead, the Who, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe & the Fish and many others. Painstakingly assembled from Woodstock’s 33 sets, the 77 tracks on the albums are peppered with illuminating stage patter and ambient sound, creating a trippy aural Woodstock experience like none before, according to co-producer Andy Zax.
Rhino also will release on August 25 the soundtrack to the new Ang Lee feature film, "Taking Woodstock." Finally, Rhino put together a two-hour radio special hosted by entertainer/activist Wavy Gravy that will promote the boxed set and other projects and which will be broadcast around the anniversary dates.
Sony Legacy took a different tack with its "The Woodstock Experience" collection in releasing CDs from five Woodstock acts that recorded albums in 1969 for Columbia, Epic and RCA, now all divisions of Sony Music. The project pairs 1969 albums from Santana ("Santana"), Jefferson Airplane ("Volunteers"), Johnny Winter ("Johnny Winter"), Sly & the Family Stone ("Stand") and Janis Joplin ("I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!") with the artists’ Woodstock performances in eco-friendly two-disc packages at $19.98 each.
"The whole idea was to try and share what that year was like for that artist," says Jim Parham, vice president of marketing at Sony Legacy. "For someone like Santana, 1969 was an incredible year because that was the first album."
Among the highest-profile deals is a retail licensing pact with Target for merchandise including T-shirts, apparel, beach towels, posters, calendars, caps and tote bags. The deal was brokered by Live Nation Merchandise (formerly Signatures Network), the industry-leading merchandising firm headed by CEO Dell Furano.
Furano says he expects retail sales of Woodstock-related products to reach between $50 million and $100 million this year, about five times the sales of previous years.
Live Nation Merchandise has handled Woodstock merch for about three years under a worldwide deal with Woodstock Ventures. "I told Michael and Joel when I made the deal that there is no brand that has better captured the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll and communities — the positive side of the ’60s," Furano says. "They’re very involved in every approval; they have a great team. It took us a year to do the Target deal. We all understand this is part of our legacy."
Target’s exclusivity expires at the end of September, and Furano says more retail sales and products will roll out this month at retailers like Macy’s, JCPenney and Kohl’s and specialty stores like Hot Topic, the Gap, Spencer’s and Urban Outfitters. Asked if the Woodstock merchandise would retain commercial clout after the anniversary, Furano replies, "We expect a merry Woodstock holiday season."
Lang recently appeared on QVC promoting Woodstock merchandise in a "very successful show," Furano says.
The potential of expanding the sense of community that permeated the original Woodstock increases exponentially with the power of the Web. Sony Legacy’s Parham supervised the relaunch of Woodstock.com, a site dedicated to community as well as commerce. Lang and Rosenman oversee Woodstock Licensing, a sister company of Woodstock Ventures; Sony Music has a joint venture with Woodstock Licensing to run Woodstock.com.
"Part of what was attractive about relaunching the (site) around the 40th anniversary was there was an opportunity to rebuild the original Woodstock community online, and part of what we’ve been doing over the last few weeks is creating opportunities for people to come and share their experiences at the various festivals with anyone, particularly the people who have been there," Parham says. "It’s sort of a one-stop place to go for anything that pertains to Woodstock."
The value of the brand is obvious but, as always, with the people behind Woodstock Ventures, it’s not all about the money. "We would only form some kind of partnership with someone who was willing to explore the potential of Woodstock for its effect on civilization that goes beyond a financial profit," Rosenman says. "It would have to be somebody who got it, and that’s a tall order."