Festival tourism and the historic Woodstock Music & Arts Fair 1969  

Imagine for a second that you are standing among 400.000 people, all dancing to the amazing music of The Who. You look to your right where a couple, with flower bands in their hair, is passionately kissing on a blanket in the middle of the crowd. You look at your own feet, drained in mud, because the field you stand on has been crushed under the 400.000 sandals, slippers and bare feet. The smell of marijuana fills the air and from the corner of your eye you see a girl getting naked to jump in a muddy pond. Toilets are a luxury you forgot about already and while sweat drips down your forehead you sing along the lyrics and slowly sink into a sort of high that covers the crowds, welcome to Woodstock 1969.

Music festivals in the 21st century are a globalised phenomenon, but the description of the iconic Woodstock is something unthinkable today. Fields crushed into mud, no (or little) sanitary facilities, drugs and nudity and too many people aren’t found in today’s festival scene, and yet, Woodstock Music and Arts Fair set the tone for festival tourism in 1969. What made this chaotic event worth travelling for?   

Woodstock has been widely recorded in the music world, and now we will delve into it from a tourism perspective. The festival took place in an era when many tried to create such an event, and Woodstock became, by far, the most successful and impressive one of its age. Because this phenomenon of an accidental massive rock music festival holds a secret we might have forgotten today.

Festival Tourism

As a frequent festivalgoer myself I noticed the exclusion of these events in the tourism studies. It can be said that people travel across the globes to see performances or to be part of the unique atmospheres on music festivals. Due to globalisation, festivals grow each year and contribute to a worldwide scene where all layers of society join together. From small scale local festivals to unthinkable crowds from all over the world dancing together.

When people travel specifically for festivals, we call this festival tourism. In the case of this article, we focus specifically on music festivals. However, festival tourism in general includes all festival related to tourism also for example traditional festivals around religion. A festival is also seen in tourism as a way to promote a place, create economic profits, develop a positive name for a place and contribute to the feeling of belonging and identity of both residents and visitors. This suggest that it is important to research the functioning of a festival, its impact and the people who attend. And what better way to develop future festivals than to learn from the past, a very unique past of music festivals.

Woodstock 1969

Woodstock was organised by 4 men with some experience in the upcoming festival scene; M. Lang, A. Kornfeld, J. Rosenman & J.P. Roberts. The latter two financed the project. Around 1969 a new consumer culture arose formed by the baby boom generation who had become young-working-adults looking for leisure to spend their money. New music styles and counter movements made their way in society and rock music became one of the many forms to express opinions on society. This had a massive impact on the economy who adapted to this new consumerism, including the music scene.

Woodstock tickets were no exception to this consumer society and could be bought upfront for 18 dollars. There were already around 100.000 tickets pre-sold while the original estimation of attending tourists was 50.000.

A last-minute change of venue from Woodstock NY to Bethel NY left the organisers under pressure to arrange everything in a quick order. Unfortunately for the organisers, people arrived early at the festival terrain, and the fences and ticket booths didn’t hold, resulting in a free festival.

Word spread fast, not global but definitely throughout America. The older generation had lost ‘power’ since the big market to invest in and focus on existed of this independent young generation. So once one heard about this music festival where peace and escaping into music formed the message, many felt the need to be a part of this. These days big topics entailed the Vietnam War and the Cold War and music reflected this in lyrics and sound. The festival had over 400.000 tourists and Bethel was forever put on the map both in history and in the hearts of the festival tourists.

The Roads to Woodstock

Since the organisation of Woodstock did not expect over 400.000 attendees, the infrastructure and facilities where not build to last. From a touristic orientation one would describe these as major dysfunctions and it could be argued that in contemporary society one would believe it to be impossible to host a successful festival with these functions lacking. Against all odds Woodstock turned into a (perhaps barely but) manageable free festival, attracting even more people.

The dysfunctions of Woodstock were attempted to be solved during the festival. There are accounts of last-minute arrangements of food, water, security and sanitary facilities. However, Woodstock also went into history as a dirty, muddy festival yet the tourist mostly couldn’t care. The quotes of people getting ill or unhappy seem rare or insignificant compared to the overall experience of the festival.

Highways and local roads were stuffed with traffic towards the festival and many tourists found their way by foot or hitch-hiking. The locals seemed to accept the situation and observe rather than complain. All adding to this accidental uniqueness of Woodstock with the massive crowds of happy people.

Woodstock Appeal

In tourism it is always important to note the motivations of the tourist to travel. For some reason a festival itself sounds like immediate motivation to leave the house, but the question arises of the reasons why a festival is worth to travel for. From the historical accounts on Woodstock several motives appeared to move people to the festival.

Firstly, the wish to escape into music for several days was very appealing. Also today, a festival is seen as a place where people get away from the mundane and transform their identity, temporarily, into an identity in flow with the festival culture. This contemporary view might have counted for Woodstock too. Some believe the crowd of Woodstock to have set the tone for today’s festival identity.

The need for Woodstock’s generation to escape is also related to the ongoing Vietnam War. Many feared for their conscription or had already been called for duty. The festival could be seen as a way to put those fears on hold and enjoy the music. Many intended to hold on to this feeling of transformation and incorporate it in their identity.  

The festival identity of the tourists at Woodstock could also be seen as a more explicit expression of the existing counter cultures, e.g. the hippie culture advertising make love, not war. These countercultures were a consequence from ongoing changes at the time. For example, the availability of birth control leading to sexual freedom or the ongoing war which made many angry and against violence. Media also influence the crowds and famous artists and their behaviour influenced for example the drugs scene. This could also be counted as a motivation for some to go to Woodstock.,

Other motivations for tourists to go to festivals are to discover an unusual atmosphere and interesting or exotic culture. Many of Woodstock tourists came from the curiosity to discover this atmosphere that they heard about and decided in the moment to travel to the festival site.

The motivation to meet people with similar interests or interact with friends is also found in the accounts of Woodstock visitors and became an important part of this festival becoming part of history, more on this later. These are also motives for festival tourism today. However, Woodstock is said to have had an almost miracle like, united crowd.  

The final and obvious reason to join a festival, in past and present times, is the music itself! Witnessing a live performance will beat sitting at home and listening a song. This motivation leads to the next important aspect of festival tourism: acquiring cultural capital.

Cultural Capital

Cultural capital refers to the value of having knowledge of culture. Knowledge of arts and music in history was connected to classical arts, but this has been extended to popular culture, counterculture and all that finds its place in arts & culture. The beautiful opportunity created on festivals to acquire cultural capital for big crowds has been just as important back in the day as it still is today.

Music is a very important part of culture and can also be understood to create a culture of its own. Woodstock being a Music and Arts fair probably attracted artists since it formed a place for them to present their work. The organisers of the festivals were able to book many musical acts because the artists also must have acknowledged performing as a way to spread their culture. Woodstock and the performances contributed to intangible heritage, the untouchable things we wish to preserve, and the creation of festival culture among numbers of tourists never seen before Woodstock. The festival impacted the lives of many, and in many ways.

Impact Made

Woodstock became an achievement, unique for its time because of multiple reasons, several have been mentioned e.g. the fact that it became a free festival. Another important reason and impact the festival made was that it created a feeling of community, social cohesion. It became a place where social transgression, neglecting daily norms of behaviour, is controlled and okay with the purpose to let off steam.

For example, social transgression can be seen in the drug use at Woodstock. Also, nudity was documented by attendees to the festival. People who washed themselves in the ponds naked, is a form of social transgression yet in the Woodstock environment it was fully accepted. Drugs and nudity are said to have become part of barometers for a festival’s success.

 It is also believed that Woodstock was successful thanks to the ongoing war that shaped the peace seeking community already before the festival. The fact that people with these same ambitions met at Woodstock can be seen as a self-fulfilling prophecy of community feeling. If the festival appealed to all generations or different countercultures the community feeling could have been different. Lucky for Woodstock the part of this generation that joined the crowds, were denying traditional values and promoters of peace achieved the iconic atmosphere.

This would mean that Woodstock and the festival tourist didn’t have any actual power within an anti-war movement. At least not in creating a new one, perhaps only in strengthening existing feelings. Still the crowd is believed to have an empowering experience, some might even call them utopian dreamers

“Up until then, war protesters with long hair were a minority in my town and even in my college. The festival proved that there were many, many more people my own age with the same liberal beliefs as me.”                               – 21-year-old male from Watervliet (Walsh, 2020)

Woodstock successful

It is said that Woodstock changed people’s perceptions of rock festivals even though many other attempts to organise rock festivals kept on failing in the 70’s. Woodstock managed to create an atmosphere that no one knew was possible before, if we were to believe the accounts from the festival goers.

At the time many were carrying concerns about peace and war. The fact that over 400.000 people were able to enjoy music for several days without fight, anger or major issues was a way for the tourists to reconcile. Woodstock became iconic, marking the memories of many as a symbol of peace and togetherness.   

Looking at the success of Woodstock from a tourist perspective we would measure the uniqueness and liminality, the possibility to transform one’s identity (temporarily). Therefor it can be argued that Woodstock was very successful and paved the way for developing festival tourism even further. The uniqueness of Woodstock might have been accidental at first but very important non-the-less for shaping a community that might have formed the foundation of America’s festival scene and inspired people around the world, even today.

Woodstock today

Today Woodstock remains almost a legend for those too young to have participated and a memory for those lucky to have been there. From Woodstock many great music festivals have followed and the tourism industry adapted to these events. The original place of the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair 1969 has become a museum and part of treasured cultural landscapes. In the museum, one can hear accounts of the festival and feel as if one was there.

Looking at this historical unique event, the community created and the movement it created amongst Americans to travel for the festival, I can argue for the importance of future festival tourism development. The dysfunctions of Woodstock did not deduce the attendees but today these dysfunctions might not be taken so lightly. The secret to this? I believe the one ingredient we are missing today is the spontaneity!

For me the most important part of a festival is the atmosphere and community feeling. The transformation from mundane into festival tourist. Today the festivals are organised into perfect detail, but the beauty of Woodstock lay in its spontaneous massive crowds. From the 400.000 people only 100.000 had pre-sold tickets, everyone else came in the moment. This feeling, this crowd, the appeal of the festival it has all to do with unplanned circumstances. One can only wonder about the tourist flows that might take place once COVID19 has left the world. In the 70’s the new independence of the youth brought, among other aspects, self-expression and the celebration of life in music festivals to a new level. What will the after-lockdown freedom and spontaneity bring to the world of festival tourism?

Amy Ruiters

 Radboud University Tourism & Culture



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