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Woodstock has long since traveled to the marketing mainstream.
But the cascade of retro merch ahead of its 40th anniversary — including pricy items such as tapestries, fine art photographs, and a $500 box set featuring the “Woodstock Experience” coffee-table book by official festival photographer Henry Diltz — brings with it a dose of irony.
“The counterculture was gone a long time ago,” said Michael Lang, who created the Woodstock Music and Art Fair 40 years ago with then-Capitol Records executive and fellow Brooklyn native Artie Kornfeld.
“If you can do something with a brand that can have a positive effect and doesn’t hurt the brand, there’s nothing wrong with that,” Lang said of marketing the Sixties phenomenon. Lang, Kornfeld and Woodstock backer Joel Rosenman have been doing that through Woodstock Ventures, originally formed in February 1969 to stage the event that drew almost 500,000 people to Max Yasgur’s farmland at White Lake in Bethel, N.Y.
• A Summer of Love apparel collection of T-shirts and baby-doll tops exclusive to Target was a near sellout in about two weeks, when licensing agent Live Merchandise expected it to be available for the summer season.
• “The Woodstock Experience,” in the form of a Sony/Legacy limited edition box set of 10 CDs plus memorabilia is an Amazon top-40 rock bestseller (at $77.49, reduced from $99.98) in its first six weeks.
• An exhibit of about 50 Woodstock artifacts, including John Sebastian’s tie-dyed cape, which have become emblematic of the event, are on display for five months at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland.
Marketing has become the way many people try to experience Woodstock anew, said Kate Newlin, of Kate Newlin Consulting and author of “Passion Brands” (Prometheus Books: 2009). “It’s a seminal event in our lives together, and we’re processing it as a marketing event,” Newlin said. “Marketing as a way we experience things, versus ceremonies, parades — social gatherings not primarily linked to the selling of something — has resonated [very] strongly. Life-event marketing moves us from one thing to another. This speaks to the rising commercial aspect of our lives. We mourn Michael Jackson and take his records to number one.”
It also reflects the demystification of an event that in its time was considered a threat to the status quo. “As it grows older, we take the danger out,” generation expert Neil Howe said. “It no longer seems disrupting. We’re left with the artifice.”
Amusement about the packaging and marketing of Woodstock probably runs strongest among Baby Boomers, who by Howe’s markers are now 49 to 66. “The people who make fun of the whole idea are the Boomers themselves,” he said. “Woodstock was supposed to be antimaterialist. Younger generations don’t have a problem with marketing. Gen-Xers and Millennials are more like, ‘Why not market it?’”
Especially since they’re fascinated with the pop culture being repackaged. “What’s amazing is how younger generations defer to the excellence of Boomer pop culture,” added Howe, 57, who graduated from high school himself in 1969. “I’ve got a son who knows more about the Sixties and Seventies bands than I do.”
One Baby Boomer having a laugh about Woodstock is Bob Wendover, 54, director of the Center for Generational Studies in Aurora, Colo. Wendover was invited to a “come as your favorite hippie” Woodstock party Saturday for a friend who was turning 60. “Baby Boomers are always going back to the past,” Wendover said. “They had happy childhoods, despite the Vietnam War and [fight for] civil rights, and they like to reflect back to that time.”
After 40 years, “it may make you feel nostalgic in more of a good way,” suggested Holly George-Warren, a former editor at Rolling Stone and co-author of Lang’s new book, “The Road to Woodstock” (Ecco: $29.99). In 1969, “there was a lot of griping in the counterculture by people opposing the festival as a rip-off of the culture. Even [rock impresario] Bill Graham was adamantly against the festival at first; [he thought] these upstarts were usurping his efforts.”
People’s interest in owning and experiencing a piece of Woodstock was evident in the viewer response to a one-hour QVC offering of festival-related goods on July 22 by Lang and Baron Wolman, who photographed the event for Rolling Stone. “We sold a considerable amount of merchandise — $150,000 worth at 2 a.m.,” Wolman said of the relatively inexpensive products, which included T-shirts, CDs, photos and books. “Woodstock — Three Days That Rocked the World,” a limited edition of Wolman’s photographs, plus Wolman’s picture of Carlos Santana at the festival, signed by the photographer, went for $42.
“Even with an increase in sales of digital music, there is still a demand for the physical product,” Rich Yoegel, director of merchandising for QVC, said of the decision to televise the network’s “Woodstock Festival 40th Anniversary Celebration.”
“In addition to our focus on the now-collectible, physical product, QVC also has the opportunity to bring the music to life through our on-air guests’ stories or by having the artist perform live,” Yoegel said.
The two priciest Woodstock items on QVC went for $150: a framed replica of the original dove-on-a-guitar-neck poster paired with authentic Woodstock tickets, and a limited edition print of the crowd, which Wolman captured onstage with his “widest-angle lens.”
One thing that has changed markedly is the sprawling enterprise Woodstock Ventures has become. Originally funded with $495,000 — $220,000 of it for the festival — from venture capitalist John Roberts, a business partner of Rosenman’s, the business has grown to encompass licensing ventures in video, such as Warner’s new “3 Days of Peace & Music: Ultimate Collector’s Edition” DVD/Blu-ray; a new two-hour documentary, “Woodstock: Now and Then,” produced by Barbara Kopple, which airs Friday on VH1 and Monday on the History Channel; Lang and George-Warren’s Woodstock memoir, and merchandise deals in about 30 countries via Live Nation Merchandise, the licensing agent of Woodstock Ventures. Products range from guitar straps and picks to blankets, beach towels, glassware, coasters and mugs.
Spencer Gifts has been carrying some of the goods in the U.S. In Japan, there is even a cobranded license for purses featuring both the “Peanuts” cartoon character Woodstock and messages of “Woodstock: 1969-2009” and “Love.” The offer of products in the U.S. via 20 licensees of Live Nation Merchandise — granted the Woodstock “master license” by Woodstock Ventures in 2005 — has generated retail sales of about $10 million this year, said Michael Krassner, Live Nation’s executive vice president of retail and licensing.
“Target had exclusivity on the Woodstock-inspired Summer of Love’ apparel through September; J.C. Penney, Macy’s, Gap and Kohl’s are [expected to] bring in Woodstock product after that,” Krassner said. As of Aug. 3, target.com was offering a handful of Woodstock-related goods, including two slim-fit cotton Summer of Love T-shirts at $8.99 apiece (even though “Summer of Love” actually refers to 1967); a silver metal beverage bucket imprinted with the dove-on-guitar-neck symbol ($16.99), and the “Woodstock 40th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition” Warner Home Video Blu-ray set ($59.99). The remaining Ts were gone from the site on Aug. 4.
Woodstock’s trip to the mainstream began in the Eighties, historians and generation experts said, pegging its broader acceptance to the quieting of social and cultural disruptions and the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan to the White House. “People came to terms with it in 1989, and totally by 1999,” Howe said of 10-year anniversary intervals. “In 1979, the values it represented were still extremely controversial and many targets of that countercultural movement were still in power.”
Lang himself retreated from the fair he staged just after the event, and only returned to Woodstock Ventures 15 years ago. “Right after it, I shut all that out. It was an overpowering event,” said Lang, head of the Michael Lang Organization, an event production and artist management group. “It was a hard thing to get away from.”
There’s an underlying theme that’s been the basis of marketing Woodstock, said Diltz, the only photographer of the event who was paid by Woodstock Ventures ($500 and round-trip airfare). He characterized that feeling as, “We’ve done it. Let’s all get along. Why are we fighting?”
Now, there’s Woodstock as museum piece. “Woodstock: The 40th Anniversary” opened July 3 at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, two years after the Whitney Museum of American Art’s “Summer of Love” show. The exhibit, scheduled to run through Nov. 29, showcases a variety of “artifacts” including apparel, footwear, drawings and layouts of the festival grounds, letters of regret from acts including the Moody Blues, who could not make the dates, and excerpts from the original “Woodstock” movie.
Among the highlights are the cape and jacket worn onstage by Sebastian, who Diltz said was tie-dying all of his clothes and bedsheets, as well as the tent he was living in. Also on display are the brown leather boots Stephen Stills wore in performance, the brown vest donned by Lang during the festival and a letter from Apple Records offering Billy Preston, James Taylor and a conceptual artwork to stand in for the Plastic Ono Band. (Plastic Ono’s John Lennon was unable to gain admittance to the U.S. at that time.) The letter from Apple went overlooked as festival leaders scrambled to pull the event together.
“I’m as surprised as anybody about the sheer volume of all that’s going on this year with Woodstock as a marketed phenomenon,” said Jim Henke, the museum’s vice president of exhibitions and chief curator. “It was a cultural turning point for rock, a who’s who of the late Sixties, early Seventies,” he added. “If not for Woodstock, you would not have a lot of the other festivals you have now.”