Three chaotic days of peace, music, mud and free love helped immortalize the 1969 Woodstock festival as the touchstone of Sixties counterculture.
Fifty years on, the biggest music festivals could hardly be more different, with corporate sponsors, VIP packages, air conditioned tents, gourmet dining and social media influencers.
Businesses are investing in more than 800 music festivals in the United States alone, drawn by hard-to-reach audiences of millennials who seek experiences along with music.
“Sponsorship is a huge part of the revenue streams. For big festivals, it runs to seven figure numbers,” said Andy Gensler, executive editor of music touring publication Pollstar.
“The cost of talent and the back end production costs can be enormous, so sponsorship is part and parcel for these festivals to survive and thrive,” Gensler said.
Gone are the days when music fans slept in the open air, survived on junk food and put up with smelly porta potties.
At annual gatherings like Coachella in the California desert, Bonnaroo in Tennessee and Lollapalooza in Chicago, fans get flushable toilets, art installations, sneaker cleaning, roller skating rinks, mini spa treatments and sex therapy sponsored by the likes of Revlon, American Express, Durex condoms and Hewlett Packard.
“The millennial consumer wants and craves experiences. They want to touch and feel, and they want to do that with other people,” said Brian Gordon, chief executive of U.S. based sports and entertainment marketing agency Engine Shop.
“You see elements of art or food working their way into music festivals to give a broader cultural experience,” Gordon said.
Amenities are not the only things that have changed. With rap and R&B surpassing rock for the first time in 2017 as the biggest music genre in the United States, stars like Beyonce, Cardi B. and Jay-Z are now among the most sought-after festival headliners.
While rock bands like the Rolling Stones and the Eagles dominate touring, they attract an older fan base “and the last thing they want to do is go to a festival and camp and commune with 100,000 people,” Gensler said.
The Coachella festival, held over two weekends in the California desert for some 100,000 people, had 19 named sponsors in 2019. At $9,500 for two people, the top package included real beds in air conditioned tents, private parking and golf cart transport to the stage.
Brands spent more than $1.6 billion in 2018 on sponsoring U.S. music festivals, tours and venues, up from $1.2 billion in 2011, according to estimates from IEG, global sponsorship consultants.
More than 85% of that spending was on music festivals, with lifestyle brands, health drinks and cannabis products among some of the biggest new entrants, IEG said.
While Woodstock’s 400,000 attendees in 1969 waded in mud after a thunderstorm, skinny dipped in a pond and dealt with shortages of food and toilets, festival goers at Coachella can dine at pop-ups from some of the trendiest restaurants in Los Angeles, while models and celebrities pose for Instagram-able moments at private pool parties organized by beauty and fashion labels.
The Coachella festival grossed $114.6 million in 2017 over two weekends, according to the most recent figures reported by Billboard Boxscore, which said revenue had jumped seven fold from 2007. The 1969 Woodstock festival incurred debts of about $1.4 million.
One exception to the growing commercial trend is Glastonbury in southern England, where the most visible brand names are Oxfam, Greenpeace and WaterAid. Glastonbury, which began in 1970 and also has seen its fair share of mud, has donated millions of dollars to good causes from proceeds from the event, which attracts around 200,000 people.
While music festivals have changed radically, Gordon said their recent evolution has echoes back to Woodstock.
“Woodstock wasn’t just about the music. It was a shared cultural experience. Obviously, music festivals today are very different than Woodstock was in terms of what that cultural experience was, but they are not just about the music,” Gordon said.