Can music festival producers tell the future? Of course not. Can organizers make educated guesses and estimations on how their event will work out? Of course. but, in the case of Woodstock ’99 it doesn’t even seem like anyone took caution with anything they did. From the lineup to the location, everything was flawed and once things started to spiral out of control no one knew how to get things organized again. Woodstock ’99 fell into a hellish landscape laden with crime and destruction. Let’s start at the beginning.
The festival took place in late July, and the summer weather was coming down hard on the 200,000+ people (some reported that close to half of million people were in attendance, but that figure is unreliable because sales of passes were capped at 200,000. What isn’t uncertain is that there were far more than 250,000 people in the crowd from people sneaking in and using fake passes to gain entrance) that were attending, and working at the festival [Kreps, p.1]. During it’s run, Woodstock ’99 was actually the 3rd most populated city in the state [Kreps, p.1].
It’s probably common sense, but what do you think that many people would need during the three extremely hot days? Water. Here is another question - what do you think the festival organizers forgot to tell the large amount of people that were buying tickets? To bring water [Kreps, p.1]. Although, what the organizers thought was a good idea was to tell pass buyers not to bring food and drink to avoid “spoiling” [Schuftan, p.354]. Some believe that the festival developers did that on purpose so that they could squeeze every cent out of their attendees, but, when people saw that bottles of water were a staggering $4, and that there were only a few free water fountains that had lines longer than some Disney World rides people began to, to put it lightly, get frustrated [Kreps, p.1]. Ironically, the water fountains were destroyed by the very people who needed it out of sheer frustration and anger towards the festival organizers [Kreps, p.1]. Between the water situation and the fact that people had to walk across a mile and half of boiling hot tarmac, over 700 people throughout the weekend were treated for heat exhaustion [Schuftan, p.355]. The festival was also extremely filthy. Port-o-potties and showers were all located in one place, rather than strategically dispersed. Not only that, but they were located on the edge of a hill above the main camping area. When floods amassed from the over abundance of human waste and dirty water it all flowed down, right towards the campers. Human waste was literally getting into people’s tents [Schuftan, p.356].
Woodstock ’99 is a perfect example of overcrowding as well. It’s one of the leading examples of why music festivals make their attendees wear their passes in the form of bracelets now so that it is harder gain access with a fake pass [Kreps, p.1]. A pass to Woodstock ’99 was $157 dollars, a very high price for festivals of the time [Kreps, p.1]. The organizers thought they could get away with it because of the content being so “top-notch”, as well as having MTV covering the entire event [Kreps, p.1]. They were wrong. According to the Syracuse Post-Standard, "Security guards said they were confiscating fake passes at the rate of 50 an hour at just one gate." [Kreps, p.1]. The overcrowding also served as a problem when festival workers were attempting to get through the crowds, and when attendees were trying to get in and out of the crowds. Many people said they would get lost in the “sea of people” [Kreps, p.1]. Someone in a truck accidentally drove through the crowd attending Fat Boy Slim [Kreps, p.1]. Fat Boy Slim had to stop his set to let the crowd know that a truck was coming though [Kreps, p.1]. When he started the set again he humorously played the Carl Douglas’ 1975 Disco hit “Kung-Fu Fighting” to comment on how it was a literal fight to get through the crowd [Kreps, p.1]. Horde mentality kicked in several times during the festival. Racism, xenophobia, frustration, and anger ran rampant and became contagious. Everyday fights were breaking out in the crowd and several people were hospitalized over the course of the weekend [Kreps, p.1].
It wasn’t just the attendees that made the festival difficult, it was also the artists that fed the fire of destruction. The hip-hop group Insane Clown Posse made their mark when they stirred up some mayhem by throwing $100 bills into the crowd [Kreps, p.1]. People were literally fighting to pick up the money, and, while still in the crowd, people who were catching the bills were being threatened, and getting robbed [Kreps, p.1]. To stage a protest against the hydration problem, Pseudo Country-Rock Musician Kid Rock had his audience throw their water bottles towards the stage, but, people ended up throwing rocks and any other objects that they could get their hands on [Kreps, p.1]. The eponymous singer from Dave Matthews Band made a comment during his set about the amount of nudity he was seeing in his audience, only making more people want to take their clothes off [Kreps, p.1]. When it was Wyclef Jean’s turn to take the stage he wanted to show off his newly learned skills on the guitar, but, maybe his skills were just a little too new. He wanted to pay homage to Jimi Hendrix, but ended up butchering Jimi’s rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, causing the crowd to be angered by his lack of aptitude [Kreps, p.1]. He attempted the cover at the end of his 34-minute set, cut short because of the overwhelming amounts of booing he was receiving [Kreps, p.1]. He even set his guitar on fire on stage to recreate the famous moment when Hendrix did the same action at the first Woodstock. That only fanned the flames of rage in the crowd.
Now we can move onto the really bad matters that occurred at Woodstock ’99. Yes, it sounds impossible, but, all that before doesn’t even shine a light to what you are about to read. Law enforcement was vastly outnumbered by the crowds of Woodstock ’99 [Kreps, p.1]. Yes, that is generally the case at music festivals. There is no way a Police Department can send out anywhere near the number of the audience, but generally a police presence keeps the crime down. Not in this case. The local and state police were receiving support from volunteer security and fire departments from New York City, and unceremoniously, a great deal of the volunteer law enforcement walked away from their positions and abandoned their responsibilities, leaving the police without any support for the vast amount of crimes that were occurring over the course of the weekend [Kreps, p.1].
"At one point I saw this girl, a very petite girl, maybe 100 pounds, who was body-surfing above the crowd and either fell in or was pulled into a circle in the mosh pit," volunteer David Schneider told MTV. "These gentlemen,” using the term loosely, “probably in the 25–32 age range, looked as though they were holding her down. They were holding her arms; you could see she was struggling." [Jacobs, p.1] This is Mr. Schneider recalling his witnessing of a 24-year-old woman being gang raped in the middle of the crowd during Limp Bizkit’s set. The sadder side of this story is that she was not the only one to come forward to report sexual assault [Jacobs, p.1]. Limp Bizkit, while being an incredibly talented band had the knack for exciting their crowds, especially during their performance of their popular single “Break Stuff”. What Fred Durst, lead singer of Limp Bizkit, claims he was unaware of was why the crowd was so amped. People were crowd surfing on pieces of plywood ripped from the stage. Durst wanted to join the crowd in the part and joined the wood paneling surfers on their steeds. Durst claims he had no idea his actions were inciting a riot, that is until the police escorted them from the stage after their set was completed. Violence was next to normal at a lot of their shows, but rape was not. The police report for her rape read: "Due to the congestion of the crowd, she felt that if she yelled for help or fought, she feared she was going to be beaten." [Jacobs, p.1] While anger, and insanity ran rampant over the crowds, fear similarly existed. Many came forward to report sexual assault, but of the forty-four people arrested at Woodstock ’99, only one was charged with sexual assault [Jacobs, p.1].
This leads to the last, and most destructive day of the festival. The day Woodstock ’99 literally became hell on earth, and this is not a comment on the constant heat that plagued the festival. A fire storm broke out during the Red Hot Chili Peppers festival closing set [Jacobs, p.1]. The fires spawned from candles that were handed out into the crowd during RHCP’s song “Under the Bridge”. People were ready to cause some havoc, and when the band started playing Jimi Hendrix’s cover of “Fire” it turned into a catalyst for audience members to start literally setting fires [Jacobs, p.1]. It’s really too bad that Jimi Hendrix’s legacy was causing so much destruction over the weekend. But, after the amount of sheer unhappiness, “Fire” was the flint that ignited the crowd” as Rolling Stone puts it [Kreps, p.1]. Bonfires were started in the crowd, built from anything the starters could find. Clothes, woods, grass, anything. Cars were flipped over and set on fire [Jacobs, p.1]. Vendors booths, camp sites, and merchandise tents were destroyed and used as fuel for the flames [Jacobs, p.1]. Riots broke out. People were everywhere. People starting looting anything they could get their hands on. A lot of people, for very good reasons were scared and began to run and scream out of pure terror, only fanning the flames further. Hours later the police were finally able to to diffuse the problems, but at the end of the whole debacle it seemed as though a war had broken out [Jacobs, p.1].
A week after the festival SonicNet Music News took a reader poll about the event. When asked “Despite its ending in a fiery riot, do you think Woodstock '99 was a success?” 24% said Yes, and 76% said No. Although, from the percentages from the question “Do you wish you were attending Woodstock ’99?” 46% said Yes, and 54% said no [SonicNet Music News, p.1]. It’s surprising to say that the 1999 edition didn’t eternally tarnish the good name of Woodstock. Although, Woodstock has since never done another festival. In 2009 it took the shape of an American Tour calling itself the “Heroes of Woodstock Tour” [Heroes of Woodstock, p.1]. The tour presented several artists from previous editions of the festival such as Melanie, Edgar Wright, and the Levon Helms Band. Not surprisingly though, the tour included no one from the 1999 festival [Heroes of Woodstock, p.1]. Woodstock ’99 was crippled by crime, fires, riots, rape, and greed. The tale of Sodom and Gomorrah was repainted in Rome, New York that weekend in July. Woodstock ’99 left its mark with those terrible qualities, but, there is a lot of lessons that were learned from the disastrous festival.
Safety quickly became top priority at festivals post Woodstock ’99. Tracking the audience and making sure there was enough security presence became important to festival organizers. Strategically dispersing restrooms and showers around a festival is no longer ignored. Water accessibility became very important to festivals, starting a trend of free water stations being available to festival attendees across the nation, as well as bottled water to be sold at a lower price. Festival passes have become harder to fake, taking shape most popularly as wrist bands that people wear. In many cases the wrist bands have RFID technology in them so attendees can scan in and out of the festival grounds. Maybe Woodstock ’99 needed to happen so there could truly be a be-all-end-all example of just what not to do when creating a festival. This is what happens when greed and disorganization rule the flow festival instead of safety and organization. One of the main reasons a disastrous festival like Woodstock ’99 will never happen again is how new technological progresses have shaped the evolution of festivals, mostly, for the better.
1. Kreps, Daniel. "19 Worst Things About Woodstock '99." Rollingstone.com. Rolling Stone, 31 July 2014. Web. 28 May 2016.
2. Schuftan, Craig. Entertain Us. Sydney: ABC, 2012. Print.
3. Jacobs, Matthew. "Let’s Revisit The Chaos Of Woodstock ‘99, ‘The Day The Music Died’." Huffington Post. Huffington Post, 23 July 2014. Web. 28 May 2016.
4. SonicNet Music News. "QOTD RESULTS: WAS WOODSTOCK '99 A SUCCESS?" MTV.com. SonicNet Music News, 27 July 1999. Web. 28 May 2016.
5. The Heroes of Woodstock http://www.theheroesofwoodstock.com/