How Woodstock Hobbled the American Rock Festival for 30 Years

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Graham Nash, of Crosby, Stills and Nash, sees the glory days of the American rock festival as the beginning of corporate interest in such events.

“When 300,000 or 400,000 kids are assembled in one particular place,” Nash said, “that’s when all the corporations started to think: ‘My God, a captive audience. I can sell them another pair of sneakers and another cola here.’”

Nash’s band was one of those that got a glimpse of its commercial power at Woodstock. The group had released its debut album just two months before the festival and was making its second major appearance there. By 1974, the band — then joined by Neil Young, as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young — was rock royalty, and went on a major stadium tour that became a blueprint for the industry.

The American rock festival was dying out, even as it blossomed in Europe. With top acts pursuing their own large-scale tours, where they controlled the environment and stood to earn the most, there was little reason for rockers to play festivals well through the 1980s and ’90s.

“Until acts got paid a premium for doing a festival,” said Mitch Rose, a top agent at C.A.A., “there was probably no incentive for them to do a festival.”

That began to change with Coachella, which was partly conceived as a California-mellow version of big European festivals like Glastonbury (minus the mud, plus heat and dust). Coachella lost money in its early days, but now the festival, and offshoots like Desert Trip — the 2016 classic-rock Valhalla that featured the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, the Who, Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Roger Waters — have become some of the industry’s most coveted cash cows, with gross ticket sales in excess of $100 million.

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