The Long, Strange Trip of Woodstock Ventures

The Woodstock organizers were in it to make money, but it didn't quite work out that way (not for lack of trying), and two things were definitely in their favor: they had a great idea and knew their audience.
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Woodstock was a business. A very poorly run business. The four organizers, John Roberts (who died in 2001), Joel Rosenman, Michael Lang, and Artie Kornfeld were all in their 20s when they formed a company called "Woodstock Ventures" with the original intention of building a recording studio and retreat in the upstate New York town where Bob Dylan lived. They were in it to make money, but it didn't quite work out that way. It wasn't for lack of trying, though, and two things were definitely in their favor early on: they had a great idea and they knew their audience.

The festival's early "Aquarian Exposition" catch phrase was a calculated reference to the musical "Hair," which was popular with Woodstock Ventures' target audience. The final slogan of "3 Days of Peace & Music" was meant to link the concert to the burgeoning anti-war movement and let the neighbors know they intended to avoid violence. "The cool PR image was intentional," Artie Kornfeld said in a 1994 interview.

The four young entrepreneurs needed more than PR. Here are some facts about Woodstock - the capital adventure.

1. Woodstock Began as a Sitcom Idea

In 1967, John Roberts and Joel Rosenman were roommates. Roberts was heir to a multi-million dollar pharmaceutical company fortune and Rosenman was a Yale Law School grad and part time guitarist for lounge bands. They wanted to produce a sitcom about "two pals with more money than brains and a thirst for adventure." As research, they took out ads in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times which read, "Young men with unlimited capital looking for interesting, legitimate investment opportunities and business propositions." Head shop owner/concert producer Michael Lang and record executive Artie Kornfeld never saw the ad, but heard about the Men with Unlimited Capital. The four of them met and decided to produce a concert instead of a sitcom.

2. The Gender Gap in Pay

The Woodstock partners' first hurdle was to secure the services of the biggest acts they could find. Credibility was a big issue. They had none. Being first time concert producers, no one in the music business was convinced they could pull off such a huge undertaking and - more importantly - pay them. In order to erase any doubt, Woodstock Ventures gave artists a huge pay raise. Jefferson Airplane, whose previous payday was $6,000, was offered $12,000. Headliner Jimi Hendrix took home $32,000. However, none of the female performers were paid more than $10,000. Janis Joplin got $7,000 for her set. The glass ceiling exists in '60s rock, too.

3. Woodstock Was Not in Woodstock

Early on, it was clear the town of Woodstock would not work for the festival location, although the venture still had hopes of building a recording studio in the town after the festival was over. They first settled on an industrial park in the nearby town of Wallkill but the residents - spooked by the thought of thousands of hippies descending on their community - killed the proposal one month before the start date. Luckily, a motel owner in nearby Bethel had a $12 permit to run a music festival and was in dire need of some business. Elliot Tiber decided to introduce himself and his neighbor, Max Yasgur, to Woodstock Ventures. Yasgur owned a neighboring dairy farm. Woodstock ventures made a deal with Yasgur, Tiber, and the town of Bethel, telling them all that no more than 50,000 people would show for the concert.

4. Woodstock Was Not Supposed to Be Free

The four partners expected about 200,000 people would attend the three-day festival. A one day pass cost $7, a two day pass was $13, and a three day pass cost $18. By the time the gates opened, Woodstock Ventures sold $1.1 million dollars in tickets. Only problem? There were no ticket booths at the gate. Plus, once the crowds swelled, the fences were torn down. When the event ended, Woodstock Ventures was over $1 million dollars in debt. According to Roberts, it took until 1980 to finally pay off all of the bills which included refunds to the 12,000 to 18,000 people who bought tickets, but couldn't attend because of the closed roads.

5. It's a Catbird, Not a Dove

The Woodstock dove on the iconic poster is really a catbird. And it was originally perched on a flute. Artist Arnold Skolnick recalls, "I was staying on Shelter Island off Long Island, and I was drawing catbirds all the time. As soon as Ira Arnold (a copywriter on the project) called with the copy-approved '3 Days of Peace & Music,' I just took the razor blade and cut that catbird out of the sketchpad I was using. First, it sat on a flute. I was listening to jazz at the time, and I guess that's why. But anyway, it sat on a flute for a day, and I finally ended up putting it on a guitar."

6. Martin Scorsese: Hippie Editor

Well not a hippie, really. Scorsese (pictured in glasses), by his own account, didn't own a pair of jeans. And he was asthmatic which made him allergic to just about everything on an upstate New York farm. Still, he was a music freak and jumped at the chance to work on the film his NYU classmate Michael Wadleigh was directing. Warner Bros. bought the film rights for $100,000. Scorsese spent the entire three days confined to a nine-foot platform on stage right making sure no shot was missed. Scorsese's co-editor was Thelma Schoonmaker who edits Scorsese's films to this day.

7. The Grateful Dead: Shocked and Stoned

A few performances have been left out of the various Woodstock soundtracks and film edits over the years, most notably The Grateful Dead. Jerry Garcia confessed years later that "As a human being I had a wonderful time, but our performance onstage was musically a total disaster." The reason had more to do with the spiked drinks. According to Venture partner Michael Lang, the band's soundman, Owsley Stanley, insisted on rewiring the stage before the Dead played. As a result, every time the band touched their instruments they got shocked.

8. Iron Butterfly Can't Fly

A day and a half into the festival, Woodstock concert organizers were afraid the over capacity crowd would turn ugly. Between the rain, lack of food, lack of toilets, and drugs they had every reason to be concerned. By day two, they realized that heavy metal group Iron Butterfly was not the right band to play - even though the band was a confirmed act. After arriving in their New York City hotel room, the British group waited for a helicopter to take them to Bethel. And they waited...and waited...and waited.... No helicopter. Iron Butterfly had to wait for the movie to see Woodstock.

9. The Who: C.O.D.

By late Saturday afternoon, the Woodstock Venture was in danger of collapsing. Drugs, rain, and poor planning were threatening to turn the promised three days of peace into full scale bedlam. The "Freak-Out Tent" was overflowing with kids whose drinks and food had been spiked with LSD. Venture partner Michael Lang, who needed to stay straight said, "I didn't drink anything that didn't come from a bottle I didn't wash or open myself." In the midst of this chaos, The Who refused to take the stage unless they got paid up front. After getting a personal check from millionaire venture partner John Roberts, the manager of the local bank fought traffic back to his branch and returned with a cashier's check for the band.

10. Hippies Make a Lot of Trash

And in the end, the love you take is equal to the trash you make. When Woodstock ended on Monday morning, over 600 acres of garbage was left behind on Max Yasgur's farm. It took over 400 volunteers and $100,000 to remove it all. A huge hole was dug to bury shoes, tents, bottles, and other debris. The garbage filled the hole and created a pile of trash that was set on fire, burning for days. The resulting pollution triggered a fine from the town of Bethel - just one of many that would would trail Woodstock Ventures for years.

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