The man who brought Woodstock to the world explains how to bring big ideas to life
Just beneath the surface of every music festival’s flashing lights, cohesive aesthetic, and iconic performances are a plethora of moving parts sliding into place at the very last second to bring the event to fruition. Often times, as you cheer your favorite artist taking the stage, a coordinator and manager somewhere breathe a sigh of relief at the contract that’s finally been signed or the mis-shipped instruments that have just arrived. But the performance goes off without a hitch and you, the ecstatic audience member, are none the wiser that hundreds of humans have been calling and emailing one another for months to bring about the moment.
With GOODFest’s inaugural NYC show a day away and the team behind it facing these baptism-by-fire challenges firsthand, we decided to reach out to friend of the company and Godfather of festival planning, Michael Lang, for some last-minute tips on how to best create a fest for change.
To see the fest for yourself, tune in to goodfest.live for the livestream, starting with Glass Animals, Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Shilpa Ray playing the BAM Cafe in NYC.
GOOD: Care to give a brief summarization of your background?
Michael Lang: I started out doing Music in the Parks in Coconut Grove, Florida in the mid-‘60s and went on to produce the Miami Pop Festival. Then, a year later, the Woodstock Music & Art Fair. I’ve been involved in the entertainment business ever since: festivals, record production, management, television, and film.
Woodstock was one of the first major cause-driven music festivals. How did that coalesce?
The driving force behind Woodstock was simply “give peace a chance.” It happened at a time when the “peace and love” and “flower power” dream was dying on the vine. It was an angry time. There was a very unpopular war, riots and political violence all over the country and world, so we thought we’d take a breath and get out of the routine of what our environment was providing and see if we could take out to the country and give it a go. A lot of the counter culture issues of the day had to do with ecology and the food we’re eating. Organic growth was already prevalent amongst the counterculture. Earth Day was started the year after Woodstock to highlight problems with the planet and the way we were treating it. So many of the social issues of the day were represented there at Woodstock.
What else was Woodstock ahead of its time on that we’re only now just catching up with?
It seems to have been a blueprint for all the modern festivals that have happened since. Woodstock was designed to be open and inviting to anyone who wants to be a part of it. It was designed so that if you didn’t have a ticket you could come anyway. And there were free campgrounds and free kitchens. That turned out to be sort of the plan for everyone. Nonetheless, it was planned to be non-confrontational and encouraged community. I think a bit more of that in modern day festivals would be a welcome addition. Obviously not every event has to be about social justice issues, but more of them should be.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen young people become more socially and politically involved. What’s your advice for the kids just getting their feet wet in those areas?
Dive right in because we need it now more than ever. We saw with the Bernie campaign that people were starting to wake up and get activated, but it was maybe coming from Bernie, and not them. So the kids really need to take up the mantle themselves. But there seem to be little flames here and there that are actually catching on.
As this is GOOD’s first foray into festival planning, do you have any sage wisdom to impart or advice on pitfalls to avoid?
You really need adequate time to put it together properly. It’s very heroic to try and do this all in six weeks – and we’ll get it done – but it’d certainly be more comfortable if we had a little more time. It creates a wider wake and greater visibility the more time you have to prepare the public for it. Beyond that, you always want to bring people on board who are better at it than you are. That’s always been my mantra: hire people smarter than me. And if the motivations for it are great and there’s a lot of heart involved, that’s pretty much 90 percent of what you need. Though, that other 10 percent is vitally important too.
Are their any current musicians who are standing out to you with regards to the balance of their art and activism?
A good number of musicians have their own causes that they’re personally involved with and give a great deal of their time to. The Bonos and Neil Youngs and the like give a commendable amount of their time to social issues. It’s a bit hard to judge anyone on that basis, though, as bands get asked to do something pretty much every day. Most do give of their time, but you just can’t do it all. For me, I really consider it more of a missed opportunity for the producers of these events to not include more of those components to their events. I think festivals are a great vehicle for social change. And that’s what’s so great about events like Global Citizen [Festival] and GOODFest. It proves there are ways to have for-profit or non-profit events that still advance the important issues of our time.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.