Three Things I Learned About Brand Storytelling from Netflix’s “Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99”

Farhoud Meybodi, Commercial Director - Honor Society / Founder - Ritual Arts

Netflix recently released a limited series about the epic failure that was Woodstock 1999, aptly titled Trainwreck. For those of you who don’t remember, Woodstock ’99 was a Millennial reimagining of the legendary music festival from 1969. Watching the series inspired me to take a deep dive into Woodstock mythos, and think up a few ways the ’99 festival can serve as a cautionary tale for brands.

The 1969 festival rocketed Woodstock into the global consciousness as one of the foremost culture brands of its era. And sadly, mismanagement and greed on the part of Michael Lang (initial co-founder) and John Scher (supposedly New Jersey’s most successful concert promoter), the two organizers of the ‘99 event, took a blowtorch to that legacy. But before we get to the trainwreck, let’s talk about the OG Woodstock.

The Woodstock Music and Art Fair was promoted as three days of peace and love meant to build a bridge between rock culture and the movement to end the war in Vietnam. It was equal parts cultural flashpoint and spiritual celebration that kicked off at a time of great upheaval in the United States. In the shadows of the Manson Murders, COINTELPRO, and the civil rights movement, young people were pushing against the status quo in droves. And so, on August 15th 1969, roughly 500,000 people made the pilgrimage to Max Yasgur’s idyllic 600 acre dairy farm in Bethel, NY to bask in the magic of Joan Baez, Jimi Hendrix, Santana, Ravi Shankar, Richie Havens, Janis Joplin and a dream line up of Rock n’ Roll royalty. It was the most famous free concert of all time. There were no acts of violence. No sexual assaults. Woodstock was an almost utopian playground, where masses of people could express themselves freely, without fear of judgment.

And while the event itself didn’t make a profit, a 1970 feature documentary by Michael Wadleigh grossed over $50 million at the box office, helping pay off all outstanding debts from the festival. The film served as the foundation of the Woodstock brand and became the engine behind its commercial legacy. Soon afterward, the organizers established Woodstock Ventures, which would create products, license content, and put on events, in the same vein as the Woodstock festival. Rhino even sold a 38 disc box set of all the original 1969 performances for a bargain price of $799.00, which is the perfect segue to the shit-storm that was Woodstock ’99.

If Woodstock ‘69 was peace and love, the reboot was all about violence and anger. A byproduct of MTV’s commercialism and bro culture run amok. Long gone were the world-renowned, anti-war artists singing about consciousness and unity. No, this version was dominated by hyper-aggressive nu-metal bands whipping the 400,000-person crowd into a rabid frenzy. But more on that later.

Honor your audience and bring value to their lives:

Woodstock ’69 galvanized young people, and for many, served as a peak, life-defining weekend. And I bet their emotional bond with the brand only deepened over the years. For them, Woodstock would always serve as a North Star of what was possible when people came together in harmony to dream big dreams. Why couldn’t the organizers bring this audience back for another three-day festival in ‘99? Maybe even feature a few of the bands from ‘69 or the iconic performers who missed the original: Paul Simon, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac--the list goes on. Looking at the lineup from ‘99, you’ll see a world of difference, long gone were the anti-war songs. Now, Limp Bizkit, Korn, Kid Rock, The Offspring, Megadeath, and Buckcherry reigned supreme.

In opting for a hard rock/metal focus, the organizers shifted the tectonic plates of the festival, and in the process, alienated their core audience. Sure, there’s an argument to be made that Woodstock ‘99 was an opportunity to bring in a new, younger demo for the brand. I get it, but don’t try to expand your audience while undermining the people who have supported your company from day one. Woodstock ‘99 needed its elders (badly), they’re important culture keepers, and if the organizers had included them in ’99, maybe all those Millennials could have gotten a master class on how to properly show up at the festival.

When crafting sincere brand storytelling, it’s important that we start with crystal clarity around our core audience. Who are they? What are their needs/wants/values? What does your brand experience conjure up for them emotionally? And when you figure this out, be unbending in how you reinforce this emotional connection, and bring value to their lives. These folks are your company's wellspring.

Don’t just talk about your values, live them:

Perhaps the most striking difference between Woodstock ‘69 and ‘99 was the location. Griffiss Air Force base in Rome, NY is a sprawling 3500-acre slab of flat land, essentially tarmac, concrete and unkempt grass, with none of the tranquil vibes that made Yasgur’s farm so special. It was an ode to the might of the military industrial complex, a far cry from the anti-war, counter cultural force that unified the original festival goers under a banner of peace.

When those hippies walked barefoot across lush grass and past majestic trees on Yasgur’s farm in 1969, you better believe they tapped into a sense of deep peace. The location was instrumental in reinforcing the brand’s core values. On the flip side, in ‘99 attendees were bombarded with a 102-fahrenheit heat wave, littered garbage, bland concrete/asphalt as far as the eye could see, and a 1.5 mile long hike between the stages, which made things unbearable. If the organizers really wanted them to feel peace, then they should have picked a venue that brought that feeling to life.