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.
Another foundational brand value was love. Probably the most game changing part of ’66 was the almost familial level of support felt by the attendees. Sure, there were some half million people there, but there was also a radical sense of intimacy and harmony that permeated into all the things. People showed each other compassion, shared food (and LSD), and even though many of them were nude, there was no air of objectification or sexualization. The community showed up to care for one another and you could feel it everywhere. Woodstock was the ultimate safe space.
This couldn’t have been further from ’99. Sexual assault and the objectification of women, were pervasive. Throughout the festival, women emcees and musicians were berated with shouts of “show us your tits” from the crowd. And while nudity was once again a cornerstone of the festival, the culture around it was aggressive and predatory in nature. This extended all the way to the Woodstock website where the event was being live-streamed and photos of nude female festival-goers were posted without their consent. The comments section was terrible. Sadly and predictably, multiple women were raped and assaulted at ‘99. And this number only skyrocketed during Limp Bizkit’s set, after Fred Durst incited the crowd into a melee with “Break Some Shit.” Truly horrific.
All in all, some 44 people were arrested, but only one was charged with sexual assault (not surprising for a crime that almost always goes unpunished). For an organization that prides itself on “peace and love,” it’s critical that every touchpoint of the Woodstock experience, from the event itself to the website, to advertising, concessions, and the musical line-up, be rooted in these values. Without this, there can be no sincerity or social impact or real, long-lasting emotional connection with the audience. BS your customers and you run the risk of losing them for good. Or even worse, they may unleash their wrath. This leads to my third takeaway.
Never put profit before customer experience:
Throughout the lifecycle of ‘99, Lang and Scher made terrible decision after terrible decision, always putting profit first. When they chose an air force base as their venue, it was because the existing infrastructure helped save on construction and facilities costs. When they partnered with vendors that charged $4.00 for a bottle of water and $12.00 for a slice of pizza (in 1999), they forced attendees into an angry and desperate state. When they cut costs by hiring outsourced providers, it resulted in subpar services at every level: layers of garbage covered the festival grounds, porta-potties were overflowing with waste, and even the drinking water was contaminated with feces. Security was underfunded and incapable of handling the waves of injured attendees that flowed in nonstop throughout the festival.
But the pièce de résistance of dumb ideas came from Lang on the final night of the festival. He ordered festival staff to hand out 100,000 candles during the final performance in hopes that they’d create the largest candlelight vigil in history. What took place afterward was everything you can imagine 400,000 angry, dehydrated young people would do after three days of living in a Lord of the Flies-like environment, amidst garbage, poo water, and hyper-aggressive music….the candles were used to start bonfires throughout the crowd, which then led to looting, and an all-out riot. Cars were flipped over and lit on fire. The era of peace, love, and music crashed and burned on the sweltering tarmac of an Air Force base in Rome, NY.
Making money is an important part of any business. But when Lang and Scher prioritized profit before their customer’s health, wellness, safety, and overall experience, they were telling them, in so many words, that they didn’t value them as customers. And I believe this made it easy for some of the attendees to strike back at the corporate entity that was Woodstock and really “Break Some Shit.” Empathy and humanity are everything. Especially for a brand founded on altruistic and socially impactful values like Woodstock Ventures. And especially during times of economic devastation or recession.
I believe it’s the brands that value their audience as human beings and take the time to invest positively in their lives, these are the companies that thrive in the short term while also maintaining customers for a lifetime--which Lang and Scher managed to bungle in every way possible. I’d like to close with something hopeful, and what’s in my opinion the most impactful performance from ‘69. I’ll close with the incomparable Richie Havens, as he performs “Freedom,” which he created on stage during his opening set at Woodstock. The song served as a rallying cry for the festival and ended up defining his career.
About Farhoud Meybodi
Farhoud Meybodi is an award-winning writer, director, and executive producer focused on storytelling projects that inspire mass culture change. Over the past decade, he has collaborated on a variety of television and digital projects that have been seen over two billion times, raised millions of dollars for terminal illness research, and even helped overturn an unjust Presidential Executive Order. At his core, Farhoud believes in the power of mainstream storytelling to entertain and help heal the political-social divide of the present day.