This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock music festival. Even after 40 years, if you ask almost anyone what they think about the event, you’re very likely to get a passionate response, in one way or another.

Whatever your feelings are about Woodstock, there is no doubt that what happened there was revolutionary, resonating loudly with the American culture. What may be less known is that the back story: the organization and advertising of the festival, may be just as revolutionary & resonant to us today.

But first, story time!
The idea for Woodstock originated, not as a “hippie venture,” but as an investment opportunity for capitalists Michael Lang, John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, and Artie Kornfeld. Roberts and Rosenman had the finances, placing an advertisement in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal under the name of “Challenge International, Ltd.” It read: “Young men with unlimited capital looking for interesting, legitimate investment opportunities and business propositions.” Lang and Kornfeld responded to the ad, and the 4 began to brain-storm.

Initially planned as a recording studio, the idea evolved into an outdoor music festival with an estimated attendance of 50,000. Becoming very profitable at 186,000 tickets sold, the concert was opened to free to everyone. Noone anticipated that 500,000 people would actually arrive. This massive influx actually closed portions of the New York state interstate system, and announcements were made discouraging others from even attempting to go to the festival.
(Back story information sourced from Wikipedia and Woodstockstory).

So, how am I saying this is relevant to us now?

1. For starters, everything was in an uproar. The conflict in Vietnam was placing increasing pressure on the home front, the controversial hippie movement was in full swing, rock & roll music had evolved (again), and the country as a whole seemed to be trying to find itself amidst it all. Here we find 4 businessmen in their late 20’s trying to make money for themselves.

They did the smart thing and capitalized on the two things that seemed certain at the time:
a) the music movement was only getting stronger, and
b) the hippies weren’t going anywhere, either.

These 27 year-old businessmen had a clear idea of who they were marketing to and this prepared them for phase 2:

2. In choosing to invest in this arising subculture, they were also smart enough to market their venture in the terms that their would-be audience was certain to identify with. Billed as a “celebration of peace and music,” they were actually taking the negative situation in Vietnam, and the social confusion caused by the rock movement and made it work for them instead of against them. They saw the opportunity where many others did not. It just further proves the point that in any poor situation, there is a profitable business venture to be found. They found it with 186,000 pre-sold tickets. This incredible success enabled Woodstock seal its place in history with phase 3:

3. In opening the concert free to the public, Woodstock’s accomplishments were two-fold:

a) it generated buzz, which (if nothing else) increased the perceived success and importance of Woodstock in the public eye, which also helped to immortalize the event.

b) Going further, beyond the horizon of 1969, it laid the early groundwork for the idea of social media: music and art as being community-driven rather than corporately-driven. This is an idea that continues to evolve and challenge product sales and marketing theory now.

Overall the main idea is that the organizers of the original Woodstock festival took some of the most basic marketing rules, made up some new ones, and applied them to a unique premise that filled a niche in the culture of 1969.