Woodstock music festival was held in Bethel, New York, on August 15, 16, and 17, 1969. The event had its antecedents. As the generationally defined popularity of rock music became abundantly clear to musicians and entrepreneurs alike, the first large-scale event, the Monterey International Pop Festival, was held on June 16–18, 1967. It led to further festivals as well as to more substantial corporate investment in musical youth culture. Multithousand-dollar advances to unsigned musical groups became the rule as sales figures for recordings, once in the thousands, often exceeded three or four million copies of a single release. The counterculture was big business.
Large-scale musical gatherings such as Woodstock exist simultaneously in an industrial and an ideological dimension. While their promoters expect to reap profits, the audience affirms a variety of claims for their participation. These claims, even when indulged in by a purportedly uniform “generation,” can range from righteous indignation over commercialism to a spiritual conviction that the affective bonds between strangers mitigate any antagonism. It is, in fact, one of the virtues of such large-scale events that they invariably encapsulate and call into question a generation's aims and aspirations.
While the focus of Woodstock was on music, the event could not help but be influenced by the political activism of the time. The promoters of Woodstock, and the young people whom they attracted, believed in the possibility of humanizing a corrupt society through the strength of numbers, the aggregate convictions of a sympathetic “nation” existing within but counter to the dominant culture. The violence and brutality that governed the Vietnam War, as well as the response on the part of the authorities to protestors, could be challenged by a mass movement driven by harmony and communitarianism. The enduring image of Woodstock is that of thousands of young people peacefully coexisting and engaging in mutual aid when severe weather threatened the occasion. Their Edenic aspirations were later celebrated by Joni Mitchell's popular song “Woodstock” about the festival and were documented by Michael Wadleigh's three-hour film, which grossed five million dollars a month in its first five months of release, and a best-selling live recording.
The desire to recapture the transient sensibilities of Woodstock in the 1990s collided with the point of view of a distinctly different generation. Many of them perceived popular musical culture as a consumer good rather than a goad to egalitarian aspiration. The social quietism and economic boom cycle that continued throughout the decade rarely encouraged the sense that anything united the young other than the purchase of durable goods and the hope of a well-paying job after graduation. Therefore, when over three hundred thousand people returned in 1994 to upstate New York, the event passed without much public attention, while the riot that climaxed the subsequent 1999 event left a bitter aftertaste as well as the disturbing question: Where do young people turn to act out their idealistic goals for the future?