By Michele Kadison
Radio has come a long way since the days when formats included one genre, limiting the listening public to fans of that particular musical style. As on-air stations began to see artists crossing over from one type of material to another, formatting began to change, expanding listenership and creating more opportunities for what we now call “oldies music” radio to expand. Additionally, as artists began to explore fusions in musical styles while taking greater risks, radio stations began to create alternative formats that allowed new music to flourish and be heard.
Not to be overlooked is how some of the important early live concerts in oldies music have affected this important evolution. These concerts were actually the forerunners of inclusively, bringing a wide variety of artists together onstage and introducing new genres to primed and waiting audiences.
Three Days of Peace and Music
The most seminal concert of this kind was Woodstock. Born from a concept created by four enterprising men (the oldest of whom was 26), the concert was initially formulated to raise money for a recording studio in Woodstock, New York where artists such as Bob Dylan, The Band, Van Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix were looking to hang their hats now and then. The idea was to create a festival called the “Aquarian Exposition”, which took its name from “the age of Aquarius” out of the radical hit musical of the time, “Hair”.
The concert took place on August 15, 1969, officially beginning at 5:07 PM and heralding in what was called “three days of peace and music”. The idea was new and the set-up for artists was unprecedented as well, as the entrepreneurs had to guarantee paychecks to the bands in order to persuade them to play. Woodstock Ventures was thus able to engage some of the biggest acts of the time, including today’s oldies music hits such as the Jefferson Airplane, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Who, Cream, Grateful Dead, and Ravi Shankar. Some of these bands were paid more than they’d ever received for a concert, which ended up costing the entrepreneurs a sum that was considered enormous for the time, a whopping $118,000 for talent alone. Once these big name artists were committed, the festival gained credibility luring more artists to sign up. After all was said and done, Woodstock eventually cost more than 2.4 million dollars.
What’s Going On
The 60’s was a decade that was chock full of political events. Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy were assassinated, the war in Vietnam was taking a huge toll on the country and its youth, and racial issues created a mounting pressure cooker. The generation gap that formed due to the draft, political divisions, and new affirmations on questioning authority in every way became a force of nature.
Sex, drugs, and rock and roll also defined the generation, separating those “on the bus” from those off the bus. Woodstock and that era of oldies music became the emblem of what was seeded in the 60s and an eventual part of our cultural lexicon as it defined what it was to be a part of the growing protest, which included draft dodgers, black militants, gays and lesbians, and everyone in between.
Hear Me, Film Me
Roughly 500,000 people attended the Woodstock festival. A sound system large enough to accommodate this enormous oldies music audience spread out over a large outdoor space had to be created. This proved to be a challenge that eventually was solved and led the way to big business opportunities in the rock concert scene: the formulation of speaker systems that could handle overwhelming decibels while delivering clear sound to the people.
The festival promoters were smart enough to realize that they needed to chronicle the event, so they hired a cameraman/director of independent films to do so. Michael Wadleigh had never had an assignment quite like this. He got some New York filmmakers to help, including heavyweight director Martin Scorsese, but was still unable to get funding as film executives were gun-shy after the low box office profits from the filming of the Monterey Pop Festival. The deal they finally struck was to pay the filmmakers double or nothing once the film came out. The film, “Woodstock,” directed by Wadleigh and edited by Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker received the Academy Award for Documentary Feature and a nomination for Best Sound. Rock concert documentation suddenly became big business.
How the Woodstock festival played out is the stuff of legend and has been documented by many. That it brought together not only so many people, but also so many diverse oldies music sounds – from folk to ballad, Indian to hard driving rock n roll, and more, helped pave the way for crossing genres over the air ways as radio stations saw the huge appeal as well as the revenues to be made from the combination.
The second time around – not necessarily a charm
In the 1990s, impresarios tried to exploit the Woodstock phenomenon again. But the festival lacked the authenticity and soul of the original, proving that if people do not share common beliefs and values, cohesiveness is difficult to achieve. It is rare that a true original can successfully be replicated.
Alternative Sounds Open the Market
Years later another type of revolutionary concert was envisioned and accomplished. The Lollapalooza festival, created in 1991 by Perry Farrell as a farewell tour for his band Jane’s Addition, managed to formulate a workable festival that unlike Woodstock, would bring itself to the people through touring.
Lollapalooza featured artists outside the mainstream such as alternative rock bands, hip hop and punk musicians, new generation artists, as well as dance and comedy performers. The festival exposed bands like Nine Inch Nails, The Smashing Pumpkins, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Souxie & the Banchees, and Hole as well as new and as yet unsigned groups. Grunge was featured as a viable genre, and mosh pits and crowd surfing reached their heights as interactive elements that defined the concert experience beyond its oldies music beginnings.
More people saw and participated in Lollapalooza than any other musical festival to date. Farrell coined the term “Alternative Nation” to describe the musicians and their fans who were the emblem of new music forms bursting the conventional stereotypes. All went well until 1997 when the festival stopped touring. It was revived in 2003, but as with the Woodstock festival of the 1994, it too lacked soul and drove people away due to high ticket prices, a reflection of the big business roots it had grown. In 2005 Farrell partnered with the William Morris Agency to make it a fixed destination in Grant Park, Chicago, Illinois where it has taken on a new success.
From the Concert Stage, to the Radio Play
Where we are today musically is due to the contributions of unique and ground-breaking festivals like the original Woodstock and Lollapalooza concerts. They set the stage for opening up the minds not only of people coming to hear the music, but also of studio executives, stadium impresarios, and most importantly, radio station programmers who recognize the importance of delivering the goods that stimulate listeners. As more bands and single artists appear on the stage, it is often through this type of concert exposure that they are able to make radio play; this approach has held true for artists from oldies music to the present. Opening up for a major act on a concert stage is a powerful way to get a record exec’s attention, especially if the fans are in full support. From there, if the radio stations are providing adequate venues to handle burgeoning sounds, everyone benefits.