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The venture capitalist origins of the Woodstock festival, 1969

Way before the apocalyptic images we were given in 1999, concerning all the worst traits of the human condition, and before Jimi Hendrix set the world ablaze with his triumphant 1969 performance, what became known as Woodstock was about a far away from the original idea that was shared between two friends.

Widely associated with the ’60s hippie movement, the original Woodstock was held between August 15–18 1969 at Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel, upstate New York. The classic first edition was advertised as “an Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music”. Ironically, this description could not be any further away from the 30th-anniversary edition that was billed as a spiritual successor to the iconic, LSD drenched event that turned out to be a real representation of Thomas Hobbes’ defining thesis, ‘The State of Nature’. 

The scenes of scores of topless hippies out of their minds on lysergic acid or the hordes of v-necked, bro-metal adherents running riot, setting the place ablaze thirty years later, seems like an unimaginable reality when compared to the original idea for Woodstock.

The pair behind the festival’s conception were Joel Rosenman and John P. Roberts. Initially, Rosenman was a musician, plying his trade on the blossoming Greenwich Village scene in New York. In 1967, he was offered a recording contract as a vocalist by the legendary John Hammond, head of A&R at Columbia records.

However, he turned the opportunity down and opted for what he saw as a more exciting career in scriptwriting and venture capital with his close friend, John P. Roberts. After all, Roberts was the heir to the lucrative Polident/Poli-grip denture adhesive fortune and offered an array of economic possibilities.

Later that year, the pair had drafted the pilot episode of a sitcom that was based on two young men looking for investment opportunities. Being the young, gung-ho venture capitalists that they were, the duo were in dire need of more palpable material for the series. Aiming for the stars, they opted to place a classified advert in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. They marketed themselves as “young men with unlimited capital”, who were looking for “legitimate and interesting…business proposals.”

Accounts vary, but the pair received between hundreds and five thousand responses, which ranged from the totally inconceivable to the undeniably alluring business propositions. They set about investigating some of the proposed investment opportunities. Before too long, the sitcom was shelved.

Amongst the droves of respondents to the ad’s were Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld. This hippie duo, proposed building a recording studio in the up and coming area of Woodstock, up in the New York countryside. Lang already had some experience in music promotion and had co-organised the successful Miami Pop Festival of May 1968, making him seem like a reliable investment.

However, Lang and Kornfeld’s original idea was to build the studio and get the best-known local residents to use it, which included Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and The Band. 

Fast forward to early 1969, and Roberts and Roseman were bonafide New York City entrepreneurs. Our budding businessmen had already agreed to go ahead with the construction of another studio named ‘Media Sound’ in Manhattan, when Lang and Kornfeld’s lawyer, Miles Lourie, who had done the legal work for it, suggested that they contact Roberts and Rosenman about financing the smaller project that they desired in Woodstock. 

Roberts and Rosenman, who now found themselves in a position of power, offered a counter-proposal. The duo wanted to host a concert, again featuring the local musical capital of Bob Dylan and The Band. Sensing endless opportunities, Kornfeld and Lang swiftly agreed, and the parent company Woodstock Ventures was established in January 1969.

The plan was formed, and the location was set at Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel, which was actually outside of Woodstock, as it had the right amount of acres to host a mass-audience concert. Furthermore, protests from local residents in some of the proposed locations led to the quartet moving the concert’s location a handful of times. 

By April that year, swamp rock heroes Creedence Clearwater Revival were the first act to sign a contract for the event, and after this, a whole host of other massive acts agreed to play, including Hendrix, Grateful Dead and the Who. Ironically, Bob Dylan nor The Band performed, as both had other places to be. These included Dylan’s son injuring himself on a cabin door of the Queen Elizabeth II liner, and an Isle of Wight Festival performance a few days later. Later, Creedence drummer, Doug Clifford, recalled, “Once Creedence signed, everyone else jumped in line and all the other big acts came on.”

The groundbreaking festival is said to have cost $2.4 million and $3.1 million to produce and brought in $1.8 million from gate receipts. The quartet would make money on the iconic movie and soundtrack of the events, with P. Roberts claiming he didn’t get out of debt from the event until eleven years later in 1980. Either way, the event attracted over 400,000 visitors, more than double what they expected. A resounding success for our quartet of chancers. It’s funny how an idea can snowball.

Watch footage from the Friday of the famous Woodstock festival below,