[By Joel McCarthy]
Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it only took a weekend to burn it down.
Woodstock came to the Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, New York in July of 1999. Marking the 30th anniversary of the original festival, promoters Michael Lang and John Scher had high hopes this time around. It should have been a modern celebration of peace, love and happiness. It should have echoed the true spirit of Woodstock while providing a new generation with the fruits of its offering. It should have at least been better than Woodstock ’94, right?
Well, it wasn’t. Woodstock ’99 didn’t just fail; it capsized. Riotous fans burned, pillaged and destroyed the Griffiss Air Base until it resembled a warzone. During the height of Limp Bizkit’s performance during the final day of the festival, singer Fred Durst decided to light the powder keg by performing a song titled “Break Stuff”.
Overcrowding, dehydration, inflated prices, theft, sexual assault and two confirmed deaths all culminated into a PR miss not seen since the likes of Altamont. The backlash was unprecedented, with fingers aimed squarely at festival promoters for their lack of foresight and apparent greed. In response, John Scher and company shifted the blame back on the audience.
“The ugly stuff was caused by people who have a problem,” said Scher. “Nobody does those things because a hotdog is $3 instead of $2.50.”
Deranged audience or not, festival promoters forgot a cardinal rule of public relations: always know your audience. When Metallica, Rage Against the Machine and Limp Bizkit are headlining a concert with nearly half a million in attendance, some aggressive behavior should have at least been anticipated. Factor this in with extreme heat, limited drinking water, overpriced concessions and overflowing toilets, and the stage was set for a PR disaster that nearly ruined the Woodstock legacy forever.
In recent years, Michael Lang has commented on the possibility of Woodstock coming back for its 50th anniversary in 2019. “We’re starting to think about it now,” he told Rolling Stone in a 2014 interview, but didn’t reveal much more than that. Here’s hoping that the events of Woodstock ’99 have taught Lang and company a valuable PR lesson about the importance of understanding their audience. It’s also safe to assume that Limp Bizkit won’t be getting a call this time around.
(Photo by Nainoa Shizuru)