The Lesson of the Cornfields
By all reports from those who have been there, Bethel Woods Center for the Arts is an amazing place to see a concert. The acoustics are wonderful even on the lawn, the sightlines are great, and the grass is incredibly soft. Throw in the historic impact of seeing a show on the very spot where Woodstock happened and there’s no doubt as to why it gets described at the best shed east of the Mississippi. Even the size is perfect; the smallish 15,000 capacity is large enough to get major bands to play there but small enough to feel intimate.
With all of this praise, one would think that the Phish shows there on a holiday weekend would have incredibly strong demand. While Friday not selling out made a little sense – traffic getting out of any northeastern city would be ridiculous and tour opening shows have tended to be a little weak – Sunday still being on sale is rather confounding. Some of that might be Phish related (the over saturation argument again) but my suspicion is that it has to do with the one major flaw that the venue has.
Let’s look at the traditional Midwest shed stops. There are two major summer venues for touring acts – Deer Creek and Alpine Valley. While they have many differences in capacity (Deer Creek is much smaller) and quality of lawn (No one likes l’Alpine’s.), there is one huge distinction between the two that practically defines the venues. Deer Creek embraces the idea of letting people camp near the show. Between the official lot and the many farmers, there are always tons of cheap places to stay. Alpine Valley went the other path. If you didn’t have a room in the lodge, you had to drive for twenty or thirty miles, dealing with a hostile police force. There’s a reason why Deer Creek – despite being just a slightly above average shed – was such a popular destination.
When the town welcomes you and makes it easy for you to attend, more people will go. That seems like an obvious statement but so few people are willing to make the leap to actual action. It’s taken years of the horrible Alpine situation – in addition to the above, it can easily take two hours just to get out of the lot – before it finally occurred to someone in management that maybe it would be a good idea to allow people to camp in the parking lot. They set up a pilot program this year, just in time for Phish to not play there.
Bethel – like Alpine – is in the middle of nowhere at least in terms of lodging. It also has a reputation for long trips in and out of the parking lot. I was exceedingly tempted to go out to see this jewel of a shed, but ultimately decided against because of the hotel situation. Fortunately for the venue Yasgur’s Farm came to the rescue. They offered a place for people to sleep right near the venue. Instead of people being stuck in traffic to and from the show, they could just ride shuttles. The main problem just disappeared, making a better situation for everyone involved, easing stresses on the venue, the police, people staying elsewhere.
…so of course Bethel promptly sued the owners…
Not being familiar with local politics, there could be more to this case than is apparent – reporting does make it obvious that this is part of an ongoing dispute between Howard, Abramson, and the Bethel government – but there’s a reason why they can pull an end around to the permitting process. When you have a crowd looking for a place to sleep, the opening is there. If you don’t want people looking for loopholes to make money off of that need, do what they do at Deer Creek, follow the lead of The Gorge, learn the lesson of Alpine Valley; look back at your own history for that matter. Grab a lot, charge $60 a car to let people stay for the whole weekend. It’s not like there is a surplus of hotel rooms in upstate New York on Memorial Day weekend. You can control the party, keep drunk drivers off the road, reduce traffic, and rake in money as a fringe benefit; in addition to the parking fees, there would be a captive audience to sell ice and food and drinks too. There’s just one piece missing in the Bethel puzzle. Add it and maybe you could draw a half a million strong.
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capital Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at http://www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation. He occasionally posts at the Phish.net blog and has a daily update on the Phish Stats Facebook page