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A Brief History of Sneaking Booze Into Music Festivals

July 09, 2018

By Aaron Goldfarb, July 09, 2018

Back when I was in college, in the late-1990s, if you wanted to sneak alcohol into a music festival, you came up with a plan at the last second as you approached the entrance. Stuffing a tallboy or two in the front of your waistband worked if you were sly, assuming you could still walk like a normal person. A few cans hanging in the hood of your sweatshirt often did the trick, though not in summer. Sometimes, I would just blatantly lie that I had a strange health issue and absolutely had to have this plastic bottle of yellowish fluid with me at all times less I have some sort of debilitating incident that would necessitate the festival alert the EMTs. The teenage flunkies guarding the gates always knew I was full of shit, but they weren’t going to waste their time arguing with me. I’m not proud of myself.

Music has pretty much existed as long as humans have walked the earth and alcohol came soon thereafter. You can bet even from the get-go cavemen were trying to smuggle some fermented root juice under their loincloths and into the Bear Bone Music Festival. Flash forward to 1954, when Newport Jazz Festival was dubbed the first modern musical festival. At the first event, over 11,000 people came to Rhode Island’s Newport Casino to hear legendary artists such as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie. If people were sneaking alcohol into this festival, it wasn’t really reported on—and the event went off without a hitch.

Buzz would build and things had changed for the worse by 1960’s Jazz Festival when, according to the Wall Street Journal, “an intoxicated mob of up to 12,000 young people” tried to enter the festival venue, Freebody Park. The National Guard had to be called to restore order amongst these mostly “cranky” teenagers and college students who began rioting and throwing their empties at the authorities. Lamented local police officer William “Cub” Costello: “The beer stores in town were selling to buyers all day long, which obviously was a mistake.”

Perhaps that’s why, by 1981, the Newport Jazz Festival had become a daytime-only,  alcohol-free event. Today, however, there are beer and wine gardens available to the crowd, often featuring locally-made products, and guests are generally well-behaved.

1967 would give the world its first ever rock festival, the Monterey International Pop Festival, held in a then-backwaters area of California and featuring such artists as The Who and Jimi Hendrix. This was the so-called “Summer of Love,” mind you, and while marijuana wasn’t legal, LSD was. A blot of acid was a heckuva lot easier for the hundreds of thousands of attendees to smuggle into the county fairgrounds than a six-pack of Pabst. Having seen from Newport what could happen when authority figures got a lot too handsy with the nation’s youth, Monterrey decided to mostly ignore any sort of minor infractions. As Monterey County Now wrote: “That included turning a blind eye to the rampant smoking of marijuana that was going on inside and near the fairgrounds.”

By the 50th anniversary of the festival in 2017, “an age-diverse crowd meandered through the Monterey County Fairgrounds with beers and fare from a range of food trucks,” noted Monterey County Weekly.

Woodstock, the most famous of all music festivals would arrive in 1969. Held in upstate New York, hundreds of thousands of hippies headed to an event that would feature Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez and Janis Joplin. In Pete Fornatale’s book Back to the Garden: The Story of Woodstock, festival attendee, Jim Marion, recalls the struggle to even get onto the grounds, due to massive traffic jams on route NY-17B. Luckily, as he explains, his crew had plenty of liquid sustenance to idle away with: “Most of the time, the car went nowhere, so we put down the tailgate, turned up the radio, and partied in the back of the car...It was a real party atmosphere and we’d come prepared with beer and food, which we shared with the people around us.”

Upon arrival at Woodstock, security was lax, and pretty much anything that could be brought onto site was. Again, however, it would be drugs that were more often snuck into the festival than beer. If anything, locals were happy it wasn’t beer being snuck in. According to writer Ryan Kent, “One town member, when interviewed, even said that the kids high at Woodstock were behaving much better than a group of drunken adults would in the same situation.” But, to be sure, there was plenty of beer drinking as well.

“Nobody seemed to know who had played or when anyone would play again, so we found our way back to where we’d pitched our tent...grabbed some blankets, binoculars and two cases of quarts of Schaefer beer; and headed back to the stage.” Marion recalls he and his friends spending most of the show picnicking with beer until, after 36 straight hours of drinking, none was left. That seems to be a fairly common scenario for most Woodstock attendees.

If Woodstock proved we were still in an era that was laissez-faire about bringing beer into festivals, that same year would give us the most tragic example of when smuggled-in alcohol and music festivals mix. The Altamont Speedway Free Festival was held in Northern California on December 6th. The counterculture-heavy rock concert featured Santana, Jefferson Airplane and the Rolling Stones. The Hells Angels were hired as event security by the Rolling Stones’ road manager Sam Cutler. When Cutler asked Hells Angels member Bill “Sweet William” Fritsch how his group would like to be paid, he simply noted: “We like beer.”

Cutler provided the outlaw motorcycle club with $500-worth and, early on, they simply sat on the edge of the stage drinking beer and preventing fans from getting to the acts. Eventually, both the Hells Angels and festival attendees had gotten pretty drunk and one fan lobbed an empty beer bottle which struck singer Denise Jewkes, fracturing her skull. The situation would only escalate from there—the Hells Angels began hurling full cans of beer from their stockpile at fans—and when thousands of attendees tried to storm onstage while the Rolling Stones played, one fan was stabbed by a biker. For many, that was the end of the idyllic innocence of musical festivals.

Things had radically changed by the 25th Anniversary Woodstock ’94. As the New York Times detailed in a festival preview entitled This Woodstock Won’t Inhale, “You have already been ‘discouraged,’ as the promoters put it, from bringing young children or any food not necessary for a special diet. Whatever you’re carrying is searched to make sure you don't have alcohol, weapons, video cameras, tent stakes or other contraband.”

More of a cash grab than a celebration of peace, love and rock ‘n’ roll, this second Woodstock was sponsored by Pepsi, and was the first music festival to have ATMs on site. Not that it mattered—even overpriced beer wasn’t for sale on site and most guests had to stick with Pepsis. On the opening day of the event, Cypress Hill led the crowd in an angry chant: “Whaddya got? No beer, no pot!” By Sunday, however, the 16,000 acre farm in Saugerties, New York had turned into a muddy mess, and many of the 300,000 attendees had managed to smuggle substances in.

Woodstock 1999 was an even sadder spectacle. 500 New York State Troopers defended Griffiss Air Force Base—a Superfund site no less—from gatecrashers and contraband-carrying attendees. Noted MTV’s Kurt Loder at the time: “To get in, you get frisked to make sure you’re not bringing in any water or food that would prevent you from buying from their outrageously priced booths.” Bottled water was 4 bucks, a slice of pizza $12, and beer could (technically) only be consumed within a fenced-in beer garden. The entirety of the festival could be watched on pay-per-view which was perhaps the better option all around. For blogger James Greene, Jr. called the Limp Bizkit-headlining event, “two days of beer pong, rioting, and sexual assault.”  Oy.

Jane’s Addiction’s Perry Farrell started Lollapalooza in 1991 as a celebration of the emerging alternative scene. The 20-day traveling festival also, surprisingly, managed to remain alternative and independent and BYOB-friendly. At least in year one.

“Instead of a Budweiser tent and a Nokia tent, it was local artists,” explained Dave Navarro in SPIN’s oral history of the event. The lack of corporate sponsorship meant there was less of a care if both the bands and customers were bringing in their own brews. The festival, like many others, would eventually become a corporate cash cow and, by 2016, bros were sneaking beer into the now highly-guarded festival utilizing fake Guitar Center amps.

And explosion of festivals would come spring forth over the rest of the decade, many of them quite niche—all of them, eventually, heavily monetized. This was really the first decade where organizers and promoters started factoring concessions into their profits. Which thus meant, they also wanted to prevent people from bringing in their own supply. Therefore, no matter the kind of music you liked, no matter what sort of scene you were a part of, sneaking booze into a festival became a certain rite of passage.

There was 1995’s The Warped Tour, which was soon sponsored by Vans. 1997’s Lilith Fair was for the ladies, and generally free of beer-soaked shenanigans. Coachella came in 1999 and offered these stringent alcohol rules for those camping on-site: “One case of beer or box of wine per person...for personal consumption only. No drinks may be brought into the venue...Please note: If, in the festival staff’s judgement, it appears that there is an excessive amount of alcohol for the number of people in the vehicle...we reserve the right to deny entry of the vehicle and/or you will surrender the alcohol.”

Rock ‘n’ roll, huh?

The post-9/11 world would change the festival circuit even more than money and corporate sponsorships would. Metal detectors and muscle-bound friskers were placed at the entrance to many venues; booze sneaker-inners would have no choice but to get more creative. That’s why today there’s an entire cottage industry of folks trying to help you be a scofflaw and skip the pricey concession stands.

Here’s The MUNCHIES Guide to Sneaking Alcohol into Music Festivals. GQ offers How to Sneak Alcohol into a Concert Like a Goddamn Winner. While Liquor.com lists 5 Easy Ways to Sneak Booze Into Festivals This Summer. Even Cosmo is up for the challenge with 12 ways to sneak alcohol into a festival this summer. Their top tip? In shot glasses disguised as tampons.

Yes, additionally, there’s all sorts of discrete products manufactured merely to help with your sneaky endeavors. How ’bout the Sunscreen Flask? Or a binoculars flask. You can hide hooch in your ponytail. Then there’s the Glask that can be stowed in a gentleman’s crotch. And, for the women, the Wine Rack, which turns a brassiere into a keg and, according to an Amazon review, it “Made my boobs look too weird.” But you need not necessarily shell out for one of these novelty products at Spencer’s Gifts in your suburban mall. Plenty of items already in your cupboard can abet in your secret imbibing. Why not hollow out a loaf of bread? Or wrap up a bottle burrito?

One of the most clever recent attempts came from a New York man, Alex Diamond, who buried a bottle of vodka on Randall’s Island a good three weeks before 2017’s Electric Zoo festival. Thanks to GPS tracking, his gambit was such a success and he eventually started a “Festival Pro Tips” Facebook page.

Of course, many folks today are simply sneaking booze into festivals just to say they can. Because, honestly, there’s becoming less and less reason to sneak booze into festivals. Sure, the prices for a plastic pint are often exorbitant, but the quality of products is getting a heck of a lot better too.

This August, brewery Oskar Blues is holding their annual Burning Can, featuring acts like Supatight alongside beers from Cigar City and Green Man. Telluride’s Blues & Brews gives equal billing to Robert Plant and Avery Brewing. Likewise, why bury a bottle of Popov when at Louisville’s Bourbon and Beyond Festival, pours of Pappy Van Winkle are available to fans listening to such acts as Sheryl Crow and Sting.

Then there’s our OctFest, headlined by Vince Staples and the Flaming Lips, and coming to New York City on September 8th and 9th. Sure, you could illicitly schlep some sixers and nips aboard the ferry to Governors Island where it’s held—but why go to all that trouble? Once on the island and at the event, beer is free and unlimited and served in an actual glass. Not some bra flask.

Illustration by Remo Remoquillo

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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