Woodstock 50's Cautionary Example: Memories of a Cancelled Free Festival
Wrapping up the Woodstock 50 saga, our reporter tells what caused the festival's cancellation and what the future might hold for the Woodstock brand.
As we wade into the months of low-lights of the Woodstock 50 saga, from March to July 2019, you might want to gulp some Dramamine as the details of their failure after failure can get pretty head-spinning. What was extraordinary at this point is that Woodstock Enterprise principals Michael Lang (aka one of the Woodstock 1969 gang) and Greg Peck had an enviable music line-up, and an establish venue right in the upstate area. Then Woodstock 50 managed to keep blowing it all, like a poker player getting a royal flush and then handing off four of the cards in the insane, unrealistic hope of another winning hand. As the five months of the turmoil of Woodstock 50 went on and kept stacking up, it became impossible for any fans or well-wishers to root for the fest after a while.
The first sign of trouble for Woodstock 50 happened in early April when one of the headliners, the Black Keys, pulled out of the festival. In an ominous sign of things to come, someone close to the band told Rolling Stone that this wasn't just a scheduling conflict: "something deeper happened." Only a few weeks later, and less than a month after Woodstock 50 was announced, its original investor, Dentsu Aegis, told that the world on 29 April that W50 was cancelled. He cited problems and concerns with the "health and safety of the artists, partners, and attendees". That turned out to be problems with getting Department of Health permits so that the tickets could then go on sale. What should have ended the festival there didn't deter Lang though, who insisted that Woodstock 50 would go on regardless and on 8 May, they dragged Dentsu to court for what was to be a costly case to reverse the decision and demand millions back from them. For its part, Dentsu detailed all of the specific safety concerns that Woodstock Enterprises wouldn't attend to, including:
- Building a bridge at Watkins Glen International.
- Building new roads to access the festival grounds and agreeing to a traffic plan with the state Department of Transportation.
- Obtaining additional land to use for parking cars.
- Building water and drainage systems.
- Addressing "the lack of security personnel in New York State in order to ensure concertgoers' safety".
Dentsu also pointed out that Woodstock Enterprises had misled them about crowd capacity at Watkins Glen where the 150,000 fan count would need to be halved for safety concerns and to accommodate for camping there. Via a 1 May TMZ article:
"We're told (Dentus subsidiary) Amplifi Live needed a minimum of 100,000 attendees to make a go of it, so the company pulled the plug," the report said. "It's kind of weird ... no one seemed to factor in that there aren't a whole lot of hotels or Airbnbs in the small New York town with a population of around 2,000."
And, as it would come out months later, the Enterprises had also blown a payment of $150K to Watkins to secure the venue. Sensing impending doom, production partner Superfly also pulled out of Woodstock 50 right afterward. In a 1 May Billboard article where Lang swore that Woodstock 50 would happen regardless, there was this foreboding tidbit (emphasis added):
"Representatives from two major talent agencies with headliners booked for the anniversary event said Dentsu's decision to pull out of the event voids their contract and releases them from playing the festival. The artist contracts are with Dentsu, not with Michael Lang or Woodstock 50," an agent with artists booked for the event told Billboard."
By 8 May, according to Billboard, the Woodstock 50 acts were in limbo waiting for the court dramas and logistics to play out, especially in light of the money that the bands already got paid for Woodstock 50. "'Until it's crystal clear legally, no one will do shit," explains one agent representing an artist at the festival, who said they wouldn't book replacement shows or issue the festival a breach of contract notice until there's a more definitive cancellation of Woodstock 50. The strategy is crafted to protect the $30 million that Dentsu already paid out to artists on the lineup, money they say they are entitled to keep if the band is willing and ready to play. The risk is that their artists will get stuck playing a downgraded -- and possibly dangerous -- Woodstock 50 festival."
And it kept getting worse. Woodstock Enterprises would tussle with Dentsu over the next few weeks in May 2019, with the latter claiming that they couldn't back Woodstock 50 because of "misrepresentations, incompetence, and contractual breaches" from Lang and company. Woodstock Enterprises had some mixed news in June 2019 from the courts who ruled that Dentsu couldn't cancel the fest. But they also didn't have to return $18 million from an account where the investor claimed it was its own money. That meant Woodstock 50 had to scramble to find funds to keep the festival alive, even after they had signed on investment heavyweight Oppenheimer and Co. to be their new financial adviser.
But by 10 June, Watkins Glen finally kicked Woodstock 50 to the curb and said that they were out as a venue for the event. Right after that, event producer CID Entertainment (who replaced Superfly) wisely bailed along with them.
Just for some perspective, keep in mind that all of this turmoil happened within weeks of the initial Woodstock 50 announcement. Their venue, their investor, two different production partners all bailed on them in that just that three month period. But there was more to come, and Woodstock 50 hadn't come close to bottoming out yet.
WELCOME TO VERNON: We're Not Going to Camp Out on the Land
As Woodstock 50 was desperately grasping at straws, the idea of Citi Field in Queens (home of the Mets) was floated. But that got push back from the band representatives who "would not consider a New York City area show in place of what was contractually set in upstate". Woodstock 50 should have kept in mind for their third venue choices. By 21 June, Woodstock 50 had its sights set on a second, but not last, venue. The new site was Vernon, a small town (population 1,170) two hours east of Watkins Glen. Woodstock 50 focused on a 'racino' (race track/casino) called Vernon Downs which promised to host up to 50,000 would-be fans.
With the show just over a month away, details were still scarce from Woodstock 50, and they had even more problems to worry about. A 26 June Billboard article had an unsettling title ("Woodstock 50 Organizers Haven't Contacted Artists to Discuss New Site (or Anything Else"). The story included a tidbit that Dentsu wouldn't be asking the Woodstock 50 artists to pay back the money that they had given them already. This detail might have been the only thing that kept the artists from jumping ship then, but it was only a temporary reprieve. From the article comes this poignant quote: "Each artist will have to make a decision about whether this is something they want to take on now that so much has changed," one source told Billboard. "Often, the artist will feel compelled to play because they don't want to disappoint their fans, but in the case of Woodstock 50, no one has bought tickets yet, so there's not really anyone to disappoint."
Instead of taking the Bethel Center route of working with their community in good faith, Lang/Peck decided that the best way to work with Vernon was to bully the town and shove Woodstock 50's plans down their throats. What followed July 2019 in Vernon was an insane whirlwind of madness that even Gaspar Noe or David Lynch couldn't concoct a surreal nightmare like this onto a screen. County Executive Anthony J. Picente, Jr. was exasperated, explaining that they had to do one year of work in one month's time to accommodate Woodstock 50. He couldn't explain to the town where they would shuttle some 60,000 concertgoers to each night out of town when the shows ended. Not surprisingly, the town lowered the boom on Woodstock 50 for the first time on 9 July, denying their permit, with Rob Maciol, the country sheriff, saying that he couldn't "ensure public safety" with the plans for the fest as they were.
Right away, the Woodstock 50 camp made wild claims about "political interference" and "political forces", hacking, conspiracy theories and some unsettling stuff about issues with 'the Japanese' at Dentsu which came from Lang's warped imagination. That caused his Woodstock 50 partners tell him to him shut up while they tried to smooth things out with Vernon township. As part of their charm offensive, Woodstock 50 did a Tweet and Instragram post, pleading "Will the Town of Vernon allow peace, love & music to prevail so we can celebrate Woodstock50 with you? Upon permit approval, we'll announce our ticket on sale. Please share to show your support." That Instagram post and any mention of Woodstock 50 is now gone from their account and a similar post got lukewarm support on Twitter (see comments with the post).
It turned out the social media push failed as Woodstock 50 lost its appeal to Vernon a few days later as Lang/Peck insisted they had a comprehensive 500 plan while Maciol stood firm that 39 days wasn't enough time to plan a festival that big. Reay Walker, the town building inspector, remained unimpressed with the proposal saying, "Time does not permit me to cite all the deficiencies." The local head of emergency services called it a "recipe for disaster". Walker went on to say that the plan lacked details and that many pages were marked "DRAFT". Even with the promise of new playgrounds and VIP lounge, the town council gave Woodstock 50 a third and unanimous thumbs-down on 16 July suggesting that they try for 2020 or 2021 instead. Lang petulantly said that Woodstock 50 would try again but not in Vernon.
Part of the problem with the third permit was that again they couldn't explain to Vernon where exactly they would shuttle thousands of fans out of town to at the end of each day. Lang thanked 'artists who stood by us' (which was a premature cry of defeat) and would claim "we've tried everything we can. We've done our best" but the beleaguered Walker countered that the proposal was less than sterling: "(there were) key areas that were 'illegible', portions of the proposal that are marked "still in production." Meanwhile, there was no truth to the rumors that other pages to the plan were an unfinished maze on a kid's menu. Maciol was even less sympathetic, saying again in a Facebook post, "There is no practical or logistical possibility that this event could occur without significant risk to public safety."
Just to throw some salt in the wounds, the town of Saugerties (who hosted Woodstock 1994) said that they wouldn't step in to host either. Virgin Produces went into whiplash mode by agreeing to advise Woodstock 50 and then taking a hike with the third Vernon strike against Woodstock 50 less than a week VP officially signed on. And so, the body county of partners piled up.
Some interesting details soon came out about the Woodstock 50 proposals and the question of canceling. A 17 July Variety article circled around payments related to the fate of the fest . "Because the artists have already been paid, the producers cannot cancel the festival themselves without forfeiting many millions of dollars. The cancellation must come from health and safety, law enforcement or government officials in order for the festival to collect insurance on the payments, a source tells Variety." The Poughkeepsie Journal (one of the best sources of info on the Woodstock 50 saga) also explained that the problems that Vernon was having with Woodstock 50 were in line with the same problems that Watkins Glen had with the fest, involving access roads, water, drainage systems, and security. Woodstock 50 did carry over their old plan to Vernon. But it was the same flawed one full of sloppy execution that rightfully got rejected in both locales.
Extending an extra strike against Woodstock 50, Vernon said no to the fest permits for a fourth and last time on 22 July. He noted that Woodstock 50 didn't "make any warranty as to the absolute accuracy or completeness of the information contained... This disclaimer of responsibility makes the plan worthless..." and that since the plan never addressed traffic and safety concerns, it could have led to disaster there in the town.
MERRIWEATHER AND BUST: Nowhere for Song and Celebration
A smarter, more practical, less arrogant team would have taken the hint and called it quits but that's not how Woodstock 50 rolled. It was time to drag a third (and last) locale through yet another whirlwind. A few days after Vernon had its fill of W50, the new location of the festival was announced as Merriweather Post Pavilion, a DC area outdoor venue with a capacity of about 20,000. One tiny factor crimped the Woodstock 50 plans for DC. Right in the middle of the planned weekend, there was a Smashing Pumpkins concert scheduled for 17 August at MPP. Pumpkins fans weren't exactly sympathetic to Woodstock 50's problems, wishing the worst for the fest in Facebook posts. Considering that the Pumpkins show had been announced around the same time as the initial Woodstock 50 launch in March and that Pumpkins tickets had been on sale for almost five months by then, how willing do you think the ever-affable Billy Corgan would be to the suggestion of postponing his show to accommodate Woodstock 50?
Do you want to guess if things went any better for W50 with their DC plans after that? One day after the DC announcement, Jay Z (one of the main headliners) and John Fogerty, who was there for the March launch, bowed out of the fest and yet another headliner, the Dead and Company, quickly followed suit and canceled out too. Showing that they never learned their lessons or cared about details, just as with Watkins Glen and Vernon, Woodstock 50 had no idea where attendees would go after each show since there was no camping around MPP and the fest was being touted as "a ticketed free charity event", which even Stephen Hawking couldn't have explained to us. Supposedly, DC/Baltimore charities would distribute the tickets but, not surprisingly, there were no details about which charities would dole them out. Seth Hurwitz, who heads the company that operates MPP, was just as much in the dark as everyone else about which performers would show up and perform at the fest. "We're still waiting to hear who is playing, but that's not our job." At this point, Rolling Stone rightfully asked, "will anyone actually come? With so much negative press surrounding Woodstock 50, the prospective number of attendees has dropped..."
Within the same day as the first defections (26 July), Woodstock 50 announced that they were releasing the acts from their contracts because of the new locale, which was a breach of contract based on the original Watkins Glen plan. Lang 'graciously' said that the acts were still welcome to play Woodstock 50 if they wanted. But he must have known that it wasn't realistic to say, "Hey guys, everything will finally be fine if you just stick with us!" It also meant that since the Dentsu lawsuit went south for them and all their other investors took off, there wasn't going to be money to buy up a new set of bands.
In a now-deleted post from Hits Daily Double (27 July), there was speculation about how Woodstock 50 would desperately try to retain acts. "Several sources say Team Woodstock is using a charity-show angle to shame acts into participating—suggesting that any defections are motivated by greed. Rumor has it at least one major agency is mulling a "mass pass" to protect its acts from this onslaught, citing radius clauses as well as logistical, health and safety concerns." A Syracuse.com article also repeated the story that Woodstock 50 was trying to guilt acts by making the shows into a charity.
One major reason that Woodstock 50 also had to release the acts from their contracts had to be that it would look bad suing dozens of artists. Plus, it would be embarrassing to have separate announcements of each of the artists pulling out. But that's exactly what happened regardless. Dateline 29 July: Country Joe McDonald calls Woodstock 50 a "sinking ship" and leaves, along with the ever-present John Sebastian, which should have been a sign that the end was truly near. Dateline 30 July: the artist exodus continues with Raconteurs, the Lumineers, Pussy Riot, and Santana, whose rep said, "We can't come back and do a free show two days after a paid show." Dateline 30 July: Miley Cyrus (and presumably Hannah Montana and Ashley O) takes a powder. At this point, the only band who would publicly commit to playing Woodstock 50 was the Zombies. And yes, it's easy to make a joke about how appropriate the band name was in light of the state of the festival, but why not anyway?
And then after five months of turmoil, idiocy, bridges-burned, lawsuits and such, Woodstock 50 finally caved into reality. With only two weeks before the fest was supposed to start, what had been obvious for months finally sunk in. The whole thing would be an embarrassing flop, and it would be less embarrassing to pull the plug on it. On 31 July, Woodstock 50 announced that even though the Dentsu cancellation in April had been premature, they were now canceling the festival for real. Luckily, there was no follow-up announcement days later to say that they changed their minds and found a fourth venue.
Woodstock 50 was ready to shift blame to everyone but themselves with Peck claiming, "The unfortunate dispute with our financial partner and the resulting legal proceedings set us off course at a critical juncture." For his part, Lang moaned that "we are saddened that a series of unforeseen setbacks has made it impossible to put on the festival we imagined..." which didn't include setbacks like his own involvement in the festival. He also asked the Woodstock 50 artists to donate 10% of their pay for the show to voter registration group HeadCount (aka the only charity they paired with). Sure, that's a noble idea, but after the mess he dragged the dozens of acts through, do you really think any of the bands would make headlines with donations to satisfy Lang's request or, more likely, just forget Woodstock 50 altogether?
A curious part of the (hopefully) final Woodstock 50 statement also said, "Due to conflicting radius issues in the DC area many acts were unable to participate and others passed for their own reasons." Hope you're not too disappointed to hear that this was yet another fib (and possibly tied to the previously mentioned Hits Daily Double source quoted above). Of the 30 acts originally listed as headliners, only five had area schedule conflicts (Common, Raconteurs, Margo Price (also booked at MPP), Santana, Hot Tuna), which means that this was just another lame excuse to cover Woodstock 50's bungling.
With a litter of aggravated towns, venues, partners, bands, management and fans left in the wake of Woodstock 50, a palpable feeling of ease and comfort finally overcame everyone involved, including anyone following the saga. Audio-wizard extraordinaire Andy Zax, who had compiled the massive 2019 Woodstock box set, expressed the sentiment of many in a single, brief Tweet:
THE WOODSTOCK WE DESERVE?: We're Not Golden
If there is any tragedy, it's that Woodstock 50 began with all the ingredients for a great festival. They had a long-standing (if somewhat tarnished) name-brand, a cross-generational line-up of dozens of noted acts, and a well-established venue to accommodate them. But Lang and friends managed to blow all of that and tarnish their image even further. Lang's Aquarian Age thinking that you could fly by the seat of your pants (much the same way that the 1970 Isle of Wight fest did) and somehow pull off a miracle by sprinkling pixie dust that would magically make everything happen wasn't going to get an encore from 1969 to 2019. His ego and poor organizational skills couldn't save the day this time. Only in the movies does everything keep magically falling into place for shows.
Comparisons to the Fyre Festival aren't entirely on the nose. That one tragically took money from fans and flew them to hell in paradise. But one trait that Lang/Peck did share with Fyre's Billy McFarland is that they believed their shtick. They and some of the people around them believed that despite all the problems, their festival would happen and be a raging success because of the force of their wills. Lang didn't and didn't have an excuse. This was supposed to be his sixth rodeo, but his ego out shown any sense of practicality. As a resident of Ulster County who claimed to really love the whole area, he showed little respect for Vernon and Watkins in his planning and dealings with them. In a rare moment of self-recognition, after the final cancellation, Lang admitted that he should have planned better. There was an unsubstantiated rumor that the town of Vernon then posted a billboard that said "REALLY? NO SHIT!"
As for the future, Lang, Peck and friends may very well try to resurrect Woodstock and find some backers to go along with the ride, but many in the business will be rightfully skeptical to say the least. It might be smarter for Woodstock Enterprises to sell itself off to some entertainment conglomerate who can make hay with the name-brand and marketing off of it, and at best, maybe have some festival like the 1994 one, hopefully with less mud. Said big corporation would probably be better able to exploit the name than Woodstock Enterprises. And who knows? Maybe that's exactly what the company is angling for right now.
You could make the argument that the fiasco of Woodstock 50 killed off the hippie dream for good. But the truth is, it's been a corpse for decades, see Altamont and the whole decade of the 1970s. In all, the 1970 documentary and the almost-complete ten-LP/five-CD Rhino box set does Woodstock more justice and places it as an important piece of history more than anything Lang has done since 1969.
In the end, Woodstock 50 will be as a cautionary tale for anyone in the music industry. Business classes will also use it to show how NOT to put on a festival and the fault of living off name recognition and why getting permits always helps. Lang will always be known for Woodstock 1969, but he'll also now be known for the later screw-ups too. If anyone can learn from his mistakes and avoid another botched festival, Lang may turn out again to be the accidental hero that he was in the first place.
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