The next two weeks may determine the fate of Woodstock 50.
In around 100 days, as many as 75,000 attendees and more than 75 musical acts are scheduled to be at the three-day 50th anniversary festival in Watkins Glen.
But permits have yet to be secured. Tickets have yet to go on sale. A date to begin that sale has yet to be announced after being delayed.
On Monday, the festival’s financial backer exited the project. On Wednesday, its production company followed. And the music world has been left wondering how an event 50 years in the making could be scrambling in the final months. And, as it appears to many to be unraveling, how could it possibly get back on track?
Not many answers have come from the companies who have exited the festival. And the performers on the slate — names as big as Jay-Z, Miley Cyrus and Imagine Dragons — have been quiet.
But Michael Lang is confident he can make it work. The Ulster County resident, who co-founded the 1969 Music and Art Fair and is co-producing Woodstock 50, has attributed some of the planning delays to the parties who left. Lang told the Poughkeepsie Journal, a part of the USA TODAY Network, he expects to have permits secured, and tickets either on sale or an on-sale date announced, in the next two weeks. His team of organizers is also “pretty close” to finding a new financial partner and transitioning to a new production partner. And, he said each of the performers have been paid in full and remain under contract, despite published reports stating the acts may be free to exit.
With all of that pending, Lang said he is worried about nothing.
“I have every intention of seeing this through,” he told the Journal, admitting that steps in the planning process started late. “Problems are just things to be solved.”
The festival is scheduled to begin Aug. 16 at Watkins Glen International raceway in Schuyler County. Lang declined to say when, if the list of needs is not met in the next two weeks as hopes, he would pull the plug on the festival. But, he said, “If it’s going to happen it’s going to come together very quick.” Underscoring this all is a pattern in which Lang says one thing and others say something else, or nothing at all. And, though Lang has the experience of promoting three previous versions of Woodstock, the brand’s legacy as a cultural touchstone cannot be separated from its legacy of problems.
Even the original, held in Sullivan County on Aug. 15-18, 1969, is known for its traffic, rain and attendees who found a way around buying tickets.
What impact those issues have had on the music industry’s confidence in Lang’s ability to smoothly create a festival of this scope is unclear. But, there are those who have faith in his ability to rally. Cindy da Silva, the manager for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee The Zombies and the band Hollis Brown, both of whom are scheduled to perform at Woodstock 50, remains firmly in the Woodstock 50 team’s corner. “If anybody can pull it off, it will be them,” da Silva said. “It’s a tenacious team. It’s Woodstock. It should happen.” Still, many believe it won’t, and question what led to it going wrong.
Capacity reductions, permit delays A delay in securing permits, which Lang has attributed to financial partner Dentsu Aegis and production company Superfly, is one reason why Woodstock 50 seems to be running behind. On April 15, Watkins Glen International, working with Woodstock 50, submitted a mass gathering permit application to the state Department of Health. With the permit pending, the planned beginning of ticket sales on April 22 was delayed.
Initial discussions between Lang and Watkins Glen International targeted a capacity of 150,000, according to Woodstock 50. That was reduced to 100,000 because land surrounding the racetrack could not be secured in time. The final maximum attendance listed on the permit application was for 75,000, which was first reported by the Journal on April 22. Schuyler County Administrator Tim O’Hearn told the Journal the attendance is set at whatever figure the production team and promoter can demonstrate they can support, with adequate infrastructure and security. On Monday, Dentsu Aegis announced it was not only withdrawing from the festival, but also that it was canceled. According to its statement: “…Despite our tremendous investment of time, effort and commitment, we don’t believe the production of the festival can be executed as an event worthy of the Woodstock Brand name while also ensuring the health and safety of the artists, partners and attendees.”
Such a decrease in capacity is a difference of millions. Lang has said tickets for the three days would cost around $430. Seventy-five thousand tickets at that price equates to $32.25 million. Dentsu Aegis declined to answer questions regarding the timing of the announcement or if the change in capacity was a contributing factor. However, Woodstock 50 organizers say the decrease to 75,000 was at the insistence of Dentsu Aegis and Superfly. “Everything started late,” Lang said. “And it took such a long time for Dentsu to finish the contract with Superfly, to get them started, that it caused such a big delay.”
Lang added that Superfly, which also works with the Bonnaroo and Outside Lands festivals, “was stretched a little thin because of the constricted timeline to get our permit done.” In response, Superfly gave a statement to the Journal: “We were brought on to do festival production and operations and assist with the permitting process but we were not responsible for providing any funding on behalf of the event. We ended our involvement with the festival when the financial backing was pulled.” Meanwhile, Lang’s said a temporary permit — which is needed in order to sell tickets — was offered by the state, with a contingency for a performance bond from Watkins Glen International. But the racetrack did not want to be responsible for the bond, so additional paperwork was required, which is now under review, Lang said.
A spokesman for the state Health Department told the Journal no permit has been issued and officials remain in contact with Watkins Glen International regarding their application. Chris Banker, Watkins Glen International director of public relations, declined comment. Should Woodstock 50 secure the permit, it could begin ticket sales before also securing a permit from Schuyler County, which would be needed at least 45 days before the beginning of the festival. A question of talent, funding Woodstock 50’s talent ranges from veterans of the 1969 Woodstock, such as Carlos Santana, to current pop acts The Killers and Halsey, to artists like Chance the Rapper. And all have been paid in full, Lang said. That was “a critical milestone to pass” in completing the event.
He said this is “typical in the world where new festivals have been canceled at the last minute. Agents are out to protect the artists.”
However, a report from Billboard, speaking to an unnamed source, stated that the artists’ contracts were with Dentsu Aegis, and subsequently were rendered void as soon as the financial group announced the festival’s cancellation. Lang disputes this claim, stating the majority of contracts are exclusively with Woodstock 50, with some being between the artist, Woodstock 50 and the Dentsu Aegis Network’s Amplifi Live. None of the contracts, he said, are exclusively with Dentsu Aegis. Dentsu Aegis declined comment. And the performers themselves have for the most part remained quiet. No performer has publicly pulled out, with the exception of The Black Keys in early April, saying it had a scheduling conflict. John Fogerty performed at Woodstock in 1969 with Creedence Clearwater Revival and is scheduled to play Woodstock 50.
He appeared with Lang in March at an event announcing the Woodstock 50 lineup but told Rolling Stone magazine this week that he had “the sense there was some shakiness to this whole thing.” Fogerty also said he didn’t “want to speculate” on the status of the upcoming festival. Beyond the talent, there are many costs associated with putting on a festival, including security, staff and building stages and infrastructure. It’s not clear what still would need to be planned, paid for, or what the final bill may be.
“We need money to run the festival,” Lang said. “Acts are one part of it. You’re building a small city.”
Is Woodstock behind?Despite the delays in the permitting process, it’s unclear if Woodstock was, or is, definitively behind in its planning. According to Banker earlier this week, the track had been working with organizers for two years. That would have given Woodstock 50 a longer planning window than any annual festival, though they have the advantage of an established site and routine.Lang in November 2018 told the Journal that he was planning a 50th anniversary Woodstock concert for 2019. On Jan. 9, he announced the date and location for Woodstock 50.
Two months later, on March 19, he announced the full lineup at Electric Lady Studios in Manhattan, and the ticket on-sale date of April 22. If Lang can get tickets on sale in the next two weeks, the festival would have around three months to sell. That is not far off from the timeline for some more established festivals. Coachella Music and Arts Festival, held last month in California, announced its lineup on Jan. 3 and tickets went on sale the following day, around three months in advance. Summerfest in Milwaukee, billed as “The World’s Largest Music Festival,” put tickets for its biggest acts on sale April 12, less than three months before its June 26 start date. Many festivals do give themselves more time for ticket sales, though. Tennessee’s Bonnaroo, produced by Superfly, began selling tickets five months in advance of its June event.
The Woodstock, Michael Lang legacy
While Woodstock as a brand continues to resonate for its political, cultural and societal implications — in addition to its values of “Peace, Love and Music” — its legacy in the music industry as a brand that makes money is not as clear cut.
The 1969 Woodstock festival is as well known for music from Jimi Hendrix, The Who and Richie Havens as it is for massive crowds, massive traffic tie-ups and terrible weather.
And there were other problems. According to Lang’s 2009 autobiography, “The Road to Woodstock,” the Town of Wallkill Zoning Board of Appeals in Orange County on July 15, 1969 rejected a permit application for the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. With only about a month left until the festival, Lang immediately began looking into alternative sites and found the property upon which Woodstock was ultimately held — Max Yasgur’s farmland in Bethel, Sullivan County. Thousands of concertgoers, according to Lang’s 2009 autobiography, arrived early before fences, ticket takers and booths were installed. What ended up as perhaps the world most famous concert unfolded as a free show.
A 25th anniversary concert, Woodstock ’94 in Saugerties, was saddled with mud. And, once again, 100,000 extra attendees did not pay for tickets, Lang told the Journal.
“In true Woodstock style, the communal spirit lived, it rained like hell, Mud People abounded and Woodstock ’94 made money for everyone but us,” Lang wrote in “The Road to Woodstock.” And Woodstock ‘99, held five years later in Rome, New York, was marked by violence. On the final night, bonfires were lit, a line of supply trucks was torched and a melee with several hundred concertgoers followed. Police stepped in and incidents of women being molested were reported.
If any of that is reflected on Lang himself is unknown. State Senate Deputy Minority Leader Joseph Griffo, R-Rome, was mayor of Rome when Woodstock ’99 was held.
“I developed a very good professional and personal relationship with Michael Lang,” Griffo said. “He is very committed to the original concept that he was able to be an instrumental part of making happen, with the original Woodstock in 1969.”
Griffo said Lang’s plan for Woodsock ’99 for the most part “was done very well.”
“There are always things you could do differently,” he said. The concert went very well. Everything went well until the very end. Things happen. Any criminal activity is unacceptable.” Asked if he has any advice for Watkins Glen officials, Griffo said, “The security aspect — get that right.” In 2009, Lang had hoped to stage a free Woodstock 40th anniversary concert in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. But the cost of staging a free concert and failure to find sponsors to cover the $8 million to $10 million cost forced him to drop plans for the show. Already, one Woodstock 50th anniversary festival failed to get off the ground.
On Dec. 27, Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, which sits on the site of the 1969 festival in Sullivan County, announced the Bethel Woods Music and Culture Festival for Aug. 16-18.
However, production partner INVNT in mid-February announced it had pulled out of the event and said plans would be scaled back. Bethel Woods has since scheduled a slate of four concerts for Aug. 15-18, rather than a full festival. Confidence remains
As the clock ticks down on Woodstock 50 and Lang, the Ulster resident has vehemently maintained the show would go on. Asked if pitfalls and the challenge to overcome them, hallmarks of Lang’s three Woodstock festivals and the one he hopes to stage in August, are part of the Woodstock legacy, he said, “I think that’s what life’s about.”
Lang this week has spoken to several journalists to affirm the show’s status, and he sent an email to supporters. In it, he cited his experience pulling off the original Woodstock at the last minute as a source of confidence. “I’ve never been one who looks at the negatives,” Lang told the . “I look at the positives and for me that’s the only way to approach anything. If we had looked at both sides in 1969 when we lost our site in Wallkill, we would have have gone home and none of this would have any meaning. It’s not how I operate and that’s not how I see life.”
Per: USA Today