Woodstock 50, after months of insane drama, was officially canceled yesterday (July 31), and while organizer Michael Lang is disappointed at how everything turned out, he did accept some of the blame for the festival’s struggles.
Lang spoke at length about this and more to Rolling Stone, and one of the decisions he regrets the most was partnering with financial backer Dentsu, who famously pulled their funding and canceled the festival in April.
“I take full responsibility for agreeing to go with Dentsu. It was the biggest factor on why this thing didn’t happen….We just frankly picked the wrong partner in Dentsu,” said Lang. “They didn’t really understand the business. When the agreement went at the last minute of just being a backer to a co-producer, they had input into everything that we did. It just pretty much went off the rails from the beginning. They weren’t cognizant of the timeframe for how these things have to get done and how much work has to get done.”
On Dentsu, Lang continued, “In the beginning, they were very excited about it. They were excited about the brand and they were excited about the potential for profit, and they said they were in it for doing some good. I guess I bought into that. Once our contracts were ready to be signed and this issue came up where suddenly they had to be co-producing and had to agree on everything at the last minute – and although they assured me it was just for looks – that was really the beginning of the problems.
So, for anyone trying to organize a festival, Lang offered this piece of sage advice: “…If you have an investor that’s just going be an investor and stay out of your way, then fine. But if not, you really should be in business with some people who are of the business.”
As for those comparisons to Fyre Fest, Lang dismissed those saying, “All those allusions to Fyre Festival were so unfounded. That was all about a scam; about selling tickets without having an event. We didn’t put anything on sale until we knew we had the event we were discussing. So I didn’t see any relation to the Fyre Festival. [Woodstock 50] was an unfortunate venture, but I chalk it up to having the wrong partners early on. We did everything we could have done and we had the right motivations. We put together what I thought was an amazing lineup of talent. I thought we had all that right.”
Woodstock 50: A Timeline of Peace, Love & Disorganization
In an interview with 'Rolling Stone' during the festival's 45th anniversary year, Lang said, "I think we’re certainly done until the 50th. We’re starting to think about it now."
In an interview with the 'Poughkeepsie Journal,' Lang reveals a 50th anniversary celebration of Woodstock was "underway with potential partners and different locations are being explored." At the time, an overseas festival celebration was also being pitched as well as potentially turning Woodstock into an annual festival similar to Coachella, Lollapalooza or Bonnaroo.
Santana tells Billboard's Gary Graff in June 2017 that a 50th annversary of Woodstock is "...two years from now. We talked to Michael Lang last time we were in Madison Square Garden and he came over to visit...It's a positive thing. Looking forward to getting together with Michael and sculpturing what kind of an event are we going to have. He would tell Graff in December 2018, "We've talked to Michael Lang, but we don't know if he has secured a place. If they invite me, I'm in."
Lang also tells 'Rolling Stone' the festival, now officially dubbed Woodstock 50, will be taking place in Watkins Glen, N.Y. adding, "It’ll be an eclectic bill. It’ll be hip-hop and rock and some pop and some of the legacy bands from the original festival." Lang also hinted at the time Woodstock 50 would try and help change the legacy of Woodstock after the debacle that was Woodstock '99. "Woodstock ’99 was just a musical experience with no social significance,” said Lang. “It was just a big party. With this one, we’re going back to our roots and our original intent. And this time around, we’ll have control of everything." Lang added, "Woodstock ’94 was a nice mix of young and old and that’s kind of what we’re going for here."
In an interview with 'Billboard,' Lang said Woodstock 50 would feature artists that are “heavily involved in social issues” and feature various non-government organizations, including HeadCount, Global Citizen and Conservation International, onsite to encourage festival-goers in various activism efforts. Oh...and he was also working with Southern California dispensary operator MedMed in developing a “signature cannabis strain,” because #Priorities.
'Billboard' reports Santana, Dead & Company, The Killers, Imagine Dragons and Chance The Rapper are all booked for Woodstock 50, however, sources told the outlet that some artists booked had not been paid in full yet. A rep would later confirm that all artists on the bill were paid in full on March 4.
Following the initial report from 'Billboard,' 'Variety' unveils a lengthy list of artists booked from Woodstock 50 including Robert Plant, The Black Keys, The Raconteurs, Greta Van Fleet, Jay-Z, Run the Jewels, Gary Clark Jr., Cage the Elephant, Margo Price, Sturgill Simpson, Portugal the Man, Dawes, the Lumineers, Bishop Briggs, Pussy Riot, Courtney Barnett, Dorothy, Halsey, Miley Cyrus, Janelle Monae and Kacey Musgraves.
Woodstock 50's social media accounts blast the festival poster containing its entire lineup. It is also announced that tickets would go on sale April 22.
Lost in a lot of the drama was the early exit of The Black Keys. The following statement was released regarding their exit: "Due to a scheduling conflict, The Black Keys will unfortunately need to cancel their set at Woodstock. The band wants to let fans know as soon as possible and before tickets go on sale."
'Pitchfork' reports organizers had yet to secure a mass gathering permit from the New York State Department of Health for the Watkins Glen International Speedway. Cancelation rumors started to circulate at this time, but Michael Lang would later tell 'Billboard,' "Woodstock is a phenomenon that for fifty years has drawn attention to its principles and also the rumors that can be attached to that attention." He then called the cancelation buzz "just more rumors."
In a statement to 'Billboard,' main investor Dentsu Aegis Network announced they pulled their funding and canceled the festival. Dentsu issued a lengthy statement that included, "...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...As difficult as it is, we believe this is the most prudent decision for all parties involved." Woodstock 50 organizers would then tell the 'Poughkeepsie Journal' shortly after Dentsu's announcement that, "Woodstock 50 vehemently denies the festival's cancellation and legal remedy will (be) sought...Although our financial partner is withdrawing, we will of course be continuing with the planning of the festival and intend to bring on new partners. We would like to acknowledge the State of New York and Schuyler County for all of their hard work and support. The bottom line is, there is going to be a Woodstock 50th Anniversary Festival, as there must be, and it's going to be a blast.
In an email, Lang said, "It seems in a way that history is repeating itself. In July of 1969 we lost our site in Walkill and with only a month to go we managed to move to Bethel. Woodstock was going to happen no matter what!" He continued, "Yesterday, our financial partner, Dentsu-Aegis, made the decision to pull out and informed us that they were cancelling the festival at the same time they let the press release go public. We have yet to understand why they would try to prevent the festival from happening by seemingly undermining us in this way. It is one thing to decide for oneself that it is best to move on, but it is entirely another thing to try and close the door on us. Yesterday, I couldn’t help but relive that moment 50 years ago – it was “ déjà vu all over again”!...Woodstock never belonged to Dentsu, so they don’t have a right to cancel it."
Fogerty, who was booked for Woodstock 50 and performed at the original Woodstock, told 'Rolling Stone,' "I wouldn’t want to speculate. I’m just a guy who plays guitar and is ready to show up. It’s not my job to know about the selection of artists or permits. But it’s a shame." Fogerty would go on to comment on the festival not get the necessary permit by saying, "That just blew my mind. You’d think it would be the first thing you’d do and not the last thing. You got the sense there was some shakiness to this whole thing. But the first Woodstock happened more by people wishing for it to happen than any effort of great organization.”
'Billboard' reports that all artists on the Woodstock 50 bill were contracted through Dentsu Aegis, not with Woodstock 50 or Lang. After Dentsu Aegis announced the festival was canceled, that means all artists booked were released from their contracts are no longer obligated to perform. In a new interview with The New York Times, Lang said that they're "days away" from obtaining all of the necessary permits, and they're in talks with new investors and have potential sponsors. As for why Dentsu Aegis pulled their funding suddenly and whether he and other organizers knew of their plans, Lang said, "We really didn’t. The surprising thing was that they didn’t give us a heads up, or call, or say, 'We’d like to back away, can you replace us?' It was just a surprise. It’s mind-boggling, in fact."
Lang sent Dentsu Aegis a five-page letter obtained by 'Rolling Stone' claiming they “illegally swept approximately $17 million from the festival bank account, leaving [Woodstock] in peril.” Lang also wrote he was initially concerned with partnering with Dentsu, because, “Corporations are not always the right match for certain creative endeavors, but I learned that Dentsu has pursued various social initiatives after certain tragedies and scandals that Dentsu faced which gave me confidence that your company would be an ethical and honorable firm to partner with." After the Japanese investment company announced the cancelation of the festival and allegedly discovering they took $17 million, Lang wrote this "...confirmed my worst concerns about partnering with your company. These actions are neither a legal nor honorable way to do business,” and that Dentsu, "...directly contacted all stakeholders, including the venue Watkins Glen International, insurance companies, producers, vendors and performers (some of whom I am lucky to count as personal friends) and suggested they not do business with me, and violate their contracts with my company." Lang also alleges in the letter that Dentsu told booked talent to not play the festival after their cancelation announcement and instead "appeal for a spot during the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo," where Dentsu's headquarters is located. Lang's letter also suggests that even though Woodstock 50 hadn't officially secured the necessary permits for the festival, the state of New York still "granted conditional approval...to proceed with ticket sales," but he says that Densu "blocked this sale for no apparent reason."
Woodstock 50 organizers netted a big win from a judge on the Supreme Court of the State of New York ruling that former investors, Dentsu, had no right to cancel the festival. The festival's official Twitter shared the following: "Judge rules Woodstock 50 Festival may go ahead as planned! Dentsu Aegis had no right to cancel the Festival. Michael Lang thanked all the Artists and representatives for their support and looks forward to an amazing and inspiring Festival in August." In his own statement per 'Variety,' Michael Lang said, "We have always relied on the truth and have never lost faith that the Festival would take place. I would like to thank all of the talent and their representatives for their patience and support. Woodstock 50 will be an amazing and inspiring festival experience." However, it wasn't all peace, love and victory for Woodstock 50. 'Variety' also noted that, "Judge Barry Ostrager declined to order Dentsu to return the $17.8 million Woodstock co-founder Michael Lang had alleged Amplifi [a subsidiary of Dentsu] 'siphoned' from the festival bank account, leaving Woodstock 50 with still more financial ground to make up if the event is to continue."
'Rolling Stone' reported New York-based investment bank and financial services company Oppenheimer & Co. stepped in to provide some much-needed funding for Woodstock 50. Oppenheimer & Co.'s head of Debt Capital Markets & Syndication John Tonelli said in a statement, "We are thrilled to be onboard for this incredible weekend of music and social engagement. We believe in Woodstock as an important American cultural icon and look forward to its regeneration in the green fields of Watkins Glen this August with all of the artists on the remarkable lineup." Despite this news, Woodstock 50 still hadn't put tickets on sale and hadn't secured all of the necessary permits from the State of New York for their location at Watkins Glen International in Watkins Glen, N.Y.
Per 'Rolling Stone,' Watkins Glen International pulled out of its contract with the festival, with a rep for the racetrack saying in a statement, "Watkins Glen International terminated the site license for Woodstock pursuant to provisions of the contract. As such, WGI will not be hosting the Woodstock 50 Festival." Woodstock 50 said in a statement, "We confirm that we will not be moving forward with Watkins Glen as a venue for Woodstock 50. We are in discussions with another venue to host Woodstock 50 on August 16th - 18th and look forward to sharing the new location when tickets go on sale in the coming weeks." Following the venue loss news, Woodstock 50 event producer CID Entertainment told 'Billboard,' "CID Entertainment had been engaged to provide enhanced camping, travel packages and transportation for Woodstock 50. Given developments, we can confirm that CID is no longer involved in Woodstock 50 in any capacity." CID Entertainment originally replaced Superfly as a producer of the event, who had backed out after original financial partner Dentsu pulled their funding.
'The Poughkeepsie Journal' reports organizers applied for permits for Vernon Downs, a racino (a hotel/harness horse racing track) in Oneida County, New York. The venue holds significantly fewer people - about 45,000-50,000 - than the original site of Watkins Glen International, which estimated around 70,000 capacity. Vernon Downs doesn't have grounds for on-site camping. There are two campground locations nearby, but attendees would need to take shuttle buses to Vernon Downs.
'Billboard' reports a variety of representation, from managers to publicists to agents, have not received any new updates on the venue from organizers Michael Lang and Greg Peck. The new proposed venue, Vernon Downs, is about two hours away from the festival's original venue, Watkins Glen International. Artists and their management will need to adjust travel plans for personnel and equipment, especially if any of the acts on the bill are currently on tour and the Woodstock 50 set was scheduled between tour dates. Rumors of artists potentially pulling out at this time really began swirling, with a source telling 'Billboard,' "Each artist will have to make a decision about whether this is something they want to take on now that so much has changed. 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."
Multiple sources, including 'The Poughkeepsie Journal,' 'Variety' and Syracuse.com, report the town of Vernon denied the application for the anniversary festival to take place at local venue Vernon Downs. Townspeople were concerned about hosting the festival. Vernon town attorney Vincent Rossi said, "Each application submitted, one for each of the three days, was one page long with no supporting materials." Oneida County emergency management director Kevin Revere, meanwhile, said, "Any emergency management director will say there isn’t enough time to do this properly.” Rumors of artists potentially pulling out at this time really began swirling, with a source telling 'Billboard,' "Each artist will have to make a decision about whether this is something they want to take on now that so much has changed. 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."
Woodstock 50's social media channels blasts the following message to followers: "Will the Town of Vernon allow peace, love & music to prevail so we can celebrate Woodstock 50 with you? Upon permit approval we’ll announce our ticket on sale. Please share to show your support." An accompanying graphic contains the message, "Dear Town of Vernon, Woodstock is committed to bringing peace, love and music to The Downs. Will you all let peace, love and music prevail August 16th-18th? With love, Woodstock 50."
'Bloomberg' reports Woodstock 50 will now take place in Columbia, Maryland at the Merriweather Post Pavilion, which will hold about 32,000 people. The new venue is about 250 miles from its first announced location in Watkins Glen, N.Y. Tickets have yet to go on sale, but 'Bloomberg' reports passes will cost from $129 to $595.
In a statement to 'Variety,' Fogerty's reps said, "John Fogerty knows where he will be for the anniversary weekend of Woodstock. At only one site… at the original one – the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. As he says in his song ‘Who’ll Stop the Rain,’ written upon returning from Woodstock – "NO MORE CONFUSION ON THE GROUND."
'Rolling Stone' reports that Jay Z and Dead & Company have pulled out of Woodstock 50 after the venue change announcement. Woodstock 50 then formally released artists from their original contracts, thus, not making them obligated to perform at the festival, even though most artists have already been paid. 'Billboard' reports that since artists were originally contracted to perform in Watkins Glen, N.Y., the new venue change to Columbia, Maryland's Merriweather Post Pavillion would be a breach of contract, since the new venue is about 350 miles south from the original festival site.
Six artists publicly drop out of Woodstock 50 including Santana, The Raconteurs, Miley Cyrus, Lumineers, Country Joe McDonald, John Sebastian