Nothing about staging a Woodstock festival has ever been easy. The traffic jams, mud, trespassers and brown acid at the original in 1969. The 25th-anniversary event in 1994 was marred by bad weather — lightning is never good when 300,000 people are gathered in an open field — organizational gaffes, and complaints about price-gouging by vendors. In 1999, the 30th-anniversary show featured oppressive heat, arson, vandalism, violence, and sexual assault. Why would anyone expect less confusion and controversy for a 50th-anniversary event?
For Michael Lang, the co-creator of Woodstock ’69 and the promoter of the ’94 and ’99 editions, it’s deja vu all over again. Everything has been plunged into confusion, obfuscation, misdirection and misformation.
Let’s try to unpack what’s happened so far.
I started hearing plans for commemorating the 50th anniversary of The World’s Most Legendary MusicFestivalTM last summer. News arrived that the Bethel Woods Centre for the Arts, a non-profit that operates a museum and performance venue where Max Yasgur’s farm used to be — the site of the original Woodstock — would be staging some kind of low-key Woodstock-y thing. An official announcement came Dec. 27.
Shortly thereafter, rumours started to flow about a (sort of) non-competing mega festival staged by Lang, owner of all the Woodstock Festival’s intellectual property, somewhere in the area.
Details remained thin until Jan. 9, 2019, when Lang announced that a 50th-anniversary festival would, in fact, take place. And with the announcement that ’69 alumnus Santana had already signed on, everything seemed legit.
In fact, that original announcement came with a promise that the first round of tickets — discounted offerings for people 18-25 — would be made available by the end of the month.
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That didn’t happen. No explanation was given.
Rumours abounded by early March. Why no line-up announcement? Where was Woodstock 50 going to be held? And were the stories about financial issues true? Lang dismissed everything as idle talk.
A period of radio silence followed until March 19 when the full three-day lineup featuring about 80 acts was revealed. Artists worthy of big fonts on the poster can command guarantees of US$1-3 million, so with names ranging from The Killers and Jay-Z to Robert Plant and Miley Cyrus, the talent budget must have been enormous. The venue? Watkins Glen International, a NASCAR track about 200 km to the northwest from Bethel, the weekend of Aug. 16-18.
Although no ticketing details were mentioned, we were told that they would go on sale April 22. (Earth Day, no less.) Made sense, since Coachella would be over and no longer consuming all the festival oxygen. But at the last second, Lang and Co. told everyone that tickets sales would be delayed because of some kind of logistical issues. A small glitch. Nothing more.
Actually, a lot was happening behind the scenes. On April 5, The Black Keys, one of the Big Font bands on the bill, dropped out, citing “scheduling issues.” No problem. It happens, right?
But maybe the band knew something was amiss. It turns out that despite announcing the show and signing up all the acts, Lang hadn’t yet secured the necessary permits for staging his mega festival from Schuyler County, home of Watkins Glen International.
Incredibly, no one had even applied for the permits until April 15, just seven days before the on-sale date. You’d think that gaining permission to hold your event would be job one, right?
But that was just the amuse-bouche to the confusion that was to follow.
On April 19, three days before tickets were to go on sale, Lang announced that there would be a delay. “‘Tis but a minor glitch,” was the vibe.
It wasn’t until six days later that Lang stated: “Ticket on-sale information will be available through Woodstock.com in the coming days.”
That never happened, either, because behind the scenes, things weren’t exactly holding together.
Schuyler County wasn’t just concerned about security, sanitation and traffic. Officials were questioning something even more basic: the audience capacity of Watkins Glen International.
A little digging reveals that the record attendance at WGI is 95,000 for a 2015 NASCAR event. True, a race and a festival are two different things, but Woodstock apparently originally asked for permits seeking to admit up to 150,000 people into a 1,000-acre space around the track.
With that being a non-starter with the county, that number was allegedly reduced to 125,000. Then 100,000. Then 75,000.
That’s when the numbers stopped making sense for Dentsu Aegis Network, the Japanese investor underwriting the start-up costs, rumoured to be in the neighbourhood of US$30 million. When it became apparent that Dentsu would either (a) not make its promised return on investment or (b) lose money on the venture, it pulled out.
“As a result and after careful consideration,” it said in a press release on April 29, “Dentsu Aegis Network’s Amplifi Live, a partner of Woodstock 50, has decided to cancel the festival. As difficult as it is, we believe this is the most prudent decision for all parties involved.”
This came as a surprise to Lang, who apparently received this press release at the same time as everyone else. His people released a counter-statement, basically saying that Densu had no right to cancel their show.
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“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.”
Fine. But who is going to pay for all this? With no financial backers and no ticket revenue coming in, there is, er, a cashflow problem. And don’t expect Live Nation or AEG to ride to the rescue. Both were pitched US$20 million investment opportunities, which they politely declined.
Meanwhile, Woodstock’s production partner, Superfly — the company hired to build and maintain four stages —has dropped out.
None of this helps the Woodstock brand. You can also bet that performers with signed contracts are calling their agents with questions. Billboard reports that their contracts are with Dentsu, not Woodstock, something that Lang disputes, saying that Woodstock LLC drew up the agreements. Lawyers are standing by regarding whether or not anyone is obligated to perform or if anyone gets to keep or return their deposits.
Confused? Absolutely. Then again, what would a Woodstock event be without all the associated non-music drama?
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with 102.1 the Edge and Q107, and a commentator for Global News.
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