A month before Woodstock 50 was announced, the festival was already in deep trouble. Last December, Michael Lang, the co-founder of the original 1969 event who had become its bemused-hippie symbol in subsequent decades, was in talks with an upstate New York racetrack for a fest that would mark the anniversary of the historic, if chaotic, cultural milestone he had overseen. The new festival would take place August 16th – 18th, 2019, almost exactly 50 years after the original Woodstock.
Lang had begun negotiations with the international media company Dentsu Aegis to finance the event, writing in a December 4th email to the company’s chief commercial officer, D.J. Martin, that he was imagining a crowd of 150,000. Dentsu thought government permits would cap attendance at 60,000. Lang, whose email signature includes a quote from counterculture author Ken Kesey (“Put your good where it counts the most”), contested that number: “Where did you get that?” he emailed back. Martin replied, “From you.”
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Martin seemed agitated and concerned. “If that is not the case, then you need to clarify the facts to the collective team,” he wrote. “We could end up in bad shape really quickly.” Those words would eventually come back to haunt everyone.
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Woodstock 50 had nearly every resource a festival could ask for: a storied brand name, financial backing from a multinational communications company, and agents eager to sign up their artists for sizable paychecks. The three-day show would not only celebrate rock’s most iconic festival; it would connect the original’s heritage to the Coachella generation via hip-hop artists and pop chart-toppers.
Instead, Woodstock 50 turned into a slow-moving train wreck. This Rolling Stone investigation is based on three months of reporting, nearly 100 legal filings, and dozens of interviews with people connected to the festival, including artists, agents, managers, and government officials. It’s the story of how the Age of Aquarius turned into the Age of Mercury in Retrograde — and the unfulfilled promises left in its wake.
“You can’t ‘magic’ one of these [Woodstocks] into happening, and that’s what they tried to do with this,” says David Crosby, one of the veterans of the first Woodstock who was booked for the anniversary festival. “It had nothing to do with anybody feeling good about each other. It had to do with certain people making a huge amount of money. That’s a grubby way to start in the first place. It’s not a motivation that brings out the very best in people.”
If the idea of peaceful rock festivals was a dream, then Lang was the dreamer for the job. Starting with his earliest business venture — a head shop he opened in Miami after dropping out of college in 1967 — the Brooklyn native seemed like two people in one: a fringe-clad, curly-topped counterculture man-child and a savvy businessman who knew there was a youth market to exploit. (One of his former Woodstock partners would call his face “by turns evil, wanton, fey, impish, and innocent.”) Lang’s first attempt at putting together a gathering, the 1968 Miami Pop Festival, was hampered by rain and financial issues, but he proved he could hustle his way through anything with sheer will and force of personality — lessons he applied to Woodstock the following year.
With three partners, Lang conceived the idea of a three-day festival in New York state in 1969, but the original Woodstock succeeded more on dumb luck than on precise planning. After losing the planned site in Wallkill, New York a month before gates were scheduled to open, Lang famously drove by a field in Bethel, New York, owned by dairy farmer Max Yasgur, and Woodstock was suddenly back on. In the end, between 300,000 and 400,000 music fans attended — either by paying for tickets or crashing the gates — and with the added help of a profitable movie and soundtrack album, Woodstock became one of the era’s defining moments. “He got lucky in 1969,” says Country Joe McDonald, who played Woodstock with his group the Fish. “The event made itself. He didn’t make the event.”
Lang returned in 1994 with some of his original business partners to unite new rock bands with boomer legends for Woodstock’s 25th anniversary, which lured a respectable 300,000-plus people to Saugerties, New York and went relatively smoothly. Five years later, the disastrous Woodstock ‘99 in Rome, New York that Lang co-produced saw multiple reports of sexual assault, including an alleged gang rape, occurring alongside riots and acts of violence. But everyone, surely Lang included, knew that the culmination of Woodstock nostalgia would propel a 50th-anniversary event.
In 2014, Lang told Rolling Stone he wanted to throw a 50th anniversary festival. Photographer Baron Wolman, who has known Lang since shooting the original festival for Rolling Stone, says he talked about anniversary plans with Lang several years ago. “He was going to purchase land in the Denver area and build a permanent venue where he would have the festival and [subsequent] festivals,” Wolman says. “I never heard another thing about it. He’s a good guy — you can’t help but love him. He’s a dreamer. That’s the problem. He doesn’t know how to activate or realize the dream.” (“We thought Colorado might be a possible location,” Lang confirmed. “The fact that pot is legal in Colorado was a big plus, and they had lots of open land.” Ultimately, Lang wanted to keep any festival he was doing in New York.)
In 2017, Lang started planning the fest seriously, focusing on Watkins Glen International, a racing speedway in New York’s Finger Lakes region. In 1973, the track became a music venue for the first time when a concert named Summer Jam attracted an estimated 600,000 people to see the Allman Brothers, the Band, and the Grateful Dead. (The event once held the Guinness World Record for pop-festival attendance.) Phish successfully staged their three-night Magnaball festival there in 2015 — but the site also came with its own issues: The name of Phish’s planned three-day 2018 festival, Curveball, proved prescient, when heavy rainfall contaminated the water supply, forcing its last-minute cancellation.
Lang inspected the grounds himself that winter, and when his team first contacted Dentsu around that time, everything seemed in place for an August 2019 celebration. According to court filings from a subsequent legal battle between Woodstock 50 and Dentsu, Lang and his associates told the company they had already been in talks with Watkins Glen. At the time, the organizers said they were working to procure a mass-gathering permit from the state to allow on-site camping – a law instituted in 1970 as a result of the original Woodstock – and that they would have a selection of A-list performers worthy of Woodstock’s legacy booked by New Year’s Eve.
In November 2018, Dentsu officially joined forces with a newly formed company, Woodstock 50 LLC. From a strictly business standpoint, Woodstock 50 was operated by Greg Peck and Susan Cronin, who hired Lang as a producer to avoid a conflict of interest with his other company, Woodstock Ventures, which owns the rights to the name. Peck, whose background is in hotels, had no music industry experience prior to Woodstock 50. He had spent years working for famed hoteliers Ian Schrager and André Balazs before acquiring the Crescent Hotel in Beverly Hills. Cronin, his partner in the Crescent, knew Lang, and Lang started staying at the hotel when he was in Los Angeles.
The three grew close, and Lang eventually approached them about Woodstock 50. “They were good friends,” says Lang. “And I mentioned it to them one day that my partners would much rather do this as a license, and would they be interested? And they said sure.” The hoteliers licensed the festival name from Woodstock Ventures in the fall of 2018 and officially signed on to Lang’s dream.
This arrangement also meant that several of the major players in Woodstock 50, including Dentsu, had virtually no experience in putting on a major music festival. What they did have, at least in the beginning, was cash. Dentsu, the parent company of Dentsu Aegis, has a market cap of nearly $10 billion and has supported everything from the NBA players union to a Japanese ad featuring snacking noises — and investing in the Woodstock brand would have given the firm an entree into the festival universe, which, Lang tells Rolling Stone, could have included an annual Woodstock in a different city around the world.
Woodstock 50’s contract with Dentsu Aegis said that the financier would contribute up to $49,141,000 to the festival, based on the assumption that a maximum of 150,000 tickets could be sold and an additional $22 million would come from corporate sponsorships. Lang told Dentsu he had met with a sheriff and a county executive in summer 2018 and had been given the green light to have more than 100,000 attendees. Another clause in the agreement stipulated that in March 2019, four months after the contracts were signed, both parties would “determine in good faith . . . whether such assumptions [regarding the number of attendees and prospective sponsorship money] remain accurate.”
By December, just one month into the joint arrangement, communication problems were already setting in. But those issues were, for the moment, brushed aside. Before they could court concertgoers, they needed artists.
“The Current Talent Strategy Is Flawed”
From the beginning, Lang wanted nothing less than an all-star lineup for Woodstock 50’s headlining acts. A November 2018 document released in court filings revealed a list of dream target artists broken into four tiers. At the hypothetical top were Beyoncé and Bruce Springsteen, along with “Drake (or Kendrick Lamar),” Bruno Mars (whom they earmarked for a “special Sly and the Family Stone tribute”), “Lady Gaga (or Pink or Katy Perry),” and finally “Stevie Wonder + Friends” (whom they suggested would pay tribute to Aretha Franklin and bring “his Hall of Fame friends to join him [for] a one-time-only W50 set”). Other hoped-for performances that never materialized included Green Day playing all of American Idiot, My Morning Jacket performing a “special tribute to the Band,” and, as Lang told Rolling Stone, a collaboration between Miley Cyrus and the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir. (“There was no actual discussion,” a source in the Dead camp tells Rolling Stone.)
Whatever the lineup, Lang had a simple vision for Woodstock 50 that would, in his mind, differentiate it from competing festivals as well as the ‘94 and ‘99 models: booking only the most modern pop, hip-hop, and rock acts, along with whomever was left from the original festival. “Woodstock 50 was something relating back to the original,” Lang says. “It was reminding people of what activism could actually bring. There were so many comparisons between what was going on then and now in the world. So when I booked it, it was about contemporary acts and acts from the original.”
On December 3rd, Lang asked Martin to sign off on a list of artists, but Martin balked. “What happens if they all say yes?” Martin asked, adding that the artists selected up to that point would cost “$19 million alone.” The two quarreled, and Martin told Lang the amount was far too much. “If the festival is for an audience of 60k, we will not get [an] agreement to spend $25 million nor $17 million on talent,” he wrote. “So the current talent strategy is flawed.” The plan called for signing a slew of acts before January 1st, 2019. In an affidavit, Martin later attested that Woodstock 50 “had not secured a single artist to play the festival” by its New Year’s Eve deadline.
Even though few, if any, artists had been nailed down, Woodstock 50 barreled on. On January 7th, Dentsu hired Superfly, the production company renowned for putting together Bonnaroo and Outside Lands, to oversee Woodstock 50’s planning. Three days before, Lang and Cronin stopped by the Rolling Stone offices and claimed that 40 acts had signed up. Lang called the Watkins Glen venue “kind of an accident … I was desperately trying to keep the festival in New York. And I looked everywhere.” (Reps for Superfly and Watkins Glen International declined to comment for this article.)
Lang, who projected an air of both openness and mystery, said he envisioned “these neighborhoods, which [would] have curated food and music and entertainment experiences.” There would be “street actors, clowns, and jugglers, and the like” along with a “kind of drive-in-movie situation, or a walk-in-movie situation.” There was talk of a livestream and a concert movie. Lang even said they had tracked down odor-free toilets.
“I was desperately trying to keep the festival in New York” – Woodstock 50 organizer Michael Lang
Meanwhile, the logistics of such an undertaking were becoming overwhelming. Peter Office, COO of the Dentsu-affiliated MKTG, who served as a liaison with the production companies, said in later court proceedings that Superfly initially relied, in part, on Google Maps for photos of the festival site. Because the pictures were taken in the winter, he said, the company hadn’t fully understood all the necessary work it would have to do until it saw the grounds once the grass started growing again in March. “With the snow melting, they saw more of the land and saw it was less functional than originally thought,” Office said.
Working with a viable venue site was especially important for Woodstock 50. Knowing the near-chaos that had happened at the 1969 festival, New York state subsequently enacted a series of new regulations for festivals. By the time of Woodstock 50, those requirements were immense — the organizers would have needed to construct new roads and bridges, lease extra land for parking, expand water systems, and create an entire backup water supply, the latter required by the Department of Health after the Phish fiasco. Moreover, getting a mass-gathering permit was essential, as the Department of Health forbids people from advertising an overnight event of that size without a permit, which precluded Woodstock 50 from putting tickets on sale.
According to Lang, these were not obstacles: “We’ve known it all these years,” he tells Rolling Stone. “It’s something we had to deal with for the 25th anniversary, of the same mass-gathering permits. So we’ve been through this before, a couple of times. A lot of it is just busywork, but a lot of it does make sense.”
But if it was normal for Lang, it wasn’t for Dentsu. At a later court hearing, Office described what would be involved in turning the racetrack into “a city for three or five days” for Woodstock 50. Asked how much time would generally be needed for such preparation, Office noted, “A minimum of a year to 18 months.”
“We Need to Preserve Our Good Names”
Toward the end of February, with the help of talent buyer Danny Wimmer Presents, Woodstock 50 was still booking acts. When the lineup was revealed at a Manhattan press conference in March (an event that alone cost $120,000), there were no head-turning reunions nor once-in-a-lifetime performances of classic albums or collaborations. But adhering to Lang’s concept, the three days would showcase a respectable, eclectic mix of modern hitmakers (Jay-Z, the Killers, Chance the Rapper, Miley Cyrus, Halsey, the Raconteurs, the Black Keys) and Woodstock vets (Crosby, McDonald, John Fogerty, Carlos Santana, Dead & Company, John Sebastian, Melanie). For some of those acts, the payday was formidable: Several artists, including Jay-Z, the Killers, Miley Cyrus, and Santana, each received at least $500,000 for his or her commitment to Woodstock 50. Sources tell Rolling Stone that every act was paid in advance.
In the beginning, veteran artists expressed excitement over the festival. “I was looking forward to seeing how it would get reworked 50 years later,” Fogerty, who had played Woodstock with Creedence Clearwater Revival, told Rolling Stone in April. “What the young people would think about it and what the younger artists would think. It’s not every day you get to go back to a 50-year reunion.”
“I was excited to be there because I represent the Vietnam War; the war no one wants to talk about and pretends never happened,” adds McDonald, who was planning to revive his caustic anti-war “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” from the original festival. “So I was very happy to bring that back just by doing that song.” Frank Riley, founder of High Road Touring who booked some of the major acts, recalls a conversation he had with Robert Plant: “He asked me why I thought it was a good idea, and at some point he goes, ‘Well, I missed the first one, so what the hell, I’ll do the second one.’”
The only people who didn’t seem fully aboard were those putting up millions of dollars. By then, Dentsu started to think that Woodstock was spending too much money and that the festival was forcing its hand to pay artists that Dentsu hadn’t agreed to book, according to court documents. On February 28th, Lang urged Dentsu to pay the agents for the talent they had secured “to prevent our credibility and reputations in the industry from being destroyed.” “Agents are already demanding payments, which are late,” he wrote. “We need to preserve our good names.”
Dentsu said in court that they ended up begrudgingly paying the artists tens of millions of dollars. A court filing stated, “Dentsu had no option but to make these payments after a damaging rumor leaked to the public that the festival was experiencing financial difficulties, threatening [its] success.”
At the press conference, no mention was made of ticket prices or on-sale dates, but everyone was left to assume that information was forthcoming.
Woodstock 50’s Press Conference/Lineup Announce
But that absence of information was one sign of the growing discord behind the scenes, which continued to include conflicting estimates of how many people could pack into Watkins Glen. “My vision for it was 100,000 or more,” Lang later told Rolling Stone.
But even by the New Year’s milestone, it was becoming increasingly clear that the venue wouldn’t be able to hold 150,000 people even if it wanted to. The Woodstock team remained convinced in emails that they would get more than 100,000 ticket-holders there, but when Superfly assessed the venue site, its estimate was closer to 65,000 people.
“We are partners here,” Peck wrote in a January 8th email to Dentsu. “We are working our butts off. Susan and I … are transforming our lives to make this work. Michael has given his career and is giving it his all now to make this work. It will work. I guarantee it. BUT I CAN’T GUARANTEE A SUCCESSFUL FESTIVAL THAT YOU CANCEL. … and we are getting the capacity for 150,000 people.”
On February 28th, Lang sent an email to MKTG’s Charles Horsey and Dentsu’s COO of media, Lucas Cridland, among others, to express his displeasure. “Superfly will not be permitted to adjust this down to 65,000,” he wrote. “There is no rational reason to do this. Not from a safety point of view nor from a customer satisfaction point of view.” Lang added he was “disappointed” in Superfly’s “lack of effort to solve problems,” writing that “a little discomfort” isn’t “cause to eliminate 35,000 potential attendees.”
Superfly stood firm with the 65,000 figure, with co-founder Rick Farman calling it “the safe and appropriately manageable capacity” in a March email to Dentsu and Woodstock 50. In that same email, Farman sent an especially dire message to Woodstock 50 and Dentsu: “We are at a critical junction on this project where our ability to produce a safe, first-class event is in jeopardy.” The three entities appeared to be at an impasse.
“The narrative that Dentsu tried to create — that Michael sort of fooled them into a higher capacity number — is totally fake news,” says a source connected to Woodstock 50 LLC. “Dentsu and Michael knew exactly what the capacity could or could not be. The target had always been [125,000 to 150,000]. Superfly then came back and said, ‘Gee, you know what? We think the number should be 65.’ And that kind of threw everybody for a loop. Dentsu was of the mind of, ‘Let’s not jeopardize our relationship with Superfly.’” (Dentsu declined to comment for this article.)
Lang, an expert salesman clad usually in casual T-shirts or jeans, went into full pitchman mode to make sure the racetrack would be home to Woodstock 50. On March 27th, he and reps from Superfly participated in a town-hall public meeting in Watkins Glen to discuss the festival and its impact on the area. Lang told the crowd that Woodstock 50 would be a celebration of the values of the original Woodstock and would address current social issues that needed attention. “[The music] might not be to everybody’s taste, but I think the younger people will love it and I think there’s plenty of music for you guys as well,” he told the room.
Although he got some laughs and answered questions, not everyone was pleased with what they heard. “In the town hall, he was just making stuff up to satisfy people,” a source close to Schuyler County, the home of Watkins Glen International, says. “He probably spent … $300,000 with his mouth, from offering every home private security, fencing, to ‘Yeah, we have kids’ tickets. We’ll have free parking too.’ He was releasing data that the financier had no idea about.”
“Whoever made this statement is an uninformed idiot,” Lang replies, explaining that locals could make it to the site by bicycle and that Woodstock 50 would have provided security and fencing to homeowners whose property abutted the festival grounds. They also would have provided 600 tickets to the festival’s neighbors, according to Lang. “It is interesting to ponder how this person would know that the ‘financier’ wouldn’t have been aware of these facts.”
Yet the one group of people Lang failed to win over were Watkins Glen officials. Since it was up to the raceway to submit the paperwork to get the necessary permits, venue officials decided what they were capable of and, according to court documents, limited the attendance to 75,000 ticket-holders, 10,000 more than Superfly’s estimate but still a number they thought could get approved. Still, that didn’t stop Woodstock 50 from pushing for more, according to court documents. “Even after [Watkins Glen International] applied for the permit, W50 continued to insist that [they] could accommodate more concertgoers,” Dentsu’s Office said in an affidavit.
The tug-of-war over attendance appeared to settle down in April, when Watkins Glen submitted the permit application. “When paperwork wasn’t started in a timely way for the mass-gathering permit, everyone got very nervous,” Lang says. “It was just a factor of everything being done so late.” In court testimony, Dentsu thought the festival could break even with a capacity of 65,000. Peck later said he thought it could still be profitable.
Watkins Glen Town Hall Meeting With Woodstock 50 Organizers
The first public cracks in Woodstock 50’s facade appeared in April, when the Black Keys, who said they were paid around $1.5 million, dropped out, citing “scheduling conflicts.” (Drummer Patrick Carney would later tell The New York Times, “We realized that we didn’t want our first show back to be in front of 150,000 people in a field without any control. … We only want to do stuff that actually is going to be enjoyable.”)
An April 22nd on-sale date for tickets came and went, with a rep for Danny Wimmer Presents messaging agents, “We are waiting on an official press statement from Woodstock 50 regarding updated announce, ticket pricing, and overall festival information. We will get this information to you as soon as we receive it.”
Skepticism about Woodstock 50 was already in the air, but these developments added to the sense that something was seriously off. Woodstock 50’s early missteps made the music industry question if Lang was up for the job and could compete in the far more competitive 21st Century world of festivals. “Yeah, I heard all that,” Lang says. “I don’t know how I could have followed through any more. I got a production company that does state-of-the-art work in Superfly. And with Wimmer, we did a miraculous job, frankly, of putting a lineup together in two months that usually takes two years. So I don’t really address those comments, but I don’t see the validity in them, frankly. I think that we had the right approach to it.”
Steven Matrick, who worked closely with Lang from 1995 to 2010 and was his assistant on Woodstock ’99, saw firsthand Lang’s struggle between idealism and pragmatism. “Starting something like [Woodstock 50] up from scratch is always going to be a really, really difficult thing to do,” he says. “I think at a certain point, as the person doing it, you probably have to make decisions that are practical and perhaps not in the spirit of the way you’re representing yourself as this Sixties icon and figurehead of Woodstock.”
Meanwhile, construction on the campgrounds was still not underway. Schuyler County administrator Tim O’Hearn, who oversaw the Watkins Glen permitting process, did not receive the festival’s permit application until April 15th. Similarly, New York State’s Department of Health was still processing the event’s application for the mass-gathering permit needed to put the tickets on sale. Eventually, in April, the DOH would agree to issue a conditional permit if the venue agreed to a list of health, safety, and security measures, as well as putting up a $1 million bond, and agreeing potentially to pay $2,500 each day it did not meet the requirements. The venue ultimately refused to sign it.
Once Superfly had gained a better understanding of the terrain, the company decided that Watkins Glen could only host 61,000 people — 4,000 fewer than it had originally projected. In a letter to Woodstock 50 and Dentsu, Superfly said it “will not go forward” with any planning that did not align with that new number. Things never went that far. A later portion of the letter proved to be portentous, when Superfly expressed “grave concerns” about the feasibility of even getting a permit because of the mixed messages regarding capacity that had been communicated to government officials.
Dentsu piled on the beleaguered festival by sending a breach-of-contract notice on April 17th. When it was still thought that the festival could bring in 150,000 concertgoers — back when Dentsu and Woodstock 50 first drafted their contract — the companies earmarked $25 million for talent, more than half of the total budget, according to court docs. By late January, they had already spent $15.7 million. Once they reduced the number of prospective attendees to the low 60,000s, Dentsu thought the total talent budget should be capped at $16 million to $17 million. But in its complaint, Dentsu claimed Woodstock 50 kept booking more artists.
“Oh My God. Is This Really Going to Happen?”
Dentsu spent $32 million on talent — around two-thirds of the original budget — according to court documents. (A number well beyond the attenuated goal.) In the eyes of Dentsu’s Martin, the festival was no longer profitable. As he said later in court, “Maybe we’d break even.”
Many connected to the festival felt the dropoff in profits made the idea of participating far less appealing to Dentsu. The company had had enough and, on April 18th, it stopped making large payments out of the festival bank account. About 10 days later, it withdrew around $17.8 million, leaving a little less than $24,000. “[Dentsu and Woodstock 50] did not have the time, resources, or financing to cure these problems and ensure a healthy, safe, and secure festival experience,” according to a passage in Dentsu’s response to Woodstock 50’s eventual lawsuit. The day after Dentsu stopped paying out of the festival bank account, agents learned that Woodstock 50 would be missing its on-sale date for tickets.
By that time, the ticket issue was another major problem between the organizers and those in control of the purse strings. Delaying the on-sale date “could prove catastrophic,” Peck wrote to the Dentsu team. “The real risk here is that talent will begin to lose confidence in our ability to produce the festival and there would be a subsequent panic that would result in a veritable ‘run on the bank’ rush to flee what would be perceived as a sinking ship.”
“Dentsu didn’t want to do it because they were planning to do what they did a week or so later,” the source connected to Woodstock 50 LLC says, referring to the company’s later attempt to cancel the festival. “And they knew if they had gone on sale, it would have been very difficult to undo that.”
Dentsu’s Martin fired back with a firm rebuttal the next day. Among other grievances, he wrote that the festival would have to cut most of the camping options and restructure the pricing accordingly. The budget was inching dangerously close to the $49 million the company had originally promised to spend on Woodstock 50, and it would not spend more. “It is anticipated that another $20 million-plus of funding will be required to fully fund the production of the festival,” he wrote. “We believe it is irresponsible to sell tickets where there is serious doubt about the ability to fund the rest of the production of the festival.”
According to booking agent Riley, the tickets would have ideally gone on sale in February: “It seemed to be set up and ready to go in February, but it kept on drifting. Then it was April 20th, and once we got near April 20th, that’s when the alarms started going off — ‘Oh my God. Is this really going to happen?’”
Peck, in a futile attempt to correct course, pleaded with Dentsu just after midnight on April 22nd to put tickets on sale anyway. In doing so, the company could, as he wrote, “spin the press that has come out over the weekend in a positive way, by suggesting it was all baseless Woodstock rumors.” The festival, he wrote, is ready with a positive press release to complement a “limited on-sale.” Woodstock 50’s planned kickoff was less than four months away.
“Not a Risk We Anticipated”
On the morning of April 29th, Superfly was still trying to figure out the logistics of Woodstock 50. Company employees were mapping out the grounds, which included multiple large stages and a smaller one, off to the side, that would feature Woodstock ’69 veterans.
But Dentsu would issue a seemingly out-of-nowhere statement that would shut down all preparation. “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,” it read in part. “As a result and after careful consideration, 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.”
Lang claims he had no heads-up about Dentsu’s announcement and said it was “mind-boggling” that he didn’t know the news was coming. “I never envisioned anybody just walking away from so much money and breaching and taking the position that we’re just so big that we know there’ll be collateral damage and we’ll just weather the storm,” says the source connected to Woodstock 50 LLC. “It was not a risk we anticipated … They breached.” As a formality, according to court documents, Dentsu also informed Lang, Peck, and Cronin that Dentsu had the right to terminate the agreement and, consequently, cancel the festival. Lang, who appeared to have a Zen calm up to that point, says that was the moment he was “furious.”
With that news, other aspects began to collapse or be put in suspended motion. Superfly soon cut ties with Woodstock 50 LLC. At the time, a source close to Schuyler County became increasingly frustrated with Lang, saying he should have known better about the capacity problems with the venue. “He convinced Dentsu that the venue could hold 150,000, but he was told ‘75,000, max a hundred thousand’ two years ago when he approached the venue,” the source said. “It’s Michael’s undoing that’s undoing this.” (“That’s not true,” counters Lang. He says he discussed a capacity of 125,000 to 150,000 people with the county executive, whom he claims promised to sign off on it if the health department approved it. Moreover, Lang says the venue was OK with a cap of more than 100,000 people and had initially submitted an application at that number. His letter of intent with Watkins Glen, he says, reflects that.)
“At the first meeting, we spoke in very general terms concerning attendance and I stated that we were comfortable with whatever number could be satisfactorily demonstrated to comply with all mass gathering permit requirements,” says Schuyler County official O’Hearn. “We never quantified that number and always left it to the promoter and production team to determine and justify a number of attendees that could safely and responsibly be accommodated. That position remained constant throughout the entire review period.”
Woodstock 50 artists heard about Dentsu’s attempt to cancel the festival through the media. “I remember reading a while ago that they didn’t have some of the permits,” Fogerty told Rolling Stone in April. “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.” If Fogerty appeared puzzled, McDonald was incensed. “I kept searching the internet because I had no fucking communication with Lang,” says McDonald. “It’s really unprofessional. I’m shocked, actually. I thought, ‘What the fuck is going on there?’ I had a pretty good opinion of Mike Lang up until this point.”
Additionally, booking agents were nervous about the future of the festival and started managing their clients’ expectations. Billboard reported that bookers were wary of how the festival was looking in the wake of multiple documentaries about the failed Fyre Fest. Nevertheless, after Dentsu’s cancellation, agents kept quiet and waited to see what the Woodstock 50 team would do, according to Billboard. By keeping the date on the books, artists also wouldn’t have to return the money.
But the war was now publicly on. Lang published an open letter to Dentsu, saying the firm had acted dishonorably. “While we were on a call together as a group at 12:00 EDT, the media had already begun reporting that Woodstock was canceled,” he wrote. “I then learned that [Dentsu] illegally swept approximately $17 million from the festival bank account, leaving the festival in peril. These actions confirmed my worst concerns about partnering with your company. These actions are neither a legal nor honorable way to do business.”
The Woodstock 50 team decided at that point to fight for its life. “We could have just said this is going to be impossible because we had lost about four to six weeks and we had lost our financial partner,” says the source connected to Woodstock 50 LLC. “But we decided we really wanted to proceed and do the best we could to save it, to get it back on track, and we did it because we had a business plan, we had partners, and we believe it’s an important thing for the world, in a way.”
On May 8th, a complaint was officially filed with the Supreme Court of the State of New York. In its suit, Woodstock 50 LLC accused Dentsu of attempting to kill the festival and demanded the return of the $17.8 million that had been taken out of the account. “I take full responsibility for agreeing to go with Dentsu,” Lang says now. “It was the biggest factor on why this thing didn’t happen. In terms of how things went with Watkins Glen and the mass-gathering work, I blame them for wasting two and a half months to sign Superfly and get that work started. It just was insane.”
In court papers, Dentsu cited “Woodstock 50 LLC’s (‘W50’) and Michael Lang’s misrepresentations, incompetence, and contractual breaches,” which “have made it impossible to produce a high-quality event that is safe and secure for concertgoers, artists, and staff … There is no prospect for sufficient financing.”
“If Dentsu told me I need to show up at DJ [Martin’s] house naked with a steak and lobster dinner from Peter Luger, or else they wouldn’t sign the Superfly agreement, I wouldn’t be happy and I wouldn’t feel like it’s required, but I would have to do it to save the festival,” Peck wrote in an email in May.
For two days in a dreary, sparsely attended Manhattan courtroom in May, Woodstock 50’s life hung in the balance. “This is a business transaction,” Dentsu’s Martin told Judge Barry R. Ostrager. “We took full control to minimize any additional losses.” Both sides claimed victory with Ostrager’s decision: Dentsu didn’t have the right to unilaterally nix Woodstock 50 but, in a setback for Lang and his partners, the festival didn’t have the right to get the nearly $18 million back. The festival could move forward, but it would have to find a new influx of cash, fast. “Losing those six weeks was very problematic,” says the source connected to Woodstock 50 LLC.
Woodstock 50 soon announced it had a new financial adviser, Oppenheimer & Co., to help the company find new funds. The day before, Lang went on SiriusXM, claiming that tickets would go on sale in two weeks. “I’ve been here before,” he said. “I know what’s involved. A lot of the work has already been done.”
The crowing was premature. Lang’s confidence belied the fact that, according to court documents, he and his partners were supposed to pay $150,000 to Watkins Glen the day before; the money never arrived. On May 30th, Lang, Cronin, and Peck took one last meeting at the Watkins Glen facility, with New York state officials and venue operators. The Woodstock team assured everyone that a new production team was about to be announced and would be starting the following week, and that revised plans would be completed in a few weeks. “As you can imagine, everyone was skeptical,” says O’Hearn. “But they were very much committed to still putting on the show.”
Throughout the process, many who worked with Lang say he projected an air of confidence, justified or not; he was clearly on a crusade, and the fate of Woodstock 50 was now tied in with his legacy. “I was just talking to Michael yesterday,” Paul Green, Lang’s friend and founder of music education program School of Rock, told Rolling Stone in May, “and he seems happier than he usually is. I guess he likes the challenge. He’s like, ‘You’re going to tell me what I can’t do?’ It’s fun to hear him with that youthful rebellious spirit in his voice.”
“There wasn’t one communication of ‘Gee, I’m sorry things aren’t looking so well, hang in there.’ It was unbelievably rude.” – Country Joe McDonald
Riley recalls of Lang, “He seemed very forthright: ‘Yeah, we’re having an issue. The mass-gathering permit has not been approved. It’s sitting on the governor’s desk, or, it’s sitting on this desk. And this is now where we’re at.’ He seemed candid to me. He was worried about the whole process. I’m sure it was just an obsession for him, from the moment he’s awake to the moment he got some sleep.”
On June 10th, Watkins Glen International announced that, partly due to lack of payment, it was withdrawing as the home to Woodstock 50. “We supported Watkins Glen’s decision to withdraw,” says O’Hearn. “It was disappointing but not unexpected … It wasn’t worth the risk of having a catastrophic event.”
Once again, artists, agents, and managers were stunned. “When they lost Watkins Glen, someone emailed and said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s going to happen, blah blah blah,’” says McDonald. “When you do a gig, you have to book your hotel and flights and plan your life. But there wasn’t one communication of ‘Gee, I’m sorry things aren’t looking so well, hang in there.’ It was unbelievably rude.”
Woodstock 50 would also be dealt multiple lethal blows around this time. CID, a company that had been brought on to provide “enhanced camping, travel packages, and transportation” for events, backed out. Meanwhile, the New York State Department of Health rescinded the festival’s permit application.
With two months to go, Woodstock 50 was homeless. At least publicly, Lang was as determined as ever to put on an upbeat face. Asked by Rolling Stone how the planning was going in early June, Lang sighed and said, “Oh, not too bad. All things considered.” Asked if he was considering the collapse of the festival, he firmly said, “No, I am not gearing up for that. That’s not how I approach things anyway. I’m kind of an optimist. It definitely helps in this case.”
Later, Lang would admit that Jay-Z had privately backed out at that point, and the rapper wouldn’t be alone for long.
“Everyone Got Cold Feet”
No sooner was Watkins Glen out of the picture than a new home — and second chance — materialized. By the middle of June, the Woodstock 50 team was frantically scouting new locations, and one call went out to Jeffrey Gural, owner and operator of Vernon Downs, a horse track, hotel, and casino in Vernon, New York. “It didn’t need much infrastructure,” Lang says. “Everything was ready to go. It would have been without camping, and that was a disappointment to me. But it was one that had the facilities ready to roll, so it could be done in the amount of time we had to do it.”
As with Watkins Glen, the 587-acre venue could accommodate 65,000 people, and it appeared as if Lang and his group would squeak by. But paperwork again became an issue. Woodstock 50 made the New York state permit deadline with about a week to spare, yet failed to meet the town deadline requiring a permit application no later than 120 days before the event.
Moreover, Jody Thieme, a codes-enforcement officer for the town, said the application was missing an array of vital details, from traffic plans to stage design. At a crowded July 8th town board meeting, about 100 Vernon residents aired worries over traffic tie-ups and property damage. “No matter how good the plan looks on paper, to implement this plan in 39 days is impossible to ensure the safety of the public,” Oneida County Sheriff Rob Maciol chimed in. (“Totally ridiculous,” says the source connected to Woodstock 50 LLC of the concerns about accommodations. “It was confounding to me how people made these stories of what would happen at the end of the night when 50,000 people try to leave. It’s not that different from going to a sporting event or a concert now.”)
The following day, the town denied Woodstock 50’s permit application, as well as a follow-up permit application two days later. “Everyone got cold feet,” Gural says of the local officials he was dealing with. “All of a sudden, all those people were not returning calls. You can make the argument that, if the town approved it and something went wrong, all those people would have been voted out of office.”
Gural also feels that the lingering headache of Woodstock ’99, which had taken place less than 30 minutes away, was an issue: “They thought, ‘This is going to be another bad experience like the last one here.’ ” (Lang disagrees: “I don’t think that had anything to do with it. It was more about the local politics and some people who were particularly uninterested in having it happen.”) Soon after, Virgin Produced, a production company that stepped in after Superfly, announced it was also pulling out.
Woodstock 50 was becoming the Sisyphus of the industry, with Vernon rejecting its permit application four times in a row. On July 26th, about three weeks before Woodstock 50 was scheduled to open its doors somewhere, the Department of Health officially denied a permit for the show in Vernon. “The applicant has not met the conditions of a Part 18 Public Gathering permit,” department spokeswoman Erin Silk said.
With that news, Lang’s dream of Woodstock 50 effectively died. “The big disappointment for me was when we lost Vernon Downs, because that was the last potential festival event that was somewhat within the vision of what I had for it,” he says. Others saw the Vernon Downs collapse in harsher terms. “It was the last gasp of a dying animal,” Riley says. “Vernon Downs sounded like a half-baked idea and them reaching for straws. And then it got even worse.”
Despite having been on its last legs for a month already, Woodstock 50 managed to crawl on for another week. After initially considering RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., organizers turned their attention to a venue just outside the city. Merriweather Post Pavilion represented another shift for the festival: fewer people (between 18,000 and 50,000) but with a ready-made infrastructure. One day after news of the possible move broke, Calvin Ball, the executive for Howard County, Maryland, told Rolling Stone that all the logistical problems that dogged Woodstock 50 in New York would be handled, but in an interview with local media, he demurred on actually confirming the event.
Also, just who would play was now up for debate. “We didn’t make it public, but we had already pulled [out of the lineup],” Crosby tells Rolling Stone. “I would have honored the contract on the first two or three iterations, because I try to do that. I don’t want to do shitty business. I could have walked right from the start legally. [After] the first three iterations of it, it got really silly.”
On July 25th, Woodstock 50 freed all the artists from their contracts; Lang acknowledged that the move to Maryland was a breach of the performance contract each artist had signed. This was the moment many artists and agents had been awaiting. For months, they’d watched in frustrated silence as Woodstock 50 floundered to stay afloat. But the move to Maryland ensured that all artists would receive their guarantee whether they played or not. In a desperate bid to get artists to play, even some of the lower-tier acts, like California singer-songwriter John Craigie, were offered airfare and hotels, which were not part of the deal at Watkins Glen.
One by one, many of the headliners — Cyrus, Fogerty, Santana, the Raconteurs, Dead & Company — publicly dropped out. Some artists sensed doom early. “When it started to move from its original site to Vernon Downs … I think that was [Robert Plant’s] moment of realization,” says Riley. When McDonald dropped out, he told the Baltimore Sun he wasn’t “interested in getting on a ship that’s sinking.” Rubbing salt in the gaping Woodstock 50 wound, Fogerty announced he would proudly spend the 50th-anniversary weekend playing a rival show at the original Woodstock site in Bethel, New York. (Not every artist bailed: “Along with everyone else, we’ve been paid, and we thought it was our duty [to play],” says the Zombies’ Rod Argent.)
Once organizers decided to move to Merriweather, “we were up front with the talent that we couldn’t force them to play because of the contracts we had,” maintains the source connected to Woodstock 50 LLC. “We were basically just requesting they participate [at Merriweather] given that they had been paid for those nights. Most of them hadn’t booked other shows at the time. A lot of them were sort of noncommittal. They were like, ‘Well, you gotta tell me who the rest of the lineup is and maybe we’ll participate.’”
Behind the scenes, Woodstock 50 became a two-day concert, then a one-day event, then a benefit show complete with free tickets. It was no longer a festival, but just another concert in a shed. But with less than two weeks to go, Lang and his Woodstock 50 associates huddled on July 31st and decided the dream of Woodstock 50 was over. Even pared down to one day, Woodstock 50 didn’t have a headliner publicly willing to commit. “It started to come together in the last couple of days, but it seemed very rushed,” says Lang. “We just ran out of time.” Organizers officially canceled the festival.
“[Vernon Downs] was the last gasp of a dying animal” – Booking agent Frank Riley
Lang now says he is still “in the planning stages” for “multiple events around the country during the coming year.” However, he says this could be through using social media as a virtual concert hall rather than at a physical venue. “They’d be Woodstock events,” he says, “but we haven’t really thought about whether it would be Woodstock 50 or not. Not to lose that opportunity on the anniversary year is still important.”
The day Woodstock 50 finally died, Lang reflected on the event to Rolling Stone. “It was difficult,” he says. “It was one problem after another, trying to right the ship with every turn. That’s not so unusual and that’s not beyond what I’ve experienced before and managed to do before, but it just didn’t work out. I really point to the mistake in the partnership that was really the cause of this not happening the way we envisioned.”
Others, even those who have known Lang for decades, are still left scratching their heads over the collapse of Woodstock 50. “I cannot understand why Michael Lang, who had 50 years to prepare for it, couldn’t get it done,” Wolman says. “I do understand why because I know Michael. And I know people who know and have worked with Michael. Michael is the problem.”
“Everything that was invented at Woodstock — mores, attitudes, production concepts, everything — is now totally integrated and taken for granted in American society,” McDonald says. “That will live on forever. This will just be a blip on the news. It was ‘Ho-hum, it’s another festival.’ All the way along on the adventure, I didn’t feel the buzz. Did you?”
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