UPDATED: The bumpy path to Woodstock 50 became even rockier on Monday as Dentsu Aegis, the festival’s financial backers, pulled out and stated that it was canceled, yet the organizers vowed to press on.
“We are committed to ensuring that the 50th Anniversary of Woodstock is marked with a festival deserving of its iconic name and place in American history and culture,” the organizers, led by original Woodstock producer Michael Lang, said in a statement late Monday. “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.”
Exactly how the festival — scheduled for August 16-18 in Watkins Glen, New York, and with headliners scheduled to include Jay-Z, Dead & Company, the Killers, Chance the Rapper, Miley Cyrus and Janelle Monáe — will continue without its primary financial backer remains to be seen. It is already months late in logistical planning and acquiring permits, and has faced growing concern and skepticism from the industry for a seemingly seat-of-the-pants approach to organization that was a hallmark of the original festival, but is less feasible 50 years later.
Denstu, one of Japan’s largest ad and PR agencies, was among several key stakeholders in Woodstock 50, including Lang, vendor Superfly Productions and booker Danny Wimmer. The agency has invested north of $30 million in the festival, according to an insider, with plans to expand it internationally.
A statement provided to Variety on behalf of Dentsu’s investment arm, Amplifi Live, reads in part: “We have a strong history of producing experiences that bring people together around common interests and causes, which is why we chose to be a part of the Woodstock 50th Anniversary Festival. But 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 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.”
A source tells Variety that Dentsu felt many production milestones had not been met — and as of Monday the necessary permits had not yet been obtained — and that the company felt the site’s infrastructure, including fresh water, sanitation and access and egress routes, were not sufficient for a three-day camping festival and there is not enough time to create them. Tim O’Hearn, administrator for Schuyler County, where the festival site is located, told Variety last week that he believed the site could accommodate an anticipated audience of 75,000 people, however his comment was based purely upon the logistical feasibility of a tightly organized event.
Top talent doesn’t come cheap, and the Woodstock 50 headliners have already been paid fees that range from $1 million to $3 million, which Woodstock organizers confirmed are being held in escrow. Those rates are based on an original sold-out audience estimate of 125,000.
Concert capacity has been a major sticking point ever since the lineup was first announced in January, largely because Woodstock 50 couldn’t determine a ticket price, and thereby an on-sale date.
As of April 29, a permit had not yet been issued, but a smaller audience would mean that attendees would pay more — “a minimum of $500” for the weekend, says a source. To compare, Coachella sold general admission tickets at prices starting at $429 per weekend this year (and still managed to pay Ariana Grande $8 million for two Sunday headlining slots). It’s a steep spend when factoring in RV rental, travel, food “and all your drugs,” cracks the insider.
Ironically, O’Hearn says, it was overcrowding and traffic congestion surrounding the original Woodstock (held at nearby Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, which has booked ’60s-era artists for its own concert that weekend) that brought about the need for the state to require mass-gathering permits for festivals. Woodstock 50 organizers offered to bus in thousands of attendees to address traffic issues; that idea was rejected by the county.
Woodstock 50’s biggest hurdle has always been time. Most festivals announce their lineups and start selling tickets months in advance. For example, for Lockn’ Festival, which takes place in Virginia the weekend after Woodstock 50, tickets went on sale in February.
While sources tell Variety that Woodstock 50 organizers have registered more than 250,000 potential ticket-buyers — those who have shown interest in the festival since its lineup announcement — they would have needed an instant sell-out of 75,000 to eke out a profit.
“They should postpone the festival,” says one live music insider. Of course, with that comes a slew of additional headaches, not the least of which include potential litigation against Dentsu, renegotiations and make-goods with booked acts, and finding a way to overcome a flood of bad PR.