UPDATED: To say that the already confusing situation around the Woodstock 50 festival scheduled for August entered a new realm of confusion this week would be an understatement of epic proportions. The festival — slated for the weekend of Aug. 16-18 in Watkins Glen, New York and starring Jay-Z, the Dead & Company, Miley Cyrus and many others — saw its financial partner, Dentsu Aegis, pull out abruptly Monday morning after spending some $30 million on the event. “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,” their announcement reads in part. “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.”
A source tells Variety that Dentsu felt many production milestones had not been met — the necessary permits have 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.
While reps for Dentsu told the media the festival has been cancelled, chief organizer Michael Lang, who was also a producer of the original Woodstock, denied that claim and insisted that it will go forward with new partners (although an unnamed agent with artists booked for the event reportedly told Billboard after this article initially published, “The artist contracts are with Dentsu, not with Michael Lang or Woodstock 50.”). On Wednesday morning Lang spoke with Variety about Dentsu’s withdrawal, possible new financial partners, the status of the festival and what’s coming next.
Where do things stand with the festival right now?
Basically, as you know, Dentsu has withdrawn, which was a surprise to us all, and we are continuing to produce the festival. We are in discussion with a couple of parties to replace Dentsu’s position and hopefully will be able to get [tickets] on sale in the next couple of weeks.
Is postponing the event a possibility?
No, because all of the talent is routed to us for that weekend and most of them have obligations beyond that, so that’s really not an option.
Have any artists pulled out, except for the Black Keys a few weeks ago?
No, the Black Keys pulled out because of their own scheduling, but no — nobody’s pulled out. Everybody’s been paid in full and from what I’ve been made aware of, they’re all pulling for this to happen.
Is Dentsu still on the hook for the money they’ve already paid out — and is it true that they spent $30 million?
Yes it is, and that’s a legal matter — our attorneys tells us they have walked away from it. You sort of have to wonder, what would make somebody do that?
I think a lot of people are wondering why they would do that. It seemed almost malicious.
Yes, it did. I can only speculate like everybody else, we have no answers really.
If you were to speculate, what would you say?
Uh, they’re really not familiar with our business and the intricacies and subtleties of it, and I think they’re probably very concerned with their public image, and when there’s controversy maybe … it’s just speculation, which I hate to do, but maybe it had to do with that. The Japanese have a lot of pride and are careful with their image, and this is the music business — it can be a little bit muddy.
“Muddy” is an interesting choice of words for Woodstock. You said that Dentsu doesn’t own Woodstock or have the right to cancel — who does?
My partners and I at Woodstock Ventures own the copyright and we have licensed it to Woodstock 50, which is the producing entity that we are producing the festival under.
Are you battling legally with Dentsu over whether they have the right to cancel?
Our legal team has put them on notice that they have no right to cancel and that we’re proceeding. [Reps for Dentsu did not immediately respond to Variety‘s request for comment.]
Is it true that you reached out to Live Nation and AEG recently to bring one of them in as a partner, as has been reported?
Not us, and Dentsu says not them, so I think that was just rumor.
Reports said it was a $20 million ask — how could anyone ask for $20 million on behalf of Woodstock without your knowledge?
Yeah, I know, and why would they be asking? They’re a $9-10 billion company.
So that report is not true, to your knowledge?
No, absolutely not.
Is [vendor] Superfly still on board?
Superfly is on board at the moment, but I think we’re transitioning to another production entity. [Superfly confirmed that news several hours after this article initially published, saying in a statement to Variety: “The producers of the Woodstock 50th anniversary festival hired Superfly to leverage our expertise as veteran event producers to manage festival operations, a role that aligned with our mission of creating shared experiences that build community. Throughout our engagement our team provided counsel and recommendation on the necessary elements required to produce a safe and first class experience. Following the decision of one of our clients, Dentsu, to cancel the event, we will no longer be participating in ongoing related activities.”]
Do you know who that might be?
We do, we’re just kind of finishing up discussions this week.
Is one of those entities Dan Berkowitz’s CID Entertainment?
Dan’s company is one we’ve been talking to for awhile about this, and there are a couple of others as well. [Reps for CID did not immediately respond to Variety‘s request for comment.]
What’s the status of the permit for the event?
The permit applications is just about completely done, they were waiting for a few more documents, we’ve hired an engineering firm to complete that, so the permit is a few days away. The State of New York has been very supportive, as has the county, in this process. They’ve spent a lot of time and energy for us, and it’s just been great to have that kind of support.
A representative for the county told us that he was positive about the event but chagrined at how late everything came together. Were there major reasons for the delay?
(Sighs) There are, it really has to do with the relationship with Dentsu, in a way. Things were late getting started in general, but it took a long time to get certain contracts in place that would have moved all of those processes along, and so it had to be rushed. It was unfortunate but sometimes you have to do that. That’s really the reason things were late.
And you’ll get a temporary permit initially and a full permit later?
Yes, they don’t issue a complete permit until the water on site is tested the week before [which is what caused the cancellation of Phish’s planned Curveball festival at Watkins Glen last year], et cetera, so all permits are conditional up to that point.
You’re confident Watkins Glen International raceway can accommodate an event of this size? It’s almost twice as big as the biggest recent festival on the site.
Yes. They regularly do 65,000-75-000 for their races, and when they had formula races they were accomodating up to 200,000 people.
Has any past Woodstock event been profitable?
Those are numbers that I’m not supposed to give out, so I’m sorry but I can’t.
There’s a sort of seat-of-the-pants spirit to the original Woodstock that seems to be part of this one as well — can that approach still work 50 years later?
Things are not that chaotic here, things are being done in a very professional way — that’s not seat of the pants.
In recent weeks some people have been calling you a huckster, how do you respond to that?
How do you define huckster?
Overpromising and under-delivering.
Uh, I think I’ve delivered on my promises. You could accuse me of being overly confident or overly positive or maybe … let’s see … a bit of a dreamer, but I don’t think huckster fits. To me a huckster is someone who sells an idea that doesn’t exist, sort of a firefly of its time, and that’s not what we’re about.
Do you have film rights and album rights and similar deals in place?
Yes. I can’t be specific because of this recent separation but we do have all of those elements in play.
Are you speaking with a single record label?
No, we’re not, we’re talking about livestream and media and the like, and we’re moving down that path.
Will there be a documentary?
It’s possible, we’ve been approached to do so many documentaries about this and we haven’t committed to anybody yet, but if we had started the doc a few months ago it would be really interesting! (Laughs)
Anything else you’d like to say?
Just that we’re totally committed — the purpose behind this festival has been activism and sustainability and our and the artists’ support of that, and that’s something that is first on our list and is what really motivates our commitment to this [further information is available on the Woodstock website]. So to everybody out there: We’re gonna get this done.
You’re confident that you can pull this off?
Yes. I sent out a note to the people who had emailed us over the last few weeks, several hundred thousand, and we got responses from a hundred thousand last night and they’ve very supportive.
You’ve said several times that it’s going to be a “blast” — why that word?
Because that’s how I feel about it — uh, I mean “blast” in a good sense! (laughs)