It’s been a whale of a week in the world of Woodstock 50. While the festival — slated for the weekend of Aug. 16-18 in Watkins Glen, New York with Jay-Z, Dead & Company and Miley Cyrus on the bill, among many others — has been dogged by reports of disorganization and financial troubles since it was officially announced back in January, on Monday morning its financial partner, Aegis Dentsu’s investment arm Amplifi, abruptly pulled out and announced the festival was cancelled.
Organizers, led by Michael Lang, a cofounder of the original Woodstock fest that drew 600,000 in 1969, claimed they were blindsided by the announcement and quickly struck back, saying that Dentsu did not have the right to cancel, and the festival will proceed with new backers. Lang then went on a press offensive Wednesday, insisting that the situation is under control, they’re in negotiations with several backers, and that Dentsu is “walking away” from the $30 million it has invested in securing top-shelf headliners for the festival. While those investors are yet to materialize — as is the mass-gathering permit from Schuyler County, where the festival is being held — Lang has referenced the obstacles the original Woodstock surmounted some 50 years ago and insisted to “everyone out there” in an interview with Variety on Wednesday, “We’re gonna get this done.” Others, however, are not so sure, and urgent questions remain. Such as …
Who are bands contracted through, and are they obligated to play? Multiple sources tell Variety that some acts were contracted through Woodstock 50, while others structured their performance deals with Dentsu. All of the top acts requested 100% of their fee in advance — between $1 million to $3 million for headliners — and were paid in full. Does that mean those acts are obligated to play if Woodstock starts to feel more like the disastrous Fyre Festival?
If the acts are signed through Dentsu, they could pull out, which might lead to a significant exodus should one major act lead to others bailing. If the deal is directly with Woodstock, Lang could hold the act to their commitment. The repercussions of calling off participation on the artist’s part could invite legal action for breach of contract or damages suffered as a result of canceling. Those who have executed deals and partnerships with Woodstock 50 describe not exactly the tidiest of paperwork, but say Lang has remained accessible. While some artist reps have made rumbling noises about pulling out, others have taken a “wait and see” attitude — at least for the moment.
Is there currently a production company in line to build the site? Yes, according to a statement Friday afternoon from Woodstock 50 LLC: Dan Berkowitz’s CID Entertainment, which works with such festivals as Lockn’, scheduled for the weekend after Woodstock in Virginia, Camp Bisco, Mountain Jam and other festivals. (A rep for CID did not immediately respond to Variety‘s request for confirmation.) In the statement, the Woodstock rep said that CID has been on track for some time: “CID has been running a parallel path on production since the beginning as, with the size of the intended production, it was deemed prudent to have two companies activating separate areas of the production requirements. Moving forward, CID will handle all production requirements,” the statement reads.
Superfly Prods. had been tasked with the build-out of the festival grounds and stages but pulled out on Wednesday. In a statement similar to the one Dentsu issued when it removed itself from the festival, a Superfly rep said, “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.” The exit of the production company long affiliated with Bonnaroo follows several attempts at workarounds to address congestion concerns — including a plan to bus a thousand people to Watkins Glen that was ultimately rejected.
Is there currently a permit? Not yet. Schuyler Country Administrator Tim O’Hearn told Variety late last month that he is confident the festival site, Watkins Glen International raceway, and the local community can accommodate the 75,000 people anticipated for the festival, citing 100,000-plus past NASCAR events (which also involved camping) as well as the two previous festivals Phish has held on the grounds. The mass-gathering permit Woodstock 50 is awaiting is a temporary one; the final permit would not be issued until a few days before the event, once officials have tested the site’s drinking water and other issues (which is what caused the cancellation of a planned third Phish festival, Curveball, last year in the wake of strong storms in the area). A rep for Woodstock 50 told Variety, “The permit was ready to go on April 22 but there was a stipulation put on its issue for a bond to be put in place which Dentsu refused to activate. We are hopeful the permit will be forthcoming to us in the coming days.” Late Friday morning, O’Hearn told Variety there was no update.
Could a scaled down Woodstock 50 merge with concerts planned for the same weekend at the original Woodstock site, Bethel Woods? Possibly, but not likely. At the end of December 2018, shortly before Woodstock 50 was officially announced, the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, Live Nation and branding company INVNT announced the “Bethel Woods Music and Culture Festival: Celebrating the golden anniversary at the historic site of the 1969 Woodstock festival” — cautious wording that hints at a struggle between those companies and Woodstock 50 to stage a commemorative event at the original site. Eventually Bethel backed off of the festival concept and instead is staging concerts by original Woodstock performers John Fogerty, Santana and Blood Sweat & Tears (two of whom are scheduled to play Woodstock 50 as well) and Ringo Starr — although it’s not impossible to imagine a scenario, should plans for Watkins Glen collapse, where Woodstock 50 takes place in Bethel after all. Asked that question by Variety, a Woodstock 50 rep said “no comment.”
Is there enough financing to pull it off? It depends. If Dentsu agrees to walk away from the festival and forego the money already spent to book talent, then Woodstock just needs to line up the production end of staging the event — still a gargantuan task but not as costly as talent fees. Earlier this week Billboard reported that reps for the festival had reached out to both Live Nation and AEG Presents — the world’s two largest live-entertainment companies — in an effort to bring them in for another $20 million, although Lang flat-out denied those reports to Variety.
Is Michael Lang the next Billy McFarland? To put Woodstock 50 on equal footing as the all-out Ponzi scheme that was 2017’s ill-fated Fyre Festival may be a bit of a stretch, but where Michael Lang and Billy McFarland do share a commonality? They’re both big dreamers. Lang said as much in an interview with Variety earlier this week. Asked to respond to suggestions that he’s a huckster, he answered: “You could accuse me of being overly confident or overly positive or maybe … 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.” Still, it’s possible to draw a parallel: If the safeguards in place today existed in 1969, Lang could have been staring down jail time, as Fyre Fest’s McFarland ultimately did in being sentenced to six years in federal prison, never mind civil liabilities with insurance carriers and surrounding municipalities.
Will the show go on? Oddsmakers put it at 50/50, skewing slightly to the negative. Woodstock 50’s biggest hurdle has always been time. Most festivals announce their lineups and start selling tickets months in advance. As of May 3, tickets for Woodstock have yet to go on sale, since a permit has not officially been secured. By this point in late Spring, many people have already planned their August excursions. Lang might note that the original fest was announced only four weeks out, and of course we all know what ended up happening: the New York State Thruway was shut down as 600,000 mostly ticketless concert goers converged for three days of peace, love and music along with a little rain and a lot of drugs. One live music veteran suggests that the world has over-romanticized what was “a pretty horrible” experience for many in attendance. And while it’s too early to say whether Woodstock 50 will be horrible, a “blast” (as Lang predicts) or even happen at all, the ongoing events leading up to it probably will not be dull.