From its inception, Woodstock 50, a questionably forthcoming music festival spearheaded by original Woodstock co-founder Michael Lang, has been mired in controversy, scandal, and absolute catastrophe. The ostensibly still-planned event is supposed to happen in five weeks, from August 16–18, but no venue has been confirmed and not a single ticket has been sold. What originally was supposed to be a major three-day festival with a crowd of more than 150,000 has quickly lowered expectations thanks to dozens of setbacks, venue changes, denied permits, funding mishaps, claims of backstabbing, big egos, and other indications of general incompetence. Quite frankly, it's a glorious and astounding mess that is as confusing as it is a trainwreck.
When Lang announced his intentions to reignite the festival last year, he said his goals were to recapture the “history and essence of what Woodstock was.” In a sense, Lang is right. While the original Woodstock of 1969 was obviously a culturally significant event—given its 400,000 attendees, timeless lineup, and timing in the social zeitgeist of the late ‘60s—it was also (much like it is now) a total shitshow. There were torrential downpours, near-insurmountable traffic jams, mass disorganization, unusable porta-johns, two deaths, 109 onsite arrests, and a whole lot of chaos. And while popular culture has emphasized the community, generosity, and hippie idealism of the ‘69 version despite its flaws, the 2019 version seems to be lacking all of its enduring positive qualities. Hell, we didn’t even bring up how poorly the previous revival Woodstock ‘99 went.
Read on for a timeline of how we got to this point and how the sheer ineptitude and hubris of Woodstock 50 organizers and financiers made this the most jaw-dropping music festival disaster story of 2019.
Upstate New York’s Poughkeepsie Journal details two separate plans to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Woodstock ‘69. The first comes from Bethel Woods Center for The Arts, which is planning a modest three-day event at the original grounds. Later in the story, the paper revealed that original co-founder Lang had plans to start his own three-day festival at a different location. He was quoted saying his party would, “hopefully encourage people to get involved with our lives on the planet.” Area resident Doug Sawicki was interviewed and clearly skeptical, saying, “There is something to be said for having the anniversary on the original site. That’s where the event took place. That’s where all the history was made.”
Michael Lang officially announced Woodstock 50 in two interviews with The New York Times and Rolling Stone. In the Times, he had high hopes for the event, telling the paper, “Coachella’s got its thing, as does Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza, but I think they’re all missing an opportunity to make a difference in the world. They’re all perfect places for social engagement and for fostering ideas, and I think that’s lost. We want this to be more than just coming to a concert." He would not confirm or divulge info on the festival’s plans for ticket sales. Speaking to Rolling Stone, he dismissed the problems of Woodstock ‘99 as it being an “MTV Event” and also mentioned plans to introduce “‘glamping tents’ and stuff like that” along with “a new dimension in portable toilets now” that are “clean and airy and sizable.” Later, court filings uncovered that Lang’s business partner, Gregory Peck, a California hotelier, wrote in an email the day before announcing that he would be willing to personally cover half of the original production company Superfly’s fee (an estimated $3 million) if Woodstock 50 fails.
Though Lang had originally promised that Woodstock 50 tickets for attendees between the ages of 18-25 would be made available before the end of January, the deadline passed into February without an update from festival organizers. In a shocking Billboard report, Lang allegedly went behind production partner Superfly to ensure that the festival’s capacity would stay around 100,000-150,000, which was contrary to the suggested number of 65,000.
Rumors that Woodstock 50 was in financial trouble began to circulate. Lang responded to reports on Hits Daily Double, “There’s always been lots of rumors around Woodstock. We have excellent partners and an incredible talent lineup of over 80 artists, which will be announced within the next couple of weeks. We’re preparing a once in a lifetime event." A source at Billboard revealed that there was a minor delay in paying artists in full before the lineup announcement. According to the report, these early payments were doled out because festivals that aren’t backed by big promoters like Live Nation or C3 are viewed as risky bets. When Woodstock 50’s Japanese financial backer Dentsu had allegedly not paid out the entire bill—which an initial reveal featured Chance the Rapper, Jay-Z, Dead & Company, Santana, and more—sources at Billboard viewed these developments as “red flags.”
Days following the 80-act lineup announcement, the Black Keys dropped out of the festival before tickets were supposed to go on sale due to "scheduling conflicts." The Poughkeepsie Journal reported that ongoing ticket sale delays were due in part to pending permits filed to both the New York State Department of Health and the State Environmental Quality Review from Schuyler County, which hosts the planned festival location of Watkins Glen International Speedway. Following these reports after another missed deadline, organizers assured in a statement, “Ticket on sale information will be available through Woodstock.com in the coming days.”
On April 29, investor Dentsu pulled its entire funding in Woodstock 50 and wrote, “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.”
Woodstock 50 was not cancelled—or at least, that’s what Lang told The New York Times and Variety in a defiant and defensive press tour. He brought on President Trump’s lawyer Marc E. Kasowitz to file litigation against Dentsu, and told the Times: “We have a short window to put this back together. That’s obvious” and the state permits should be “doable in the next couple days.” As these interviews went to press, production company Superfly dropped out of Woodstock 50. Employees from three major talent agencies expressed dismay and confusion about the whole thing to Billboard while headliner Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds told the publication, “To be honest with you, I don't know [if we’re playing]. We haven't been told anything.”
Responding to Lang’s lawsuit, Dentsu lawyer Mark L. Greenwald penned a sternly worded letter that said, “But Woodstock 50 LLC’s and Michael Lane’s [sic] misrepresentations, incompetence, and contractual breaches have made it impossible to produce a high-quality event that is safe and secure for concertgoers, artists, and staff.” It continued, “The production company has quit, no permits have been issued, necessary roadwork has not begun, and there is no prospect for sufficient financing.” A New York judge rules that while Woodstock 50 can move on as planned, Dentsu is not obligated to return the $18 million in funding to the beleaguered festival. Lang appealed. It looked bleak, but amazingly, following weeks of trying to secure new funding, a New York-based investment bank Oppenheimer & Co. joined the fold as Woodstock 50's new financial partner.
Here’s where it got especially rough for Woodstock 50. On June 11, a string of setbacks hit with the proposed location of Watkins Glen terminating the festival’s site license; another production partner leaving its contract with the festival; and New York State denying its health permit—all terrible, near-insurmountable things to happen to a festival two months out, but worryingly, they were still unfazed. Organizer Peck wrote, “We are in discussions with another venue to host Woodstock 50 on Aug. 16-18 and look forward to sharing the new location when tickets go on sale in the coming weeks.” To make matters worse, Lang and Woodstock 50 lost its appeal against former financial partner Dentsu, but the hopes for the festival rode on a new, smaller venue at New York’s Vernon Downs. Despite the application to the proposed site, reports surfaced that organizers had not contacted the festival's performing acts about the potential relocation.
With a little over five weeks out from the festival start date, things began to look a little too close to the Fyre Festival debacle from 2017. Unsurprisingly, Woodstock 50’s request for a permit to host a festival at Vernon Downs, a track and casino in Vernon, New York, was denied and city officials at a town hall called the event “a recipe for disaster” and said that police “cannot guarantee the safety of the public.” As of July 11, organizers plan to appeal the town’s decision to deny the festival staging, and if they lose the appeal, plan to sue the Oneida County community.
On Tuesday, July 16, festival organizers will submit a revised application to hold Woodstock 50 in Vernon exactly one month out from its scheduled start date. While it might be the last stand for the beleaguered and controversy-filled event if the town once again denies their request, Lang's actions over the course of this year prove this likely won't be the end of the saga.
Update, July 17: Woodstock 50's plans to host a concert at Vernon Downs this year have been permanently stopped. The town of Vernon, New York's planning board unanimously denied the proposed three-day festival's application after a heated two-hour meeting on July 16. To make matters worse, the festival's backing production company Virgin Produced has pulled out, telling Pollstar: "It has become apparent that time has expired." Unsurprisingly, this isn't stopping Michael Lang, who in addition to saying he wouldn't sue Vernon for rejecting the festival, did leave open the possibility of a new venue. “There’s a crack,” he told Syracuse.com. “We’ll know more tomorrow.”