Why Woodstock 50 Won’t Happen, According to a Veteran Festival Organizer

May 2, 2019, 6:20 PM UTC

If you believe Woodstock 50 organizer Michael Lang, the festival will go on despite the loss of its primary financier, Dentsu Aegis, and its producer, Superfly, which also puts on Bonnaroo and Outside Lands. The cause of Dentsu’s exit is, according to various reports, the lack of permits and infrastructure on the upstate New York grounds. This has led to worries that the three-day concert—with headliners including Jay-Z, The Killers, Chance the Rapper, and Dead & Company—won’t have adequate water and sanitation, among other concerns.

Many news outlets have declared Woodstock 50 dead, and LiveStyle CEO Randy Phillips, who’s previously worked as the CEO of AEG Live, agrees that there’s no way this golden anniversary celebration of the generation-defining concert will happen. As one of the organizers of some of the largest festivals in the world, like New York’s Electric Zoo and Awakening in Holland, and someone who’s canceled major events and dealt with others that were ruined by poor permit planning, he knows a thing or two about it.

“Basically, some things don’t age as well as others and Woodstock 50 may be one of them,” he says. “I like people to be successful, but this one just didn’t feel good from the beginning.” Here are the reasons, in his view, that an event of this magnitude can’t be salvaged in time for its original planned dates of Aug. 16-18.

It’s Too Late to Get the Money and Infrastructure

Considering there’s not even a permit for water at Woodstock 50 yet, Phillips can’t see any way that the event will happen, especially now that Superfly backed out. “These festivals take a year in planning,” he says. “We started planning the next Coachella the day after the previous one. Jazz Fest, the same thing. So, if you’ve got targets and milestones you’re not hitting, then you’re in trouble.”

“There’s no substitute for having time and planning for an event that big,” he adds. “You’re dealing with government entities, permit processes, medical, structural—all of this stuff takes time, especially during the summer months. That’s the biggest touring season. All of the providers, whether it’s sound, lights, scaffolding, they’re all stretched really thin so you need to reserve all of that stuff well in advance.”

The Original Woodstock’s Magic Is Gone

“Some ideas that are really good, are great once. And when you try to repeat them, they’re never quite the same,” says Phillips. “Here’s what I’ve noticed, especially with people who’ve done incredible cultural iconic things in their careers as Michael did. Sometimes the founders of these things think that the brand they created withstands the test of time more so than the consumer does. I think, in Michael’s mind, why it’s so important to make this work is because it was his greatest accomplishment and therefore Woodstock 50 should be an amazing event to everybody. But if you think about the millennials and Gen Yers, the truth is most of them don’t even know what Woodstock is.”

The Buzz Isn’t There

“You can feel, when you’re announcing something, the reaction both in the industry and the public,” Phillips says. “You can judge, in a second sense, of what the commercial appetite is for an event. That’s your best focus group. And in this case, it never felt real to me.”

He knows from experience when to bail on an event if the customers aren’t feeling it. “When I first took this job before, they had greenlit a festival in Bethel Woods called Mysteryland. I asked what the ticket count was and when they told me, I pulled the plug. I took a $3.5 million loss and paid the artists 50% of their contracts. Ironically, it was the best $3.5 million I could have ever spent. People started taking us seriously again. I couldn’t buy $3.5 million of positive PR more than I got from paying those artists and canceling that event.”

The Lineup’s Mix of New and Old Acts Isn’t Appealing

It’s not likely the boomer crowd is going to show up en masse when the aforementioned acts, Miley Cyrus, and Chance the Rapper are at the top of the lineup card. And it’s hard to figure many younger attendees will be psyched to see acts who played the original Woodstock, like Country Joe McDonald and John Sebastian. Woodstock 50’s organizers would be better off going in the direction of Desert Trip, aka “Oldchella,” which featured Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and The Who.

“The one thing about the curation is it felt too much like a current festival and not an iconic one,” Phillips says. “It’s the kind of thing where you need to get Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young together. You really need that lineage, that connection to the original and it didn’t seem to have that. It felt too contemporary, if that’s possible.”

It’s Too Big for a First-Time Production

As Phillips points out, most successful festivals take time to grow—Coachella “hemorrhaged” money until 2009. It only survived its first edition in 1999, and subsequent years when it was much smaller than it is today, because organizers persistently believed it would eventually turn a profit. Woodstock 50, on the other hand, planned to have 100,000 attendees right out of the gate, though that number was reduced to 75,000 as planning grew more complicated.

“Today, if you’re going to do a festival in North America, don’t try to do a 50 to 100,000-attended festival,” he says. “I would go for something in the 10 to 20,000 range and build. I wouldn’t take the chance of trying to beat a big boy too soon.” He points to Governors Ball, which started at around 20,000 at New York City’s Governors Island and now gets about 150,000 attendees at its Randall’s Island location. “Those guys knew what they were doing. I remember, because I sold them Kanye when I had Kanye’s tour, and they were very professional and they built it correctly. They didn’t try to do it overnight and make it into this massive thing.”

The Artists Will Soon Flee

As seen by the Fyre Festival failure and the documentaries that showed its downfall, everyone associated it with it, from the promoters to the Instagram influencers that touted it, saw their reputations take a hit. While Lang claims that all of the Woodstock 50 acts are paid for, Billboard reports booking agents for several of the top acts say the contracts they signed were with Dentsu and thus they have no obligation to perform.

”No one wants to be involved in a disaster,” Phillips says. “It’s not good for their brand, so if something really starts feeling shaky, I could see the artists pulling out immediately.”

The same could go for attendees who might now have nightmares of spending $450 on tickets and showing up to a campground with no water or sanitation, much like Fyre had with its FEMA tents. “It’s the old saying: once bitten, twice shy, especially for a consumer,” Phillips says.

Changing the Location or Lineup Is Nearly Impossible

“I tried. It never works,” Phillips says of switching venues and paring down the scope of a festival. In 2003, he ran into that problem with Field Day, a two-day event that was supposed to be held on Long Island, New York with campgrounds and headliners Radiohead and Beastie Boys. Thanks to local political interference, the event was eventually relocated to New Jersey as a one-day show.

“We couldn’t get the permit from the police, we couldn’t use the venue, we’d already sold tickets, the whole thing, so we moved it to Giants Stadium parking lot and it totally, totally stiffed,” he says. “We couldn’t sell a ticket. Sales stopped completely. It never ever works to move an event and try to downsize.”