Woodstock 50 Lives On for Now. But Here’s How It All Unraveled

After what seemed like an inevitable cancellation, Woodstock 50 is still alive, though it’s moved south and barely has any of its ‘60s glory. The golden-anniversary celebration of the iconic music festival is now scheduled to take place at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Md., will be a free event, and currently has no confirmed acts, a far cry from what was planned as a star-studded, $400-per-person, 150,000-capacity extravaganza in upstate New York.

Troubles for the festival, produced by original organizer Michael Lang, started in late April, just six weeks after the lineup featuring Jay-Z, the Killers, Dead & Company, Chance the Rapper, and many more, was announced. Dentsu Aegis, the chief financier, pulled out of its deal to back the event and Superfly, the production company that also puts on festivals such as Bonnaroo, followed soon after. The cause of this departure was reportedly over the organizers’ poor planning of the festival’s infrastructure, particularly when it came to water and sanitation, and the lack of permits for the planned event site, Watkins Glen International racetrack.

Things only looked worse for Woodstock 50 after that, with Dentsu saying the festival was canceled while Lang insisted the financier didn’t have the authority to say so and that all of the artists were paid in full and still under contract to perform when the permits were approved. The organizers sued Dentsu for taking nearly $18 million out of the festival’s bank account but a judge ruled in favor of the Japanese company, saying it still had the legal grounds to retrieve its money after Woodstock 50 failed to meet contractually meet production milestones in the leadup to the event. 

Not long after, Watkins Glen announced it would no longer be hosting Woodstock 50 after the organizers failed to pay $150,000 for its use. Lang and co. then attempted to move the event to Vernon Downs, a horse racing track in Vernon, N.Y., but the town denied them a permit and three subsequent appeals in mid-July, leading Virgin Produced, the production arm of Virgin Group that replaced Superfly, to back out as well.

Now, Woodstock 50’s last hope is to somehow attract talent to the outdoor venue in Maryland and its 19,000-person capacity. After the move was announced, Jay-Z and John Fogerty were the first high-profile acts to announce they were no longer appearing at the festival, and Woodstock 50 revealed that it released every artist from their contracts to play the event. This is no surprise, as moving the festival over 200 miles south would constitute a breach of contract on the part of Woodstock 50 anyway, so there would be no way they could force anyone to play it.

With no hope of getting fans to pony up hundreds of dollars for an event without any booked acts, Lang opted to make it a free event, leaving it unclear how any performers will be compensated if this latest attempt falls through. Merriweather Post Pavilion’s operator, Seth Hurwitz has made it clear that the event will only happen if Lang can deliver artists. “Now I’m just a venue waiting to see if the promoter with the hold is going to confirm,” he told Billboard.

So what went wrong? We’ll have to wait for postmortem revelations from those involved, but all along it appeared as though Lang was operating on the notion that the importance of the original Woodstock would win out over all the setbacks. In an interview with Rolling Stone, he lamented the fact that there were so many safety regulations in place for large events now, saying, “A lot of the conditions they look for are a bit overdone. You never want to skimp on safety, but they were drawn up by people who didn’t know anything about this business.”

While speaking to Fortune in early May, Randy Phillips, the head of events producer LiveStyle and former CEO of AEG Live, pointed out a number of reasons that Woodstock 50 was doomed to fail. Chief among them was that events of that size need to be planned at least a year out, so Lang was always well behind schedule. “You’re dealing with government entities, permit processes, medical, structural—all of this stuff takes time, especially during the summer months,” he said. “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.”

At the time, Phillips predicted more artists eventually backing out because “no one wants to be involved in a disaster,” especially following high-profile failures like Fyre Festival and even the horrific violence and destruction that will forever be the legacy of Woodstock ‘99. Phillips also noted that switching venues would spell disaster, as he learned from 2003’s Field Day festival, which was changed from a two-day event in an eastern Long Island park to New Jersey’s Giants Stadium. “We couldn’t sell a ticket. Sales stopped completely. It never ever works to move an event and try to downsize,” he said.

On top of the logistical problems, the nostalgia for the original just wasn’t there, and a mix of younger acts like Miley Cyrus and Imagine Dragons with original Woodstock performers John Sebastian and Country Joe McDonald wasn’t going to inspire tens of thousands of people to drive to a remote part of New York with few lodging options and a campground plagued by lack of planning. 

Instead, it looks like Woodstock’s 50th anniversary is best celebrated at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, a venue on the site of the original festival that has Ringo Starr, Fogerty, Santana, and others booked for the weekend of Aug. 16 to 18. For now, the event at Merriweather Post Pavilion resembles Woodstock ‘89, also known as the “Forgotten Woodstock,” an impromptu free festival on the original farm that counted 1969’s MC, hippie legend Wavy Gravy, as its most notable name. Tens of thousands of people, mostly lured by word of mouth, showed up and, by all accounts, had an unforgettable time that recreated the carefree magic of the 1969 version. 

Given the current summer-festival landscape, with A-list acts sharing bills at well-run events in some part of the country nearly every weekend, emulating the spirit of ‘89 without a flashy, overly ambitious lineup might be Lang’s best bet. Recreating 1969 is impossible, but playing to low expectations and embracing a bit of the chaos that made the original so transcendent is likely the only way for him to make Woodstock 50 get remembered as anything but a massive disappointment. Now he just needs to find a bunch of artists still willing to play it.

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