- Mario Tama/Getty Images
- The iconic Woodstock music festival was held in 1969.
- Several music and arts events were announced this year to commemorate its 50th anniversary.
- One such commemoration was a massive three-day festival that imploded over the course of seven months.
- On July 31, it was officially canceled, Pitchfork reported.
- Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more stories.
Woodstock 50 Festival was announced in January 2019 as a new take to honor the iconic 1969 Woodstock Festival. But by July 31 it was officially canceled due to “unforeseen setbacks,” Pitchfork reported Wednesday.
Woodstock became famous after 400,000 people attended the three-day event in 1969. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and other stars of the time played the iconic event, which would be one of the defining events of the 1960s.
Michael Lang, the producer and co-creator of the original festival, said in a statement that the anniversary edition would be a true tribute to the 1969 event that promoted “peace, love, and music.”
However, over the next several months, the festival sparked drama and confusion as it burned through investors, artists, and two locations. Here’s how the drama played out.
In January 2019, it looked like Woodstock 50 would “bring the Woodstock spirit back.”
- Daniel Knighton/Getty Images
Woodstock 50 was officially announced as a three-day festival in Watkins Glen, New York, slated for August 16-18.
Michael Lang, the producer and co-creator of the original festival, said in a statement that the festival would be a true tribute to the 1969 original that promoted “peace, love, and music.”
“The original festival in ’69 was a reaction by the youth of the time to the causes we felt compelled to fight for – civil rights, women’s rights, and the antiwar movement – and it gave way to our mission to share peace, love, and music,” Lang said. “Today, we’re experiencing similar disconnects in our country, and one thing we’ve learned is that music has the power to bring people together. So it’s time to bring the Woodstock spirit back, get involved, and make our voices heard.”
However, Lang’s vision for the festival triggered some pushback from production company Superfly, which calculated the event could only accept 65,000 attendees. Land rejected the calculation and doubled down on demands for a 100,000-150,000 capacity.
But money troubles clouded the festival’s future by March.
Representatives for several headliners said they had been paid, but other performers say they had not been paid as of March 1.
Billboard reported that as of March 4, all of the festival’s artists had been paid in full, though rumors of financial difficulties continued to surface.
But any doubt about the festival’s future was batted away by Lang, who issues a statement to Variety that said the details were to come.
“There’s always been lots of rumors around Woodstock,” Lang said. “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.”
The long-awaited lineup for Woodstock 50 was finally announced on March 19. Headliners spanned the musical spectrum, with A-list headliners like Miley Cyrus, Jay-Z, and Chance the Rapper carrying the contemporary set alongside acts from the original Woodstock era like David Crosby, Santana, and Dead & Company.
— WOODSTOCK (@woodstockfest) March 19, 2019
In April, locals and artists started to drop support.
- Wikimedia Commons
Ahead of tickets going on sale on April 22, several key factors began to crumble.
In the first major crack of the festival’s lineup, The Black Keys backed out, citing “scheduling conflicts,” and saying “the band wants to let fans know as soon as possible and before tickets go on sale.”
On April 22, The Observer Review & Express reported that mass-gathering permit applications had yet to be submitted for the space, contrary to organizers’ statements that they were in the clear.
In the report, Schuyler County administrator Tim O’Hearn surfaced the latest objection to the projected massive capacity limits.
“It will be based on the capacity to pull this off. Attendance will be capped and probably at 100,000 or less, maybe way less. It needs to be a number the venue can safely support and then build the event around that.”
Organizers announced the festival was canceled (kind of.)
- Win McNamee/Getty Images
On April 29, officials with marketing company and the festival’s financial backer Dentsu Aegis Network released a statement that appeared to say the festival was canceled because they feared the event wouldn’t be “worthy of the Woodstock brand name while also ensuring the health and safety of the artists, partners, and attendees.”
Hours after Dentsu announced the festival was canceled, Lang sent an email to the Woodstock mailing list that insisted Woodstock 50 was on.
“Woodstock never belonged to Dentsu, so they don’t have a right to cancel it. Woodstock belongs to the people and it always will,” Lang wrote in the statement. “Woodstock 50 will take place and will be a blast!”
Woodstock 50 organizers also maintained that everything was fine.
“Although our financial partner is withdrawing, we will of course be continuing with the planning of the festival and intend to bring on new partners,” Woodstock 50 reps claimed in a statement. “The bottom line is, there is going to be a Woodstock 50th Anniversary Festival, as there must be, and it’s going to be a blast.”
Production company Superfly also said in a statement that it wouldn’t be involved with the festival any longer.
Lang told the New York Times that he was pursuing legal action to make sure the festival went on. That action included hiring Marc E. Kasowitz, who is widely known for representing President Donald Trump, to fight for Lang’s original argument that Dentsu had no legal right to cancel the festival.
Lang also dismissed reported claims that performers’ contracts were effectively voided, while multiple talent agents emphasized to Billboard that there’s “no chance” their artists would perform at the festival.
Sources told Billboard that as of May 6, Lang had only days to raise $30 million to make the festival happen. This came as Lang announced CID Entertainment signed on to produce the festival, but it was unclear, as CID head Dan Berkowitz refused to confirm that to the publication by press time.
By May, “treachery” had taken over.
On May 7, Lang sent a fiery five-page letter to Dentsu accusing the agency of “treachery” towards the festival.
“It is one thing if your company, Dentsu, wanted to back out of its commitment to Woodstock, because it would not make as much money as it had hoped, but to try to suffocate and kill Woodstock so that we could not have a festival for our golden anniversary without you is puzzling for any company,” he wrote. “You must be unaware of what treachery has taken place by your company.”
Kasowitz then filed an injunction on behalf of Woodstock 50, calling for Dentsu to return $17.8 it allegedly “misappropriated” from a bank account used by anniversary event organizers.
An attorney for Dentsu hit back in a memorandum of law, alleging “misrepresentations, incompetence, and contractual breaches,” by Woodstock 50 and Lang.
“The production company has quit, no permits have been issued, necessary roadwork has not begun, and there is no prospect for sufficient financing,” Greenwald wrote. “As much as the parties might wish it otherwise, the festival contemplated by their agreement cannot happen and allowing it to go forward would only put the public at risk.”
The two parties appeared in court before New York Supreme Court Justice Barry R. Ostrager, where Kasowitz plead with the court to recognize the historical and sentimental significance of the festival before Ostrager interrupted him to insist he focus on “whether the plaintiff breached the contract, or if the defendants breached the contract.”
Justice Ostrager ultimately ruled Dentsu acted outside its authority in canceling Woodstock 50 but said the Japanese financier does not have to return the $17.8 million.
Lang released a statement celebrating the verdict, but the festival was still without funding and permits.
On May 17, investment bank and financial firm Oppenheimer & Co. announced it would “complete the financing for the festival,” without specifying the amount or nature of the financing.
After weeks of struggling, Woodstock 50 faced a new obstacle.
- Brendan McDermid/Reuters
On June 11, Watkins Glen announced that they’d terminated the festival’s site license. This came on top of CID Entertainment pulling out of its agreement to produce the fest and the Department of Health rescinding its permit application.
However, festival officials didn’t portray the issues as dealbreakers.
“We are in discussions with another venue to host Woodstock 50 on August 16-18,” festival head Gregory Peck insisted in a statement. “[The festival looks] forward to sharing the new location when tickets go on sale in the coming weeks.”
In the following days, details surfaced that Woodstock 50 lost Watkins Glen as a location because they could never produce a $150,000 payment that was due on May 15 to the venue officials, according to Billboard.
Woodstock 50 thought they found a new location.
By June 25, it looked like organizers were still determined to throw the festival, but had set their sights on a smaller venue.
The Town of Vernon supervisor Randy Watson told the Poughkeepsie Journal that the organizers submitted a permit application at the Vernon Downs racetrack.
Kasowitz also told the publication that “Woodstock 50 is proceeding with the planning of the festival and looks forward to holding the festival at another venue with its new partners.”
However, capacity was projected to be far less than Lang’s original goal of 150,000, now sitting around 45,000 to 50,000.
At a July 8 town-board meeting held to address the possible festival, Oneida County Emergency Services head Kevin Revere called it a “recipe for disaster.” County sheriff Rob Maciol proposed that the festival be pushed from August 2019 to August 2020 to allow for a safe planning period.
“No matter how good the plan looks on paper, to implement this plan in 39 days is impossible to ensure the safety of the public,” he said.
Woodstock 50 president Gregory Peck acknowledged officials’ concerns in a statement, and added that festival officials will “continue to address their comments as we enter the final planning phases for Woodstock 50.”
Amid the scramble, multiple managers, agents, and publicists for performers told Billboard that no one from Woodstock 50 contacted them with any updates on the festival’s location.
The festival seemed to be running out of options.
- Screenshot via Google Maps
On July 9, Woodstock 50 was denied a permit to be held at Vernon Downs.
Oneida County administrator Anthony Picente Jr. told Variety that information submitted by the festival “has not met many of the requirements,” and planning had been “chaotic.”
“We could have done this with a year or 16 months advance, but to do it in three to six weeks is really a near impossibility from a public-safety and health standpoint,” Picente said.
After the five-day appeal period, Vernon’s town board upheld its original decision to reject Woodstock 50’s permit in a unanimous vote.
In addition to the ruling, festival adviser Virgin Produced announced that it was officially pulling out of all involvement with the festival.
Though Woodstock 50 heads acknowledged the denial and said in a statement that they “want to thank the artists who stood by us,” there was no formal cancellation announced. Organizers even told local news station WFXV that they planned to reapply for a permit on July 17.
On the 17, the festival didn’t seem to have any sort of plan, telling Pitchfork in a statement that it was “considering all options at this point.”
By the end of July, most details were still unclear.
- Mike Segar/Reuters
This development gave the festival just a month to be staged in time for its original dates, August 16-18.
The news also didn’t answer the question of performances, as The New York Times reported that none of the lineup had “been confirmed for the latest iteration of the event” and “producers were still negotiating with artists’ agents.” The Times said artists “may have a right to refuse to play” after the massive change of plans, even though they had already been paid and “would likely be able to keep those fees even if they do not perform.”
By July 27, the festival appeared to issue a last-minute revamp by turning into a benefit show, reportedly issuing a limited number of tickets for free so ticketholders can donate to their favorite causes instead. The festival will also reportedly sell VIP tickets.
TMZ reported that despite the change in model, “it’s still VERY unclear who will perform at Woodstock” and that “final plans are still very much in motion.”
Merriweather Post Pavilion operator Seth Hurwitz told Pitchfork that the free-tickets model had been discussed, but nothing was final.
“That was the last thing we heard too,” he said. “We’re still waiting to hear who is playing, but that’s not our job. They do still have a venue if they have a show.”
Headlining artists were pulling out left and right.
- Kevin Mazur/BBMA2017/Getty Images for dcp
On July 26, closing headliner Jay-Z pulled out of the festival.
John Fogerty, who played the original Woodstock with Creedence Clearwater Revival and helped announce Woodstock 50, also said he wouldn’t be performing, but will instead appear at a different event at the original Woodstock site.
“John Fogerty knows where he will be for the anniversary weekend of Woodstock,” his team said in a statement July 25. “At only one site … at the original one – the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts.” It continues, “As [Fogerty] says in his song ‘Who’ll Stop the Rain,’ written upon returning from Woodstock – ‘NO MORE CONFUSION ON THE GROUND.'”
On July 30, Variety reported that headliner Miley Cyrus also wouldn’t perform, and that the list of artists who have pulled out included the Raconteurs and the Lumineers.
On July 31, the plug was finally pulled.
- Mario Anzuoni / Reuters
In a press release issued on July 31, just two weeks before the show, Woodstock 50 said it would no longer be going ahead, Pitchfork reported.
“We are saddened that a series of unforeseen setbacks has made it impossible to put on a festival we imagined with the great line-up we had booked and the social engagement we were anticipating,” the representatives said in the release.