Was Woodstock 50 Dead On Arrival?

25 June 2019
Culture, Woodstock 50
Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images
The beleaguered festival was set to mark its fiftieth anniversary with a revival of the original 1969 experience, but its greatest issue could be that it hasn't quite captured the spirit of its predecessors at all

You may not have been old enough to attend (or potentially even born), but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t know about Woodstock.

The music festival which began on August 15, 1969 attracted half a million people, who waited on a dairy farm in Bethel, New York for the three-day music festival to start. Woodstock is what we’ve all been seeking since, with festivals like Splendour in The Grass, Coachella and Lost Paradise all taking note from the predecessor which was revolutionary in its time.

Billed as “An Aquarian Experience: 3 Days of Peace and Music,” the epic event became synonymous with the counterculture movement of the 1960s and is still hailed as one of the best, earning its hallowed place in pop culture history.

Now coming into its fiftieth anniversary, it seemed only fitting that such an occasion be commemorated in the way music lovers know only how – a Woodstock revival festival, aptly named Woodstock 50, brought to life by the person who organised the first event five decades ago.

What Is It?

With Woodstock celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, consider the event a golden birthday of the historic music festival. Organiser Michael Lang, who was the co-creator of the original event, has said that the anniversary festival will be a “once in a lifetime event.”

Taking place at the Watkins Glen International Speedway, about an hour and a half east of the original Woodstock site, in August crowds will gather to hear their favourite artists perform.

Expected to draw 100,00 fans, already the Times-Herald Record of Middletown reports that hotels, Airbnbs and everything in between have been booking up quickly, and this was even before official news of an anniversary event was revealed last month.

It’s set to be an incredible – and massive – event, and if Woodstock’s previous 25th anniversary celebration at Winston Farm in 1994 is anything to go by, fans will be in for a treat. As those lucky enough to attend the 25th year celebrations will remember, there was a full-blown mud battle between Green Day and a rather hyped-up audience.

Who Will Perform?

When formally announcing Woodstock 50 back in January, Lang promised an “eclectic” lineup that would touch on “hip-hop and rock and some pop,” as well as legacy artists from the inaugural 1969 edition.

Whilst the lineup is still to be finalised, the latest rumblings from Hits Daily Double allege that Woodstock 50 will see Jay-Z, Chance the Rapper, Miley Cyrus, Halsey, The Killers, Dead & Company, The Black Keys, Santana, and Imagine Dragons headline. Since then, Billboard seem to have confirmed that Chance, Killers, Santana, Dead, and Imagine Dragons “will be performing” at the commemorative event.

This was later all but confirmed, to much confusion and ire from many people who envisioned the festival as being a faithful revival of the rock and roll festival they went to back in '69. "I don’t remember a lot of the first one, but I do remember it being magical," a patron of the first Woodstock told Noisey. "This doesn’t look magical to me. It looks too planned. It reminds me of Coachella, which Woodstock was not like."

The more modernised line-up, one that clearly appeals to 2019 tastes, even drew comparisons to the rebooted versions of Woodstock have happened before, most notoriously in 1999, when bands like Limp Bizkit and Rage Against the Machine headlined a festival that resulted in waves of fires and violence. Numerous allegations of gang rape were even reported.

Of course, it probably wasn't going to be like '99. In an interview with Rolling Stone shortly after Woodstock 50 was announced, organiser Michael Lang said "There will be ‘glamping’ tents and stuff like that," Lang said. "There will be those types of experiences in various forms where there’s a real bed, and there’s a chair to sit in and a light bulb. There will also easier access to portable toilets."

"Woodstock ’99 was just a musical experience with no social significance.... It was just a big party. With this one, we’re going back to our roots and our original intent. And this time around, we’ll have control of everything."

Okay, So What Went Wrong?

So far, it looks like the organisers have been writing cheques that their financiers weren't willing to cash.

In a statement last week, the lead investor in the event said the event had been cancelled. “Despite our tremendous investment of time, effort and commitment, we don’t believe the production of the festival can be executed as an event worthy of the Woodstock brand name while also ensuring the health and safety of the artists, partners and attendees,” said Dentsu Aegis Network, a unit of Dentsu Inc.

“As a result and after careful consideration, Dentsu Aegis Network’s Amplifi Live, a partner of Woodstock 50, has decided to cancel the festival.”

The announcement followed a couple of months of turmoil that was rumoured to be surrounding the organisation of the festival. A February date for for pre-sale tickets becoming available came and went without anything happening, and in early March, with a line-up still yet to be announced, rumours started to circulate about "issues regarding the raising of money and venue capacity."

A month later,  ticket sales were postponed again. “Woodstock 50 has delayed its on-sale while we refine logistical plans for what we anticipate will be an amazing festival in August at Watkins Glen, New York,” a statement by the Woodstock 50 partnership read.

However, Dentsu's announcement was quickly rebuffed by the festival's organisers, who have since claimed that the festival will still very much go ahead, just with new financial backing, adding “It’s going to be a blast.”

The Woodstock 50 statement said: “We are committed to ensuring that the 50th anniversary of Woodstock is marked with a festival deserving of its iconic name and place in American history and culture. 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.”

Lang himself later told The New York Times that the power to cancel the festival lies with himself and the organisers, not Dentsu themselves, and that the artists had already been "paid in full."

Organisers Are Reportedly Now Suing Investors

To add fuel to what is rapidly becoming the garbage fire of Woodstock 50, organisers have now placed the blame directly on investors and, according to reports from TMZ and The Blast, they have filed a lawsuit against their former investors.

The lawsuit alleges that the original investors cancelled Woodstock 50 without letting the organisers know beforehand. The announcement was simply made by Dentsu Inc. and organisers claim that the revelation caused "enormous and irreparable harm" thanks to their "outrageous and illegal misconduct."

When Dentsu announced the cancellation, they also allegedly took back $17.8 million they provided.

"Dentsu purported to seize control of and oust W50 from the Festival's production, and then immediately announced through press releases to the world on April 29 that it was unilaterally cancelling the Festival," Woodstock 50 wrote in lawsuit documents. They added that Dentsu promptly contacted artists and was "falsely telling them that they were released from their contracts with W50 and the festival, and that the performers should not perform at the Festival, though they have all been paid in full."

Regardless of the lawsuit, reported cancellation and the fact that a lineup is yet to be announced, promoter Michael Lang plans to go ahead with the festival. The organisers want the $17.8 million returned to their bank account and Dentsu to be forced into arbitration.

Alas, Woodstock 50 May Still Go On

Early last month, the New York Supreme Court ruled that the former investors in the Woodstock 50 music festival did not have the right to cancel the event. What this means is that the Woodstock 50 promoters, led by Michael Lang – a co-founder of the original Woodstock in 1969 – have the right to continue to prepare to stage a festival in August, as originally planned. However, the judge also ruled that Dentsu did not have to return $17.8 million it had withdrawn from a bank account it shared with the Woodstock 50 promoters.

“We have always relied on the truth and have never lost faith that the festival would take place,” Woodstock co-founder Michael Lang told Variety of the court case. “I would like to thank all of the talent and their representatives for their patience and support. Woodstock 50 will be an amazing and inspiring festival experience.”

A representative for Dentsu provided a statement on the ruling to Variety, outlining their interpretation of the court decision.

“We feel vindicated to hear that the court agreed with what we have maintained all along: Woodstock 50 was not entitled to access the festival bank account per the contract and thus any access now is denied and the $17.8 million remains with Amplifi Live. The court also noted that ‘…Amplifi [Live] asserted by convincing testimony adduced at the hearing that it intended to mitigate its damages from a music festival that could not be successfully produced by mid-August because, among other reasons, multiple permits necessary to conduct the festival were not in place, tickets had not yet been sold, no budget had been agreed upon, necessary and expensive structural improvements to the festival site and related areas had not yet started, and the production company essential to produce the festival had withdrawn,’” the statement read.

A month later, on June 10, Woodstock announced that it had lost its original venue: Watkins Glen race track. The venue, which was booked in anticipation of Woodstock pulling a crowd as large as 150,000 people, pulled out amid the slew of financial difficulties that was festival's organisers. Woodstock have since announced that they'll be running a downsized festival at the Vernon Downs site, which has a capacity of just 50,000. Woodstock hope to push this to 65,000, although unlike Watkins Glen, no camping will be available on site.

But Was Woodstock Dead On Arrival?

Right now, there's no real way of telling if the festival has any life left in it. There's almost no doubt that now it has new financial backing, the people behind Woodstock will still sell tickets to a festival of some sort. The problem is, less than two months before the festival is set to take place, ticket sales haven't even begun, and no-one can tell if anyone actually wants to go.

Reception to the festival has been decidedly lukewarm. It's worth noting here that both Woodstock festivals prior, even in the case of the disaster that was Woodstock '99, were designed to be the beacons of a counter-cultural movement. It was a gathering of people who fully intended to put their middle fingers up to the establishment, and even though the late '90s edition was a decidedly more angry, chaotic affair, it captured the spirit of youth culture at the time.

This instance, with Miley Cyrus and Imagine Dragons headlining the bill, looks set to be a decidedly more vanilla affair. 50 years ago, when Woodstock was the crown jewel in the movement of peace and love, this probably wouldn't have been a problem. But now, with Woodstock 50 simply a run-of-the-mill music festival that's branded itself as something more than it realistically is, people seem all too hesitant to get on board. 

Via GQ Australia