Talking with Rolling Stone less than an hour after Woodstock 50 was cancelled, festival founder and co-organizer Michael Lang sounds surprisingly at peace. “I’m disappointed,” he says. “But I’ve been sort of prepared.”
Many who have been following the months-long rollercoaster ride that was Woodstock 50 were probably also not surprised. The planned three-day event was announced in January featuring headliners like Jay-Z, the Black Keys, Imagine Dragons, Halsey, Miley Cyrus, and dozens more but was plagued with problems and controversy from the start. Over the last six months, Woodstock 50 lost its original financial backer, its production teams, and its first and second planned venues (Watkins Glen and Vernon Downs in New York State).
Even after it had shifted to another state — to Merriweather Post Pavilion in Maryland — questions remained: Which headliners would stick with it? Would the show be free and, if so, how would tickets be distributed? By Tuesday, many of its headliners, including Cyrus, Dead and Co., John Fogerty, and the Raconteurs, had pulled out, organizers had yet to file a permit application with Maryland officials and the festival appeared to be doomed.
By early Wednesday, Lang and his team huddled and decided to put Woodstock 50 out of its misery. Lang spoke with Rolling Stone about the thinking that went into the unplugging of Woodstock 50 — and where he goes from here.
What’s going through your mind right now?
I’m disappointed. I’ve been sort of prepared [for the cancellation]. The big disappointment for me was when we lost Vernon Downs. When we lost Vernon Downs, the idea of a Woodstock festival within the vision of what I had for it was over for this year. It would have had the NGOs and [voter registration non-profit] HeadCount involved and we could have done all of those things up there. When that went away, that was my big disappointment. With Merriwether, we decided to do some good with what we had in terms of talent and interest and do a fundraiser for HeadCount. It was down to a one-day event and we just put together an interesting lineup after going through tons of other iterations with acts that unfortunately had problems with other playdates in the market. Unfortunately, we ran out of time.
Radius clauses [a contractual clause that prevents artists from performing in the same area within a given amount of time] were eliminating a lot of the talent we were hoping for and other acts had their own reasons for not wanting to be a part of it. It started to come together in the last couple of days, but it seemed very rushed. So we decided that we would put that off. We’re looking to do a fundraiser for [HeadCount] sometime over the next couple of months. We’re still very committed to supporting them and the other NGOs we were involved with.
When do you think you’d want to do that?
It’ll probably be an one-day event sometime in the fall at Merriwether. We’re heading into a pretty critical cycle coming up, a critical election, and we want to support them as much as we can. We’ll continue to support the issues that we were focusing on with Woodstock — global warming, sustainability, getting people engaged.
Walk us through the decision to cancel the festival.
It was over the last day and a half. We all got together what needs to be done in what timeframe and why push it when it wouldn’t be smooth and very last minute. We were reflecting on what the reasons were behind doing it and they didn’t necessitate being done on that date. It was too much pressure.
What was the biggest factor in the cancellation?
The lateness of the confirmation of some headline talent that could carry the day. Just what needed to be done to put this thing together in the next week and a half. It became unnecessary to knock ourselves out and not do it right and not have the message get out properly.
When did the headliners start dropping out?
With Jay-Z, it happened kind of early. Everyone else, it happened after Vernon Downs was a thing of the past. I expected a lot of fallout at that point. I wasn’t surprised. I was disappointed, but not surprised.
You went back to Vernon Downs four times to no avail. Did you see that as a last straw?
It was kind of a first straw. I had been looking at it for a couple of years and when we began discussing things with the track and with town officials, we were looking at somewhere north of 100,000 people. It looked like an ideal venue, and I think it still could be. We just frankly picked the wrong partner in Dentsu. They didn’t really understand the business. When the agreement went at the last minute of just being a backer to a co-producer, they had input into everything that we did.
It just pretty much went off the rails from the beginning. They weren’t cognizant of the timeframe for how these things have to get done and how much work has to get done. So they waited for months before signing [production company] Superfly [who was hired to help produce the festival], which was tasked with getting the permits. Then when they pulled the plug, everything sort of stopped. The government agencies stopped. Everything stopped for six weeks. We were still focused on putting it together. We got new funding. But we ran out of time there as well.
Do you think politics played an issue?
When we first went there, we were told the permits would be issued a few days later. Then it became a political issue and suddenly the whole permit process got dragged into it and that’s when they decided, because of the politics of the town, I guess, that they just didn’t want to pursue this. The owner of Vernon Downs was very supportive to a point above and beyond. But there were political workings that were determined not to make it happen.
“I’m disappointed. I’ve been sort of prepared [for the cancellation].”
You were on the receiving end of especially vitriolic comments from local officers.
I’ve been through this a number of times, so that never surprised me. But it was disappointing after first being welcomed and invited to have it there and be assured the permits were not a problem. It just killed us in terms of being able to make any moves.
When Watkins Glen did decide to cancel its contract, Woodstock 50 made a statement that you were looking at multiple sites, including Vernon Downs. What other ones were you looking into?
We were looking, obviously, everywhere for other potential sites. The thing about Vernon Downs is it didn’t need much infrastructure. Everything was ready to go. It couldn’t be used as a camping festival. It would have been without camping, and that was a disappointment to me. But it was one that had the facilities ready to roll, so it could be done in the amount of time we had to do it. It was about how much lead time we’d have and how much we needed.
Walk us through your initial meeting with Dentsu and what was the first indication that the relationship was starting to turn?
In the beginning, they were very excited about it. They were excited about the brand and they were excited about the potential for profit, and they said they were in it for doing some good. I guess I bought into that. Once our contracts were ready to be signed and this issue came up where suddenly they had to be co-producing and had to agree on everything at the last minute – and although they assured me it was just for looks – that was really the beginning of the problems.
They were in advertising and they were very credible about trying to be helpful with sponsors and with media. We were not looking at them at that point for anything more than that and then when they suggested becoming the investors, as long as they were gonna stay out of our way and just put the money in and leave the production to us, we didn’t see that as a problem. They had no experience in this world and that’s why when suddenly they became co-producers, and had input into everything, it went so askew.
“All those allusions to Fyre Festival were so unfounded. We didn’t put anything on sale until we knew we had the event we were discussing.”
What is the current legal status with Dentsu?
That is a question for Woodstock 50. I’m not a partner in Woodstock 50. They licensed it from Woodstock Ventures, where I am a partner. They were to provide guidance and help with the production and the narrative. And that’s something they’re considering. There’s obviously a potential lawsuit there. And I’m sure that they’re examining that.
You said that they hired Superfly too late. What were the hurdles with that?
We signed the deal with Dentsu on, I think, November 2nd. We had started doing a mapping of the site and trying to get all of the elements that were going to have to be described in a mass-gathering permit started. We should have hired Superfly the day after we signed with Dentsu. It took them until the middle of January. That threw everything behind schedule. Superfly was tasked with getting the mass-gathering permit, but they started so late they were frankly unable to finish it up. I think that’s part of the reason why Dentsu pulled out.
After Dentsu separated its ties from Woodstock 50, Watkins Glen was associated with the festival for many months. What was the status then?
The complication there was that they were contracted by Woodstock 50 and Dentsu, so nothing could really move. Both parties would have to agree, and Dentsu obviously had tried to cancel the festival so they weren’t agreeing to anything. So that six or seven weeks of nobody really working on it, in terms of the government agencies, really killed it.
After Dentsu, you started working with Oppenheimer for funding and you had a new producer. Did it feel like the infrastructure was in place between Watkins Glen and Vernon Downs to get this going?
I believe that the infrastructure at Vernon Downs was adequate and that the things we had to do there were certainly doable. In terms of Watkins Glen, I think the delay up there and the amount of work that remains to be done on the mass-gathering permit would have been a big challenge.
Were you able to replace the $18 million that the court said Dentsu did not have to return?
Yes. We were fully financed and ready to go. But you need the paperwork. Part of [the financing] was coming was Oppenheimer. A majority was coming from a private investor who shall go nameless at the moment until he tells me it’s ok.
You probably heard some of the online comments during the last few months comparing Woodstock 50 to the Fyre Festival.
All those allusions to Fyre Festival were so unfounded. That was all about a scam; about selling tickets without having an event. We didn’t put anything on sale until we knew we had the event we were discussing. So I didn’t see any relation to the Fyre Festival. [Woodstock 50] was an unfortunate venture, but I chalk it up to having the wrong partners early on. We did everything we could have done and we had the right motivations. We put together what I thought was an amazing lineup of talent. I thought we had all that right.
Since you are the face of Woodstock, do you think this will tarnish your legacy?
It’s not something I consider. What we did in 1969 was in 1969 and that’s what has endured and will continue to endure. We’re not going away. We’re going to continue working toward the social issues we’ve always been supporting.
Do you have any plans to do another festival again?
Not at the moment. This was what we were planning for this year and that’s no longer on the board, but we’ll see in the future. For now, we’re focused on working and promoting the issues that we feel are critical these days and what the festival was really trying to promote.
How would you respond to any artists who may be skeptical of the fall fundraiser in light of what happened to Woodstock 50?
The way it will be done, and the preparations for it, especially at Merriweather – everyone is familiar with that venue and its production capabilities. There will be a lot of confidence in that once we get the rest of it organized. I don’t think that’s going to be an issue.
What’s it been like for you personally the last week?
Through this whole process, I don’t look at a lot of the press, but the press I did look at, everyone was ahead of us with, “It’s gonna be this. It’s gonna be that. These guys are in. These guys are out. The agencies are against you. The agencies are for you.” None of that was really real for me. We were just focused on getting something done and everybody was interested in reporting every day what every day was about. The story never stayed the same.
You didn’t speak to the press for a while leading up to the cancellation. Was there anything you read that you felt was unfair or inaccurate about the festival, in your opinion?
Obviously, there was so much speculation. Especially when we left Watkins Glen and went to Vernon Downs, that the agencies were against us and the acts aren’t coming. None of that is true. The agencies stayed with us and the talent stayed with us to try and give it a chance to put it together in what would have been the same area of the state. So it wouldn’t lead to other radius conflicts. And they were very cooperative with us and they were very patient with us.
But where is the line between your own personal responsibility for the festival’s demise and external factors out of your control?
I take full responsibility for agreeing to go with Dentsu. It was the biggest factor on why this thing didn’t happen. In terms of how things went with Watkins Glen and the mass gathering work, I blame them for wasting two and a half months to sign Superfly and get that work started. It just was insane. The same thing occurred with [talent bookers] Danny Wimmer – those guys were brought on to help with the booking and they weren’t signed until a week before the Christmas holiday. They did a masterful job in the time we had.
People don’t understand that there is compelling forces at work and you need to be timely and move quickly. Because they aren’t familiar with things, they were very cautious and paranoid on how to move and thought they had ideas about how things should go which made no sense. I take that on myself.
Any message you would have for anyone who’s been following this story since the beginning?
Oh God. [Laughs] Look at the beginning and look at the end. [Laughs] It was difficult. It was one problem after another, trying to right the ship with every turn. That’s not so unusual and that’s not beyond what I’ve experienced before and managed to do before, but it just didn’t work out. I really point to the mistake in the partnership. That was really the cause of this not happening the way we envisioned.
What’s the biggest takeaway for you from this whole ordeal?
The major one, frankly, is if you have an investor that’s just going be an investor and stay out of your way, then fine. But if not, you really should be in business with some people who are of the business.