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Tuesday 20th March 2018

Woodstock 50: a Comedy of Errors

Media & Culture

Sariah Manning

Mon, 19 Aug 2019 18:35 GMT

It was a revival absolutely nobody asked for. Earlier this month Woodstock 50 was cancelled. What was advertised as a great festival with an amazing line-up quickly turned into a Fyre Festival tragedy.

With this past weekend being the 50th anniversary of the original Woodstock festival, an event originally held on a dairy farm in upstate New York in 1969. The original Woodstock has since become an iconic piece of pop-culture; there was bad weather, hordes of people, and loads of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Performers included all of the greats; Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, and so many more. Flash Forward to present day, and somewhere, somebody decided it would be a great idea to bring this beloved hot mess of an event to 2019.

Promising “3 days of peace, love and music,” the Woodstock 50 festival was set to grace Watkins Glen, New York, near the original location. Slated performers included: the Killers, Miley Cyrus, Santana, Chance the Rapper, Jay-Z, Halsey, and others. But even before it began, the hippy-dippy festival was doomed right from the get-go.

December 2018, Michael Lang, the co-founder of the original 1969 event was in talks with an upstate New York racetrack for a fest that would mark the anniversary of the historic, if chaotic, cultural milestone he had overseen. The festival was set to take place 16th-18th August, almost 50 years after the original festival.

Lang had begun negotiations with the international media company Dentsu Aegis to finance the event, writing on December 4th to the company’s chief commercial officer, D.J. Martin, that he was imagining a crowd of 150,000; this number quickly declines as setbacks started to ensue.

This is the story of how the Age of Aquarius turned into the Age of Mercury in Retrograde and the unfulfilling promises left in its wake.

In April, key investors to the event pulled out of the project, with CNN reporting that financier and marketer Dentsu Aegis Network said it didn’t believe the event could be “executed as an event worthy of the Woodstock brand name”.

These red flags instantly begun to mimic those initial concerns raised during the planning of the Fyre Festival, that notoriously disastrous festival put on by scammer extraordinaire Billy McFarland and his sidekick Ja Rule; guests flew into the Bahamas expecting luxury villas but instead were met with decrepit, powerless tents, sad cheese sandwiches, and no music or performers in sight. This was all due to poor planning, money shortages, and just plain incompetence. In the Netflix documentary Fyre, those involved with the project vocalised how venue changes and a lack of event producers could lead to a horrible end result; the exact same things that Woodstock 50 went through.

But this isn’t the first time a Woodstock revival was attempted and failed. Back in the late 90’s Woodstock ’99 was meant to celebrate the festival’s 30th anniversary in Rome, New York; it was met with overcrowding, a water shortage, a fiery-hot tarmac that almost burned guests alive, and multiple fires, including vehicles that were flipped over and set ablaze. The theme seemed to be more “please, get me out of here” rather than peace and love.

February 2019 came and went with the promised Woodstock 50 tickets, for attendees between the ages of 18-25, due to be made available before the end of January, passing into February without an update from festival organisers.

February also, saw the booking of unauthorised artists. After Amplifi Live - the holding company of the festival and a subsidiary of Dentsu Aegis Network – directed festival officials to not commit to any further offers or payments with talent until further notice. Woodstock 50s Susan Cronin acknowledged that “2 full batches of talent” had been booked anyway, according to Billboard.

The line-up for Woodstock 50 was finally announced in March, and it signalled promises kept in terms of the touted generational diversity, with headliners like Jay-Z, Chance the Rapper, the Black Keys, and the Killers alongside acts from the original Woodstock era like Dead & Company, Santana, John Fogerty, David Crosby, and Canned Heat.

An on-sale date for fest tickets was set for April 22nd, a.k.a Earth Day – but a same day report in The Observer Review & Express pointed out that mass-gathering permit applications had yet to be submitted for the space, with conflicting opinions on the viability of the festival itself. Schuyler County administrator Tim O’Heran, in particular, raised issue with the notion of six-figure attendance predictions. “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.”

Another bad omen before the deluge, The Black Keys unexpectedly dropped off Woodstock 50’s bill, just weeks before tickets went on sale. In a statement, the band cited “scheduling conflicts” another reason for pulling out, going on to say, “The band wants to let fans know as soon as possible and before tickets go on sale.”

Mid-April, tickets were due to go on sale in three days. An email went out to agents stating the on-sale date had been postponed, immediately triggering cancellation rumours. “There is currently a hold in the Woodstock 50 on-sale date,” talent manager Amanda Phelan writes in an email to agents representing acts booked for the festival. “We are waiting on an official press statement from Woodstock 50 regarding updated announcement, ticket pricing, and overall festival information. We will get this information to you as soon as we receive it.”

In late April Woodstock 50 investors Dentsu Aegis Network, a Japanese advertising company, issue a statement suggesting that Woodstock 50 is, indeed, 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,” they claim in a statement. “As a result, and after careful consideration, Dentsu Aegis Network’s Amplifi Live, a partner of Woodstock 50, has decided to cancel the festival. As difficult as it is, we believe this is the most prudent decision for all parties involved.”

But can you plan a festival without any artists? With just the statement of the

festival itself. The production company Superfly confirmed that it too, intended to back away from Woodstock 50’s further planning.

Even the ability to refer to the event as “Woodstock 50” was in jeopardy. As Billboard reported, Lang’s Woodstock Ventures holding company leased the Woodstock name to a separate holding company, Woodstock 50, LLC, which Lang is not a part of.

In May, Lang sent a seething five-page letter to Dentsu Aegis accusing the agency of treachery. The letter alleged that the former investors “Illegally swept approximately $17 million from the festival bank account”, and demanded the agency return the $17 million. The New York Supreme Court justice handed down a ruling allowing the event to still go on using the Woodstock name, but that Dentsu Aegis isn’t responsible for returning the $17 million.

From there it is one big comedy of errors, with issues of the location and Woodstock being moved to the Vernon Downs Racetrack, in a town called Vernon in NY State, with the capacity going from 150,000 to 45,000 attendees. But come July, Woodstock was denied a permit in its new residence of Vernon Downs, with one major issue: there were no camping facilities. The event went from a 3-day camping festival to three one-day events.

The event moved location again, and is now being held in Columbia, but one key detail is missing. None of the acts have confirmed their attendance. With all the confusion and change of locations, it seems none of the acts was keen to tie themselves with the sinking ship and started pulling out.

With the event less than three weeks away, it seems not even the new location is set in stone with the organisers yet to submit a permit application.

As of July 31st, Woodstock 50 has waved the white flag, and officially accepted defeat, announcing the cancellation in a statement.

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