The Disastrous Woodstock 50: What Went Wrong?

An announcement with no tickets. Four permit requests rejected by one small town. How the event celebrating the anniversary of a landmark rock festival crumbled.

ImageMichael Lang, right, at a board hearing in Vernon, N.Y., where he hoped to move Woodstock 50. 
Michael Lang, right, at a board hearing in Vernon, N.Y., where he hoped to move Woodstock 50. CreditCreditEdward Harris/Observer-Dispatch, via Associated Press
Ben Sisario

Late last year, Michael Lang, one of the producers of the original Woodstock festival in 1969, began to approach music’s most powerful managers and booking agents with a pitch.

Lang wanted to commemorate Woodstock’s 50th anniversary with a three-day, multigenerational event that would draw 150,000 people to a Formula One racetrack in upstate New York. With the Woodstock brand as a magnet, he told them, the festival would celebrate the spirit of the original yet be relevant to the youth of today, according to five agents and other talent representatives, who spoke anonymously because the conversations were confidential.

The agents were skeptical.

With less than a year before Lang’s chosen weekend, Aug. 16 to 18, time was short. They doubted whether the Woodstock name meant much to Generation Z. And how would Woodstock 50 stand out from the glut of festivals already flooding the market?

Still, the agencies agreed to supply top-tier talent to the festival — if Lang and his partners accepted all the risk. As one senior agent recalled their message to him: “We’ll help. But you’re going to overpay us, and pay us up front.”

With their help — and with financing from a division of Dentsu, a Japanese advertising conglomerate — Lang and his team booked more than 80 acts, including Jay-Z, Miley Cyrus, the Killers, Santana, Imagine Dragons, Chance the Rapper, Halsey and Dead and Company, who were set to perform in Watkins Glen, N.Y. According to court papers, the festival paid $32 million in talent fees.

But this week, in the most disastrous collapse of a music event since the Fyre Festival two years ago, Lang’s dream came to an end in a humiliating defeat for one of the most storied names in rock history.

Lang believes the festival was undone by a bad partner and, as he said in a statement announcing the cancellation, “a series of unforeseen setbacks” — although many of its setbacks seem self-inflicted.

The death of Woodstock 50 is also the story of a former player returning to a changed game. Since the last Woodstock, in 1999 — another disaster, which ended with riots and reports of sexual assault — festivals have become an intensely competitive and expensive market, with little room for error or miscalculation.

Here’s how Woodstock 50 unraveled.

ImageJohn Fogerty, who performed at the original Woodstock in 1969, played the event announcing the 50th anniversary show.
John Fogerty, who performed at the original Woodstock in 1969, played the event announcing the 50th anniversary show.CreditEvan Agostini/Invision, via Associated Press

From the beginning, many doubted Lang’s concept. John Scher, a promoter who worked on the Woodstock festivals in 1994 and 1999 and considers Lang a friend, said that when Lang mentioned his idea for Woodstock 50, he tried to talk him out of it.

“Michael is a dreamer,” Scher said. “He had the most honest of motivations. But as I said to him a year and a half ago, ‘Michael, you have not made a dime from Woodstock three times. Now you’re trying to do it a fourth time?’”

The festival was announced in January, but it was far from ready. Organizers had made requests for dozens of artists — their original wish list included Beyoncé, Bruce Springsteen, Drake and Kendrick Lamar — but not confirmed bookings with any of them.

Soon red flags began to pop up. Organizers quietly reduced their attendance target to 100,000. The lineup was not announced until March 19, and, strangely, tickets were not set to go on sale for another month, on April 22.

Then the date for ticket sales came and went, and news emerged that the festival had not secured proper permits — raising serious doubts about its viability.

Within days, Dentsu pulled out and declared Woodstock 50 dead. Lang disputed that Dentsu had the right to cancel under their contract — and a judge ultimately agreed that it did not — but the damage was done. By early June, Woodstock 50 lost its venue in Watkins Glen when it failed to make a $150,000 payment. “Losing Watkins Glen set us back six weeks,” Lang said in an interview this week. “We never really recovered from that.”

Once organizers went to court in May over the Dentsu contract, a paper trail was made public that suggested they had ignored warning signs for months.

Woodstock 50 hired Superfly, a well-known event producer, to inspect the festival site and recommend building and safety plans. Early on, Superfly warned that Watkins Glen could accommodate no more than 65,000 people. But Lang and his partners pushed for 100,000.

Superfly was able to conduct a more thorough inspection of the site after snow melted in April, and reduced its recommendation to 61,000. In letters submitted in court, Superfly’s lawyer told Woodstock 50 and Dentsu that they would be in breach of their agreement with Superfly if they made any changes to its recommendations that could harm “the safety of the guests, attendees, workers and others at the festival.”

According to those letters and affidavits from Dentsu executives, state officials demanded that Woodstock 50 make an array of improvements before the festival would be granted a permit, including building new roads, a temporary bridge and water storage systems. They also required more security personnel.

The Department of Heath also asked Watkins Glen International, the racetrack, to sign a $1 million bond before it would grant a conditional permit, or else tickets could not be sold; the company refused.

Lang blamed Dentsu for much of the festival’s problems. In court papers, Dentsu pointed the finger back at him.

But the management of the festival itself was opaque. Organizers had set up a company, Woodstock 50 LLC, to license trademarks from Woodstock Ventures, a partnership of the original backers of the 1969 festival, which include Lang.

To the music industry at large, Lang was the face of Woodstock 50. But he had partners: Gregory Peck and Susan Cronin of the Crescent Hotel Group, whose flagship property is the boutique Crescent Hotel in Beverly Hills. Peck and Cronin, like Dentsu, were little known in the music industry, and their roles with the festival were unclear.

In a statement, Cronin described their involvement.

“Greg and I started out as friends with Michael and wanted to support his desire to have a festival,” she said. “We have a long professional history of standing behind brilliant individuals and helping those wonderfully creative people grow their business.”

In time, even Lang’s role came to be in doubt. In court documents, Lang was described as an “employee” of the festival partnership. After the festival collapsed, Lang distanced himself from the company.

“I am not a partner in Woodstock 50,” Lang said in an interview this week. “I am a partner in Woodstock Ventures. The intention was to be a partner in both, but my lawyer said that was a conflict.”

Jay-Z was booked for Woodstock 50 but pulled out once the festival was moved to Maryland.CreditBrian Ach/Getty Images for Something in the Water

After the loss of Watkins Glen, Lang and his partners tried to move to another racetrack — this one for horses — in Vernon, a town 35 miles east of Syracuse with a population of about 5,000.

With less than two months left on the festival clock, organizers faced stiff opposition from local government officials, who were concerned that proper plans could not be implemented in time. The sheriff of Oneida County said he could not guarantee public safety at the event (other happenings, including the Madison-Bouckville antique show, would require his staff).

The town Code Enforcement Office also would not budge. It rejected four permit applications by Woodstock 50; the first two, officials said, were just one page apiece. In rejecting the fourth — which was 237 pages — Vernon’s code enforcement officer, Reay Walker, wrote a withering eight-page letter that pointed to insufficient traffic, parking and security plans, and declared a public safety plan “worthless.”

When the town of Vernon issued its last denial, on July 22, Woodstock 50 seemed unsalvageable.

But Lang had one Hail Mary left. He contacted Seth Hurwitz, an independent promoter in Washington, D.C., expressing interest in the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. Hurwitz instead pointed him to the Merriweather Post Pavilion, the amphitheater that Hurwitz and his company, I.M.A., manage in the woods of Columbia, Md., which could hold about 30,000 people.

Hurwitz offered Merriweather on the condition that Lang could confirm a lineup, and gave him a tight deadline to do it.

“It won’t be another Fyre Fest,” Hurwitz said in an email interview when Merriweather was announced as the new venue, “because I won’t let them sell any tickets unless I see confirmations in writing from the acts.”

But Lang was unable to save Woodstock 50. He was asking artists to play a vastly smaller event hundreds of miles away from the original venue, under the banner of a damaged brand. According to their original contracts, artists could refuse to appear anywhere other than Watkins Glen.

He tried to rebrand the event as a free benefit for HeadCount, a voter-registration nonprofit, but that was not enough. One by one, artists abandoned Woodstock 50: Jay-Z, John Fogerty, Santana and finally Cyrus.

In the music industry, the death of Woodstock 50 brought out plenty of schadenfreude, as hardened executives watched another poorly executed plan fall apart — proof, in their eyes, that the complex demands of putting on a first-class festival are beyond the reach of any dilettantes.

But there was also disillusionment and sadness from others who saw promise and purpose in Lang’s plan to bring the peace-and-love values of Woodstock to 2019.

“The world is a very different place than it was in 1969,” said Frank Riley, who represents Robert Plant and his band the Sensational Space Shifters, who had been booked for Woodstock 50.

Ben Sisario covers the music industry. He joined The Times in 1998, and has contributed to Rolling Stone, Spin, New York Press and WFUV. He also wrote “Doolittle,” a book about the Pixies. @sisario