Legendary Woodstock Festival producer Michael Lang was laughing Tuesday afternoon as he reviewed the previous 30 hours’ work on a 50th commemoration event in Watkins Glen. He said he was amused by the similarities he was finding to all that had gone down as he was putting together that first mega-festival in the Summer of 1969.
A flurry of entertainment trade and mainstream press ran stories about Woodstock 50 getting cancelled Monday morning. All referenced a statement from Dentsu Aegis Network, the international media and digital marketing communications company which is funding the festival, as well as a statement from the Schuyler County Administrator echoing the investors’ statement.
By mid-morning on April 29, even Wikipedia was referring to the commemorative festival in the past tense.
But then Lang’s office at the old Hawthorne Gallery in Woodstock, and his publicity affiliates in New York City, started countering the “news” regarding their August 16-18 event.
“Woodstock 50 vehemently denies the festival’s cancellation and legal remedy will (be) sought,” came the first statement, via the Poughkeepsie Journal. A couple of hours later a spokesperson called a trade publication, Vulture, to note that, “Woodstock 50 is currently on a call with Dentsu and Woodstock 50 vehemently denies the cancellation of the festival and will be seeking legal remedy to the comments.”
When we spoke with Lang Tuesday, he punctuated his buoyant mood by stating that “we’re not stopping” and saying he was eschewing legal recourse so all focus could be on pulling his giant festival together. He noted the amount of publicity generated over the past week, starting with news stories about ticket sales being postponed for a second time June 22, and mentioned it all being “par for the Woodstock course.” Yes, there was agita involved, but that was something he knew and expected from the time he put on his first festival, in Miami in 1968, at the age of 23.
Difficulties with Woodstock 50 started to hit the news this past winter as dates came and went for an announcement of the festival line-up, and the launch of ticket sales. One headliner, Black Eyed Peas, pulled out of a headlining spot claiming a scheduling conflict. Then an April 22 Earth Day date for the beginning of ticket sales was pushed back indefinitely, prompting a confusing e-mail to agents representing acts booked for the concert that made it into the music press.
“Woodstock is a phenomenon that for 50 years has drawn attention to its principles and also the rumors that can be attached to that attention,” Lang said in a statement to Billboard last week. “There’s always been lots of rumors around Woodstock.”
The current week’s “rumors” started with a blunt statement from Dentsu Aegis Network’s Amplifi Live, the financing entity for the festival that’s headquartered in London and a wholly owned subsidiary of the Japanese advertising and public relations firm Dentsu.
“It’s a dream for agencies to work with iconic brands and to be associated with meaningful movements. We have a strong history of producing experiences that bring people together around common interests and causes which is why we chose to be a part of the Woodstock 50th Anniversary Festival,” it read. “But 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. 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.”
The trade publication Billboard, followed by Rolling Stone, Spin and a number of other news organizations, all then reported that representatives “for the festival” added that the cancellation decision had been based on concerns about the capacity of the festival, site readiness and permitting issues. Several postings added that a representative for the festival had reached out to officials with Live Nation and AEG, the nation’s two largest concert promotion entities (with Live Nation involved in the booking of commemorative events at the original Bethel site for Woodstock ’69) to inquire about a $20 million investment to save the event, but both companies declined the offer.
During the interim had come much mention of other festival cancellations of late, including Phish’s Curveball last summer, also planned for Watkins’ Glen. Much was written about contemporary festivals such as Coachella, Bonnaroo, as well as the ill-fated Fyre Festival in the Bahamas that ended up the focus of competing documentaries on Netflix and Amazon this past year. Then there were the mentions of Lang’s commemorative festivals at Saugerties in 1994, and Rome, NY in 1999, not to forget his involvement in the ill-fated Rolling Stones event at Altamont in December, 1969.
“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,” came the official statement from Lang’s office in Woodstock Tuesday morning, after some of the dust from the previous day had settled. “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. We would like to acknowledge the State of New York and Schuyler County for all of their hard work and support. 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.”
Why did a financial partner feel empowered to unilaterally cancel the festival? In another release on Tuesday, Lang seemed as confused as we were. “We have yet to understand why they would try to prevent the festival from happening by seemingly undermining us in this way. It is one thing to decide for oneself that it is best to move on, but it is entirely another thing to try and close the door on us.”
We asked Lang on Tuesday about the previous day’s statements involving legal recourse. No, he said, his focus henceforth would be on getting Woodstock 50 up and running.
Lang laughed his comforting laugh. Now the challenges were with high finance, lawyers, permits, publicists, a crowded news universe.
“What can I say,” he said in his sing-song, Cheshire Cat-way. “We just need to get it on and get it going.”
Here’s the full text of Lang’s release that came in after this article was filed:
It seems in a way that history is repeating itself. In July of 1969 we lost our site in Walkill and with only a month to go we managed to move to Bethel. Woodstock was going to happen no matter what!
This time around, Woodstock’s new hometown, Dix & Watkins Glen, NY and New York State have been really wonderful. I went door to door to talk to the neighbors. Some remembered Summer Jam back in ’73 and were worried about history repeating itself. But they opened their doors to us and we talked it out. Many of those people have reached out over the last 24 hours with messages of hope and encouragement.
The venue, Watkins Glen International, have been totally supportive and professional.
Yesterday, our financial partner, Dentsu-Aegis, made the decision to pull out and informed us that they were cancelling the festival at the same time they let the press release go public.
We have yet to understand why they would try to prevent the festival from happening by seemingly undermining us in this way. It is one thing to decide for oneself that it is best to move on, but it is entirely another thing to try and close the door on us.
Yesterday, I couldn’t help but relive that moment 50 years ago – it was “ déjà vu all over again”!
Supporting the principles of activism and sustainability are too important to be derailed by shortsighted partners.
We continue our work with NYS, Schuyler County and various parties to keep things on track.
Woodstock never belonged to Dentsu, so they don’t have a right to cancel it.
Woodstock belongs to the people and it always will.
We don’t give up and Woodstock 50 will take place and will be a blast!