With the 50th anniversary of the world's most famous music festival approaching in August, Woodstock Ventures partner Michael Lang recently found himself in the same predicament he faced in the summer of 1969: running out of time to pull off the show.
A week after tickets were supposed to go on sale on April 22 (Earth Day), local and state permits for the concert site in Watkins Glen, N.Y., hadn't been approved, and Superfly, the company that investors had hired to produce Woodstock 50, wanted to cut attendance in half for safety reasons -- from 150,000 to 75,000 -- which would make it nearly impossible for the event to turn a profit. Meanwhile, Dentsu, the Japanese firm financing the 2019 festival, was getting increasingly nervous about the $30 million that it had wired in March to about 80 acts, including Imagine Dragons, The Killers, Miley Cyrus and Jay-Z.
The lineup was a far cry from Lang's wish list for Woodstock 50, which included Paul McCartney, Billy Joel and a reunited Led Zeppelin. Though Lang did get Dead & Company, John Fogerty and Santana, he couldn't count on the Woodstock veterans to draw crowds: Dead & Company had been touring extensively, and both Fogerty and Santana were also playing a rival Live Nation Woodstock tribute the same weekend on the site of the original concert in Bethel Woods, N.Y.
Then, on April 30, Dentsu pulled the plug, cutting its losses and announcing in a statement, "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." Lang now says Dentsu had no right to cancel the festival, claiming the show will go on -- but talent agencies tell Billboard their artists will likely not appear.
The potential implosion of Woodstock 50 highlights the growing difficulty that independent concert promoters face as giants Live Nation and AEG continue to consolidate power, snapping up smaller rivals and driving up the price of talent and production. The fact that veterans like Lang sometimes misread the market shows that even with big financial backers, the business model is heavily tilted toward headliners, who demand huge guarantees upfront. It once took three years for a festival to break even, but increased competition is driving booking costs so high that many organizers now say five to seven years is more realistic.
The dozen-plus sources that Billboard interviewed say Lang had been planning a 50th-anniversary event since 2014. Most agents and promoters tried to talk him out of the multistage camping festival he wanted to hold at Watkins Glen International, a speedway four-plus hours north of New York. The site was too risky, agents argued -- in 2018, Phish had to cancel its Curveball festival with one day's notice because a storm had contaminated the town's drinking water. One agent who reps some of the festival's headliners says Lang was told that baby boomers nostalgic for the Woodstock era would not want to travel to Schuyler County (population 18,000) for a camping site without surrounding hotels or Airbnbs.
Lang had a vision for a massive gathering on the anniversary weekend, combining music with social justice causes and a message about uniting to save the planet. Woodstock 50 would solidify his legacy after a number of previous attempts to revive the brand -- first in 1994, when 500,000 fans showed up for a 165,000-capacity concert, and then in 1999, when the festival's infamous meltdown was broadcast on cable TV. Lang was involved in both editions, although he says that the rioting and damage of Woodstock '99 were a result of MTV's involvement.
After the lineup was announced in March, tension with festival producer Superfly and its CEO, Rick Farman, started to boil over. A 150,000-capacity event seemed impossible -- Coachella tops out at 125,000 -- so Lang suggested dropping it to 100,000. But Superfly continued to push back, saying the site could not safely handle more than 75,000.
That created new challenges: Cutting capacity in half would limit revenue, so ticket prices would have to be increased. Doubling the original $369 price seemed untenable, and reps with talent buyer Danny Wimmer Presents were starting to make noise that none of the artist contracts had been signed. Then, without consulting his partners at Dentsu, Lang told a local newspaper that the ticket price was now $450. Dentsu Aegis chief commercial officer DJ Martin was infuriated. Lang already had missed his deadline to get tickets on sale for Earth Day and was openly fighting with his producers -- losing his main funding source would sink the festival.
A representative for Lang and his partner in Woodstock 50, Greg Peck, reached out to Live Nation and AEG for a $20 million bailout, a proposal that both companies rejected. Besides the lack of time, the budget that Lang and Peck presented had a red flag -- Lang claimed the event had the potential to earn a profit of $15 million based on $100 million in revenue and expenses of $85 million. No festival makes a profit of $15 million; most lose millions in the first year.
After this story published, a representative for Peck emailed Billboard with a statement attributed to Peck that says “No one from Woodstock 50 has reached out for festival funding to either Live Nation or AEG.”
Dentsu, citing unmet benchmarks in their agreement, informed Lang, Superfly and the agents representing artists at Woodstock 50 that it was pulling out, a claim Peck refutes.
“Dentsu never notified Woodstock 50 that it was planning to cancel the festival, which it had no right to do under the contract,” Pecks says.
On May 1, Billboard has reviewed a Jan. 8 email from Peck to several executives at Dentsu reading "Essentially, we have no practical control to stop you from cancelling the festival for virtually any reason you see fit."
Now, Lang has told colleagues he believes that if he can raise $30 million by May 17, at the latest, he can turn the festival around. This week, Lang enlisted attorney Marc Kasowitz to file an injunction to force Dentsu to return nearly $18 million in funds it alleges were "misappropriated" from an account used by organizers. Kasowitz argues the injuction is needed to save the event before it's too late.
Even if he does manage to secure permits and artist commitments, there's still the issue of getting fans to buy tickets and make the trek upstate.
"Woodstock is this iconic moment in music that fans want to celebrate, but not re-create for themselves," says longtime festival promoter Donnie Estopinal. "At this point," with under three months to go and 75,000 tickets to sell, he adds, "it's too late to pull off something that big."