Woodstock 50's Permitting Issues Are a Result of the Original Festival's Legacy (Guest Column)
Former Insomniac executive details the complicated maze of rules and regulations he faced launching EDC New York in 2013
To get a permit approved for Woodstock 50, the co-founders and organizers face one important historical obstacle — navigating the laws created in the aftermath of the original Woodstock festival.
The 1969 festival, as well Summer Jam in 1973 when more than 600,000 people showed up to Watkins Glen — the intended host site for Woodstock 50 — led to the passage of a series of laws by state and local communities to protect themselves from future incidents of mass chaos from large, out-of-control festivals.
Today, the regulations required to obtain a mass gathering permit from New York State’s Department of Health are among some of the most onerous in the country. That means Woodstock co-founder Michael Lang must navigate restrictive regulations and an updated template for how to produce a safe festival, something I call the "nano-detailed" New York State Department of Health Code.
As the former COO and General Counsel for Insomniac, I learned this first-hand as I worked to obtain permits for Electric Daisy Carnival New York at Citi Field in 2013. The old adage “If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere” has special meaning for festival producers seeking the required mass gathering permit for any event that has 5,000 or more attendees and lasts more than 24 hours.
New York’s Mass Gathering code aims to force producers to plan for every issue that arose during the original Woodstock festival, including on-site medical attention. The state's Sanitary Code Part 18 states that any event over 50,000 people must, at a minimum, have two emergency health care facilities onsite, and provides details on staffing and authoring a public impact statement, which must include local public safety officials’ input and coordination between all agencies overseeing the permit.
It also has to be submitted with enough time to put the event on sale and stage the concert. State code says applications should be submitted “at least 15 days before the first day of advertising and at least 45 days before the first day of the gathering.” In reality, even if a permit has not been issued yet, producers can still work to get the show on sale and planned while the application is reviewed.
“Permits are routinely issued the week of the event,” says Amir Shayegan, VP Permitting and Logistics at iDEKO (and who was senior project manager in the Office of the Mayor of New York at the time of EDC NY 2013.)
According to Shayegan, “in order to get a preliminary approval, the producer needs to submit an application which includes a comprehensive medical and operations plan. After a full review, the State will decide whether it is sufficient for a conditional approval – which allows the event to move forward with marketing and ticket sales.”
The initial plan serves as proof that the producer knows what has to be done and has the capacity to do it. By withholding the final permit issuance until close to the event, city officials retain total control over a show. Every promoter will strive to find agreement with the department of health because the price of failure is too great.
In my first meeting at Citi Field for EDC NY, key leaders from New York police and fire, along with other agencies greeted me with skeptical New York stares. Their opening position was that the event was not going to happen. But I knew that if we built the plan and executed on it, they would become allies. Following approval of our initial plan, we announced EDC NY 2013 at the end of January and tickets went on sale in early February. The show dates were May 17 and 18. Between January and May, we developed plans to make the show as safe as possible. With unwavering attention from many agency experts, we submitted an extensive plan and subsequent revisions.
While not every provision of the code applied to EDC NY because it was not a camping festival, almost all of them will impact Woodstock 50. The language addresses, among other things, security, transportation, capacity, toilets, parking (100 cars per acre), mosquito control, camping, and noise levels — at the site perimeter, no more than 70 decibels can be detected. Regulations even require that every guest receive a detailed site map. Best festival management practice includes most of these requirements, but the code guarantees that these plans are created.
The final issuance of the permit does not occur until all details are agreed upon. For instance, at EDC NY, I had to negotiate a compromise on a plan to serve Red Bull and vodka. Our vendor was allowed to serve the cocktail but the components had to be served separately — if you wanted a “Red Bull and vodka,” you received a can and a cup with vodka and ice to mix yourself.
There were many days I wondered what would happen if we were not issued a permit. Fortunately, I did not experience that reality. I did learn that fly-by-night operations cannot survive the process. Compliance requires experience, teamwork and time. It also requires extensive resources, with section 7-4.9 of the code stating “the applicant shall submit proof of financial resources sufficient to execute the plans as submitted.”
In the event that Woodstock 50’s promoters have not yet met the permitting requirements, there is still time to deliver fixes. But the financial and operational risk factors increase daily and there is no way Lang can get the permit without the ability to prove adequate financial resources. With all of the public attention on their finances, Woodstock 50 will have to survive even more scrutiny by their business partners and state officals regardless of whether that money arrives through new investors or by reclaiming Dentsu/Amplifi Live’s $17.8 million investment via their injunction.
While in many respects New York’s regulations serve as model code and a planning map, its weakness is that it allows the government the ability to prohibit mass gatherings altogether under the guise of a failed permit application. The code should detail what specific information is required to allow an announcement, marketing and ticketing on-sale. It could also add strict controls on the timing of the Department’s responses to submitted plans and subsequent revisions, and guidelines for when a permit must be issued. As much as host communities deserve confidence that an event will be safely produced, event producers also deserve some level of confidence and security in the knowledge that their event will happen if the pay close attention to detail and have competent life safety programs in place.
Simon Rust Lamb is a licensed attorney specializing in live entertainment law who moonlights as a writer. He was the chief operating officer and general counsel at Insomniac from 2012 to 2015.