Woodstock 50: Eight Crazy Things We Learned From Court Filings About the Festival's Final Days

Evan Agostini/Invision/AP
Michael Lang participates in the Woodstock 50 lineup announcement at Electric Lady Studios on March 19, 2019 in New York.

From offers to serve steak naked, to worries about a bridge collapse, emails released in New York court fight show how disagreements and threats during the final months of Woodstock 50 sunk the festival.

Lawyers for Dentsu released dozens of communications with Michael Lang and other Woodstock 50 reps on Monday, providing a rare glimpse into the deeply dysfunctional alliance that had come together to stage the anniversary event.

The documents -- which were presented as evidence as part of Dentsu’s opposition to an emergency injunction request filed by Lang’s attorney Marc Kasowitz, show that Lang and his partners were in constant disagreement with the production team at Superfly over the event's capacity, and were notified just days after the lineup was announced that they had breached their agreement with the New York event producer. The documents also show a startlingly high level of mistrust with their investors at Dentsu, who made multiple attempts to rein in Lang’s spending on talent and personal expenses, including leasing part of a four-bedroom house nearly four hours away from the festival site.  

Below are eight eye-popping facts we learned about the problems that sunk the anniversary festival.

1. Peck said he would show up "naked with a steak and lobster from Peter Luger" at an investor's house "to save the festival"

It's unclear how Lang met his main partner in the Woodstock 50 endeavor, Greg Peck, a former investment banker turned boutique hotelier with The Crescent in Beverly Hills, who has remained loyal to Lang throughout the Woodstock fight.

In a Jan. 8 email to Charlie Horsey, chief executive of MKTG which had been hired by Dentsu to help with the festival, Peck said he was willing to pay half of Superfly’s fee (estimated to be $3 million) if the festival was a financial failure. If fact, he was willing to do whatever it took to save the festival, including bringing dinner in the nude to the home of DJ Martin, Dentsu’s chief commerical officer. 

"If Dentsu told me I need to show up at DJ’s house naked with a steak and lobster dinner from Peter Luger, or else they wouldn’t sign the Superfly agreement, I wouldn’t be happy and I wouldn’t feel like it’s required, but I would HAVE to do it to save the festival. That’s sort of how this feels,” he said of being asked to put up the guarantee.

"This was obviously said in jest to illustrate how badly Mr. Peck wanted to save the concert," a rep for Woodstock 50 tells Billboard. "Bottom line is Greg is committed to the festival and he also loves steak and lobster."

2. A commander from NY State Police flipped out after watching Lang talk about the event during a Facebook town hall.

Major Eric L. Laughton with New York State Police wasn’t sure if the April 1 town hall he just watched with Lang was an April Fool’s joke or the real thing.

"I watched the Facebook Live Town Hall held in Watkins Glen," he wrote in an email to Jim Tobin who was helping Superfly with the festival and had met with Laughton hours earlier. "This meeting occurred a few hours after our meeting at (Watkins Glen International). I have a number of concerns."

For starters, Tobin had told the commander of Troop E that the festival’s capacity was 65,000, but according to the number Lang gave during the town hall, the attendance was closer to 126,000, more than double what had been promised. Lang also said fans with multi-day passes would be allowed to leave the site as they pleased and catch an Uber, but Laughton noted "this was also not discussed at the meeting."

Lang told town hall attendees they could "walk or bike" to the festival entrance, but Laughton told Tobin "walking or biking on a busy State or County Route at highway speeds, especially with the amount of traffic expected, is clearly unsafe" and would not be permitted.

"Finally, I was advised by someone that was in attendance at the Facebook Live event that families now including children are encouraged to attend (kidstock?)," Laughton wrote. "Please confirm if this is accurate or not. If accurate, this is an entirely separate conversation that would need to be addressed."

Reps for Woodstock 50 tell Billboard "Major Laughton’s superior, Lt. Col. Robert Nuzzo worked Woodstock ’99 as a new trooper and is in support of Woodstock 50 at WGI. Lt. Col. Bob Nuzzo is the lead State Trooper for mass gatherings in (New York state). Major Laughton misunderstood Michael’s representation of the capacity because Lang was referring to carpooling. The originally presented number at the county meeting where Laughton was present with Nuzzo, a capacity of 100,000 was presented (on Feb. 19) Superfly later changed this number to 75,000 for the mass gathering permit application."

In tems of letting people walk into the event, Woodstock's rep says "Michael was referring to the immediate neighbors of the venue who shared that they currently walk to the track for races." In terms of kids coming to the event, the rep says "There is a kids area planned for within the festival the same as there are such as Kidz Jam at Bonnaroo (and) Kidzapalooza at Lollapalooza."

3. The Same Police Commander Was Worried a Proposed Pedestrian Bridge For Woodstock 50 Would Collapse

To accommodate the large influx of visitors to the site, Woodstock 50 would have to make millions of dollars of improvements to Watkins Glen International, building roads for fans to get in and out of the site, and a pedestrian bridge to cross over the busy County Road 16.

In an email to Tobin, Laughton said he was worried about the safety of the bridge and said the New York State Department of Transportation had not been given "promised load rating analyses and engineering assumptions” on the bridge that it had requested from Woodstock 50. 

"If I have this correct, the PSI rating is 90lbs per square foot," he wrote, explaining that the bridge had a limited capacity to handle tens of the thousands of people walking across it every day. 

"Though I am no expert in this area, my layman’s concern is if too many people tried to cross at the same time, the bridge could collapse."

A rep for Woodstock 50 tells Billboard "Any and all infrastructure for any event in (New York state) would need engineered approved plans and inspections," adding, "Incidentally, in a revised plan drafted by Dentsu and WS50, the bridge and all camping areas North of County Route 16 were eliminated as a value engineered site plan option."

4. Dentsu Tried To Get Lang To Have Artists Agree to Repay the Deposits if the Festival Was Cancelled

In total, officials with Dentsu and Amplifi Live, the holding company for the festival, wired more than $32 million in deposits to artists confirmed to play the festival.

It's money that Dentsu is not likely to ever get back, but the company did make an effort to protect their investment.

"On December 11, 2018, Amplifi Live sent W50 an offer form and informed W50 that they should contract with artists only using that form," Dentsu attorney Marc Greenwald writes. "The approved offer form gave the Parties valuable live-streaming rights to the artists’ performances and ensured that the Parties could receive a refund of any deposits paid to performing artists if the Festival was canceled for any reason."

Lang and his talent buyers at Danny Wimmer Presents never used the form, and it’s unlikely that any agency would agree to give the money back -- most new festivals are required to pay artists 100% of their deposit up front before the lineup is announced and won’t agree to return any money if the festival is canceled by organizers.

5. The NY Dept of Health Wanted a $1 Million Bond Before They Issued a Permit 

Woodstock 50 could not sell tickets without receiving a conditional mass gathering permit from the New York Department of Health. The Department’s Commissioner Howard Zucker was willing to issue the conditional permit (the final permit would be issued a week before the event), but he had one expensive demand — that the speedway hosting Woodstock 50 post a $1 million performance bond guaranteeing it would meet the department’s demands.

Officials with the race track declined the request and Martin said Dentsu was not willing to back the bond either.

“We do not approve such expense at this time, given the uncertainty regarding the viability of the festival,” Martin wrote in an April 21 email to Peck, Lang and others tied to the festival.

Besides the $1 million insurance bond, which was to be payable to the department, officials with the NY State Department of Health wanted Woodstock 50 to agree to pay $2,500 a day if it was found to be in violation of “any requirement set forth in the conditional permit.”

A rep for Woodstock 50 says "The performance bond was to ensure the permit process would achieve requisite milestones in time as related to providing supporting documents. The documents were being generated by Superfly and the process was slow." 

6. Lang leased a $2,500/month home in Woodstock, New York for his “Office”

The Watkins Glen site where Lang had planned to stage the festival was a four-hour drive from the original site in Bethel, New York, but that didn’t stop Lang from signing a one-year lease for the second floor of a four-bedroom home in Woodstock, New York to serve as his "office."

Martin found out about the lease from a Nov. 26 email from Peck, who said he was "annoyed" that he had to pay a $2,500 commission to Judy Steinfeld with Halter Associates Realty for connecting Lang with property owner BMPP Holdings.

The lease covered the second story of a 10,000-sq.-ft. four-bedroom, four-bath home. You can see a listing for the property here.

A rep for Woodstock 50 says "34 Elwyn Lane is the office and it has commercial zoning. It is a ground floor art gallery space, a second floor office (leased by Michael Lang) and additionally contains 3 individual residential rental units that the owner rents on AirBnB."

7. Lang was told to stop booking artists, but didn’t listen

From the beginning, Woodstock 50 and their production partners at Superfly constantly fought over the capacity of the venue. Lang had wanted a capacity of more than 150,000 fans, but Superfly insisted anything over 65,000 attendees would be unsafe, a number they dropped down to 61,000 in March after visiting the site following a snow melt.

The fluctuations in attendances affected how much revenue Woodstock 50 could bring in through ticket sales, which affected how much was budgeted for artists playing the festival. At one point a compromise of 75,000 fans was suggested, but that number was still too low to recover the millions that would be needed for a talent budget.

"When Amplifi Live discovered that the festival could support no more than 75,000 total attendees (including artists, staff, and volunteers), it directed W50 not to commit to any offers or payments to talent so that the parties could agree to a decreased talent budget better suited to the Festival’s capacity and expected revenues," Greenwald wrote. "Ignoring Amplifi Live’s instructions, W50 continued to book—and agreed to pay deposits to—new artists."

According to Greenwald, Lang told his talent-buyers at Danny Wimmer Presents that "Lang was solely responsible for confirming talent," according to Greenwald, and on Feb. 12, "W50’s Susan Cronin acknowledged that '2 full batches of talent” had been booked after Amplifi Live’s instruction that bookings cease. Not only did W50 book talent, but it promised to make payments to the artists, contrary to Amplifi Live’s explicit instructions. Amplifi Live had no option but to make these payments after a damaging rumor leaked to the public that the Festival was experiencing financial difficulties, threatening the Festival’s success."

8. Lang tried to go around Superfly on multiple occassions to get capacity numbers up to 100,000-150,000

Lang refused to accept Superfly's calculation that the event could only support 65,000 people and constantly tried to work around the festival promotion company to get the capacity higher.

On Feb. 28, Lang sent an email to Martin and wrote "Superfly will not be permitted to adjust this down to 65,000. There is no rational reason to do this. Not from a safety point of view nor from a customer satisfaction point of view," he said, later adding, "we are surprised by the lack of concern by Superfly for the financial viability of this endeavor, to the point where, as they see it, a little discomfort by some getting to the site, is cause to eliminate 35000 potential attendees."

Lang said he would work to lease more land if needed to host the festival, but the constant disagreement over capacity made it impossible to set ticket prices, or get tickets on sale. Exasperated by Lang's insistence the festival capacity be at least 125,000,on March 29, Superfly's attorney John Frankenheimer sent a breach notice to Amplifi Live, writing that even though Martin had agreed on March 13 to reduce the capacity, Superfly officials received a text from from Chris Cornett with Watkins Glen International saying Lang had just requested a meeting to discuss having the capacity raised to 100,000.

Days later, Steve Feener of Superfly said hours after having a meeting with a Dentsu representative "reiterating the 65,000-person capacity," he received a phone call from Schuyler County administrator Tim O'Hearn, letting him know that he just had a meeting with Lang and Woodstock 50's Susan Cronin, where "they asked him to keep the capacity at 100,000."

Later that day, Feener said Peck asked him to tell county officials that "Superfly was okay with stating that the capacity could be 100,000" but Feener would not budge from the 65,000 number. The next day, "Mr. Feener participated in a meeting with representatives of Woodstock, Dentsu and the County where the county representative indicated that in order to move forward with the permitting process, the parties would need to settle on a capacity number. In response, Woodstock representatives again pressed for a 100,000 capacity."

On April 10, Superfly issued a second warning that the Woodstock 50 was in breach of its contract with the production company, and on May 1 announced it was pulling out of the event.