I first “met” Michael Lang when I watched the Woodstock concert documentary as a teenager in the early nineties. I might have been born a couple decades too late but I still grew up obsessed with artists who played Woodstock – The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Crosby Stills Nash & Young. Every part of my brain that transformed sound vibrations into music yearned for a time machine to take me to Max Yasgur’s upstate New York farm for four days in August 1969.
Michael was a natural as the documentary’s main protagonist and visionary with a job title — music festival producer — that instantly inspired many future dreamers. Michael booked the world’s greatest bands and called the shots from his BSA motorcycle, wearing a smile that only comes from getting away with something no one should ever have let happen. He had that smile, perfect, curly, long locks of hair and faith that things would work out. Woodstock wasn’t necessarily a profitable event, but it had a huge impact on culture — and no other festival has come close to Woodstock’s mark.
It took me a while, and I rode a Yamaha, but I followed his path. In 2013, years into my own career in live music, I tracked down a phone number for Jeremy Schaller, whose family owned a farm site in Saugerties, New York where the 1994 Woodstock festival had been held. I was COO of Insomniac at the time and happy to receive an invite to the Schaller family’s Winston Farm. The muddy, 800+ acre festival featured Nine Inch Nails, the Allman Brothers Band, Peter Gabriel, Metallica, Santana and Bob Dylan and it had been considered as the site for the original Woodstock. Jeremy let me know that his family had partnered with Michael for all things festival-related and he connected us. The idea of being able to produce a festival on what could have been the Woodstock site felt exciting, as did meeting Michael.
Michael and I got to know each other over phone calls. It was very special for me – not just meeting a hero but putting a festival together with him. I traveled to visit the farm, we walked the fields together, talking about lessons learned from Woodstock ‘94 and how the Schallers and Michael had become close friends during the planning and execution of the ’94 festival.
I took time on that trip to make a pilgrimage to the original Woodstock site. Michael had arranged for the Woodstock Museum at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts to be opened for my visit. I wandered through the exhibits alone, learning more about the festival and then walked outside in the grass, soaking in echoes of what happened on this land so many years ago.
During a dinner at The Tavern at Diamond Mills, a beautiful spot next to a waterfall, Michael suggested I start engaging with the authorities in parallel with our negotiations. Typically I would wait to close a deal with the venue first but things were going well and we were going to need the town’s blessing. One of the lesser known legacies of the first Woodstock is the changes that the state implemented to the New York Sanitary Code, creating the U.S.’s most demanding code for music festivals that to this day takes a special kind of crazy to navigate.
Early on, I scheduled a meeting with city leaders and public health and safety officials. I gave an overview about our company and our festivals. Many people in the room expressed skepticism of anything that reminded them of Woodstock or its successors. They just could not see the possibility of a different, better result.
It was a strange feeling. On the one hand, I was thrilled that I was working on a show with one of Woodstock’s co-founders. Life goal accomplished. On the other, I knew his involvement and presence in the room stirred memories about Woodstock’s operational mishaps.
The original Woodstock lost control of its perimeter and turned into a free festival, attracting a far greater crowd than the infrastructure could support. Woodstock ‘94 was similarly a poorly guarded mud pit that strained local infrastructure. But the only reason anyone knew Winston Farm as a festival site was Michael Lang, and he had a strong influence on who got the keys.
After I finished my presentation, I started fielding questions — and every question was a different version of “how are you going to avoid what happened at Woodstock and Woodstock ’94?” I did my best to address their concerns, promising to protect our event’s perimeter and not overrun the town. Still, their skepticism came through loud and clear. Thanks to local press, our escapades in New York grew into a national music news story. After several months trying to build consensus, local fire and police services said that they could (or would) not provide the necessary services for the event. It was disappointing because the show could have been incredible. Michael, Jeremy and I were all frustrated that the deal fell apart.
Shortly thereafter, Lang and the Schaller family closed a five-year multi-million-dollar lease with Bob Sillerman’s SFX II for festivals, the multi-genre Hudson Project and a country music festival. Organizers promised festivals free of complications associated with electronic music. The Hudson Project festival was headlined by Kendrick Lamar, Bassnectar, Modest Mouse, Flaming Lips…a handful of indie rock and jam bands and a lot of electronic music.
A Billboard article at the time of the 2014 event explained that first two days of the festival were “sunny and smooth” with crowds around 20,000, but severe thunderstorms on Sunday once again delivered mud to the site, trapping campers and their cars. Thousands of attendees stuck on site suffered from infrastructure issues (food and water shortages) and the over 12-hour evacuation process required tow trucks. Complaints from the fans resulted in full refunds for Sunday’s tickets. SFX also failed to produce any other festivals on the site or deliver any other payments. (The results sound a lot like Woodstock issues, but Michael was partners with the property owners and not the festival’s producer.)
I stayed in touch with Michael over the years, and even interviewed him as the opening keynote at the FestForums conference in 2016. As he started to put Woodstock 50 together, we talked about ways to collaborate and I heard the Schaller family worked to bring Woodstock 50 to Winston Farm. Michael chose Watkins Glen instead because he thought it offered better access and more control over the fenceline. Radiating the possibility that he could do it again, one more time, he raised tens of millions of dollars for the anniversary event.
Sadly, Woodstock 50 didn’t happen and I never got to work with Michael at a Woodstock festival, but he turned me into a believer. And not just me: he gave meaning to festivals around the world. He injected a spirit of idealism into the festival world that inspired festival organizers to create something that transcended the individual in pursuit of our potential — one that put music, collective experience and love first. Michael wanted to share his Woodstock experience with me and so millions of other people again, and while that one last show fell apart, I will always be grateful that he nonetheless managed to give me my own real-life Woodstock story.