During the Billboard Live Music Summit at the Montage in Beverly Hills, California, on Tuesday (Nov. 5), Woodstock co-founder Michael Lang explained why Japanese investor Dentsu turned out to be the wrong choice for the failed 50th anniversary festival.
Woodstock 50 had been scheduled to take place in August, but was marred with location issues, capacity concerns, a legal battle with Dentsu and artists allegedly pulling out before it was finally canned.
“It really started to come apart for me a week before we signed with Dentsu,” Lang told Billboard senior director of live and touring Dave Brooks. He went on to explain that Dentsu had been brought on to Woodstock 50 in 2018 for media and sponsorships exclusively.
“Somewhere along the line they asked if they could do funding. We had other people who were lined up but it just seemed convenient,” Lang said. “About three or four days before we were finally ready to sign the agreement … they come up with this thing of some kind of international money regulation where they had to be seen as co-producers and that’s where it went off the rails.”
According to Lang, Dentsu’s co-producer title gave them partial control of the festival, even though they had no experience putting on an event of that caliber.
“When [Dentsu] decided that they had an opinion, it could throw a wrench into anything — and did,” said Lang.
In April, Dentsu announced it was canceling the Aug. 16-18 anniversary concert in Watkins Glen, New York. Dentsu’s chief commercial officer DJ Martin said Lang had misrepresented the capacity of the festival when the company first agreed to invest and failed to meet benchmarks to get the site ready or secure permits.
“It is crazy that they would walk away from $32 million, it seemed, rather than to continue working with your team,” Brooks said to Lang.
“It was unbelievable,” Lang responded. “Even if we had been at 65,000 people, they certainly wouldn’t have lost $30 million. It was on odd move. But it was a bad fit from the beginning and I think it just got more and more convoluted.”
Lang explained during the panel that Dentsu’s input slowed down contracts with partners like Superfly and talent booker Danny Wimmer, causing the festival to put together an event in a matter of months instead of a whole year that they had anticipated.
Lang also expressed frustration with festival producer Superfly, who fought Lang on capacity limits at Woodstock 50’s original Watkins Glen location.
“You wanted 150,000-plus, [Superfly] at one point said no more than 63,000 after the snow had melted and they had seen the site,” said Brooks about the capacity dispute.
“That was a crock of shit, frankly,” Lang said. “I hired them to do a festival of over 100,000 and Jim Tobin, who works with [Superfly] quite often, had worked with us for months and months and had coordinated with them on all the things we were doing. We were mapping the site for 125,000 people. I don’t know what made them decided on that number, 63,000.”
“They thought it was a safety issue,” Brooks responded.
“We wouldn’t have gotten a permit if it was a safety issue,” said Lang.
“Did you get the permit for 150,000?” Brooks asked.
“We never applied for 150,000. We applied for 100,000,” Lang said, adding “That was not granted, because the work wasn’t done yet.”
Lang explained that his intention was to have festival-goers camp offsite and shuttle from their campgrounds to the stages, which he believed would help accommodate the 100,000-plus capacity.
“For some reason, Superfly couldn’t come to terms with people shuttling. It boggles my mind,” Lang said. “Frankly, if it had been up to us, we would have fired [Superfly] when that first began. They knew what we had in mind. They knew the capacity we were looking for.”
Given all the capacity and permitting issues, Brooks asked Lang why he didn’t just move the event to an established venue with infrastructure.
“Was it true that people tried to talk you into doing five nights at Madison Square Garden instead?” Brooks asked.
“Yeah. They did and that wasn’t the reason I was doing it. It wasn’t just to do shows and sell tickets,” said Lang.
“The whole idea behind doing the festival was to engage people in getting out the vote and global warming because things seemed to have gone so backwards in our country,” said Lang.
Lang explained that in the current politically hostile climate he wanted a camping festival to bring people together. Woodstock 50 had also originally partnered with non-profit organizations such as non-partisan voting group HeadCount.
While Woodstock 50 never occurred, Lang said he spent the anniversary weekend at the original festival location and continues to get people coming up to him to thank him for the 1969 event.
“Everybody who’s ever come up to me, and there have been in thousands of people, say [Woodstock ‘69] changed my life for the better,” said Lang.