Woodstock 50 is officially cancelled — here's everything that went wrong
It's been four months of setbacks, drop outs and drama
At the beginning of 2019, rumours immediately started surfacing that Woodstock, the iconic 1969 music festival, was going to make its return to celebrate its 50th anniversary. A few months later, those rumours turned into a reality.
But ever since the festival's lineup announcement in March, there have been non-stop updates, changes and setbacks. Now, with fewer than two weeks to go before its Aug. 16 kickoff, the festival has officially been cancelled.
It's easy to draw comparisons to another recent festival blunder, Fyre Festival, which inspired two documentaries detailing its demise. But for the past four months, the event's main organizer, Michael Lang, continued to make promises that the festival will move forward with its plans. But as the days, weeks and months rolled by, critics became increasingly skeptical and answer scarce.
So what happened? For those who haven't been following every step of the messy process, or are confused even if they have been, continue reading to see a full timeline of everything that has gone down.
March 19: the Woodstock 50 lineup is announced
After months of rumours that Woodstock would be making a grand return this year, Woodstock 50 announced its lineup. Headliners included the Killers, Miley Cyrus, Chance the Rapper, Jay Z, Imagine Dragons, the Black Keys, Halsey and many more contemporary pop, rock and hip-hop acts. Included on that bill were some Woodstock veterans, too, such as Dead & Company, John Fogerty, Santana, Canned Heat and John Sebastian.
"I want it to be multi-generational," Michael Lang, original Woodstock co-creator and one of the organizers of Woodstock 50, told Rolling Stone. "Woodstock '94 was a nice mix of young and old and that's kind of what we're going for here." (Woodstock '94 was an event that celebrated the 25th anniversary of the original festival and included performances by Sheryl Crow, Metallica, Aerosmith, Aphex Twin, Cypress Hill and Green Day.)
The planned three-day festival, scheduled to take place Aug. 16-18, was going to be in Watkins Glen, N.Y., roughly three hours northwest of Woodstock's original location of Bethel, N.Y. It was spearheaded by Lang as well as Superfly, a production company that's behind other festivals like Bonnaroo and Outside Lands.
In the interview with Rolling Stone, Lang addressed already existing rumours of money and production problems by revealing that they were "in the final stages of laying the groundwork and can't wait to stage this once-in-a-lifetime event."
Tickets for the event were scheduled to go on sale April 22.
April 5: The Black Keys pull out of Woodstock 50
Rock duo the Black Keys had to cancel their Woodstock 50 appearance due to a "scheduling conflict." Just days before Woodstock 50 revealed its lineup, the Black Keys released their first song in five years called "Lo/Hi." They also announced an extensive North American tour with Modest Mouse, but those dates in particular don't overlap with Woodstock 50's dates.
Woodstock 50 didn't issue a statement about the Black Keys' departure, and didn't announce a replacement act.
April 20: 'No one knows what the hell is going on'
With the ticket on-sale date of Woodstock 50 just two days away, it was announced that the sale time would be getting pushed back, though a new date and time was not provided. According to Billboard, talent manager Amanda Phelan and Woodstock 50 talent buyer Danny Wimmer Presents emailed agents of the festival's performers to inform them that "there is currently a hold on the Woodstock 50 on-sale date. We are waiting on an official press statement from Woodstock 50 regarding updated announce, ticket pricing, and overall festival information."
This sparked more rumours that questioned the festival's organization and financial stability. In a statement to Billboard, Lang called these accusations "just more rumours." But one agent told Billboard: "No one knows what the hell is going on but there is clearly a problem."
The following day, Pitchfork noted that the organizers had yet to obtain a mass gathering permit from the New York State Department of Health. On April 25, a representative for Woodstock 50 gave Pitchfork the following statement: "Woodstock 50 has delayed its on sale while we refine logistical plans for what we anticipate will be an amazing festival in August at Watkins Glen, New York.... Ticket on sale information will be available through Woodstock.com in the coming days."
It seems in a way that history is repeating itself.- Michael Lang
April 29: Woodstock 50 is cancelled
Dentsu, one of Woodstock 50's main investors, who had by that point plunged $30 million into the event, announced that the festival was getting cancelled. In a statement to Rolling Stone, Dentsu said, "Despite our tremendous investment of time, effort and commitment, 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."
That same day: it's not cancelled?
Firing back at Dentsu's announcement, Lang took to the New York Times and claimed that "they do not have the right to unilaterally cancel the festival."
In another statement that evening, Lang assured everyone that he would be pursuing new partners. "The bottom line is, there is going to be a Woodstock 50th Anniversary Festival, as there must be," he continued. "And it's going to be a blast."
Billboard published a piece, though, that detailed the "infighting, site problems and a lack of financing" in the days leading up to the cancellation news. Part of its reporting revealed that the festival's organizers planned to fire Superfly, the initial producers who signed on, and hire CID Entertainment in its place. It also appeared that Woodstock 50 was hoping to secure an additional $20 million in funding.
April 30: 'We don't give up'
Lang returned the day after the cancellation fiasco to release another statement.
"It seems in a way that history is repeating itself," he started. "In July 1969 we lost our site in Wallkill and with only a month to go we managed to move to Bethel. Woodstock was going to happen no matter what!"
He says the 2019 edition of the festival was "déjà vu all over again," adding that Dentsu's announcement to cancel it undermined both Lang and the festival. But "we don't give up," he continued. "Woodstock never belonged to Dentsu, so they don't have a right to cancel it. Woodstock belongs to the people and it always will."
May 1: Dentsu's departure means artists are no longer obligated to play the festival
As Billboard reported, when Dentsu pulled out of Woodstock 50, it inadvertently took the entire lineup of artists with it because the artists' contracts were with the investment company, not with Lang or the festival itself. And while Lang can renegotiate contracts himself, the onslaught of rumours-turned-proven turmoil behind the scenes was making agents feel uncertain.
One agent told Billboard, "We're not even going to have a discussion with Lang until we see that every permit needed for this event has been secured. I'd also like to hear how he plans to convince fans to buy tickets for an event that's been already cancelled."
May 7: Dentsu accused of illegally taking $17 million from Woodstock 50
As Lang continued to try and save the festival, he openly blamed former investor Dentsu for "leaving Woodstock in peril."
As Rolling Stone reported, Lang sent Dentsu a five-page letter holding the company responsible for blocking ticket sales and allegedly illegally sweeping roughly $17 million from the festival's bank account. "These actions confirmed my worst concerns about partnering with your company," Lang wrote. "These actions are neither a legal nor honourable way to do business."
Lang went on to claim that Dentsu urged stakeholders, insurance companies, venues, performers and more to not work with him. He believed this might've been tied to another event Dentsu is part of, the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, saying that those who refuse business with Woodstock would be "seen favourably" by Dentsu, which could lead to business or performances at the Olympics.
Dentsu responded in a statement that said they "simply recovered the funds" that they originally put into the festival's bank account, maintaining that no wrongdoing went into that move.
May 9: Woodstock 50 sues Dentsu
Just days after alleging Dentsu illegally took money from Woodstock 50, Lang filed a formal court order against Dentsu Aegis Network, demanding its $17.8 million and for Dentsu to "cease all communications relating to the festival." The lawyer Lang hired for this case was Marc Kasowitz, who was Donald Trump's former personal attorney.
May 13: Dentsu responds
Dentsu's lawyer, Marc L. Greenwald, issued a response to Woodstock 50's court order. In it, Greenwald claimed "Lang's misrepresentations, incompetence and contractual breaches have made it impossible to produce a high-quality event that is safe and secure for concertgoers, artists and staff." He also added that Lang lied to Dentsu about the festival site's capacity, citing it could accommodate 150,000 when Superfly's estimation was actually at 75,000.
May 16: 'All the talent is still in'
Following a court hearing where State Supreme Court Justice Barry Ostrager ruled that Dentsu didn't have the right to cancel Woodstock 50, Lang spoke to Q104.3 about the current state of the festival.
Lang insisted that "all the talent is still in" and regarding the permit problems, which they continued to have, he said "we essentially have" them. When asked about ticket sales and when they'd start, Lang replied: "We're going to try to at least announce the on sale within the next week or 10 days."
May 17: New financial partner signs on
New York investment company Oppenheimer & Co announced that it would team up with Woodstock 50 to help finance the event. In a statement, Lang said, "Words cannot express how appreciative Woodstock 50, the artists, the fans and the community are to Oppenheimer for joining with us to make W50 a reality."
Even with new financial backers, though, the festival continued to struggle with obtaining permits, including the all-important mass-gathering permit.
June 10: Goodbye, Watkins Glen
Watkins Glen International, the venue for Woodstock 50, announced that it was no longer hosting the event. In addition to that, CID Entertainment, the production company that took over for Superfly, also stepped down. In a statement to Billboard, CID Entertainment said, "Given developments, we can confirm that CID is no longer involved in Woodstock 50 in any capacity."
June 21: Dentsu keeps its money
While the Supreme Court hearing in May allowed for Woodstock to go ahead and continue planning its festival, the verdict regarding the allegedly stolen $17.8 million wasn't made until a month later. On June 21, the Poughkeepsie Journal reported that a panel of state Appellate Court ruled in favour of Dentsu, meaning Woodstock 50 won't be able to retrieve that money.
June 24: Hello, Vernon Downs?
With Watkins Glen out of the picture, the Poughkeepsie Journal reported that Woodstock 50 might move to a smaller location: Vernon Downs in Oneida County, just outside of Utica, N.Y. The capacity for the space would be 45,000 to 50,000 people, much smaller than Lang's original 150,000 claim to Dentsu.
Vernon Downs owner Jeffrey Gural confirmed to the Associated Press that the venue is in the process of closing in on a deal to host the festival, which is still scheduled to take place from Aug. 16-18.
June 25: 'We'll see'
In a new interview with Rolling Stone, Lang confirmed that Vernon Downs is one of "three or four" possible venues that can host Woodstock 50, but didn't add any further updates. Even though all of these updates have many concerned for the outcome of the upcoming festival, Lang pointed out that "We kind of snuck up on everyone the first time," referring to how quickly the original Woodstock came together. "We'll see," he added.
July 9: Second venue permit denied
A permit application was denied by a Vernon code enforcement officer after claiming it was incomplete and filed too late. But Lang and original investor Greg Peck are looking to appeal this decision. In a new statement, Woodstock 50 organizers say that they believe "certain political forces may be working against the resurrection of the festival." They also argue that their permit application wasn't incomplete. The festival, if it finds a new venue in time, is still slated to take place in August.
July 18: Woodstock is 'dead'
In an interview with ABC News, musician David Crosby claimed that Woodstock 50 was "not happening." Crosby, who performed at the original 1969 festival and was slated to perform at this year's event, blames someone in the Woodstock 50 camp for the persistent problems. "There is a person in that situation who is a scammer, and has always been a scammer, and he scammed this." He wouldn't confirm if that comment was about Michael Lang or not.
July 22: Vernon denies Woodstock permit a fourth time
Woodstock organizers continued to push their application for a venue permit at the Vernon Downs racetrack and casino but have now been denied four times. Stereogum reported that the Town of Vernon rejected Woodstock's application because it was "filed too late and was rife with problems." Woodstock representatives said they have no comment but with three weeks to go, no venue, no artists confirmed and no tickets on sale, it's unclear whether the festival will happen.
July 25: Maryland
After failed attempts to get permits in Watkins Glen and Vernon Downs, Woodstock 50 finally found a location to hold the festival. The event, which is still scheduled for Aug. 16-18, will be held at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Md. While a lineup hasn't been confirmed yet, and tickets have yet to go on sale, Billboard has reported that Jay Z has pulled out of the three-day festival.
July 29: Free tickets
Even though Seth Hurwitz, the chairman of the company that operates the Merriweather Post Pavilion venue, has yet to see a lineup of artists performing at Woodstock 50, festival organizers revealed that tickets for the event will be free. A representative confirmed this news to Rolling Stone, adding that the complimentary tickets will be for one-day admissions. The planned festival is still slated to be three days long.
July 31: Woodstock 50 is officially dead
As performers Miley Cyrus, the Raconteurs, the Lumineers and more confirmed that they were dropping out of Woodstock 50, organizers Michael Lang and Greg Peck have confirmed that the festival is no longer happening.
"We are saddened that a series of unforeseen setbacks has made it impossible to put on the festival we imagined with the great lineup we had booked and the social engagement we were anticipating," Lang said in a statement. He continued to explain that a number of acts pulled out because of "conflicting radius issues in the D.C. area" and went on to encourage all the artists they booked to donate 10 per cent of their fees, which Lang claims they were paid, to "HeadCount or causes of their choice in the spirit of peace."