In 1969, Woodstock seemed like America’s perfect salve. The inaugural edition of the music festival, staged in the woods of upstate New York, brought together defining acts like Santana, Jimi Hendrix, Ravi Shankar, the Who, and Janis Joplin for “three days of peace and music,” as its iconic poster pledged. During the troubled summer of ’69, that was just what the country’s disillusioned 20-somethings needed — the festival took place not one full week after the Manson murders left an irreversible black mark on American culture.
Fifty years later, Woodstock remains a legendary name in music, especially as outdoor summer festivals dominate the industry landscape and continue to affirm the medium’s communal power. And a 2019 reprisal of Woodstock that’s similarly meant to unite diverse names in music seems like a logical idea to celebrate this landmark. That’s what the event’s original co-founder Michael Lang thought, anyway, when he announced an anniversary festival called Woodstock 50.
But after months of behind-the-scenes turmoil, from legal accusations to financial woes, Woodstock 50 has been canceled. In a press release on July 31, Lang deemed it “impossible” to stage the event after its many missteps.
“We are saddened that a series of unforeseen setbacks has made it impossible to put on the Festival we imagined with the great line-up we had booked and the social engagement we were anticipating,” he wrote.
A note on the Woodstock website adds that the organizers “thank all the artists, fans and partners who have stood by us in the face of great adversity.”
The festival’s cancellation isn’t a shock to those who have been following Woodstock 50’s myriad problems since the event was announced in January; this is not even the first time the festival has been canceled in the lead-up to its proposed August dates.
Woodstock 50 was meant to recreate and commemorate the 1969 event, with Lang drawing parallels between the politically frustrated young people of today and those who attended the first Woodstock in his announcement. The event was to be held in Watkins Glen, New York, near the original festival’s location, from August 16 to 18. Things were on the up-and-up in March, when Woodstock 50’s impressive lineup was revealed to include headliners like modern-day favorites like Jay-Z, the Killers, and Miley Cyrus (and this writer’s personal favorite, Soccer Mommy), as well as throwback performers like Santana and the Zombies.
But just one month later, in April, Woodstock 50’s financial partner Dentsu Aegis Network announced it was canceling the event. Citing an explosive budget, an underequipped venue, and safety concerns, Dentsu Aegis said that “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.”
What followed was a catastrophic series of events that saw Lang and the Woodstock organizers take Dentsu Aegis to court, arguing that the company violated its contract and had no right to cancel the event. (Lang used such words as “suffocate,” “kill,” and “treachery” in an infuriated letter to the company, Rolling Stone reported.) The court ruled in Woodstock 50’s favor, and Lang moved forward with the event — but Dentsu Aegis’s concerns about how much money the team had promised its booked artists upfront and the venue’s inability to hold the 100,000 attendees Lang intended to bring eventually proved warranted.
Woodstock 50 continued to very publicly implode as it faced more and more issues in the weeks after its success in court. Billboard reported in May that Lang had been repeatedly warned against trying to stage the festival in Watkins Glen, as it is difficult to acquire a health and safety permit for the location; Lang also failed to drum up the money necessary to secure the area. And by June, Watkins Glen had pulled out; Woodstock 50 was without a venue or health permits. It also lost its producer CID Entertainment, which had already replaced the festival’s original producer, Superfly. An attempt to move the festival to Vernon Downs, New York, also failed, and it took Lang until July 25 to find a new venue: Merriweather Post Pavilion, all the way down in Maryland.
But the biggest issue of all was that Woodstock 50’s glowing lineup was no longer attached. Jay-Z canceled just one day after the new venue was announced, and Miley Cyrus reportedly pulled out soon after; the rest of the acts also had the right of refusal to perform. One artist who canceled his performance, Country Joe McDonald, told the Baltimore Sun that he wasn’t “interested in getting on a ship that’s sinking, and I don’t see any indication that this ship is not sinking” — which sums up how the majority of artists and potential attendees seemed to view the festival by that point.
To recap: Woodstock 50 was still set to take place on August 16, but three weeks ahead of showtime, it had no lineup, had just barely acquired a venue, and hadn’t even started selling tickets. The festival sounded like a glorious disaster in waiting, something akin to 2017’s notoriously messy Fyre Festival.
Or perhaps a better antecedent is Woodstock ’99, the 30-year anniversary event that was the opposite of the original fest. Instead of peace, there was rampant nihilism in the form of riots and fights and sexual assault, set to a soundtrack of nu-metal stars like Limp Bizkit and Korn placed incongruently near Jewel and Sheryl Crow. Writes Rolling Stone’s Brian Hiatt in retrospect:
I went back into the riot, watching a group of kids trying to turn over a tractor trailer; they eventually succeeded, breaking someone’s leg in the process. I saw a creepy, silent line of cops in riot gear; I smelled enough ambient pepper spray to make my eyes tear. There was fire everywhere, distant screaming in all directions; it felt like the end of something.
Even the original Woodstock of 1969 didn’t go off without some serious hitches. It was overwhelmed by torrential downpours, with rains so bad that electricians panicked about the possibility of mass electrocutions, what with all those cables and people around.
This all makes July 31’s cancellation feel like a sad inevitability. Lang’s unflagging dedication to staging the anniversary event remains intact, however, despite the seven months of turmoil and the amount of egg on his face.
The plan is now to make Woodstock 50 a free benefit concert for HeadCount, the nonprofit that works to register concertgoers nationwide to vote, said Lang. That is, should anyone be willing to attend or perform. Perhaps we should still stay tuned in to 2019’s biggest disaster in live event planning.