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There will be no Woodstock 50

By | Published on Thursday 1 August 2019

Woodstock 50

Woodstock 50 has been cancelled. For real this time. There will be no three day celebration of the 50th anniversary of the original event later this month. Yes, organisers have finally thrown in the towel. And just because, with fifteen days to go, there was no line-up or tickets sold!

Organisation of the event has, of course, been chaotic. Since it was announced earlier this year, the festival has lost financial backers, more than one production company, more than one venue and most of the artists originally booked to play.

Initially conceived as a 150,000 capacity festival aiming to attract the younger generation with great bands and to then enthuse them about political activism, the project hit problems once those plans were put into practice. Its financial backer – marketing company Dentsu – pulled out due to various concerns, not least that the event was granted a licence for around half the audience size originally intended.

Dentsu actually announced that the event was cancelled as it pulled out of the venture – employing a right it believed it had in its contract with the Woodstock company. But the festival team then went to court to argue that this was not the case and won.

However, the Woodstock team did not win their other claim that Dentsu should allow them to keep funding it had already put into the event’s bank account. That led to the Woodstock company missing a payment to keep its original venue secured, so it lost that too.

Not to worry though! Sure, there wasn’t much time left to pull it all together, but organisers remained optimistic. Not least Michael Lang, who was one of the team behind the original event, and who had managed to get that to happen largely relying on relentless optimism and by repeatedly insisting that it would go ahead. Which is pretty much how he got the original event to happen, so you can see why he thought it might work.

A new venue was located at Vernon Downs horseracing course, not too far from the first-choice site (in the same state, at least). Sure, it would reduce the capacity again and there were no camping facilities, but that surely wouldn’t be an issue.

It was an issue. The town of Vernon refused to license an event thrown together in about a month that would dump 65,000 people on the streets every night with no clear idea about where they would stay until the festival site re-opened the next morning. Team Woodstock said that it would be fine and appealed Vernon council’s decision a number of times, but to no avail.

Finally, they gave in and booked Merriweather Post Pavilion, an existing concert venue with a 32,000 capacity that was nearly 300 miles from the original site. All of which would have been more of an issue if tickets had ever gone on sale, but they hadn’t, so maybe a new audience could be found for the new location. And maybe free tickets would swing it.

Of course, by this point everyone but Team Woodstock had long since given up on the event. Although most of the artists who had been booked had been silent on all the chaos. Would they still play the new relocated bash? Team Woodstock asked. Most said “no”.

“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”, said Lang, announcing the cancellation yesterday.

“When we lost the Glen and then Vernon Downs we looked for a way to do some good rather than just cancel”, he went on. “We formed a collaboration with HeadCount [a charity which promotes voter registration] to do a smaller event at the Merriweather Pavilion to raise funds for them to get out the vote and for certain NGOs involved in fighting climate change. We released all the talent so any involvement on their part would be voluntary. Due to conflicting radius issues in [the region around the Merriweather Pavilion] many acts were unable to participate and others passed for their own reasons”.

With contract terms meaning that artists will still need to be paid, Lang pleaded with them and their agents to “donate 10% of their fees to HeadCount or causes of their choice in the spirit of peace”.

Co-organiser Greg Peck added: “The unfortunate dispute with our financial partner and the resulting legal proceedings set us off course at a critical juncture, throwing a wrench in our plans and forcing us to find an alternate venue to Watkins Glen. The timing meant we had few choices where our artists would be able to perform. We worked hard to find a way to produce a proper tribute – and some great artists came aboard over the last week to support Woodstock 50 – but time simply ran short”.

“Woodstock’s values of peace and tolerance are more important today than ever for all of us to stand for and we look to the future for ways to honour and celebrate these ideals”, he concluded.

Many wondered why, when things started to go wrong, organisers didn’t just postpone the whole thing. The Woodstock team were particularly keen to hold the event from 16-18 Aug though, which would have been exactly 50 years since the original in 1969.

That original event was similarly chaotic too, of course, so much of this seemed in-keeping with the spirit of that festival. The 1969 event also lost various venues during the planning process and ended up being a free event – although in that case because it was overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of people turning up without tickets.

The original festival resulted in a massive financial loss – not least due to more than 80 lawsuits filed against organisers after the event. However, backers eventually made their money back when a hugely successful documentary about the festival was released the following year.

It may be that this is the final similarity between the two events – although any documentary about Woodstock 50 will be less a celebration of its cultural significance. It’s pretty certain to be very entertaining though.