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With a new venue pending, Woodstock 50 could be about to lose its line-up, but Michael Lang remains optimistic that it’ll all come together

By | Published on Thursday 27 June 2019

Woodstock 50

The Woodstock 50 saga continues. Seven weeks away from its scheduled start date, the festival may now be on the verge of securing a new venue. However, the next hurdle organisers might face is artists pulling out en masse. Still, event boss Michael Lang says he’s “not gearing up” for any kind of cancellation.

Throughout all the recent chapters in the Woodstock 50 story – when financial backers, production partners and venues all bailed on the venture – the one group of people still on board seemed to be the artists who were booked before all the dramas began.

In part it seems like artists and their agents have been willing to hang on to see if the Woodstock team can overcome all the issues, keen to participate in the 50th anniversary celebrations if they do indeed go ahead. Though there is also the issue of whether or not an act would have to return their advance if they bailed on their booking at this stage.

Although it has pulled out, former financial backer Dentsu has apparently agreed to honour agreements with artists, many of which were signed directly with the company rather than the event. With the festival not yet cancelled, despite Dentsu’s best efforts to completely pull the plug, it’s not absolutely clear who would be in breach of contract at this stage if artists decided to withdraw. However, the change of venue, expected to be confirmed soon, could be the thing that gives artists and their agents an excuse to bail without returning any cash.

That said, it’s not uncommon for artists to stay with a festival even if a last minute venue change gives them an uncontroversial way out (legally speaking) from their contracts. One source explains to Billboard that artists often feel compelled to stick with festivals even when they could pull out contractually, because “they don’t want to disappoint their fans”. But, of course, “in the case of Woodstock 50, no one has bought tickets yet, so there’s not really anyone to disappoint”.

Woodstock 50 lost its venue – the Watkins Glen International motor racing track in New York State – earlier this month. It later turned out that this was due to the festival missing the final payment required to keep the booking secured.

Earlier this week festival organisers put in an application for a licence to put on the show at a new (possibly significantly smaller and without camping facilities) venue two hours away. That alternative site is Vernon Downs, a casino and horse racing complex that is also in the state of New York. Although, despite the licence application, the Woodstock 50 team are still saying that Vernon Downs is one of a number of venues they are speaking to, apparently not keen to allow something like a little certainty to creep into their plans.

Given all the dramas of recent months – and a start date that is now getting very close indeed – why is the Woodstock team still ploughing on with everything?

That’s a question plenty of people have been asking in recent weeks. The answer, it seems, is Michael Lang and his eternal optimism. “I am not gearing up for [cancelling]”, he tells Rolling Stone. “That’s not how I approach things anyway. I’m kind of an optimist … it definitely helps in this case”.

No fucking shit. Of course, it was Lang’s eternal optimism that helped the original Woodstock festival in 1969 go ahead, despite massive amounts of, and in many cases very similar, chaos. Although the irony that he’s now having to contend with various rules and regulations specifically put in place in the wake of the original Woodstock is not lost on him.

“It’s the way of the world”, he says. “We kind of snuck up on everyone the first time. Some of [the subsequently imposed rules] are sensible and some of them are things they put in there so that they didn’t want you to be able to do it again. There are some lessons learned and by the industry as well. But a lot of the conditions they look for are a bit overdone. You never want to skimp on safety, but they were drawn up by people who didn’t know anything about this business. They were just reacting to what happened”.

But complying with all the modern rules is far from Woodstock 50’s biggest challenge. Earlier this week the event lost, once and for all, $18.5 million of funding previously described as “necessary for the production of the festival” by its lawyer. That money had been put into a bank account by Dentsu when it was still working on the project. The company sought to take it back after pulling out of the festival.

With that money lost and the new venue still to be fully confirmed, the one and only thing currently in the event’s favour is that it still has a line-up. If, as some are now predicting, that starts to fall apart early next week, the slim chances of saving the event at large will become microscopic.

Of course, having come this far, Woodstock 50 could as yet end up being Michael Lang singing in a field to no one, just so he can say it happened. I really hope someone is filming all this for a documentary at the very least. Setting up a doomed festival that makes good telly being somewhat in vogue these days, of course.