Peace, love and strife.
On January 9, 2019, it was officially announced that Woodstock 50 would be happening, a 50th anniversary three-day concert event that would commemorate the original Woodstock, held in Upstate New York from Aug. 15-18, 1969.
And one of the people responsible for the 50th was a man that had been there since the beginning: Michael Lang, the co-creator of Woodstock who was ready to compete with the likes of Coachella, Stagecoach and Lollapalooza, the huge music festivals the original Woodstock paved the way for.
“We are looking for unique performances,” Lang, 74, told Rolling Stone. “A lot of festivals these days are kind of cookie-cutter. Very few of them have any sort of social impact [and] that’s a wasted opportunity.”
Less than one week after Woodstock 50 was announced, two competing documentaries about another infamous music festival dropped on Netflix and Hulu, looking back on Billy McFarland and Ja Rule‘s 2017 music-festival-turned-national-headline–making-PR-disaster that was the Fyre Festival.
Hulu’s Fyre Fraud and Netflix’s Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened immediately become viral sensations, as both docu-films gave a behind-the-scenes look on you-can’t-make-this-s–t-up details about the rise and fall of the festival, which was held in the Bahamas and promised to change music festivals forever.
One unappetizing viral tweet involving cold slices of cheese on some bread and several million dollar lawsuits ever, Fyre Festival proved to be one of the biggest disasters in recent music festival history.
Some of the Fyre Festival event planners blamed social media for causing the implosion of the festival to be as volcanic as it ended up being, and guess which previous pre-Instagram era music festival they compared it to?
ohn Dominis/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
“All I kept thinking about was Woodstock,” event producer/new meme king Andy King said during Netflix’s FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Was. “Think about that music festival. Does anyone talk about the hundreds and hundreds of cars that were stuck on the freeway for days? Does anybody talk about the mudslides? How many people died of drug overdoses? Does anybody talk about the lack of food, almost no water? Absolutely not. I thought, you know what, if Woodstock can get through that…”
But 50 years and many social media platforms later, and it’s uncertain the iconic music festival can get through it again, despite putting on three controversy-filled events between 1969-1999, as it’s still uncertain if Woodstock 50 will actually be held from Aug. 16-18 at a yet to be determined location in Upstate N. Y., as their intended location just pulled out, the latest controversy for the festival.
In March 2019, Woodstock revealed the line-up for the festival, and it was stacked.
Performers included Jay-Z, Miley Cyrus, The Killers, Imagine Dragons, Halsey, Chance the Rapper, Santana, Cage the Elephant, The Black Keys, Janelle Monae and dozens of other artists.
Tickets were set to go on sale, fittingly, on Earth Day, and the organizers were partnering with organizations to bring attention to important causes in line with the three-day festival’s stated theme “equality, inclusion and shared sustainable future.”
Some of the perks for attendees included “highly curated neighborhoods,” workshops and even a “Kidstock” area for the parents who wanted to bring their children.
For Lang, he wanted Woodstock 50 to mean something and not just become a stomping ground for Instagram spon-con and photo opps.
“Coachella’s got its thing, as does Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza,” he told The New York Times. “But I think they’re all missing an opportunity to make a difference in the world. They’re all perfect places for social engagement and for fostering ideas, and I think that’s lost.”
And much thought and consideration was being given to the guests’ accommodations, according to Lang in an interview with Rolling Stone, clearly looking to avoid a Lord of the Flies-esque fiasco as depicted in the Fyre Festival docs.
“There will be ‘glamping’ tents and stuff like that,” he explained. “There will be those types of experiences in various forms where there’s a real bed, and there’s a chair to sit in and a light bulb. There will also be easier access to portable toilets.”
Festival lovers were more than ready for love-fest to begin, with Miley excitedly posting about her performance on Instagram.
The first sign of trouble actually came on April 5, though as one of its headliners, The Black Keys, announced they were pulling out of the festival due to “scheduling conflicts” ahead of tickets going on sale in the coming weeks.
But then Earth day came and went, with tickets still not on sale and no official reason being offered at the time.
“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,” an e-mail sent to agents from the organizers stated, per Rolling Stone. “We will get this information to you as soon as we receive it.”
While no explanation was offered on the festival’s official site, Pitchfork reported that that the organizers hadn’t yet secured the permit required from the New York State Department of Health to actually put on event.
“The health department is reviewing to determine if a conditional permit may be issued that would allow for ticket sales to commence,” Tim O’Hearn, administrator of Schuyler County, told Pitchfork at the time. “At this point there is no on-sale date set.”
Still, one of the festival’s co-organizers was confident they would be able to secure the mass gathering permit.
“Woodstock is a phenomenon that for 50 years has drawn attention to its principles and also the rumors that can be attached to that attention,” Lang told Billboard.
But then, one week later, one of the festival’s primary financial partners dropped a bombshell: Woodstock 50 was canceled.
“It’s a dream for agencies to work with iconic brands and to be associated with meaningful movements. We have a strong history of producing experiences that bring people together around common interests and causes which is why we chose to be a part of the Woodstock 50th Anniversary Festival. But 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,” Dentsu Aegis Network’s Amplifi Live said in a statement to USA Today. “As a result and after careful consideration, Dentsu Aegis Network’s Amplifi Live, a partner of Woodstock 50, has decided to cancel the festival. As difficult as it is, we believe this is the most prudent decision for all parties involved.”
It seemed, at least for a moment, that a potential Fyre Festival-level catastrophe had been averted, as more details emerged.
The festival reportedly reached out to both Live Nation and AEG about a potential $20 million investment to put on the festival; both declined the opportunity to save Woodstock. According to Billboard, $30 million had already been spent on the festival, with most of the artists already being paid.
“No one knows what the hell is going on but there is clearly a problem,” one agent with an act set to play at the event told Billboard.
Woodstock 50; Fyre Festival
John Fogerty, who was present for the announcement of Woodstock 50, spoke to Rolling Stone about the issues going on behind-the-scenes,
You got the sense there was some shakiness to this whole thing, Creedence Clearwater Revival guitarist, who performed at the original 1969 festival, said. “But the first Woodstock happened more by people wishing for it to happen than any effort of great organization.”
When it came to his payment for his performance at the pending festival, Fogerty said “as far as” he knew he had already been paid, but would donate his fee to military veterans if Woodstock 50 fell through.
While Amplifi Live had said via its spokesperson that the festival would not be happening, Woodstock 50’s remaining partnership issued their own statement denying its cancellation.
“We are committed to ensuring that the 50th Anniversary of Woodstock is marked with a festival deserving of its iconic name and place in American history and culture,” Lang said in a statement. “Although our financial partner is withdrawing, we will of course be continuing with the planning of the festival and intend to bring on new partners. We would like to acknowledge the State of New York and Schuyler County for all of their hard work and support. The bottom line is, there is going to be a Woodstock 50th Anniversary Festival, as there must be, and it’s going to be a blast.”
(In May, Woodstock filed an appeal seeking $18 million from its former partner Dentsu to be returned to the organizers after a judge ruled that while Woodstock 50 could take place, Dentsu was not ordered to return the money Lang had alleged the company had taken for its services.)
On May 3, the official site and Instagram account posted an update or sorts, thanking their supporters that read:
“Thank you Woodstock Nation!
To the more than 100,00 of you who have responded to our situation with support and solidarity…a heartfelt ‘thank you.’
Our intention holds firm. To deliver a world-class, once-in-a-lifetime festival to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Woodstock. To honor a cultural icon that changed the way we think about music and togetherness…and will do so again. We’re in this together.”
The site then posted dozens of supportive messages the organizers had received from hopeful attendees.
“Tickets go on sale on Earth Day, April 22nd,” is still listed as the ticket sales date, but when you go to purchase tickets, you are informed tickets will go on sale soon and can sign up for updates via e-mail.
On June 10, Woodstock hopefuls did receive an update, just not from the official festival.
“Watkins Glen International terminated the site license for Woodstock pursuant to provisions of the contract,” the venue that was set to host the festival told Pitchfork in a statement. “As such, WGI will not be hosting the Woodstock 50 Festival.”
Woodstock 50 officially had no home.
But the bad news kept on coming. Soon after Watkins Glen backed out, the festival’s producer CID Entertainment also decided to pull their support.
“CID Entertainment had been engaged to provide enhanced camping, travel packages and transportation for Woodstock 50,” the company’s head Dan Berkowitz said in a statement to Billboard. “Given developments, we can confirm that CID is no longer involved in Woodstock 50 in any capacity.”
Despite losing their venue, producer and finding themselves in the thick of legal battle with their former financial partner, Woodstock 50’s organizers insisted their festival was still happening.
“We are in discussions with another venue to host Woodstock 50 on August 16-18 and look forward to sharing the new location when tickets go on sale in the coming weeks,” Woodstock 50 LLC principal Gregory Peck said in a statement.
Basically, it’s devolved into a messy and rushed planning situation. Which is exactly how the planning of the original festival in 1969 went, as well, which was ultimately attended by 400,000 people after 186,000 advanced tickets were sold. (So it did become a free concert for more than half of the attendees.)
Similar to its 50th anniversary, securing a location proved to be a massive challenge for the the small team of organizers, which included Lang, a promoter, Artie Kornfield, and financial backers Joel Rosenman and John P. Roberts.
Their first official location was Howard Mills industrial park in Wallkill, New York, which cost about $10,000 for the entire festival’s run (which would be $100,000 in 2009).
However, when the locals heard about the amount of festival-goers expected to descend, the town quickly withdrew the permits…with one month until the event was set to begin.
Enter: Bethel dairy farmer Max Yasgur, who agreed to let them use his farmland…but for a price that the organizers were too desperate to haggle over.
“It was one of those negotiations, you’re hanging over a cliff, and someone has hold of you by your belt,” Rosenman detailed to The Telegraph in 2009. “We started at $50,000 and ended there. By today’s standards, that’s half a million dollars for a three-day use of the farm, which could probably have been bought for less than that. Then we had to put another $75,000 in escrow to restore the property.”
So Woodstock had its location, which would end up becoming Bethel Woods Center for the Arts in 2006.
Ironically enough, Lang had compared the experience of finding a venue for Woodstock 50 to finding the farmland that played host to the original festival.
“I was desperate to keep it in New York,” he told Rolling Stone in January. “I looked everywhere because I needed 1,000 acres of clear land with access and infrastructure. Frankly, we weren’t finding it. We had talked about Watkins Glen over the years and I decided on a whim to look at it since having it at a racetrack didn’t appeal to me. But when I looked, I knew it was the perfect facility for what we had in mind. It was reminiscent to me of finding Max [Yasgur]’s field.”
But with a pretty much wide open field as your location, it’s pretty hard to build fences, ticket booths, housing, etc. required for concert-goers, let alone the hundreds of thousands of people who ended up taking part in the ultimately free concert.
“You do everything you can to get the gates and the fences finished, but you have your priorities,” Lang said. “People are coming, and you need to be able to feed them, and take care of them, and give them a show. So you have to prioritise.”
Just how massive was Woodstock? Traffic jams eight miles long clogged up all of the major roadways, with police at the time estimating one million people were attempting to get to Woodstock, according to The BBC. (A front-page headline on the Daily News read “Traffic Uptight at Hippiefest.”)
While there were no major acts of violence and the water supply was wildly limited (though six wells were dug), there were two deaths during the three-day festival: One teenage died from a drug overdose, believed to be of heroin, while another was killed by a tractor while he was asleep in his sleeping bag. The New York Times reported that 400 people received medical treatment for bad reaction to drugs by festival’s end, and 80 people were arrested on drug charges. Not too bad when you consider the amount of people who attended the festival.
“These people are really beautiful,” Woodstock’s chief medical officer, Dr William Abruzzi told The New York Times of the marijuana-loving concert goers. “There has been no violence whatsoever which is really remarkable for a crowd of this size.”
Two babies were born during the festival. People patiently waited for the rain to clear after it halted Joe Crocker‘s set. One attendee, who went by the name “Speed,” told the Times, “The whole thing is a gas. I dig it all…the mud, the rain, the music, the hassles.”
Still, given the severe rainfall and amount of people who took over the muddy 600-acre land to watch acts like Janis Joplin, Grateful Dead, The Who, Jimi Hendrix and more perform, their makeshift venue was severely damaged.
After the festival, Yasgur reportedly received a $50,000 settlement for the extensive damage done to his property, but he was also sued by his neighbors for property damage they incurred because of Woodstock’s attendees. In fact, they had turned on him so much for hosting the festival that he was no longer allowed in the town’s general store.
But the dairy farmer credited with saving rock n’ roll, who provided free food to concert-goers and even took the stage at one point to speak to them, never regretted his decision before his death in 1973.
“He believed that the kids had the right to peaceably assemble, speak freely through their music and petition their government for change,” his son Sam Yasgur told The River Reporter.
Joe Traver/Getty Images
For the partners behind the festival, it was an even bigger financial disaster, with the 2009 VH1 documentary about Woodstock claiming 80 lawsuits were filed against Woodstock Ventures, primarily by farmers in the area.
And it wasn’t just the locals who were angry.
“I had a laundry list of problems after the event,” Rosenman told The Telegraph. “We had partners we had to deal with. We had very angry bankers. We had creditors we had to deal with. We had some lawsuits from people claiming injustices ranging from damage to property to strange things tampering with their cows.”
In total, they ended up in massive debt, with the festival ultimately costing them $2.4 million; however, they refused to file for bankruptcy and it took them 11 years to fully pay off their debts because of Woodstock.
“I would say that the stress factor was fun to complain about, but it was a rewarding project to work on,” Rosenman reflected on the experience. “It took on an almost religious significance after the fact.”
It’s easy to look back on the 1969 event through rose-colored glasses and without the preservation of the less than ideal conditions via social media, something bemoaned by more than one of the Fyre Festival organizers in the Netflix and Hulu docu-films.
20 years ago, Lang was part of the team that organized Woodstock ’99, which descended into riots and endless sanitation issues, with reports of sexual assault, a death from an alleged drug overdose and lawsuits following the catastrophic event, held on a former Air Force Base in Rome, New York.
Some of the performers included Counting Crows, Alanis Morissette, Dave Matthews Band, Wyclef Jean, Limp Bizkit and Creed, with Austin Powers star Verne Troyer serving as the event’s emcee.
According to The New York Times report about the chaos at the time, it all began when a Mercedes was lit on fire (with the blaze started using the “peace candles” given out to concert-goers) at the end of the Red Hot Chili Peppers‘ set on the final day of the festival, which was ultimately attended by 220,000 people (plus 10,000 festival workers).
By the end of the day, 12 bonfires had to be put out, seven people had been arrested (on charges that included rioting, petty larceny and disorderly conduct, though the number would rise to 44 total arrests) and seven were injured, including two police officers out of the 500 ultimately brought in.
The initial fire “gave way to a violent and frightening rampage by thousands of young people who looted and burned truck trailers filled with T-shirts and other souvenirs, toppled giant towers that held the concerts’ sound system and hammered their way into A.T.M. machines.”
Many theorized the sky-high prices for food and beverages–they charged $4 for a bottle of water and $6 for a hot dog–lead to some of the violence.
Prior to the riot, The Baltimore Sun reported that halfway through the weekend “more than 700 had been treated for heat exhaustion and dehydration” due to the lack of water.
”A $4 bottle of water doesn’t cause a kid to start a fire or turn over a car,” co-promoter, John Scher, who is not involved in Woodstock 50, said at the time. ”I don’t think there’s any excuse for that behavior. It shouldn’t be tolerated by their peers. It shouldn’t be tolerated by society.”
For Lang, hindsight was 20/20.
“The water situation was ridiculous. As soon as I saw that, I tried to get everyone to lower the prices and I couldn’t,” Lang recalled. “I did order tractor trailers of water and put them out for free. I do think a lot of people had a good time, but the fires at the end became the imagery of it. It was just about 200 kids who went on a rampage. They exploded some of the cooling systems in the tractor trailers and just wreaked havoc.”
The worst reports were of the many sexual assaults and rapes that allegedly occurred during artists’ sets, including the disturbing eyewitness report of a gang-rape occurring during Limp Bizkit’s set after a body-surfing woman pulled down into the crowd.
“There clearly wasn’t anything I could do,” the Post reported volunteer counselor David Schneider as saying at the time. “They’re big brawny people and it seemed like most of the crowd around them were cheering them on…It was so disturbing. You’re thinking, if this girl was being raped, wouldn’t all these people try to stop what was going on?”
“Due to the congestion of the crowd,” a state police investigation report stated of the assault, “she felt that if she yelled for help or fought, she feared she was going to be beaten.”
As reported by Salon, police later confirmed four rapes has officially been reported during the festival, though most stories suggested there were many more.
It was dangerous to be around. The whole scene was scary. There were just waves of hatred bouncing around the place,” MTV’s Kurt Loder, who was helping the network provide live coverage of the event, recalled to USA Today. “It was clear we had to get out of there…It was like a concentration camp. To get in, you get frisked to make sure you’re not bringing in any water or food that would prevent you from buying from their outrageously priced booths. You wallow around in garbage and human waste. There was a palpable mood of anger.”
On the heels of Woodstock ’99’s controversial outing, another music festival happened to put on its first-ever weekend without a hitch in October 1999: Coachella.
Despite the tarnished legacy the 1999 festival left on its name—San Francisco Examiner journalist Jane Ganahl called the event as “the day the music died”—Lang was confident Woodstock 50 would be a success.
“Woodstock ’99 was just a musical experience with no social significance,” he told Rolling Stone, describing the ’99 event as more of an “MTV event” than Woodstock. “It was just a big party. With this one, we’re going back to our roots and our original intent. And this time around, we’ll have control of everything.”
While not as catastrophic, Woodstock ’94 had its own share of controversy.
Held in Saugerties, N.Y., two people died, in part due to pre-existing conditions, during the 25th anniversary festival, which was attended by a reported 400,000 people, though only 164,000 tickets were sold.
Promoted as “2 More Days of Peace and Music,” the 1994 event’s legacy would end up being Mudstock, as the rainy weather resulted in massive mud pits, and a large mud fight infamously breaking out during Green Day‘s set, with the band ultimately getting so covered in mud they could barely play their instruments.
During the fight, fans began storming the stage, with bassist Mike Dirnt mistakenly tackled by security guards, losing his two front teeth as a result.
“Who gives a (expletive) about that?” Dirnt told the Los Angeles Times later. “The fact of the matter is that it was a great show. That was an unfortunate incident.”
“By the time we got on stage there, it was something like 750 broken ankles,” lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong told The Los Angeles Times. There were like 100 people per hour going into the medical tent, supposedly for anxiety attacks. It was insane. You had no room to go anywhere, nothing but mud.”
He added, “It was the closest thing to chaos, and complete anarchy, that I have ever seen in my whole life.”
Despite the injury, it was the performance would go on to change the band’s trajectory, with their album eventually taking off and Green Day going on to become one of the most successful rock bands, thanks in large part to the festival becoming one of the most successful pay-per-view events at the time (reportedly bringing in between $10-12 million).
“It was a crazy set, a set that changed our whole lives, really,” drummer Tre Cool said on the Member Guest podcast. After that day, tons of people were showing up at our shows. That was kind of the pivot moment, that was the green-jacket moment for this band.”
Aside from the mud fighting, there was also a water issue at the 1994 event as well.
“We had a different sort of water issue since the town didn’t have a big enough reservoir,” Lang admitted to Rolling Stone, going on to explain they had learned from that experience for Woodstock 50’s planning. “We had to put up two 1 million gallon temporary tanks and filled them over the time. That’s the solution we’re going to use this time to make sure the water is potable.”
Now, it seems, Lang and Woodstock 50 have come full circle, facing the same issues they faced 50 years ago. But this time, the Internet is ready to document it all.
Woodstock 50 has yet to return E! News’ request for comment.
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