So, Woodstock isn’t happening this year! I’d like to say this is something like a surprise, but of course it isn’t, because of course it was pretty much never going to happen. Oh, sure, Michael Lang had a bunch of lofty stuff to say about toilets or whatever 1, and about politics being the goal so that it wasn’t just a music festival, but also he announced the thing in January of the year that it was happening, which seems patently insane.
And, it turns out, it was! It was off to a wobbly start basically as soon as it was off to anything, with the folks announcing it being coy about where it was to happen until they decided where they were going to make it happen, and then being extremely coy about the lineup 2 until it was finally too late to not announce it (presumably, I have no idea why they waited so long), and then it was, more or less, exactly what you’d think a Woodstock lineup would be in 2019. This seems, for whatever reason, to be precisely wrong: you’d think any part of it would have been surprising, but it was not.
Of course, it didn’t turn out to matter. Whatever the list turned out to have been, it lost someone almost immediately, in the form of The Black Keys, who bowed out quickly, citing an unexplained scheduling problem.Now, perhaps this wasn’t a warning klaxon. Perhaps a giant rock band that’s been in existence for a couple of decades just….misread their calendar in regards to a Woodstock event and made a commitment they couldn’t keep. Perhaps that’s what happened. But it seems more likely to me that the “scheduling” problems had more to do with the schedule on the organizers’ end than on any of the bands. This is purely speculative, and I’ve been wrong before, but it sure seems like it all points one way, especially since the Black Keys folks were sure in their press release to point out that they wanted to let the public know before tickets went on sale.
The tickets, then, were there real telltale sign. The socially-aware, non-music-focused Woodstock incarnation was meant to start selling tickets early for students, which then failed to happen at all. Of course, all tickets failed to happen at all, eventually, and it is at this point that our story, heretofore simmering on the road to failure, runs to a rapid boil.
A major promoter/financial baker, Dentsu Aegis, left the proceedings at this point, leaving the future in jeopardy to pretty much everyone that knew about it except for the stalwartly blinkered Michael Lang, who insisted that the festival “must” happen, and then accused Dentsu Aegis of stealing money from the festival 3, as well as uh…bribing artists to cancel or not play, which positions the actions of a Japanese ad firm as being specifically targeted to bilk Michael Lang.
Whatever else was going on, this also followed an attempt by the Woodstock folks to reach out to Live Nation and AEG, two giant event promoters, to get their money involved, so it can’t have been as sudden and unforeseen a rug-pull as all that. This is another sort of tell-tale moment, when companies who are in the business of making money putting on giant shows full of famous people say, in effect, that they don’t think that this recognizable brand that represents a show full of the most famous people could possibly recoup this money. Seems like another red flag, but not to our intrepid forger-aheaders.
It is at this point that the forging-ahead is made more difficult by the loss of the venue, and also another of the event’s producers (CID) in the same day. That’s quite an obstacle. The producer pulling out was never addressed 4 by the Woodstock, nor, for that matter, was the earlier fleeing of the garbage fire on the part of the original producers (Superfly), whom CID replaced 5. But the venue was addressed, with Lang again reiterating that this must happen.
Unfortunately, the state of New York simply did not agree in this read on the destiny of Woodstock 50, rejecting permits and forcing them to regroup around yet another idea, this time with something like a month and a half.
The venue had been a matter of some question from the beginning (as alluded to above), most notably when, in the process of not actually announcing a venue, Lang declared the Bethel Woods site to be inappropriate for the event since it was “a 15,000 seat shed”, and this would not do for an event that was put together in all of eight months. He alluded, in the announcement that the venue was gone, to having another venue lined up, which turned out to be a nearby race track that also did not want this mess on their hands. At this point, someone at Woodstock re-iterated that they believed that they were being conspired against, stating their “[belief] certain political forces may be working against the resurrection of the Festival”. The evidence on offer in the press release is that the state of New York said some permits were incomplete, but the Woodstock folks said they weren’t incomplete. Obviously.
Luckily. New York is like, right there by Maryland (?!), so the Merriwether Post Pavillion was willing to uh…jump into the fray and offer their venue for usage of the concert. Since MPP is a 19,000 seat shed, it was deemed adequate by the remaining event organizers 6, whoever they may still have been. It was not, however, deemed adequate by Jay-Z, who took this opportunity to leave the festival, as did John Fogerty and the John Mayer and the Walking Once-Grateful Dead.
Without a fully finalized lineup, with people leaving, and with a venue that is more associated with being the title of an Animal Collective album than peace & love, the promoters threw the last minute hail-mary pass 7 of making it a free event. Operator Seth Hurwitz told Pitchfork at this point that “they do still have a venue if they have a show,” which really makes it seem like the Woodstock folks are the only people in the world who actually believed it was still going to happen.
And then the rolling boil of failure that got them this far boiled all the way over, leaving a sticky starchy film all over the stovetop, and more artists left, and, finally, the whole thing finally ground to a halt, a couple of weeks before it was actually meant to happen.
So what do you say about a commemorative music festival that didn’t happen? Well, you say that the world has moved on. When I wrote about festivals before, one of the things that I thought would be interesting about it was that it would be a look at how a Woodstock would look in a world where there were a lot more music festivals than there were in 1969, or even in 1999.
It turns out that that was what was interesting about it. I don’t know much about how Woodstocks were put together. I’m a classic-rock sort of dude, and I like plenty of Woodstock-type stuff. I’ve seen the movie and read a book or two, I know the stuff that everybody knows, but I don’t know how any of this maps onto what happened previously.
Here’s what I do know: people know better how to keep people safe and sane at these things, and there are now entire industries devoted to doing so, and for a dude who started the whole idea out to wade on in and seemingly insist that he was entitled to whatever it was that he wanted because he did it before any of the other people involved, well, that seems like, if nothing else, an interesting look at how that sort of thing plays nowadays.
The hubris of insisting that the music festival that you planned must happen again, even after it turns out to be a disaster pretty much every time it goes out 8, to the point where things that really, to the untrained eye, seem like a total failure of a set of people getting their shit together getting blamed on “political forces” and theft, is pretty indicative of several of the very important ways in which the world has moved on.
There could have been a Woodstock. It probably should have gotten its permits and shit in order a long time ago, well before this one was even announced. It probably should have had a business plan that allowed it to exist. It probably should have involved several fewer last-minute last-ditch last-chance efforts and dragging back into the realm of the living. But it didn’t. Instead what it had was a dude who decided that he had everything going for him no matter what he did, wading into a field that, whatever his influence upon, was doing pretty well without him, and then failed, miserably and publicly, to pull anything at all together.
Seems a shame, really.
- for some of my previous thoughts on this matter, which has given me much mirth over the course of the last six months or so, see previously. ↩
- For more on the announced lineup, see the happier times of, like, this past spring. ↩
- courts eventually ruled that the money was, in fact, due to Dentsu, but that Dentsu didn’t have the right to announce the cancellation of the festival, so it wasn’t, legally, cancelled. Just de facto cancelled, I guess. ↩
- presumably he was not involved in the conspiracy against Michael Lang’s money ↩
- I have no idea how many production companies were involved, nor how many it would normally take, so I don’t know how much of this is germane, which is why it’s all sort of crammed together down here. It seems real bad, but that might be a lot easier to say since I know that the event is already cancelled. ↩
- I’m using the term “organizers” pretty loosely here ↩
- hey look at that! A football reference! ↩
- And, honestly, for all of its portrayal as the locus of a certain kind of countercultural expression/limnation of a cultural moment, from a human and logistics standpoint, every Woodstock was pretty much a nightmare for a goodly number of people involved. ↩