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Miley Cyrus, Jay-Z and the festival with 99 problems: is the disastrous Woodstock 50 revival doomed?

Miley Cyrus (pictured performing at Glastonbury) is on the bill for the troubled Woodstock 50 festival
Miley Cyrus (pictured performing at Glastonbury) is on the bill for the troubled Woodstock 50 festival Credit: Getty Images

In five weeks’ time, dozens of the world’s most famous musicians from Jay-Z to The Killers and from Miley Cyrus to Robert Plant are due to take the stage at the Woodstock 50 festival in the US. The shindig was announced in January as “three days of peace, love and music” to mark the 50th anniversary of the famous 1969 event. 

But just 36 days before the first note is due to be played, Woodstock 50 has no confirmed venue, no permit, and not a single ticket has been sold. And yet organisers – who include the original Woodstock promoter Michael Lang – remain hopeful that the star-studded mega-concert will go ahead. Greg Peck, president of the Woodstock 50 organisation, said this week he is confident of putting on a “safe, world-class festival”. And despite the mess, artists still appear to be prepared to perform.

As the clock ticks down, observers are watching events through their fingers. Many are drawing comparisons to 2017’s disastrous Fyre Festival, which saw thousands of festival-goers stranded on a Bahamian island after the much-hyped event never happened. The debacle was subject to a Netflix documentary earlier this year. “Woodstock 50 is on Fyre!” is typical of the hundreds of Tweets on the subject. 

So what’s going on with Woodstock 50 and how did the situation become so chaotic? What – realistically – are the chances of the festival going ahead? And what is the likely fallout if Woodstock 50 implodes like so many people expect it to?

The event’s organisation has, by any measure, been a litany of chaos. When the festival was announced back in January, the idea was to recreate the freewheeling spirit of the original 1969 Woodstock, which has come to symbolise the hippy dream (but was actually as beset with problems as its current incarnation). Announcing Woodstock 50, Lang promised an eclectic bill that would go back to the original festival’s utopian roots. The proposed venue was the Watkins Glen International racetrack in New York State, and the date was set for August 16-18, exactly half a century after the original.

The Black Keys (pictured at Glastonbury in 2014) have pulled out of the event Credit: Geoff Pugh

Things started to unravel in April when officials at Schuyler County, where Watkins Glen is located, said that the festival had not yet been granted a mass gathering permit. Ticket sales were delayed as a result. Also in April, rock band The Black Keys withdrew from the bill citing a “scheduling conflict”, setting alarm bells ringing. By far the most significant development that month, however, was when the festival’s financial backer Dentsu – a Japanese finance firm – pulled out. Dentsu said that it didn’t believe the event’s production would be “worthy” of the Woodstock brand name, and it announced that the event was cancelled. A company called Superfly, which was due to produce the event on behalf of organisers, also withdrew. 

At this point, it would perhaps have been sensible for organisers to pull up stumps and wave the white flag. But no. It soon became clear that Woodstock 50 was the musical equivalent of the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: shorn of his limbs and bleeding profusely, the Knight gamely battled on crying, “It’s just a flesh wound”. So the festival organisers, who failed to respond to multiple approaches for comment for this article, pressed on.

In May the organisers sued Dentsu, claiming that the investors had taken $17.8 million from the festival’s bank account. They also argued that they had no right to cancel the event. The New York Supreme Court ruled that while Woodstock could not recoup the money, Dentsu also had no right to unilaterally cancel the festival. Woodstock 50 lived on. Then in early June, Watkins Glen racetrack announced that it had terminated its site license and would not be hosting the show after organisers failed to pay a reported $150,000 deposit on time. 

This brings us almost, but not quite, to the present day. With so little time available, it appears almost certain that the festival will not go ahead. However, there is one aspect of Woodstock 50 that sets it apart from other festival disasters. And it could, at least theoretically, be its saving grace.

Most festival failures happen when organisers sell millions of pounds worth of tickets to punters and put on a sub-standard event with few of the artists or attractions they initially promised. Fyre Festival and Liverpool’s 2017 Hope and Glory Festival are just two cases in point. Woodstock 50 is the opposite. It paid all its artists in full upfront, meaning that they remain contractually obliged to play if a venue can be found in time and permits acquired. Only when these last steps happen will tickets go on sale.

Woodstock 50 has been compared to the unsuccessful Fyre Festival, the subject of a Netflix documentary Credit: Netflix

Howard King, a US entertainment attorney who represented heavy metal band Metallica in its legal victory over Napster in 2000 and has an intimate knowledge of the American music scene, says: “I’m told – and I have it on really reliable information – that the main artists were paid in full. I mean, Jay-Z’s agent is not going to book him into an unknown festival without being paid in advance. I have heard [that Woodstock has paid] $20 million in artists’ fees which are non-refundable."

And it seems that the performers are still committed. An industry insider linked to one of the biggest names on the bill tells me that the date is “still in the diary” and will remain so unless or until the performer hears otherwise.

So Woodstock 50 could go ahead if a venue is secured. After the festival lost the Watkins Glen venue, a new potential site was identified at Vernon Downs, a casino and horseracing complex also in New York State. Organisers were also reported to have found a new financial backer. 

On Tuesday evening this week Jeff Gural, the chairman of American Racing and Entertainment, the company which owns the Vernon Downs site, told me via email that the festival’s future depends on organisers getting the permits they need. When I asked him whether he was hopeful of this happening and whether he believed it was possible to put on the event safely in just over 30 days, he replied “yes” to both questions. 

However, just an hour later, the Variety website broke the story that the required permit for the festival to be held at Vernon Downs had been denied by local authorities. Anthony Picente Jr., an Administrator at Oneida County, said that the chances of the festival going ahead were “highly unlikely” and described the organisers’ scramble for a permit as “chaotic”. Picente said: “We could have done this with a year or 16 months advance [planning], but to do it in three to six weeks is really a near impossibility from a public safety and health standpoint.” His comments echoed those made by local sheriff Rob Maciol the night before at a packed residents’ meeting in Vernon. Maciol wryly noted that Woodstock 50 should take place in August 2020, not 2019.

Undeterred, and ever Monty Python’s Black Knight, a Woodstock 50 spokesman said almost immediately after Tuesday night’s refusal that they’d appeal the decision and reapply for a permit. In a statement, the spokesman claimed that “political forces” were working against the resurrection of the festival and denied local reports from Vernon that Woodstock’s filing for the permit was incomplete. “With a venue chosen, financing assembled and many of the artists supporting Woodstock’s 50th Anniversary event, the organizers are hopeful that their appeal and reapplication tonight will prevail without further political interference,” the spokesman said.

Woodstock 50 has five days to submit its appeal, meaning that it has until Sunday night to argue its case to officials. Local reports in Vernon suggest that Woodstock 50 could lodge a 500-page appeal as soon as today.

So what are the chances of it happening?

Slim, still. Even if the permits are given post-appeal, the Woodstock 50 team will have an organisational mountain to climb. Tickets must be sold, and the festival built. Security and amenities must be arranged, and the site stocked with food and beverage vendors. Festivals are mini cities; their plumbing – both metaphorical and real – can take months to construct. Reports suggest that original plans for a 100,000-capacity three-day camping festival have already been scaled down to a series of three one-day festivals with a capacity of between 50,000 and 65,000 per day. But Lang and his team will still have a near-impossible task. 

The crowd at Woodstock in 1969 Credit: AP

Howard King gives it a one in 10 shot of going ahead, but only because Vernon Downs already has some of this crucial infrastructure in place. “I give it a one in 10 chance because I read that they had a deal with a venue that actually has a history of putting on shows.”

In the event of it failing, there will undoubtedly be a knotty aftermath of lawsuits. Luckily it won’t be music-lovers who lose out due to no tickets having yet been sold. The “big legal action”, says King, is likely to be between the organisers and the financial backers who pulled out. Organisers could argue that the festival would have gone ahead had Dentsu not withdrawn. There could also be a blame game between those parties in attempts to recoup the reported $20 million-odd that was paid out to performers and which remains a massive negative on the festival’s balance sheet. 

Despite the peace and love mythology, the original Woodstock in 1969 was a financial and organisational disaster. Hundreds of thousands of people gatecrashed, the site lacked basic amenities and organisers lost a fortune. They only paid off their debts due to the success of the Oscar-winning documentary film made about it. 

Woodstock 50 will have no such luck. After all, it’s hard to make a film about a festival for which not a single ticket has been sold.