Inside the Final Days of Woodstock 50

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Miley Cyrus was one of the performers scheduled to play Woodstock 50.

When the festival began considering a move to Maryland, it began a domino effect of artists pulling out and the scope shrinking before it was canceled once and for all.

Seth Hurwitz was on a bike trip riding across Europe when news of his last-ditch effort to save the long-suffering Woodstock 50 festival had leaked out.

Not long after festival organizers lost their second proposed site for the fest — the Vernon Downs racetrack in Vernon, New York — the I.M.P. chairman and operator of the Merriweather Post Pavilion received a call from Woodstock 50 co-founder Michael Lang asking him if there was any chance he could move the event to the Columbia, Maryland, amphitheater.

Several New York promoters and club owners had reached out to Lang in recent days and suggested doing a benefit concert for Woodstock and the charities it wanted to support, but Lang still pushed for a festival format. Like everyone else, Hurwitz had followed the Woodstock 50 saga from one broken promise to the next and tells Billboard he had no illusions about what he was getting into.

"This is someone with a potential show. This is what I do for a living," he says. "My job is to make sure it’s legit before it goes on sale. If it happens great. If it doesn’t, believe me, I’ve been jerked off far worse and had more time wasted by many an act or agent."

The original plan was to keep the discussion quiet, but with so much hype surrounding the festival, it wasn't long before news leaked out. A couple days after the call, a letter to Woodstock 50 investor Greg Peck from Calvin Ball, the 43-year-old county executive for Maryland's Howard County, appeared in Bloomberg indicating that the event would not have the same permitting problems it faced in New York if it came to Maryland.

"When we heard that there was an opportunity to save this festival and bring a piece of American history to our community this summer, we jumped at the chance," Ball wrote in the letter, which was sent at the request of officials with I.M.P., Billboard has learned, to demonstrate that organizers would not have faced the same permitting problems in Maryland that strangled the event in Vernon Downs. 

While the letter seemed to assure Woodstock 50 organizers that Merriweather Post Pavilion was an option to save the event, the letter angered the talent agencies with artists booked for the festival who had quietly watched for nearly three months as fest organizers struggled to regain their footing after investor Dentsu pulled out of the anniversary event. With no permits, public investors or a committed show producer, Woodstock 50 had essentially been in breach of its contact for months, but because the participating artists had been paid so much to perform at the festival (in some cases double what they normally would charge), many agents didn't want to prematurely pull out the fest and threaten the guarantee paid by Dentsu.

So instead they quietly waited as organizers endured humiliating court losses and permit denials, moving to new venues and bringing in new producers in a nonstop effort to salvage the event. It was ultimately the leaked news that the festival was trying to move to Maryland — some 350 miles south of Vernon Downs — that proved to be the flashpoint. Besides the distance, many of the acts had other shows in the mid-Atlantic area at the time and moving Woodstock 50 would violate those concert's radius clauses. The Raconteurs even had a concert at the nearby Anthem, the new venue opened by I.M.P. in 2017, on Aug. 17, right in the middle of the festival.

Woodstock 50 organizers were put on notice — cancel the event, or artists will start cancelling on their own. Hours after the Merriweather Post Pavilion news hit, headliner John Fogerty announced he was out and Woodstock 50 organizers were forced to begin waving the white flag. A letter was sent to the talent agencies essentially releasing them from their contracts, but also asking them to still perform at the event considering how much money they had been paid by their now estranged financial partner Dentsu.

"After the letter was sent and the artists were released, the festival began to quickly shrink," said one insider who kept tabs on the last days of the event. "They just wanted to pull something off and we're calling around begging bands to participate. As more bands said no, the event shrunk from three days, to two days to one. Then it became a benefit show to raise money. And then it was free."

With no artists on board and concerns about getting clobbered by a wave of artist cancellations as more bands announced they were pulling out, a statement was drafted and a last request was issued by Lang — the bands paid in full by Dentsu should donate 10 percent of what they were paid to HeadCount, a voter registration effort with a goal of signing up 200,000 registrants before the 2020 election. 

While Woodstock 50 won't take place, a number of initiatives are planned this year to celebrate the anniversary. Woodstock Ventures, which had licensed the Woodstock name to Woodstock 50, just won a lengthy court fight allowing them to strike a cannabis licensing deal with dispensary operators MedMen. Following the cancellation announcement, Joel Rosenman with Woodstock Ventures issued a length statement to Billboard:

In 1969, my company, Woodstock Ventures, produced the original Woodstock Festival — with a little help from half a million of our friends. Today, fifty years later, we’re disappointed by the news that Michael Lang’s company, Woodstock 50 LLC, has called off its attempt to produce a 50th-anniversary concert in upstate New York.

Back in 1969, my partners and I at Woodstock Ventures had to deal with many challenges in order to make that huge first Woodstock a reality. The 1969 Woodstock taught us a lot about producing big concerts, so although we haven’t been directly involved in the efforts to produce a Woodstock 50th Anniversary concert, we can imagine the challenges Michael Lang’s company tried to deal with today, in 2019.

Despite the loss of Woodstock 50 LLC’s festival, this is still turning out to be a banner year for Woodstock. There are 50th-anniversary celebrations of Woodstock throughout the country and around the world, along with new films, music, books and socially responsible products. 2019 is confirming what we all feel: the spirit of Woodstock is alive and flourishing.

Woodstock Ventures is particularly excited about Barak Goodman’s documentary Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation, which will begin airing on PBS in August, and Back to the Garden, Rhino’s release of several box set collections of Woodstock '69 movies, concert CDs, books and festival memorabilia. Woodstock products and events like these celebrate the spirit of Woodstock: a unique recipe of peace and music blended with community and love.

Woodstock may be 50 years old this year, but what it stands for is timeless. Today Woodstock Ventures is still dedicated to bringing its message to the world we are passing along to future generations. Woodstock will continue to highlight social, environmental and political causes; to organize communities around those causes; to develop socially responsible events and products for those communities; and to encourage positive, creative expression.

While many in the music business are already exasperated by the months-long saga, a new round of legal fights could keep it going. Billboard has learned that lawsuits in California and New York are expected to be filed against Dentsu in the coming weeks.

This story first appeared on Billboard.com.