The Troubled Woodstock 50 Festival is a Master Class in Bad Event PR

This past January, baby boomers and John Mayer-following millennial Deadheads alike rejoiced at the announcement that the 50th anniversary of the legendary Woodstock Music and Arts Festival would be celebrated with a concert in upstate New York in August, featuring 60+ acts on three stages that includes newer artists and legacy Woodstock veterans. Under the banner of “Bringing Peace, Love & Music Back to the Planet,” the press release claimed that this anniversary concert to be held at Watkins Glen “will give generations of fans the opportunity to join together in the festival’s foundational intent of harmony and compassion.”

Over the past few months, a slowly unfurling saga of poor communication, delayed ticket sales and failure to secure permits have the fate of Woodstock 50 still uncertain. In March, the festival announced a diverse lineup that included JAY-Z, Dead & Co., Chance the Rapper, Santana, The Black Keys, David Crosby and more. Then, less than a month later, The Black Keys pulled out. Maybe they read the writing on the wall.

Ticket sale delays and deflection

Tickets were meant to go on-sale for Earth Day, but April 22 came and went with no announcement or portal to purchase passes. Pitchfork reported: “One possible hiccup…is that, as of Friday, April 19, the Woodstock 50 organizers have yet to acquire a mass gathering permit from the New York State Department of Health (DOH), Pitchfork can confirm.”

In a statement sent to Billboard, Woodstock co-founder Michael Lang wrote, “Woodstock is a phenomenon that for fifty years has drawn attention to its principles and also the rumors  that can be attached to that attention.” In doing so, he not only lost the opportunity to be transparent about what was really going on, but tried to reframe his disorganization as part of the culture of spontaneity surrounding the hallowed original festival. As we’ll discuss in a bit, that culture of spontaneity also led to disaster at all three Woodstocks prior.

Rumors of Woodstock’s Cancellation Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Eight days later, Woodstock 50 made headlines again when its principal investor, Dentsu Aegis Network, bailed. They then went to the press saying the festival was cancelled, telling Billboard that “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.”

Lang’s Woodstock team was quick to respond with a rebuttal, claiming that this cultural milestone would carry on as planned. “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,” they told Pitchfork. “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.”

The New York State Department of Health also chimed in, claiming that the cancellation was news to them and the permits were still pending. Let’s forgo the lesson about poor teamwork here that Dentsu  exhibited by prematurely cancelling the festival—a move that made them look like more difficult partners than Woodstock, whatever the truth may be. The fact that Lang’s team didn’t answer their former investor’s specific concerns about health and safety at the festival is particularly concerning, especially considering the brand’s troubled history with both of those things. More later on why that’s a terrible play, too, but for now let’s just call it another communications fail.

Court Orders are a Bummer, Man

Lang looked even worse a month later after sharing a letter he sent to his former investors at Dentsu claiming they “illegally swept approximately $17 million from the festival bank account,” blocked ticket sales, urged artists to drop out and more. Two days later, news broke that Woodstock 50, LLC filed a court order against Dentsu, citing these claims and asking that “Dentsu cease all communications relating to the Festival,” return $17.8 million to the festival’s bank account, award it with financial relief and more.

It also stated something that should have been agreed upon at the outset: “Neither Party shall make any public announcement confirming musical or other performing talent at the Festival, or any other public announcement that may restrict the ability of the Parties to obtain refunds from musical or other performing talent, until the Parties have mutually agreed in writing to make such type of public announcement for the first time (the ‘Initial Festival Announcement’).”

It goes with out saying that such legal drama is worlds away from the “peace, love and music” branding Woodstock is known for. Lang and his crew used the press to hold Dentsu accountable, which may have been a smart move, but again tarnished the festival for revealing just how much ugly litigious drama was going on behind the scenes.

Since then, the court order was partially accepted—a judge ruled that Dentsu had no right to cancel, although it didn’t approve Woodstock’s claim that it was owed $17.5 million. The win was enough for Lang to find new financial partners in American investment bank Oppenheimer & Co, though. As of now, Woodstock is out of the proverbial woods and, Lang claims, all of the lineup is still in. Despite this, tickets have yet to go on sale, and he hasn’t answered any of the health or safety concerns lobbed at organizers. It remains unclear how many attendees will actually show up to a festival that becomes official only at the last minute.

How Not to Brand Utopia

A brief look at Woodstock’s history suggests a legacy of logistical failings, making Lang’s unwillingness to comment on health and safety particularly troubling. While the scenester hippies up front were swaying and grooving to the camera at the original fest in 1969, the 400,000 people clamoring to get in caused absolute bedlam at the fest. An anarchist group ripped down fences and barriers, and the paltry infrastructure was soon destroyed. While only one attendee died of a drug overdose, another was sleeping under a tractor that ran him over. Such was the consequence of Max Yasgur’s dairy farm being simply too overcrowded for safety.

There was more gatecrashing at Woodstock ’94. Woodstock ’99 didn’t have any fatalities, but was subsequently labeled “The Day the Music Died,” a phrase attached to the plane crash of Buddy Holly in Don Maclean’s hit “American Pie.” Fires, riots and a glut of corporate branding all contributed to the collective sense that experiential marketing had taken precedent over creating a genuinely moving experience. The seasonal onslaught of summer festivals that has become ubiquitous in the new millennium has fulfilled Woodstock 99’s unholy vision.

All of this suggests that, by putting on an anniversary festival without showing he has learned from his past organizational mistakes, Lang and his crew are allowing history to repeat itself. That’s not how you create a utopia, and certainly not how you brand one. Instead, Lang should focus on creating an atmosphere of peace and good vibes by making attendees feel safe and secure, thus facilitating an environment where freedom and expression can thrive, untethered from concerns for wellbeing.