The line-up for Woodstock 50, announced earlier this year, was something out of a dream.
A 50 year commemoration of the iconic 1969 Woodstock festival, it advertised rock heavyweights such as The Killers, The Raconteurs, Robert Plant, The Black Keys and Greta Van Fleet. Even pop and hip-hop royalty — from Jay Z and Janelle Monae to Halsey and Miley Cyrus — were set to perform at the three-day extravaganza starting August 16.
But the dream quickly and irrevocably turned into a nightmare. Permit issues, venue changes and loss of financial backing led to Woodstock 50 officially being cancelled on July 31 after a busy week of making headlines.
So, what exactly was Woodstock 50 supposed to be — and how did it become the new Fyre Fest?
The original Woodstock: A pop culture moment
Lesser known as the Aquarian Music Festival or the Bethel Rock Festival — named after its location in the Town of Bethel, New York — Woodstock was a symbol of harmony and togetherness in the 1960s. It continues to be a rose-tinted moment in today’s pop culture.
Among the 30+ acts to perform were Janis Joplin, The Who and Jimi Hendrix, as 400,000 people ascended onto the festival grounds, causing traffic jams, food shortages and poor sanitation. Still, audiences and performers loved it.
Lead vocalist of Creedence Clearwater Revival John Fogerty recalled taking the stage at 3.30am and seeing “a half million people asleep”.
“It was sort of like a painting of a Dante scene, just bodies from hell, all intertwined and asleep, covered with mud. And this is the moment I will never forget as long as I live,” said Fogerty. “A quarter mile away in the darkness, on the other edge of this bowl, there was some guy flicking his Bic, and in the night I hear, ‘Don’t worry about it, John. We’re with you.’ I played the rest of the show for that guy.”
The event was an overall success, though two deaths were recorded — one due to insulin intake, and another due to a tractor accidentally running over an attendee sleeping in a neighbouring hayfield.
Woodstock co-founder announces ‘Woodstock 50’
Woodstock co-creator Michael Lang, who founded the 1969 festival with Artie Kornfeld, Joel Rosenman and John P Roberts, confirmed in January that he would organise a three-day commemorative music festival in August at Watkins Glen, New York. The festival, named Woodstock 50, was touted as a one-off celebration of “peace, love and music”, arriving half a century after the original.
Artists announced… for now
In March, a full line-up of artists had been announced and the names were huge, spanning pop, rap, hip-hop and rock. Acts included Chance the Rapper, Imagine Dragons, Cage the Elephant, Dead & Company and The Lumineers. There were even some acts from the original Woodstock set to make a return, such as Santana, John Sebastian and John Fogerty. The Black Keys were one of the first acts to announce that they had pulled out of the festival on April 5.
Tickets never appear, investors back out
The first red flag came when tickets, supposed to go on sale on April 22, never appeared. A week later, investors Dentsu Aegis Network — funding the festival through a subsidiary — backed out of the event and announced it was cancelled. According to reports, the subsidiary, Amplifi Live, had initially planned to provide $49 million (Dh179.95 million) to cover production costs.
One of the reasons they backed out was that organisers had reportedly reduced the capacity of attendees from a promised 150,000 to 75,000, so that they could make room for campers, which would have impacted ticket sales.
Lang insisted that the festival would go on. But there was some serious grey area around whether artist contracts had been voided at this point, since performers would have made their agreements with Dentsu and its subsidiary, Amplifi Live, and not the Woodstock promoters.
Woodstock 50 decided to file a lawsuit against their former financial partners in May, demanding nearly $18 million in “misappropriated” funds.
Rival Woodstock anniversary festival gets cancelled
Bethel Woods Centre for the Arts, the original Woodstock venue, had begun planning a similar three-day music event to celebrate the momentous anniversary. It would also feature John Fogerty and Santana, as well as Ringo Starr and the Doobie Brothers. But much like Woodstock 50, it was not to be.
However, they announced that they would still hold three days of music as part of their more general ‘Season of Song and Celebration’ programming.
“We recognise the importance of this place to so many, and our mission of preservation and interpretation of the 1960s is central to ‘A Season of Song and Celebration’, as it provides our guests the opportunity to reflect, to learn, and to celebrate the legacy of what occurred here,” said Bethel CEO Darlene Fedun in April.
Venue, artists pull out at an alarming rate
Watkins Glen pulled out of hosting Woodstock 50 in June after organisers failed to make a fee payment of $150,000, according to Billboard. Subsequently, Lang made several attempts to hold the festival at a racetrack in Vernon, NY — every appeal was rejected. In a last-ditch effort, Lang announced that the festival would now take place in Maryland, at the 20,000 capacity venue, Merriweather Post Pavilion. It would now be free to attend. Because of this drastic relocation, performer contracts were voided and artists were released from their obligations. Cancellations came at an alarming rate, including Jay Z, Miley Cyrus and The Raconteurs.
John Fogerty’s team announced on July 25 that he would still be commemorating the anniversary — but at the place it all started.
“John Fogerty knows where he will be for the anniversary weekend of Woodstock,” a representative said in a statement. “At only one site… at the original one — the Bethel Woods Centre for the Arts.”
Woodstock 50 finally cancelled, two weeks before the event
Plagued by permit issues, financial troubles and now, a lack of performers, Lang announced that Woodstock 50 is finally cancelled. A statement on their official website read: “Our festival is cancelled. But the Woodstock spirit lives on!” Lang said: “We are saddened that a series of unforeseen setbacks has made it impossible to put on the Festival we imagined with the great line-up we had book and the social engagement we were anticipating.”
Fyre Festival: A cautionary tale
Woodstock 50 joins a host of event management cautionary tales, from collapsed fan conventions (DashCon) to social media influencer fails (Caroline Calloway).
But perhaps the most discussed and elaborate in recent times has been #FyreFest. Founded by the now-convicted fraudster Billy McFarland and rapper Ja Rule, Fyre Festival — the subject of two documentary films — famously used models such as Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid to advertise a high-end music festival experience on an island in 2017.
Attendees paid thousands of dollars for a luxury stay only to be met with packaged sandwiches, tents for accommodation and cancelled performances. MacFarland is now serving time in a federal prison. In addition, a $100 million class action lawsuit was brought against him and Ja Rule.