DWP’s Gary Spivack On Booking Woodstock 50, ‘The Greatest Show That Never Was’

Danny Spivack
(Photo:Jennifer Lourie/Getty Images)

Gary Spivack of Danny Wimmer Presents who helped book the star-crossed Woodstock 50 with an impressive and diverse line-up .

Though Woostock 50 had a tough go of things for most of 2019, its lineup, curated by Danny Wimmer Presents led by Gary Spivack, was unassailable. From Miley Cyrus, Sturgill Simpson and Maggie Rogers to Robert Plant, Brandi Carlile, Dead & Co. and The Raconteurs there was a lot to love – except for that it never happened; not even an on-sale. Here, Spivack explains how it all went down.

Pollstar: Michael Lang told Pollstar that “Gary Spivack did an amazing job of booking us in just two months. Festivals usually take a year to book.” Was it really just eight weeks?
Gary Spivack: I think it was more like seven weeks. Myself and Danny Wimmer were hired on Dec. 17, which is late, and mid-December to Jan. 1 is a dead time anyway. But we were off to the races.

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The lineup was objectively awesome, what was your booking strategy?
We wanted to honor the past with Santana, Fogerty, David Crosby, in addition to the people like Robert Plant and of course Dead & Company, but also really cater to what’s happening now. That includes rock and roll, hip-hop and female artists – there was an emphasis to have a female presence whether it’s Janelle Monae, Halsey and Miley Cyrus or Margo Price, Boy Genius and Maggie Rogers.

It was  well-balanced and could stand up to any of the mega-fests with something for everyone.
Yeah, from Soccer Mommy to Gary Clark Jr., it was one of the few festivals that Greta Van Fleet and Raconteurs were a part of. I was just at The Raconteurs at the Greek in Los Angeles and it was a rip-roaring rock show. All I could think was, “Man, I should be watching this at Woodstock 50.”

Lang said that just as the booking started, “Dentsu stepped in and said we had to reevaluate because the lineup wasn’t complete and that was just the start of the problems” – what did that mean?
I don’t have an answer to that. All I can tell you is we were hired and we started on Dec. 17 and on Dec. 31 they were worried that deadlines had passed and we were like, “What deadlines?” There were some things we were not part of. We had little to no communication with Dentsu until that New Year’s Eve email.

Woodstock’s Michael Lang Speaks:
From 1969’s Historic Legacy to the 50th’s Debacle
To What Lies Ahead

Live is a team sport and it sounds like there was no team.
We were hired by Michael Lang. After I read “A Road to Woodstock” in August, 2009, I said to Danny and then our other partner, Dell Williams, “We have to meet him.” We cold-called his office and he met with us. He was there with the ‘fro and the smile, and we struck up a relationship. He started attending our shows and when Woodstock 50 came about he contacted us to be a part of it. When we agreed to book and curate, we were all in. It was through Michael. It felt like such a wonderful thing to be a part of, until it wasn’t.

Was the investment from Dentsu part of the reason you were able to put together such an amazing lineup?

The budget was on par with the best festivals whether it was Coachella or Glastonbury, or Bonnaroo or you name it. When we were hired, which again was late, we were very upfront: “We are late. In order for us to do this, we need to have a solid talent budget and artists need to be paid 100%.” That was very important to everybody.

Which turned out amazing for a lot of the artists.

Predominantly they weren’t overpays, it was just so stacked. You have three headliners a day and three main stages, and a side stage. And you’re talking about three closers, and then artists like the Lumineers, Cage The Elephant, and Robert Plant, I mean these are headliners at festivals around the world.

Gary Spivack
Photo by Scott Dudelson / Getty Images

Drummer sandwich: DWP’s Gary Spivack (center) at the new Epicenter in Columbus in May 2019, with Live drummer Chad Gracey and Dave Grohl.

When Lang looked at the timeline and how long it took for Dentsu to hire Superfly and DWP, he concluded they didn’t understand the concert business or any of the urgency. They thought “booking acts was like buying groceries at the supermarket off the shelf. It’s a complicated process with a fine balance.” Would you concur?
It’s an interesting analogy. Again, our first offers were sent before the holidays, and by Dec. 31st they are wondering where the confirmations were. So it became very clear to us at DWP very quickly that there was miscommunication on how the process works and how to respect the process. These weren’t two o’clock acts, these were big-time festival, stadium-to-arena headline acts. They don’t happen overnight.

It seemed like the same thing happened with Superfly negotiating capacities, which reports in the press range from 65,000 to 150,000 and everything in between.
That’s where the problems really began, which had nothing to do with us. We had a job to do and that was to book the show. Our job was “three main stages and the side stage, here’s your budget, everything needs to be approved.” There was not an offer sent that was not approved by the team and once it
was approved, we were off to the races and were relentless. DWP completely bought in and sold the concept that this was not just another music festival, this was to be a gathering and an important festival of music and social activism.

How would you characterize Michael Lang as a business person?
Well, I probably have to be pretty careful in what I say. Overall, real mistakes were made. Real business mistakes. There was obvious dysfunction within the partnership of Dentsu and Woodstock 50.

Lang seemed candid and transparent in a way most businesses wouldn’t dream of and got lambasted every time he opened his mouth. Is he a reasonable business person or a charlatan?
I call Michael Lang the last living hippie on earth and his spirit is enduring. He is from  a now-lost era when the music industry and the music business was in its infancy and  rock and roll was in its wild, wild west stages. Even for Woodstock ‘94 and ‘99 there was  no Coachella or Bonnaroo. The festival business in the 2000s, especially 2019, is way more buttoned up. You gotta cross your t’s  and dot your i’s and that wasn’t done for Woodstock.

But he got you guys, Superfly and CID Entertainment.
He put a great all-star team together but it was late.

And Dentsu wasn’t in the business and didn’t necessarily know what they were doing.

When there’s a funder like Dentsu it is up to the people who procure the funding to manage expectations and the expectations were not managed correctly. That became very frustrating to Superfly and to DWP. We all remained professional and had jobs to do in the name of Woodstock. And sadly, it all came to a head April 29th [when Dentsu pulled out].

What’s your wish for the future with Woodstock and DWP?
I hope everybody can remain civil and remain adults in the room during this post-mortem. As sad and devastating as this was and is, it’s utterly fascinating to watch. I became a student of it, reading everything from daily blogs to articles. And as we were removed, I kept a close eye on it. You have to admire Michael Lang and his partners’ tenacity and relentless nature to not give up. But yeah, I think all was lost once Dentsu pulled out.

If you had to do it again, what would you do differently?
You know, again, it’s 2019. The industry is buttoned up. You got to be so thorough if you’re gonna put on a major destination music festival, you need to do it with people who live it and breathe it 365, not somebody who’s just in it for the short term. This is not a short-term business, the festival, the live music space. This is a real, legit, transparent business. If you’re going to do a new festival, bands and agencies are gonna demand 100% up front and rightfully so. If you’ve been in business a long time like us or Live Nation or Superfly, there’s relationships and a proven track record and trust that people are going to do correct business.

I think you guys come out smelling like roses because the lineup was so good and withstood all the criticism and helped people hold out hope that it would happen.
I really appreciate that. And yes, Woodstock 50 is the greatest show that never was. I stand by that lineup.

For more, pick up Pollstar’s special Woodstock 50 edition, which also includes: an oral history of the original Woodstock; an in-depth interview with Danny Wimmer Presents’ Gary Spivack, who booked Woodstock 50’s impressive lineup; “When Rome Burned,” an extensive report on Woodstock ’99; an archival photo gallery from 1969, courtesy of the Morrison Hotel Gallery, which is now hosting the exhibition “Woodstock: 3 Days That Lasted 50 Years”; and much more.