Woodstock’s Michael Lang Speaks: From 1969’s Historic Legacy to the 50th’s Debacle and What Lies Ahead
(Photo: copyright Henry Diltz) –
Woodstock co-founder Michael Lang rides a BSA Victor motorcycle at the 1969 iteration of the festival in Bethel Woods, N.Y.
Driving down Laurel Canyon Boulevard to interview Woodstock co-founder Michael Lang at the Sunset Marquis, The Strip’s rock n’ roll hotel-shrine, in town for a photo exhibition at the Morrison Hotel Gallery by famed Woodstock photographer Henry Diltz and others later that evening, it seemed appropriate that it started raining. Mud of varying stripes had been a noted factor of all three iterations of Woodstock, but by the time I reached Alta Loma, the sun was out, though the uncertain pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – i.e. interviewing 2019’s most prominent figure in the live business – still existed.
Still looking like the Golden Child who strode the original Woodstock grounds in bare chest, flowing curly locks and that Cheshire Cat grin astride his BSA Victor motorcycle, the 74-year-old Lang was bloodied but seemed mostly unbowed by the failure to pull off Woodstock 50. This, in part, because the New York City native and former owner of a head shop in Miami’s Coconut Grove neighborhood, who got his feet wet producing the Miami Pop Festival in 1968, isn’t actually a partner in Woodstock 50. He’s the co-founder of Woodstock Ventures, the beleaguered fest’s parent company. Even if he’s erroneously considered the face of the W50 debacle, he’ll always be eternally pegged to pulling off the 1969 miracle that was the first Woodstock Music & Art Fair Presents Aquarian Exposition in White Lake, N.Y., an aspirational “3 Days of Peace and Music.”
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It was also, as PBS’ “American Experience” dubbed it, “Three Days that Defined a Generation,” a legacy that Lang fruitlessly tried to resurrect for these similarly divisive Trumpian times. But the tireless self-promoter belies no disappointment from his most recent Quixotic adventure, keeping his “What, me worry?” grin, chill zen cool and sharp wit throughout the very public disintegration of Woodstock 50. Say what you want about Lang – and David Crosby isn’t the only one to disparage him – he wears his heart, and his beliefs, on his sleeve.
Pollstar: It must feel like a large weight has been lifted off your shoulders.
Michael Lang: I definitely feel lighter. It was just so bizarre, one thing after another. Unexpected things, like Dentsu pulling out was a complete shock.
But you were never actually a partner in Woodstock 50, right?
Woodstock 50 was a license venture from my company Woodstock Ventures, with two friends of mine, Greg Peck and Susan Cronin. The deal with Dentsu was pretty much done when they came in. My lawyer advised me it was too complicated, that there would be problems if I were a partner in both.
How did you connect with Dentsu, a giant media and advertising company, in the first place?
Their main company is in Japan, but they have offices all over the world. A friend of mine in advertising who’d helped bring Pepsi to us in 1994, pitched me, so I met with them. It was basically about marketing and sponsorships. They were guaranteeing these huge numbers, but I didn’t consider them as investors until later. And then I thought, why not? One-stop shopping. As long as they stayed out of the way, fine.
What was their original investment in Woodstock 50?
$76 million was the original budget and that was based on 100,000-plus tickets sold, with $22 million confidently put forth as the minimum amount they would raise for media and sponsorships. Our talent budget was originally $25 million.
Much different than the $150,000 you allotted for the first Woodstock.
You can’t get in for $6 a day, or $18 for all three days, either. Just as we’re about to sign the agreement with Dentsu, they came up with this twist that – because of some international investment code – they had to be recognized as co-producers.
So they threw you a last-minute curve?
We were too far in at that point to back up, but that’s how we essentially lost control. We were dealing with Amplifi, their division in America. Any time you have to agree with somebody on everything, you’re in trouble. But they assured me this was just for looks.
At this point, there must have been some red lights going off.
[Laughs] They flashed. They seemed to be very confident and into the good we could create with this. For me, it was about activism, sustainability and global warming, which is the biggest issue of our day. The presence of HeadCount and all the NGOs were absolutely a part of this from the beginning.
(Kevin Mazur / Getty Images) –
Better Times: Lang, flanked by Common and John Fogerty, shares the lineup for the ill-fated Woodstock at New York City’s Electric Lady Land Studios on March 19, 2019.
Going back to the timeline, when did you first look at Watkins Glen as a place to stage Woodstock 50?
Dentsu first committed to us in July 2018, but it took another three months to actually sign the deal on Nov. 2. At that time, I hired a guy named Jim Tobin to do the site plot, but it took Dentsu two and a half months to sign Superfly for the production and eight weeks to enlist Danny Wimmer Presents for the booking, which didn’t start until the middle of December. Watkins Glen had been locked in as the location since 2017, but Superfly didn’t start the permit process until mid-January. Dentsu just didn’t understand the concert business, or any of the urgency. They thought booking acts was like buying groceries at the supermarket off the shelves. It’s a complicated process, with a fine balance.
Why didn’t you simply turn to Live Nation or AEG, who are so experienced in this area?
We just had a very independent attitude, and I like that. I wasn’t approaching this as an annual, ongoing event. It was a once-in-a-lifetime occasion.
A great deal has changed in the concert business since 1999, let alone 1969. You had to pay the artists in full, even if the show didn’t take place.
That was part of the deal from the very beginning. As long as they were ready to play, they were paid. And that was because festivals were failing because there were so many of them, and bands were getting screwed. This was, in essence, a new festival, so it’s what we had to do. Dentsu was OK with it. [Danny Wimmer Presents]’ Gary Spivack did an amazing job of booking this in two months. Festivals usually take a year to book. The lineup was fantastic. Just as the booking started, Dentsu stepped in and said we had to re-evaluate because the lineup wasn’t complete. And that was just the start of the problems.
Superfly didn’t complete the permit process for Watkins Glen?
Just as we were ready to announce the Woodstock 50 lineup and an April 22 onsale date in March, the state was going to issue a conditional permit, but the track had to sign a bond, which they weren’t willing to do, due to corporate problems. We were still committed to completing the permit process, but on April 29, Dentsu decided to cancel the concert. Which caught me by surprise. I first heard about it through Ben Sisario at the New York Times. Dentsu then called me 15 minutes before they made the announcement. So we lost our chief funding partner, while the cancelation – totally illegal, I might add – caused all the government agencies to bring the permit process to a complete halt for six weeks until we reorganized.
Are you planning to sue Dentsu?
I haven’t sued anybody. And it’s not really up to me. It’s up to Woodstock 50, and I’m sure they’re contemplating it.
You found new investors and kept going at this point, targeting Vernon Downs Casino and Racetrack in upstate New York.
The permit process just evolved for the new site. It’s a negotiation. But the Department of Health has the overall responsibility, the final say. It’s a conditional permit, because things have to be checked three days before – the water quality, etc.
You’re used to that process from the first Woodstock. Everything that could have been a disaster turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It’s almost Biblical in a way; the event has turned into a modern American myth. In Woodstock, you were a Greek god.
Well, I don’t know if I’d go that far. The thing about the first Woodstock … it did seem like there were forces at work beyond our ken. After Artie [Kornfeld] and I signed the deal with John Roberts and Joel Rosenman in January, it took us three months to find a site. The day after we lost Wallkill, we found Max [Yasgur].
Don Paulsen / Michael Ochs Archive / Getty Images – Half A Century Ago
Woodstock co-founder Michael Lang, at age 24 in New York on May 23, 1969.
One of the great moments in the movie and cultural history is when Max addresses the audience.
Max was a Republican. He was in favor of the Vietnam War. It just goes to show how you can have different points of view and still move forward together. And what we don’t have today.
Back to Woodstock 50, did you feel, as the process dragged on, that you could once again pull a rabbit out of a hat?
It wasn’t really like that. Everyone was saying, it was like the first one. It wasn’t anything like the first one. Vernon Downs wasn’t ideal, because you couldn’t do camping.
Camping has always been something you wanted incorporated into each Woodstock.
Because it gives you a chance to form a community. But it’s also the most difficult part of the mass gathering permit to acquire, a huge amount of paperwork. What Vernon Downs was pretty much ready made for at that point was 65,000 people. We were assured by the venue and the town clerk that we’d have a permit in a couple of days. So we brought in Virgin Produced for Superfly, and started to put the plans together with the permit application. Somewhere along the line, politics came into it, and the supervisor suddenly got afraid of what was coming. They got cold feet. So they supposedly enforced a regulation that says you have to apply 90 days in advance. Just like at Wallkill for the original Woodstock.
The media coverage seemed filled with schadenfreude, as if they delighted in reporting each misfortune.
It was like a hunger for something to say. There were reports the agents were withdrawing their acts, or the acts were leaving. Which was untrue. We were in the same neck of the woods trying to work it all out. There weren’t any radius problems at that point. Woodstock has always generated press just crossing the street.
Both the ’94 and ’99 iterations came under heavy criticism.
I can understand the ’99 edition for what happened at the end, but ’94 was fantastic. Nine Inch Nails, Green Day, Sheryl Crow…
Speaking of mud, that has always been an element at every Woodstock.
There’s a free annual Woodstock festival in Poland where they get the people to create mud pits.
Have you had a chance to reflect on the 50th anniversary of the original Woodstock?
Not really. We were pretty much involved in getting people to engage in the social issues. So when Vernon Downs went down, we decided to put it together as a fundraiser. So we met with Seth [Hurwitz] and got a commitment for Merriweather Post Pavilion. I actually went down to look at RFK Stadium, which was kind of a mess. We didn’t know how many acts would be interested, if we could do one, two or three days. But we ran into huge problems with the radius clauses in the contracts. We couldn’t keep it together.
Woodstock 50 died such an excruciatingly slow, painful death by a thousand paper cuts.
We pretty much gave up on the initial vision when we lost Vernon Downs. We just couldn’t assemble a strong enough lineup for Merriweather. We simply ran out of time.
Are you thinking of trying to give another Woodstock a go at some point?
I’m not there yet. The original contract was to do Woodstock 50 here and then a series of events around the world, a different country every year. For me, this seemed an important time – it’s an election year … If we were going to do it, now is the time.
You approached several people who worked on the original Woodstock to help on the new one.
It was my goal to have them involved in some way, not in their original roles, because we’re older and technology has moved on. They’re part of what Woodstock was, is and will be. I wanted them present and contributing.
Woodstock is the model for events like Burning Man and Coachella. Did you ever attend either?
I attended Burning Man in 2000. It was like a vacation on Pluto. I was amazed by the art and the lighting on the playa at this ancient lakebed. It’s otherworldly. The fact that there’s no commerce and you leave it as you found it. I found it wonderful. I went with my wife and when we got there, it was sold out, but they came up with a pair of “miracle tickets.” I went to Coachella, too. As an entertainment, as a place to see and be seen, but our approach is very different. It’s like a community of one.
Do you think music is no longer the center of people’s culture, it’s technology?
In 1969, the bands at Woodstock were all part of the counterculture. They were very much involved in our lives. It wasn’t just entertainment; it was more about the social issues. They were part of our generation. Woodstock offered an environment for people to express their better selves, if you will. Give them that, and it seems to work. It was probably the most peaceful event of its kind in history. That was because of expectations and what people wanted to create there.
Hulton Archives / Getty Images – Getty Images
“Members of the American youth subculture generally termed ‘hippies’ walk along roads choked with traffic on the way to the large rock concert called Woodstock…Some may get rides in or on the vehicles of likeminded motorists.”
You didn’t realize there would be a giant traffic jam at Woodstock?
We were expecting 200,000, not 600,000. We sold 186,000 advance tickets. That’s why we only lost $1.5 million rather than $3.5 million. They said a million and a half people were turned away.
Declaring it a free concert, as John Morris famously did from the stage, seemed to give the event a special patina.
We didn’t even have a ticket booth. People were looking for a place to buy tickets. We were going to allow whoever couldn’t afford to pay to get in free anyway.
You assumed there would be walk-up sales?
Of course. We had one ticket outlet at the El Monaco Hotel, which was Elliot Tiber’s place. He gave me a bag with $30,000 from selling out his entire allotment in an hour.
Some of the original Woodstock organizers, like [co-founder] Artie Kornfeld, have accused you of aggrandizing your involvement.
That comes with the territory. I talk to Artie every week. Physically, he’s not doing too well. We have a very good relationship. I don’t pay attention to that. I love him. We wanted him to come up and be a part of it.
David Crosby has called you out as a scammer.
I don’t know what got into him. Something happened along the way. I’m going to confront him with that one of these days to see what he’s thinking. As far as who did what at the original Woodstock, we had an incredible team, working at the height of their abilities and beyond. They were flexible, inventive, and we made it up as we went along.
Who makes up Woodstock Ventures now?
It’s me, Joel Rosenman and the heirs of John Roberts. The original partnership exploded after Woodstock. I reunited with Joel and John for the 25th anniversary in 1994. We’ve already formed the Woodstock Cannabis Company.
Are you still a pot smoker?
Yes, I am.
Several people who worked at Woodstock said you were more concerned with selling pot than anything else.
Right… I had a container being shipped from South America. If only it were true…
Did the Woodstock Generation bring about social change, or was it merely the start of the over-the-counterculture turning it into a business?
Just taking care of the planet. The first Earth Day came right after Woodstock. Women’s rights. The Civil Rights movement … The world didn’t change the next day, but things don’t work that way. But then there was the inauguration of Barack Obama, Washington’s Woodstock. Those are things that grew out of those times and evolved. Two steps forward, one step back, sometimes three steps back.
The free concert model established at Woodstock seems to be reflected in today’s Silicon Valley model, where people give away apps and monetize the accessories.
Build it and they will come. Max Yasgur’s was our very own field of dreams. That was not the original intent of Woodstock. It was a commercial venture meant to make money for our partners. I was concerned to do something that married art and commerce in a time when the counterculture was saying this music belonged to them and paying for it was a rip-off in a way that was fair and balanced, that you got more than you gave. I thought people would be OK with that. Our initial motto was you could come whether you had money or not. Of course, it didn’t turn out that way because everybody got in for free. It was $18 for the three days, which is probably $100 today.
People seemed to take the failure of Woodstock 50 personally. That sense of betrayal is a testimony to what you established. It’s been ingrained in the DNA not just of Boomers, but successive generations.
Yes, they did. When something pushes back as hard as this did, you have to get the sense that maybe there is a reason behind it.
Everything worked out back in 1969 but these are different times.
Yes, they are. The 50th anniversary still has a huge significance. We have to continue to discuss these issues and get people involved. We’re doing something for HeadCount. I’ve asked the acts to donate 10% of their fees. They have to feel involved, that they have a responsibility, too. That was what the original Woodstock was all about.
How do you feel about being the Woodstock poster child for eternity?
Life is full of experiences, and not everything works out. But you keep trying or nothing works out … That’s always been my attitude.
What lessons have you learned from Woodstock 50?
Be careful who you go into business with.
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.