A veteran festival organiser explains why Woodstock 50 won't happen

festival 03/05/2019

The festival that defined a generation hits it's golden anniversary this year. It's been 50 years since Woodstock festival brought more than 400,000 people to a dairy farm near New York City for the festival of a lifetime. 

A 50th anniversary festival was set to take place in August this year, Woodstock 50, but there are now questions of whether it will go ahead due to the loss of it's primary financier, Dentsu Aegis. According to various reports, Dentsu's exit is due to the lack of permits and infrastructure on the upstate New York grounds. This had led to concerns that the three-day concert won't have adequate water and sanitation, among other issues. 

LiveStyle CEO Randy Phillips, who previously worked as the CEO of AEG Live, thinks there is no way the festival will go ahead. Being the organiser of some of the largest festivals in the world, such as New York’s Electric Zoo and Awakening in Holland, and having cancelled major events as well as dealing with those ruined by poor permit planning, he is well-versed in the subject.

"Basically, some things don’t age as well as others and Woodstock 50 may be one of them. I like people to be successful, but this one just didn’t feel good from the beginning," he says. 

"These festivals take a year in planning. We started planning the next Coachella the day after the previous one. Jazz Fest, the same thing. So, if you’ve got targets and milestones you’re not hitting, then you’re in trouble,"

"There’s no substitute for having time and planning for an event that big. You’re dealing with government entities, permit processes, medical, structural—all of this stuff takes time, especially during the summer months. That’s the biggest touring season. All of the providers, whether it’s sound, lights, scaffolding, they’re all stretched really thin so you need to reserve all of that stuff well in advance,"

Randy Phillips also believes the original magic of Woodstock is gone:

"Some ideas that are really good, are great once. And when you try to repeat them, they’re never quite the same,” says Phillips. “Here’s what I’ve noticed, especially with people who’ve done incredible cultural iconic things in their careers as Michael did. Sometimes the founders of these things think that the brand they created withstands the test of time more so than the consumer does. I think, in Michael’s mind, why it’s so important to make this work is because it was his greatest accomplishment and therefore Woodstock 50 should be an amazing event to everybody. But if you think about the millennials and Gen Yers, the truth is most of them don’t even know what Woodstock is,"

He also thinks the mix of new and young acts on the lineup isn't appealing - Miley Cyrus and Chance the Rapper are top of the lineup, mixed in with original Woodstock artists like Country Joe McDonald and John Sebastian:

"The one thing about the curation is it felt too much like a current festival and not an iconic one. It’s the kind of thing where you need to get Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young together. You really need that lineage, that connection to the original and it didn’t seem to have that. It felt too contemporary, if that’s possible,"

Phillips also points out that most successful festivals take time to grow, and Woodstock 50 is too big for a first-time production. Aiming for a 100,000 strong crowd is far too ambitious straight off the bat:

"Today, if you’re going to do a festival in North America, don’t try to do a 50 to 100,000-attended festival. I would go for something in the 10 to 20,000 range and build. I wouldn’t take the chance of trying to beat a big boy too soon,"

Lastly, Phillips believes changing the lineup or location is nearly impossible at this stage: "I tried. It never works," he said, talking of a 2003 two-day festival he tried to switch to a new venue and scale down:

"We couldn’t get the permit from the police, we couldn’t use the venue, we’d already sold tickets, the whole thing, so we moved it to Giants Stadium parking lot and it totally, totally stiffed. We couldn’t sell a ticket. Sales stopped completely. It never ever works to move an event and try to downsize."

Woodstock 50 was originally set to take place on August 16-18 in Watkins Glen, New York. It's yet to be seen whether it will go ahead or not.