Woodstock Backers Hope to Export Brand to Other Countries
(Bloomberg) -- It was the summer of love, not the summer of profit.
In 1969, Michael Lang and his partners at Woodstock Ventures took a $1.3 million loss on the original Woodstock festival. “Money wasn’t my motivator then,” the 74-year-old said during a recent interview in downtown Woodstock, New York. “I was just so thrilled with what had gone down. ’Cause it was kind of like what we envisioned. Only on steroids. And acid.”
Today, however, Lang is a savvier businessman.
As Woodstock approaches its 50th anniversary, with a three-day festival set to take place in Watkins Glen, New York, in August, Lang is also planning a global expansion with financing and marketing assistance from Dentsu Aegis Network, a subsidiary of Japanese advertising behemoth Dentsu. The new Woodstock will be held annually in a different country each year, and Lang says he’s held initial talks with Japan, Brazil and Spain.
“My plan was not to start a yearly Woodstock festival. There are enough festivals,” Lang said. Most, however, are “cookie-cutter,” and more about social media posts than appreciating music or raising awareness about important social causes. The Fyre Festival, for example, “was just a scam,” he said. “There wasn’t very much attention paid to actually doing the festival. It was all about the hype and the selling of it.”
The selling of such experiences is big business. Coachella grossed more than $100 million for the first time in 2017, according to Billboard Boxscore, and 2016’s Desert Trip (the so-called Oldchella, featuring the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Neil Young) raked in $160 million over two weekends. As Coachella, SXSW, Burning Man and Bonnaroo make serious bank, the Woodstock hippies are not selling out, but buying in.
Lang says the business of Woodstock is necessary to spread the message of Woodstock. Peace and love needs to be packaged and sold. “It’s all really geared toward engaging people,” Lang said. “Get involved. I see global warming as a real global threat.”
The new festival will feature a “Goodstock” area where attendees can interact with organizations like gun-control group March for Our Lives, voter registration nonprofit Head Count and environmental organization Conservation International.
Though selling the Woodstock counterculture has always been part of the hippie industrial complex, some are not so keen on the idea and take a more cynical view. “The promoters lost money [at the original Woodstock] not because they were generous souls but because they were in way over their heads,” said Sean Wilentz, a Princeton history professor and Woodstock ’69 attendee. “They managed to turn [the festival] into a cultural icon—the beacon of the counterculture bullshit that was always a commodity anyway, or at best a myth.”
George Howard, an associate professor of music business and management at Berklee College of Music, gives more credit to the first event. “The original Woodstock was a very purpose-driven event,” he said. “The ensuing iterations have attempted to productize that purpose. … Once anything goes from purpose to product, it becomes commoditized and thus must compete on price—‘Ours is cheaper’—or feature—‘Our festival has Fleetwood Mac.’ ”
Lang dismissed this kind of criticism and noted that the civic and social engagement element is not top of mind at other music festivals, even if he said his one trip to Burning Man 18 years ago was “like a vacation on Pluto.”
But not everything is running smoothly for the new festival. Booking talent has been difficult. Lang tried to lock down Bruno Mars to do a Sly tribute, but the performer was unavailable. And his attempt to nab Lady Gaga proved unsuccessful after she rode the hype from A Star Is Born right into a Las Vegas residency. He has booked Jay-Z and Miley Cyrus along with acts from the original Woodstock such as Carlos Santana. Lang said tickets would cost around $450 and were originally set to go on sale Monday, April 22, before being delayed.
There’s also a worthy competitor. Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, set on the original grounds of the festival, has an anniversary lineup featuring Ringo Starr and Santana. Lang blamed promoter Live Nation for presenting the Bethel Woods show as a rival event, and says he sent the company a cease-and-desist letter.
Live Nation didn't immediately respond to a request for comment made after regular business hours.
“As the stewards of the historic site of the 1969 Woodstock festival, we have been planning commemorative events for over two years, of which Woodstock Ventures has been aware," said Darlene Fedun, CEO of Bethel Woods Center for the Arts.
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