Peace, love and litigation: The battle over Woodstock’s 50th anniversary festival has landed in court.
For over a week, the fate of the festival — planned for August in Watkins Glen, N.Y., with Jay-Z, the Killers, Miley Cyrus, Dead & Company and dozens of other acts — has been in limbo. The event’s chief investor declared it dead but its promoter pledged to continue as planned. Fans, artists and the industry at large have been scratching their heads and awaiting a definitive answer.
That answer — or part of it — may now come in a New York court, after the promoter’s company, Woodstock 50, LLC, filed a petition on Wednesday requesting an injunction against its former financier, an arm of the Japanese advertising giant Dentsu.
On Thursday, Justice Barry R. Ostrager of New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan ordered Dentsu to stop all communication related to the festival, including with the news media. The judge also scheduled a hearing on Monday to consider the promoters’ request to order Dentsu to return nearly $18 million that it withdrew from a festival bank account.
The war of words between the festival organizers — which include Michael Lang, a producer of the original Woodstock in 1969 — escalated this week, after Lang released a public letter on Monday accusing Dentsu of trying to “destroy an American cultural icon.”
Dentsu fired back, saying that production delays gave it the right to take control of the event and cancel it. As a Dentsu spokeswoman said at the time, “we simply recovered the funds in the festival bank account, funds which we originally put in as partner.”
Representatives for Dentsu declined to comment on Thursday.
Court documents filed by festival organizers include a copy of its 23-page financing contract, which states that a Dentsu subsidiary would provide up to $49 million for production expenses. It also said that Dentsu had approved a budget under the assumption that Woodstock 50 would sell 150,000 tickets and draw $22 million in media and sponsorship sales.
But those targets were never met, and talent agents said warning signs about Woodstock 50 began to appear early on, like a much-delayed lineup announcement; the mysterious departure of an announced headliner, the Black Keys; a date for the start of ticket sales that came and went; and, most troublingly, the lack of essential state and local permits.
Dentsu — and many artist’s agents — were also concerned that the capacity of the event was heavily reduced, to 75,000 from 100,000, after a site inspection by Superfly, a well-known festival producer hired for the project. That reduction would have a drastic impact on the festival’s economics. In recent weeks, Lang had been quoted in news reports saying that tickets would cost $450 — more than for Coachella.
Superfly announced last week that it had also withdrawn from the festival.
The financing contract says that Dentsu has the right to “take full control of the operation and production” under certain conditions. But it also notes that “any decision to cancel the festival shall be jointly made in writing” by both parties. The festival’s lawyers — led by Marc E. Kasowitz, who also represents President Trump — say that Dentsu’s cancellation announcement violated that part of the deal.
Through all of this, artists have been put in an awkward spot. The festival maintains that all acts have been paid in full — in sums totaling $32 million, according to their court petition. But many agents say they are unsure how seriously to take Lang’s promises to continue, particularly since the event is now less than 100 days away and no clear information about ticket sales or other essential plans has been communicated.
Still, some are holding out hope.
“I want to believe Michael,” said Frank Riley, who represents artists like Robert Plant and Nathaniel Rateliff, who are both booked for Woodstock 50. “I do not want to jeopardize our clients, but as long as Michael says he is going to continue to make an effort, I’m not going anywhere.”