Woodstock Founder Michael Lang Gets a Gift
You may be aware that there were two Woodstocks announced for this summer’s 50th Anniversary. The first was announced by the Bethel Woods Foundation – they sit atop the actual site of the original event – and big-time promoter Live Nation. A few months later, Michael Lang, the primary creator of the original Woodstock (there are technically 4 founders but it was Michael’s idea and he made it happen), announced that he would also be producing an event over the Aug 15-17 dates. Two Christmases! Not.
Well now this was immediately shaping up to be a Battle Royale, or as my old friend Carl Berndtson would say, an axe fight in a cage where no one wins without serious casualties. I know. As a trade show and conference producer for the 30 years or so before I started the Bahr Gallery, I’ve faced the challenge of being one of two competing events in the same time and space several times. And no one wins.
Here is what was shaping up. Lang is producing his event at Watkins Glen – wait! That Watkins Glen? Yes, the site of the only concert bigger than Woodstock, what commonly known as just “Watkins Glen,” over the full name, “Summer Jam at Watkins Glen.” This was a one-day event held July 28, 1973 and a reported 600,000 people attended to hear The Band, The Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers. Check it out here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Summer_Jam_at_Watkins_Glen
But wait – I digress! OK, so Michael Lang is producing Woodstock 50 at Watkins Glen Raceway this summer. Many scratched their heads and said, can’t the three organizers figure out a way to combine forces? Well, I was asked that too back in the day and it just doesn’t work for two different organizations that both bring the same thing to the table. Couldn’t Amazon and Walmart just combine their online shopping sites? Uhhh, no.
OK, so let’s first consider the screwed up axe fight – what it means – or would have meant – blow by blow:
Booking performers: So, does a band play Bethel or Watkins Glen? Well, who is offering more money? Here is where the producers now get into a bidding war and their costs go way up if the bands’ managers are shrewd (kind of a job requirement). Could the bands play at both events? They are 3 hours away, why not? Well, non-competes are why not. What if Bethel or Woodstock decided to lock up the talent? Well, jack that cost up. Carlos Santana – whos 60+ city tour this year is managed by – uh oh – Live Nation – probably has the power to do what he promised before Michael Lang even announced, which was to play Lang’s event. Carlos would probably insist on playing both. Who had the advantage booking performers? Michael Lang had the sentimental edge, but Live Nation is producing events and making careers every day, every year. My point? Both producers would have to pay a lot more to the performers.
Ticket Sales: Which one would music lovers attend? Can’t tell you that but I can tell you this: They would not attend both. The two events would have split the audience and been approximately half the size if they were without this competition. So, let’s see. Higher performer expense. Significantly lower attendance. Ouch.
Ticket Prices: In the battle for attendance, both producers would have had to charge less than they wanted in order to compete. Now we have higher expense, fewer attendees and lower revenue per attendee.
Sponsor Revenue: What’s a sponsor to do? Both? Maybe, but that raises their costs just to “blanket” the NY rural festival universe. Again, Woodstock has the sentimental power but Live Nation has contracts – lots of them. Lower sponsor revenue all around.
Media Coverage: OK here is where the events probably don’t lose as they are close enough (3 hours away) that much of the press would have attended both if for nothing else than to see who won.
Both producers stood to get crunched, financially. An axe fight. No one wins.
So guess what? Live Nation blinked. Last week they cancelled. Woodstock 50 lives!
Now of course no upright Corporate Citizen just cancels – they figure out some way to mush over that fact, make it look like they are serving their customers better [and they are, actually]. In this case they are having some of their regular concerts over the same dates – the same thing they are doing all summer at Bethel – sort of spreading the Woodstock goodness over the whole summer.
So who wins? Michael Lang for sure, are you kidding me? The good guy finishes first for a change. The people who want to celebrate the memory of Woodstock – they are also big winners. Sponsors don’t have to choose. Performers don’t have to choose. This is great news for everyone.
So…why? I am guessing that short of knowing that Michael Lang had the Rolling Stones in his back pocket, Live Nation looked at the financial impact of the axe fight and decided that profits are the best form of valor and bailed. Now Lang only has to battle it out with the other 100 or so festivals this summer, all of which, in a way owe a large debt of gratitude to Lang’s vision, persistence, and execution of the original Woodstock.
I, for one, am hoping he succeeds wildly.