The story behind Coachella
Paul Tollett, 51, is the C.E.O. of Goldenvoice, a Los Angeles-based promoter owned by the entertainment conglomerate A.E.G. The allure of the musical paradise that Tollett has conjured in the desert helped him sell almost 200k tickets to last year’s Coachella, over two weekends, grossing $95m. Now, with Desert Trip – “Oldchella” – Tollett had pulled off a twin-weekend festival with a staggering $160m gross, the largest ever music-festival box office.
It began with a flight to Buenos Aires where the Stones were performing, to pitch the concept, because, “if you get them when the paparazzi aren’t around you can talk to them.”
Tollett, an engineer at heart, thrives on solving the kinds of problems that bringing close to a hundred thousand people, about a third of them campers, to the desert for three days can generate:
- It’s not mud (it hardly ever rains, the curse of Eastern festivals), it’s heat
- Gate-crashing, a common plague for promoters of sixties-era festivals – eliminated by Paul’s older brother Perry, an upholsterer by trade, whose crew built the ten-foot-high white fence that surrounds much of the perimeter, a three-year job.
- Counterfeited entrance wristbands – R.F.I.D. chips embedded in the wristbands, with copyproof holograms in the tickets, have eliminated that concern, for now.
- Giant video monitors, delayed slightly, to allow time for the sound to travel the thousand feet or so from the stage.
What’s in the Coachella brand?
The town of Coachella was supposed to be called Conchilla, Spanish for the tiny shells left behind by a prehistoric inland sea, but the printer of the town’s prospectus misspelled the word, and the citizenry rolled with it.
Brand equity: Coachella looks like this generation’s version of “California Dreamin’, much more Monterey Pop than Woodstock, appealing in winter’s day in Stockholm or London or New York (H&M carries its own licensed Coachella line)
For artists, placement on the poster translates directly into booking fees. Rarely has typography been so closely monetized:
- The headliners for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in 2017 were Radiohead, Beyoncé, and Kendrick Lamar, respectively, each of whom would receive between $3 and 4 million for playing.
- Below them were seven lines of artist and band names.
- The first line noted the reunions (New Order), the critical darlings (Bon Iver, Father John Misty), and the biggest E.D.M. (electronic dance music) d.j.s;
- The font for the second, third, and fourth lines became progressively smaller, allowing more artists to be listed.
- The lowest three lines were all the same size. Some of those acts make less than ten thousand dollars.
For E.D.M. d.j.s, in particular, placement on the poster can determine their future asking price, not only in the United States but internationally. […] Instead of hard numbers, the d.j.s use social-media-based metrics to measure their popularity: Facebook friends, Twitter followers, YouTube views.
Joel Zimmerman, Martin Garrix’ agent:
“All the artists are on Insta, […] It’s the platform. Before that, it was Twitter, and before that it was Facebook. Martin has ten million, and the other guy”—the wily agent didn’t want to use Snake’s name—“has three million. And Martin has seventy-eighty-per-cent engagement. To me, that’s a great measuring stick.”
For Tollett: “There is no underground anymore. It’s all kind of pop, in a way, and it goes up quickly because of SoundCloud. Some of these artists get stats over a six-week period that are just crazy. I make an offer for small bands, and in six months the world can change for them so much. Or you buy them at their peak and their numbers are dropping off each day. It’s like gambling. Going short, going long.
He also wants his first-time bookings, with an audience of only two hundred on Gobi, the smallest stage, to have the show of their lives. Coachella is a delicate ecosystem of the grand and the intimate. Tollett creates the biosphere that sustains it.
When Nirvana was doing arenas, Goldenvoice couldn’t afford the deposits to secure the buildings. “And that’s where the idea to put on a festival came from. It was, like, We can’t own an arena, but there are fields everywhere.”
Lessons learnt from Woodstock’s festival:
The traffic, the gate-crashing (the festival was declared free by Friday night), the pictures of grubby longhairs zonked to the gills, and the cleanup of Yasgur’s farm all made it much harder for promoters to get the necessary permits for future festivals. And the size of the crowds inspired agents to raise their clients’ prices.
In 1997, Tollett had some photographs of Haagen’s club taken, and made up a pamphlet touting a possible festival. (This time, the printer spelled the name right.) That summer, he went to the Glastonbury festival with a stack of pamphlets, to give bands and managers the idea. Glastonbury is legendary for the muddy fields produced by Britain’s so-called summertime. “It was mind-blowing,” Tollett said. “Worst rain ever. We had this pamphlet I was giving out, showing sunny Coachella. Everyone was laughing.”
“In ’99 we got it together. Beck, Morrissey, the Chemical Brothers. The show was in October. We announced in August. Which is so stupid. To break a brand-new festival sixty days away is financial suicide. But we didn’t know that.” Although Coachella lost money on its 1999 début, nearly bankrupting Goldenvoice, and required four years to become profitable, by 2011 the festival had grown so popular that Tollett offered a second weekend, with the same lineup. (“What’s better than Coachella?,” as he put it to his skeptical partners. “Two Coachellas.”)
About three-quarters of the tickets for this year’s shows were sold in advance, to allow fans to pay in installments. When the rest went on sale, the day after the lineup’s release, they were gone within two hours, leaving more than a quarter of a million unhappy people waiting in the queue.
Coachella and Napster launched in the same year, 1999. Just as the indoor-rock-concert industry and the record business grew up together—concerts were like albums, in which you got to see the musicians playing the songs live—so modern festivals have created a live version of the streaming-music experience: instead of listening to one artist, you catch ten. “People are aware of a lot more artists these days,” Tom Windish, a partner in the agency Paradigm. “They’ve heard one or two songs, not enough to hire a babysitter and go see the band, but enough to walk a couple hundred feet to see them at a festival and become a huge fan.”
What did he do right?
- Artist fees of between three and five million dollars helped. In addition, each act got its own tented friends-and-family acre for the entire two weeks.
- Controlled food-and-beverage & ticket companies (usually asking half a million in advance to run the concessions as a way to cut losses up front). You have to control it. Because, if the concession guy is in control, water will go from two bucks to five bucks when you’re not looking
- No sponsors’ logos on the stages. “I feel like when the band is playing it should be you and the band, and it’s a sacred moment.” (Plenty of profane branding goes on offstage, however.)
What went wrong?
- Tickets were $50 for each of two days—should have been $55
- Needed a longer campaign to get word out. Tollett’s history of fair dealing with bands and venders was his karmic golden voice. Agents, led by Geiger, workedout long-term payment plans. “A couple bands let us slide”
He envisions a kind of Coachella East, a multiday urban event that would involve not just music but “tech, art, fashion, and culinary leaders in New York,”. But a great festival requires a great site. “You’re always looking for a reason to go to New York. This becomes that reason.”
This is so clever!!
About the 2017 line-up
“I didn’t start looking for a backup until we got the call Beyoncé was positively postponing,” he said.
Staying female and pop, he swiftly secured the services of Lady Gaga, who was fresh from a well-received performance at the Super Bowl. She wasn’t Beyoncé—no mortal is—but she was the first woman to headline Coachella since Björk, in 2007.
And, with Queen Bey set to headline in 2018, Tollett had an early shot at finally coming up with the immaculate lineup he had always dreamed of. At least, he allowed, “it will give me a chance to experiment with some other bookings.”