Goldenvoice promoter Paul Tollett developed Coachella, Stagecoach into successful fests
The big three of Goldenvoice are Skip Paige (left), Bill Fold and Paul Tollett.
"Paul Tollett remembers staring at an empty cupboard as a kid in West Covina.
It was his brother Perry, who now has a home in Coachella, who made sure he was fed.
“When we were broke, he was always the king of something-out-of-nothing,” recalled the promoter of the Coachella and Stagecoach music festivals during a recent conversation in a rented house near the Empire Polo Club in Indio.
“Just when you thought there was nothing in the house, he'd pull out lime juice and Ritz crackers, and pretty soon we had a meal.”
According to Tollett, this weekend's Stagecoach festival was concocted from a similar formula.
More than 55,000 people are expected to attend today's conclusion of the event, billed as California's Country Music Festival. But less than a decade ago, there was no market for a country festival in Southern California. So, Tollett had to manufacture one.
Empire Polo Club owner Alex Haagen III was planning to develop the land Tollett's Goldenvoice company had been leasing for the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival since 1999. Haagen needed another revenue-earning event to make it financially viable to give Goldenvoice a long-term lease.
In 2007, Goldenvoice partnered with the Nashville-based Messina Group to produce the first Stagecoach, headlined by George Strait, Kenny Chesney and Brooks & Dunn.
Three years later, it signed a long-term agreement with Haagen and the future of its festivals was guaranteed.
“With Stagecoach, I feel that was something out of nothing,” said Tollett, who rarely gives interviews. “No one was thinking to put a big country music festival together in California.”
'I would just be too nervous'
Tollett, 45, of Laguna Beach, has been called a genius for his ability to attract hundreds of thousands of music fans to the desert. Hotels from Beaumont to Blythe routinely sell out months in advance for the Coachella festival, annually named North America's premier music festival by the industry publication Pollstar.
Such accolades have made Tollett a veritable rock star with local civic leaders.
“In the abstract, he brings to Indio hope for the future, innovation, inspiration,” Indio Mayor Lupe Ramos Watson said. “I see Paul Tollett as a bridge between what Indio was in the past and what Indio is to be in the future.”
Tollett says he's honored to help the community. But he's so adamant about sharing credit with the Goldenvoice staff he won't even have his picture taken without them.
You also won't see him onstage or glad-handing rock stars for the camera. During Coachella and Stagecoach, he prowls the polo grounds alone checking on everything from trash cans to security, his face shadowed beneath his trademark ball cap.
“I never wanted to be onstage. To this day, I would have a hard time changing someone's microphone onstage. I would just be too nervous,” Tollett said.
He's a lean 6-footer, quiet and personable, but capable of delivering a caustic one-liner like a surprise left hook.
Divorced, he has a 15-year-old daughter who was at Coachella. She suffered a bloody nose when she got hit by an errant elbow on in the Sahara Tent. Tollett observed, “Good parenting, huh”
Son of a machinist
Goldenvoice is owned by oilman Philip Anschutz' entertainment conglomerate, AEG Live, which operates many Southern California venues, including the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Tollett owns a managing share of the Coachella festival, which he co-founded in 1999, but he reports to AEG Live's West Coast president, Brian Murphy, a former competitor with the LiveNation company.
AEG Live President and CEO Randy Phillips has described the relationship between Murphy and Tollett as “a marriage made in heaven.”
“With Paul, you get the best combination,” Phillips said. “You get this visionary guy who paints a canvas every time he puts one of these festivals together. It's almost like art in booking these things. Then he's backed by us. We're a very responsible set of partners.
”Besides its festivals, Goldenvoice books such L.A. venues as the El Rey Theatre, Club Nokia and the Nokia Theatre, and the Fox Theatre and the Glass House (which Tollett and his brother own) in Pomona. Tollett says eight or nine people book the Goldenvoice acts, and they're more friends than subordinates.
“We really don't acknowledge any of our titles,” Goldenvoice promoter Bill Fold says. “We would prefer to be referenced as the promoters (or) producers of Goldenvoice festivals.”
Tollett calls himself a “worker” and says he got that ethic from his family.
“My brother was an upholsterer, and my dad was a machinist, and I just watched them work,” he said. “I remember I went with my dad to work on a Saturday, and he was feeding steel rods into machines and he said, ‘You know what I want you to be when you grow up?' I said, ‘What?' He said, ‘Anything but this.' Gotcha. Mental note.”
'The golden era'
Tollett's family moved to the East Los Angeles town of La Puente from Ohio when he was eight and migrated to West Covina the following year. He learned to play Ramones songs on the guitar but never joined a band.
Instead, he helped his brother's group, creating and passing out fliers before he was old enough to drive.
“We did that at high school football games, all the record stores,” he said. “We'd hit Irvine Meadows, every windshield with a flier. You weren't allowed to do it, so you'd have to really be sneaky.”
Tollett and his brother promoted their first concert at the now-defunct Orlando's restaurant in Pomona when Paul was 17. They continued booking ska and punk acts after enrolling at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Friends called them the Chemical Brothers — not to be confused with the band of the same name — because they were both chemical engineering majors.
Tollett joined Goldenvoice at age 19.
Gary Tovar formed the company out of his Huntington Beach house in December 1981. He used the best sound man on the punk scene, Dave Ratt, and booked pioneering Southern California punk bands such as Black Flag and Social Distortion.
Tollett was trying to book Big Audio Dynamite, led by former Clash guitarist Mick Jones, when Tovar came to Pomona to compete for the gig. The two hit it off, and Tollett went to work for him.
In 1991, Tovar was arrested for selling marijuana, and Tollett and fellow employee Rick Van Santen took over the company as Tovar began his sentence. During that time, Goldenvoice continued to grow.
Tollett looks back at that time as “the golden era.” They promoted Fender's Ballroom in Long Beach and the Palladium in Hollywood. They booked bands no one else would touch, including three acts from last weekend's Big 4 festival. They booked other artists that would go on to use Ratt's mammoth sound system as Coachella headliners, including the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane's Addiction.
“I look at Coachella as just an extension 25 years later of the small punk shows that seemed huge at the time,” Tollett said. “The care of the building, the show, the lineup, the bands, where it flows well.”
Book it, and they will come
In an interview at last year's Coachella festival, Jane's Addiction frontman Perry Farrell told The Desert Sun he used Goldenvoice in the late '80s because he liked Tollett's attitude and style.
“I liked who he was booking,” Farrell said. “He was bringing in the groups from England, all the cool groups with the bigger shows. He knew what he was talking about. So, I started to hang with him.”
Farrell started the traveling Lollapalooza Festival in 1991 as a farewell tour for Jane's Addiction and hired Goldenvoice to promote it. The company booked Pearl Jam at the Empire Polo Club in 1993, when the popular grunge band refused to play L.A. because of a dispute with Ticketmaster.
Goldenvoice continued booking Lollapalooza tours through 1997, the same year Tollett went to the Glastonbury Music Festival in England and sketched out an idea for a revolutionary music festival based on the concept of multiple venues.
The idea, Tollett said, was to book a lot of cool bands that weren't very hot on the music charts. “Maybe if you put a bunch of them together,” he said, “that might be a magnet for a lot of people.”
He and Van Santen checked out a country music festival called the Big Gig at the Empire Polo Club in 1998. They were so impressed at how Haagen's lush landscape could serve as a canvas for a festival, they booked their event there, despite the Big Gig's failure.
The first Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival drew 50,000 people to the Empire Polo Club over two days. But it lost so much money, Tollett had to sell his house to pay his debts.
“I didn't even put a for sale sign up because I lived by Brian Murphy,” he said. “He was my competitor, and I didn't want him to know I'm a complete failure. So I sold the house for cheap. I didn't want to put a big flashing light, ‘Loser!' over here. At the time, it was tough.”
But Coachella was named North America's best outdoor music festival by Pollstar — the first of a string of such awards. AEG Live bought Goldenvoice in 2001, and by 2004, Coachella was turning a profit.
But there were still tough years ahead. Phillips said Coachella lost money in 2008 because it overspent on mainstream headliners Prince and Roger Waters and failed to sell out.
The event turned a corner last year, Phillips said, when it sold out with 75,000 people buying three-day passes. Now he believes Coachella will soon join Glastonbury as the world's only music festivals that sell out before announcing its acts.
Stagecoach also sold more than 100,000 tickets over two days in 2010. In light of the Big Gig flop, Todd Marker, general manager of the local country radio station the Big 106, said that was as significant as Coachella's growth.
“I think what Paul's done that he needed (to do) to be successful is, he tied up all the country radio stations in Southern California and worked with them to drive the traffic to the market,” said Marker.
“He brings DJs out here for a weekend and wines and dines them to talk about the Coachella Valley and the music experience ... I think he strategically plans what he needs to do to get the volume of people there. Obviously, he's a good promoter.”