After 12 years in Indio, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival has become more than just a hugely successful concert attraction.
The sold-out two-weekend event, which begins Friday at the Empire Polo Club, has become a brand more powerful than any of the acts in its lineup.
Bob Lefsetz, author of the influential music industry Lefsetz Letter, said after last year's Coachella, “It doesn't matter who plays the festival.
“Attendees trust Paul Tollett to put on a good show,” he wrote of the Coachella co-founder and president of Goldenvoice. “They expect a modicum of stars with a plethora of barely heard-ofs who may not ever be heard from again. Coachella is no longer act dependent. It's become a cultural institution. It's about being there.
“Yes, the music business has become event marketing.”
Now the question is, will the brand suffer by presenting the exact same lineup two weekends in a row?
Will a festival that has been recognized by the industry watchdog, Pollstar, as the best outdoor music festival in North America for eight of its 12 years be able to sustain its musical magic with an audience of social networking fans Tweeting and instant messaging its every artistic trick?
Coachella elevated its legend last June when, less than a month after Lefsetz's observation, Goldenvoice sold 68,000 of the 160,000 available passes before announcing any of the acts.
“Then we sold the balance of the tickets in two hours and 45 minutes in January,”
Tollett said this week.
Just more than two months later, Goldenvoice expanded its investment in its brand by purchasing 78 acres around the Empire Polo Club, including the neighboring Eldorado Polo Club.
They're going all in on a bet that fans won't tire of their presentations of cutting-edge music on five stages and visually stunning art installations.
Tollett says Goldenvoice is most proud of the fact that festival-goers from all over the world have faith in their programming.
“We are pleased that Coachella is trusted,” he said, “and realize it is a great responsibility, too.”
It's that sense of responsibility, Tollett said, that prompted Goldenvoice to expand to two weekends after the 2011 festival sold out in less than a week. There were so many people who couldn't get tickets — estimated at as high as 80,000 — that Goldenvoice decided to put a twist on what the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival also does in April.
“Jazz Fest is two weekends, but different talent each weekend,” Tollett said. “We felt that a second weekend with a similar lineup would give someone a better chance to go (but) we didn't want to have different talent. We didn't want someone to feel compelled to go twice so as not to miss (a favorite act).”
The big question now is, which will be the most exciting weekend?
Lefsetz, whose mother spends one month each winter in the Coachella Valley, predicts it will be the second weekend because the kinks will be worked out by then.
“Everybody knows you go to the late show or the last night of a stand,” he said by email this week. “Celebrities tend to go opening night/first weekend, but the second is usually better.”
Canadian dubstep artist Datik, performing each Friday, said he's most excited about the first weekend — three days after the release of his album “Vitamin D.”
“The first weekend will be the most exciting for me as it will be the first test run of the show we've been putting together,” said Datik. “I always tend to be more excited and anxious when I'm trying something different in front of a lot of people the first time.”
Coachella was inspired by the multi-stage, multi-day music festivals of Europe, such as the Reading and Glastonbury, which Goldenvoice founders saw as a perfect model for the 110-acre Empire Polo Club after promoting a Pearl Jam concert there in 1993. But Tollett said the desert's underground generator scene also made the Coachella Valley seem like an organic fit.
“For us, Coachella was an evolution of what we were promoting,” he said. “It was the next logical step to do a multi-stage/multi-day event. Taking into account the local desert scene and the European festival scene, too, it's all related to us. Like a band, we pick up influences from our contemporaries and the ones who did it before us.”
For Tollett, the desert scenery is an integral part of the festival. “Once you hit the windmills,” he says, “the festival starts.”
But, as Lefsetz wrote, the Empire Polo Club, owned by Alex Haagen III, is the festival's key ingredient.
Haagen designed the facility to have a personality in addition to being functional. It includes whimsical statues and a frame of lighted palm trees around what Haagen calls “a piece of living art.”
“Mr. Haagen is quietly the secret weapon of Coachella,” Tollett said. “His endless improvements are unparalleled to others in the facility business. Working 19 years with him (since the Pearl Jam concert) has taught us a lot about event presentation in general.”
The value of that venue is what inspired Goldenvoice to buy nearby real estate.
“That's what the owners of Goldenvoice have stated to me,” said Indio Mayor Glenn Miller. “They want a long-term commitment to the area and they wanted to make sure it stayed that way.”
Eldorado has 22 different owners and Miller said their offspring apparently don't have the same passion for polo as their parents. That inspired Goldenvoice to make several bids for their land.
“They could see probably that (Eldorado) was going to possibly be sold one day,” Miller said, “which might have put a serious damper on what they were doing. So, what I was told is, they made many a run at the thing with never getting anywhere. It was basically, ‘If you continue with polo we might do it.'
“I think it was because they agreed to do polo in perpetuity. It created polo for the foreseeable future. It allowed the owners to sell to somebody that had a vested interest in the community and had deep pockets to do whatever kind of maintenance.”
Controlling the venue
The land purchase won't impact this year's festival, but Goldenvoice official Skip Paige said it will eventually provide more useable space for parking, camping and VIP activities, and allow them to invest in infrastructure such as water tanks and consolidate the three storage facilities Goldenvoice now spends $100,000 a year on in Pomona, Colton and Indio.
Lefsetz wrote last May, “By controlling the venue, by making the upside so large, you avoid so many of the issues of the single show ... You can make a ton of money at a festival.”
Lefsetz is often critical of record labels, radio and MTV as tools for delivering new music to young listeners. But Goldenvoice has pioneered the concept of nurturing acts through its multiple stages at Coachella and its smaller venues throughout Southern California.
“(It's a) great event for Goldenvoice,” Lefsetz said this week, “but how much impact does it have musically as opposed to financially? Interesting question. Then again, it's hard to penetrate musically period these days.”
But, for all the evidence of Coachella's significance, many Indio residents don't reflect a sense of pride about Coachella's impact on the music business and pop culture in general.
“A lot of them see it more as an economic engine than they do as a festival engine, as to what it means to the music industry,” Miller said. “I think there are a great many residents in our community that understand what it means in the scope of the music industry.
“(But,) yeah, I think we take it for hindsight because it's here. We view the impact of it economically.”
Paige, who recently bought a home in Indio, said he's met with 25 homeowners associations in the area and learned “98 percent” of them view Coachella and the subsequent Stagecoach country festival positively.
One neighbor who was critical of Coachella in the past was pacified this year when she said she rented her gated community home for almost $7,000 per weekend.
Now Paige is working to pacify the remaining 2 percent.
“This is the most critically acclaimed music festival in the world and it's right down the street from La Quinta and Indio,” Paige said. “It should be something people are proud of.”