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How Coachella Became Coachella

Coachella is turning 25 this year. We took a trip through the archives and spoke with a festival diehard to see how it became one of the largest festivals in the world.

DoubleBlind Mag

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Published on
Updated April 15, 2024

At this point, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival is practically a household name. Every year, this three-day music festival—which happens over two consecutive weekends in April—offers a snapshot of the American pop-culture zeitgeist. Peacocking celebrities attend Coachella as much to see as to be seen, while professional influencers make the pilgrimage each year to cultivate their online personas. Fashion statements like the “flower crown” would probably not exist if not for Coachella. 

Of course, Coachella also gives regular music fans the chance to experience once-in-a-lifetime live performances, including downright historic moments like the Tupac hologram of 2012 and Beyoncé’s marching-band coup of 2018. It’s magical pop-music moments like these that truly make Coachella relevant. 

“Coachella’s position as (arguably) the world’s most important music festival (or top three, at least) means that artists usually do something special or at least work hard to really bring it,” says Katie Bain, the director of Billboard magazine’s dance music channel, who has attended Coachella nearly a dozen times since 2008. “Plus, the festival site itself is gorgeous and singular. You can’t beat the desert sunsets, and the way it’s all lit at night is so special. It can really feel like the center of the universe.”

Coachella first launched as a two-day shindig in 1999, and accounts of that first weekend suggest that the festival’s founders and many of the first festivalgoers simply assumed a thing like this could never happen again. So how did Coachella get so far—and what can other budding promoters learn from the festival’s success? In time for the latest edition of Coachella, which happens April 12-14 and April 19-21, we took a deep dive into Coachella history to figure out the blueprint that shaped the fest from Day One. 

Lesson 1: Build a sterling reputation with artists

Goldenvoice, the Los Angeles-based promoter behind Coachella, is about as corporate as a promotion company can get—it’s a subsidiary of AEG Worldwide, the biggest rival to Live Nation. But the company got its start in the 1980s as a punk promoter. Gary Tovar founded the company, a legendary impresario who used funds he earned from smuggling cannabis into the country to put on shows featuring British and American bands like the Damned, Black Flag, and Jane’s Addiction. 

Paul Tollett and Rick Van Santen, Coachella’s eventual founders, spent years working with Tovar before he handed them control of the company when the DEA arrested Tovar on trafficking charges in 1991. Eight years later, when Tollett and Van Santen were ready to put together the lineup for the first Coachella, they had no problem booking major acts like Rage Against the Machine since they were well known for being music lovers who put on good shows. “Very clearly, I can say [Coachella] was just another concert put on by our longtime friends at Goldenvoice,” Rage guitarist Tom Morello told the LA Times

Lesson 2: Pick a great location

Photo Depicting Empty Lawn
Image Courtesy of Fiona Jackson via Unsplash

Before Coachella, most music festivals were often held in rather grim locations—usually a parking lot or a muddy field. Woodstock ’99, the shameful fiasco that ended just months before the first Coachella in a chaotic maelstrom of sexual assaults, arson, and deaths, was hosted on the sun-baked asphalt expanse of a defunct Air Force base. 

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On the other hand, the first edition of Coachella brought 50,000 festivalgoers out to the Empire Polo Grounds in what was then a little-known corner of Southern California’s Colorado Desert. The trip required a two-hour-plus drive from Los Angeles, and temperatures were rising up to a scorching 107 degrees, turning the porta-potties into fragrant poop ovens. But the polo grounds offered a welcome change of pace: Breathtaking mountain vistas surrounded the stages; festivalgoers rested on green, manicured grass. 

“I think none of us could believe how pristine the lawn as a site was,” recalled publicist Judy Miller Silverman in an interview with The Ringer. Today, plenty of fests still go down in parking lots and muddy fields, but the Coachella grass remains as lush as ever. 

Lesson 3: Stack your lineup with tastemaking talent   

A close look at the original Coachella lineup shows that Goldenvoice knew its stuff. The festival leaned towards the alternative, balancing radio-friendly headliners (including Beck, Morrissey, and Rage Against the Machine) alongside shambolic and eccentric indie-rock darlings like Modest Mouse and Pavement. 

The late 1990s and early 2000s saw a huge boom in rave culture worldwide. Goldenvoice brought on hitmaking English duo the Chemical Brothers and nine artists from the UK label Ninja Tune to fill out an impressive lineup of tastemaking electronic artists. Coachella’s booking helped create new touring opportunities for the artists: “The rest of North America benefited from that as the anchor point,” former label manager Jeff Waye told The Ringer. 

That tastemaking savvy set the stage for future electronic music triumphs, including Daft Punk’s paradigm-shifting “pyramid show” in the Sahara Tent in 2006. Today, the fest keeps following developments in the scene: “This year they’re debuting a new stage, Quasar, that will feature 3-4 hour sets,” Bain of Billboard Dance tells DoubleBlind. “I feel like you can tell what’s happening at the forefront of the commercial dance scene in the US by looking at what Coachella is doing [and] who they’re booking.” 

Lesson 4: Be willing to lose money—at least on the first try

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Image Courtesy of Emil Kalibradov via Unsplash

Many music lovers long for the first Coachella, wishing they’d been there. Around 25,000 people showed up each day for that first two-day edition, just a fraction of the estimated 125,000 daily visitors who now show up over Coachella’s two separate three-day weekends. 

As it turns out, ticket sales and other revenue streams weren’t enough to recoup Goldenvoice’s expenses. The 1999 festival was a financial flop, losing Goldenvoice between $850 thousand to a million dollars, according to a New Yorker piece published in 2017. Tollett sold his house and car, and Goldenvoice had to work out payment plans to cover artists’ fees without going bankrupt. But the event’s success in other ways helped pave the way for a massive cash infusion from AEG Worldwide—one of the world’s biggest promotion companies—which bought Goldenvoice in 2001 and later took over half of Coachella, with Tollett owning the other half. 

Lesson 5: Don’t alienate your audience

Woodstock ’99 literally went up in flames by the end of the weekend because the organizers prioritized business interests over the audience’s comfort. The defunct Griffiss Air Force Base, where the festival was held, offered little picturesque mood-setting but created a secure perimeter to prevent festivalgoers from sneaking in without paying for a ticket. Temperatures were in the triple digits, but vendors sold water bottles for a brutal fee of $4 each ($7.45 in today’s dollars). 

Image Depicting Woman Holding Sign that Says "Water" at Woodstock 1999
Woodstock, 1999. Image Courtesy of Flickr.

Over on the West Coast, Tollett knew that would not fly for the Coachella audience. According to the New Yorker piece, Tollett made sure that Goldenvoice had control over every aspect of the festival, from the ticket booth to the vendors. Subcontracting services would have meant more money going to the promoter upfront, but it can also lead to price gouging and other shenanigans that ruin the atmosphere. “I wouldn’t let 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,” he said. 

Of course, there’s always the possibility that audiences can ruin things for themselves. The cultural landscape has changed radically since 1999, and Coachella, in recent years, has become oversaturated with algorithmic hype, celebrity sightings, and influencer culture. “Obviously, it’s a trend that’s grown in tandem with the proliferation of social media use among fans and by the festival and onsite brands themselves,” says Bain, Billboard’s Coachella veteran. Many of the influencers and social media types get their business done on Coachella’s Weekend One, leaving Weekend Two as the best time for genuine fans to take a break from the world and get lost in the music.  

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