Tastemaker: Coachella founder's desert turns Golden

To any of the 120,000 ticketholders at April’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif., it would be difficult to imagine that the showcase barely survived its first year.

Debuting in 1999, Coachella’s inaugural lineup was announced the same week that the cynical, poorly planned Woodstock ’99 exploded into an ugly orgy of mob violence and sexual assault.

“It was hard,” says Paul Tollett, fest founder and Goldenvoice president since 1991. “You’re trying to sell tickets to your event, and CNN’s talking about how scary festivals are.”

Owing to that prohibitive climate, Coachella’s first outing was a flop. Goldenvoice took a loss, selling only 20,000 tickets, and plans for a 2000 follow-up were scrapped. Two years later, Tollett brought it back as a stripped-down, one-day affair, and it’s been growing ever since. 2004 saw Coachella’s first sell-out, and this year’s installment drew fans from all corners of the globe.

Since joining Goldenvoice in 1985, Tollett has seen his company blossom from a small, DIY punk promoter into one of the most important live presenters in the country. True to his grassroots origins, Tollett refuses to sacrifice Coachella’s esprit for a grab at bigger bucks.

“The thing is, you love the festival more than the money, and you’d be crushed if you lost the vibe of the show,” he says. “That doesn’t always excite the accountants, but that’s the reality.”

From its inception, Coachella set a paradigm for live music in the U.S., one influenced by genre-spanning “destination” events like England’s famed Glastonbury and Reading fests. A key characteristic is the mixing of marquee artists and reunited legends with little-known up-and-comers, an aesthetic that has seen bands like the Arcade Fire, the Mars Volta and this year’s fan-fave Gnarls Barkley deliver career-defining sets.

“The week we announce the lineup, people always say, ‘OK, you’ve got some big bands, but the rest doesn’t mean much.’ Then, come the day of the show, a lot of it has really blown up,” he says.

Further distancing his baby from brand-heavy fests of the past (anyone remember the Vans-Target-Cingular Wireless Warped Tour?), Tollett also minimizes corporate sponsors and insists they keep a low profile (sponsor logos on the stages are strictly verboten). Such policies have done wonders for Coachella’s reputation among fans and artists alike.

In fact, that reputation has helped Tollett book bigger and bigger acts. He credits a personal “referral” from a past performer for Madonna’s surprise appearance in 2006.

“It’s better that way,” he adds, laughing, “because getting a call from a concert promoter isn’t that exciting.”

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