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Coachella by the Numbers

Tucked between the San Jacinto and Little San Bernardino mountain ranges in what geologists call the Cahuilla basin, the Coachella Valley has seen its share of big personalities, egomaniacs and big-time winners — not just the Björk kind, but also the Mary Pickford and Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball kind. The valley’s vistas have long been a magnet for those who not only inspire us with their art but define moments in time. Imagine Arnold Palmer driving at the Bob Hope Classic in 1960, and you can feel the breeze. Learn that Elvis and Priscilla honeymooned at a Palm Springs getaway in 1967, and wallow in the conjured comfort of Percodan and lube. Twenty years from now, will history recall with equal affection that moment in 2006 when a superhuman Madonna walked onto the Coachella stage and shocked the crowd with her brilliantly imagined Pilates/bodybuilding routine? Maybe. Will we remember Daft Punk’s come-from-behind victory? Wayne Coyne’s rubber bubble? Radiohead’s defiant Hail to the Thief explosion, or Modest Mouse’s 1999 (!) storybook debut?

Illustration by David Plunkert

(Click to enlarge)

Maybe. And maybe this April 25–27, 2008, some genius entertainer will carve another notch in history’s belt. Next week, once more the eyes of the world will gaze upon this California valley, where annually some of Western culture’s most popular musicians knock heads in a Battle of the Bands writ large. The Coachella Valley Music and Art Festival, where 21st-century dreams are made, where eardrums pop, where cuddle puddles sprout like clover in a (trampled) meadow. Coachella: 128 acts from 17 countries, bands of all shapes and sizes, some with great names, others with dumb names and yet others with dumber names. Coachella: host to a heartfelt singer-songwriter named Jack Johnson who gazes into the glorious sunsets as he fingers his guitar; magnet for a righteous French dance prima donna named Yelle, a French rapper named Uffie and a sassy neosoul Welshwoman, Duffy. (Got that?) Coachella: where Norwegians wrestle Swedes for rock & roll supremacy.

But who are these 128 bands, collectively? As one big amalgam, what are they?

In a nutshell: 11 dozen acts that 180,000 people might see and that millions of others will replay on YouTube. But promoter Goldenvoice Entertainment has transformed the festival, which began in 1999 basically as a rave, into a signifier. To play Coachella is the rock world’s equivalent of having your film screened at Sundance or your basketball team going to the Big Dance. You have arrived, your name’s on the marquee, if only for a moment. Congratulations, you played Coachella (and Yeasayer didn’t).

Coachella 2008 is a snapshot of a particular moment. So it’s useful to examine what exactly the festival tells us about the state of America’s tastes, to conduct a kinda sorta census, an approach that can yield a more revealing glimpse than a mere critique of the music (mostly good, with a lot of so-so and some really bad). Any critic can blather about which bands to see. What if we poke out the critical eye and instead consult our all-seeing Third Eye — which conjures solid numbers, statistics, pie charts and bar graphs and turns the ephemeral joys of music into cold, hard data? What constitutes — numerically — musical hotness in the USA in 2008? It’s certainly not CD sales. What can we expect — besides sweat, puke, beer and VIP jackasses — of the upcoming three-day Rock-Off?

L.A. Weekly has put the I back in team, and left me, who can barely spell the word demographer, let alone do any legitimate demographicating, to analyze this year’s roster. So here’s what I’ve done: entered data on all 128 acts that are appearing during the three days of Coachella. I researched and input the following information about each: nationality; ethnicity of lead singer; gender of lead singer; type of label they’re on (major or indie/self-released); number of full-length studio albums (excluding EPs and live albums but including mix CDs); Pitchfork’s rating of their most recent album (if available); genre (rock, hip-hop, singer-songwriter, electronic, R&B, Ukrainian Gypsy punk, etc.); and the peak number of viewings of each act’s highest-ranked YouTube clip. (Statistical note: I’ve searched and scoured for each artist’s videos — official, live and otherwise — and opted to use the highest-viewed clip by the artist, regardless of whether it’s a band-sanctioned or fan-generated clip.)

Whew. It was kind of a drag to do all that — very labor-intensive. But when I was done, I had a quarry in which I was able to mine for sparkly tidbits of data. For example: I can tell you the average Pitchfork score among British acts playing Coachella (6.1) vs. the average for American bands (7.3). I can tell you that the average score for black artists is 7.4, and for whites it’s 6.9. The average for women is 6.6; the average for men is 7.0. What else can we learn?

Click here to continue reading Coachella By the Numbers at our music blog, Play.

Click here for Liz Ohanesian's feature on Modeselektor.

Click here for Jeff Weiss' feature on My Morning Jacket.