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Fixing Coachella

"The No. 1 thing was just too many bodies," admits Goldenvoice President Paul Tollett.
ILLUSTRATION BY JULIAN CALLOS

Read all of our Coachella 2010 coverage here and view photos in our "40 Most Memorable People at Coachella" slideshow.

Before April 2010, if you had asked local music fans about the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival, you would have heard a pretty consensual answer that reflected its well-earned reputation as one of the nation's most satisfying rock fests. Since the festival's 1999 founding by Goldenvoice Productions, the Coachella sensibility had been rooted in the original L.A. punk-rock scene, delivering good vibes and genuine excitement along with a wide range of alternative sounds chosen with a connoisseur's touch, from this year's headlining muscle of Jay-Z and Thom Yorke to the dreamier waves of emotion unfurled by the xx as the afternoon sun slowly slid behind the palm trees.

But something went very wrong for many fans in 2010, even as the stages erupted with the sounds of more than 100 bands and DJs. There were serious gripes about overcrowding, ticket snafus, parking gridlock and a creeping suspicion of new profit motives. It wasn't anything on the scale of June's Electric Daisy Carnival, marred by the fatal overdose of a teenage girl and hundreds of injuries after fans crashed through event barricades at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. And yet it was alarming by Coachella standards, as repeat customers reacted to the problems less with anger than with something resembling heartbreak.

For James Faulkner, making his fourth trip to Indio, his only desire was to recapture the experience of his first Coachella, in 2004, when he watched the Cure perform in an epic landscape with a peaceful, ecstatic crowd of music fans much like himself. "I don't want to say it changed my life, but ...," he recalls of that first year, but as he struggles to find the words, you know that maybe it had. Now he's not sure he'll ever return, calling the 2010 festival a clusterfuck, a word that has come up repeatedly online following this year's edition.

On the Coachella.com message board, one member posting as "Frazzles" wrote: "Just don't sell 75k tickets when there's no fucking space for 75k people." Another, "Joebizz," lamented: "Coachella means so much to me, and this year really twisted my head about what it is all about anymore."

None of this has gone unnoticed by Paul Tollett, the president of Goldenvoice, who co-founded Coachella with the late Rick Van Santen. He's talked to fans and read the online criticism.

"I've heard some people ask, 'Is this how it's going to be in the future?,'" Tollett says. "It's not for the faint of heart. I've been called out more than a few times. Our staff has been called out for decisions that we've made."

It's a Friday afternoon on the Goldenvoice side of AEG Live's headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard. Tollett's understated fifth-floor office overlooks the La Brea Tar Pits, and is decorated more like a living room than a corporate meeting place, with comfortable, minimalist furniture built by his brother. On the walls are huge photographs of great moments from the festival: Daft Punk atop its dazzling pyramid of lights, Roger Waters unveiling his inflatable pig and, out on the field, the fest's iconic Tesla coil, firing epic bolts of electricity into the night air.

In a few days, Tollett and his team were set to travel back out to the desert town of Indio to make plans for next year's festival, now scheduled for April 15, 16 and 17. "It's been a hundred days now since the show, and we've been writing notes down [about] how to make this show better," he says. "Almost across the board, each one of us came up with the same note: less people.

"The No. 1 thing was just too many bodies," Tollett adds. "That came from a few things. Number one, we sold more tickets than we have in the past." Specifically, Goldenvoice sold an additional 6,000 three-day tickets compared with the previous year, a jump in attendance compounded by a tidal wave of "sneak-ins, fence-cutting, counterfeit wristbands, counterfeit tickets," says Tollett. "We had a lame ticketing thing that we have to change, that actually made no sense."

The "lame ticketing thing" is Tollett's euphemism for the biggest opening-day mess, which kick-started the whole "Clusterfuckchella" meme. Ticket-scanning devices had technical failures, and fans complained of waiting hours in line just to get inside, a dramatic change from years before.

Jeremiah Henderson, 27, remembers waiting just 20 minutes to enter in 2009. This year, it took four hours. "I was searching for the beginning of the line to get into it, and I couldn't see where it began and ended. You're talking a couple of miles," says Henderson. "The crowd was starting to chant 'Fuck you' and 'Fuck the police' and 'Fuck Coachella.' People were pushing and shoving, and girls were starting to cry. It was insane."

 

Staff and volunteers eventually began accepting tickets and online-ticket printouts without scanning them, speeding up the process but also encouraging mass counterfeiting. Goldenvoice staff spotted people at a local copy store making duplicates of ticket printouts. A few bands were even found selling their VIP passes in the parking lot, says Tollett. Three-day tickets and counterfeits were being scalped for $500.

The result was a frequently packed crowd that could stretch virtually unbroken from one stage or tent to the other, leaving little room for the comfort level that has been a Coachella tradition.

As fans exited on Friday night after explosive sets by Them Crooked Vultures and Public Image Ltd., they were funneled toward a narrow gate near the Ferris wheel, which forced the crowd into a tight area. At one point, several people leaped over a generator's trailer-hitch and a low fence to escape the crush.

I was one of them. It was the first time since attending the very first Coachella, in 1999, that I ever felt unsafe at the annual show.

These are not fun stories for the soft-spoken Tollett to hear. Fortunately the weather was exceptional, and there were fewer than 80 arrests the entire weekend, a number lower than at Coachella 2009, according to Indio Police spokesman Benjamin Guitron.

Tollett promises that the unusual problems of 2010 are being addressed by Goldenvoice. "Once you've had a great Coachella, the truth is you're in search of that feeling again," he says. "You really don't want that feeling to go backwards. We have to deliver for everyone the best feeling they've ever had.

"I admit, Coachella is not cheap. It's not even the ticket price — the ticket price is actually fairly low when you analyze all the talent you get. It's the whole getting out there, traveling, hotel. There's ways to do it cheap, but a lot of people don't."

This year, there were also complaints that single-day tickets were not available for the first time, requiring fans to purchase three-day passes at $269 apiece. Tollett has his reasons. His goal with this is not about profit, he insists, but to encourage fans to commit for the full three days rather than pop in for a few favorite acts. Goldenvoice could potentially earn more, he says, by again selling single-day tickets at $99 each.

"It's only once a year. This is a special moment," he says. "It's like the Super Bowl — you can't buy the fourth quarter only. Also, we do have a layaway program that gives you a chance to put some money away, little by little.

"The last-minute impulse if you're broke? That show isn't going to work for you. But it is coming up nine months from now. I can almost promise it will be a great show — I would start saving now if it's trouble," he suggests. "I think we've made it to where you can actually do it on a budget. The person who complains and says, 'I can only go one night because of money,' and then they stay at La Quinta Resort? I don't really feel that's fair."

Even as fans began to complain openly online about the experience, AEG Live CEO Randy Phillips was boasting in The Hollywood Reporter of this year's record Coachella three-day attendance of 225,000 (well above the previous peak head count of 186,636, in 2007). Not mentioned in the article was how much bottom-line success had cost in terms of customer dissatisfaction.

Tollett says decisions about tickets, price and comfort were not made under any influence from corporate parent AEG (Anschutz Entertainment Group), which absorbed the independent Goldenvoice into its Concerts West division at the beginning of the last decade.

"That pressure is not coming from them. We're setting our own pace," Tollett says. "They've been great the whole way — I'm glad they're my partner. They are not pushing to make a certain amount of money. They know that show can be up or down. We clearly want a great show, and it costs. Some years are not a great show financially, but we don't back down. We had a year recently that lost money — and I didn't cut one dollar from anything. I never would. People that paid their money, they want a certain show. It's on us if we're going to make or lose. We're not going to cut to a bad experience just because I booked it a certain way and it didn't resonate in huge numbers."

Goldenvoice also has come under attack for restricting Coachella acts from performing other shows in the region, shutting out any Los Angeles fans not heading out to the desert from seeing their favorite bands. There have been exceptions. In 2009, the promoter allowed Leonard Cohen another local show just prior to the festival. Three days in the desert is not for everyone. "I didn't want the burden of every Leonard Cohen fan," Tollett says. "There are some people who are his fans that clearly would not have dealt with Coachella well."

 

He adds, "We've lightened up a little bit. We don't want to be too overreaching in keeping bands out of L.A., partly because we are a concert promoter and we have the El Rey and the Fonda. I don't want the average Los Angeles fan not liking Coachella because it sucks up all the bands. But I clearly need some exclusivity to get people to go to the desert for something fun."

The promoter's aim is to operate with the same attitude set by Goldenvoice founder Gary Tovar, who sold the punk-rock company to Tollett and Van Santen two decades ago. The company still flies a vintage logo created by Chuck Dukowski of Black Flag, and owes its success to an ongoing awareness of new, forward-looking sounds forever rising from club level.

Keeping that sensibility and commitment often returns Tollett to an idea he learned while studying chemical engineering at Cal Poly Pomona. "One of the big words [there] was 'entropy' — things go from order to disorder," Tollett says. "I always talk about it — you've got to overcome that. Just because you have a good show doesn't mean it eventually has to go away. Work really hard, overcome that, because it's not a fait accompli."

Coachella was birthed just months after the catastrophic flameout of the final Woodstock festival, in 1999, which disintegrated into an unholy cauldron of fire, mosh-pit rape, nu-metal excess and $4 bottles of water. Goldenvoice's event was notably humane by comparison, a tradition that has raised the bar not only for other festivals, but for itself. Coachella fans learned to expect more than just competence — something closer to nirvana in the desert, with many making plans to return months before the next festival's talent lineup is even announced.

Only three years ago, the Coachella campgrounds shook with a joyous, militant chant: "What better place than here, what better time than now!" Hundreds of young rock fans were on the march, stomping past tents and sleeping bags, shouting that same lyric into the night over and over, all in anticipation of the next day's onstage reunion of Rage Against the Machine. For a moment, an Indio Police helicopter hovered overhead, but this wasn't trouble, it was celebration, and they meant every word: "What better place than here?"

Tollett expects next year's Coachella to be a step forward in the festival's evolution. After a full decade of general fan satisfaction — and with one imperfect gathering in Indio in 2010 — anything less would only be a letdown.


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