Goldenvoice chief and Coachella creator Paul Tollett discusses the challenges and successes that came with creating the festival. (Photo: Michael Seto)
Billboard's Ray Waddell led yesterday's (Nov. 8) discussion with three of the principal team members behind the massively successful trifecta of Goldenvoice, Coachella, and Stagecoach -- their beginnings, their struggles, and their good fortune -- for the final day of the 2012 Billboard Touring Conference.
But first things first. Goldenvoice vice president Skip Page wanted to make it clear at the start: Coachella is the child of no one save Paul Tollett. Waddell asked the panel to describe their roles to the audience, and the frank and down-to-earth Page jumped right in, saying "Paul Tollett is the person that created Coachella. It was his vision, his idea. Everything that you see at Coachella came from Paul." Tollett himself went on to describe the early days of Coachella, when bands would accept a deferred payment (Skip Page provided the names of some of those angelically patient bands: "Rage Against The Machine, Beck, Tool. 'That last payment? Hold on to it' they said. I've never really seen that at other concerts we've done") and employees were willing to take a paycheck guaranteed to bounce.
"We paid our bills late," said Tollet, "If one agent had turned on us, we would been out of business. They let us pay some talent three, four, five months later. The staff back then was just so into Goldenvoice and Coachella that they rolled with any bumps. They would deal with anything. In the '90s we were just a small company, and couldn't compete because we didn't have an amphitheater. We thought we could never own anything... but there's a million fields out there."
Of course, it's all about that one field: Empire Polo Field, in Coachella, California. Tollett found the eventual home of his crowning achievement back in 1993, while looking for a venue that would convince Pearl Jam to come to Southern California, a well-documented performance that planted the seed for their festivals. "It was a really great show. Really crazy. So we wanted to do a festival five or six years later, and looked at a bunch of different places. But then we thought 'Why not go back out there?' Even before we looked at it, it hit us. We wanted it to be far. So you surrender. So you can't leave your house and see a couple bands and be back home that night. We want you to go out there, get tired, and curse the show by Sunday afternoon. That sunset, and that whole feeling of Coachella hits you."
Bill Fold (left) and Skip Page at the Billboard Touring Conference. (Photo: Michael Seto)
It was a common refrain among the panelists, a palpable love for "The Field" and the grand idea that they've turned into, semi-arguably, the most successful festival in the world. Eventually.
Skip Page described the financial aftermath of that first Coachella weekend. "When we did the first show in 1999, we were doing hundreds of shows a year already. We had cash flow. We had that illusion of money coming through the system. The thing about it was that nobody really knew, even us, until that last night of the first weekend of Coachella, how bad it was. We talk about losing money on shows all the time. Nobody really understood that, yeah, we lost money. The staff accountant knew. I remember her just bawling her head off. Crying. Not knowing what's going to happen to our company. But at the same time, having this feeling that this is the greatest thing we've ever done."
"I was so in denial that I was looking at art for the next year, the next day. Not even realizing we just killed everything," said Tollett.
After a year of licking their wounds, Page and Tollett were back at it, with AEG in their corner. "[AEG] bought our day to day concert business -- they didn't really buy Coachella. It was a very risky venture at the time, so we kept it separate. When we sold Goldenvoice we got just enough money to pay every band and vendor. We just paid off all those people who let us ride for over a year... and we wanted to do it again." From there, the ball was well on its way to rolling to Coachella's present situation: all-but guaranteed sell-outs, flying pigs, and holograms. And a second weekend.
"Paul said to us: 'What's better than Coachella? Two Coachellas,'" said Page. "I didn't originally buy into the same lineup thing. These guys were like 'you're not getting it.' So I said I'd roll with it. And they couldn't have been any more right. What would've happened if we had a different lineup on the second weekend? But instead what we were doing increased capacity while keeping the experience the same."
"I was driving when it hit me. We had this problem of selling out," said Tollett, to laughs across the room. "The problem was we're turning all these people away. The problem is there's 80,000 people out there totally bummed that they can't go to Coachella. We had all these different options. Do you go to another city? Or do we sell another 30,000 or 40,000 tickets and just jam them in there? If it was two different lineups, if someone goes the first weekend but wanted to see bands the following, it's just a bummer. You can't take work off, whatever. You feel really... like you're missing out." This year's bi-weekended festival sold out in three hours.
Goldenvoice promoter Bill Fold. (Photo: Michael Seto)
The panel also touched on Stagecoach, their country festival which takes place the weekend following Coachella and which had its first sell-out year this past April. "We wanted to make it so that it wasn't just two days of country on the main stage. We wanted to include all the types of things around country. So we put up a stage for alt country, classic, bluegrass... It's incredible watching complete legends, at it for 50, 60 years, still sounding great. We found a crowd in California that love... country."
"I think now when you go to Nashville... when we started I don't know if they thought we were a joke or what, but now they rely on that show," added Page.
Briefly, the panel looked towards Coachella's future, Waddell raising the question of brand extension. "Brand extension... y'know, we're trying the cruise. But pretty much no. We get calls from South America, Europe... people would give us these crazy licensing fees. Seven figures. If there wasn't the Internet, I might let a country I've never heard of give me money," said Tollett with a smile. "But... there's Google alerts."
"It's sacred," concluded Page.