Desert Trip Founder Paul Tollett Explains Pulling Off McCartney, Stones & Dylan Lineup

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
Paul McCartney hangs out and throws a few punches with fans at Coachella 2014 on April 11, 2014.

Goldenvoice's Paul Tollett on how the rock mega-concert became a two-weekend reality.

As founder and producer of Coachella, Goldenvoice chief Paul Tollett has been the man behind many “big” rock ‘n roll moments over the course of his career. 

This year, Tollett is responsible for the two biggest live music stories of 2016: successfully reuniting Guns & Roses for performances at Coachella back in April, and putting together the most mind-blowing rock bill ever in Desert Trip which, like Coachella, will take place on consecutive weekends, beginning tomorrow (Oct. 7). On tap are Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones (Oct. 7, 14), Neil Young with Promise of the Real and Sir Paul McCartney (Oct. 8, 15), and the Who and Roger Waters. 

With a talent and production budget estimated at about $100 million and a gross expected to exceed $150 million, the financials alone are unprecedented. But, for rock fans, the sheer audacity of assembling six of the most epic names in the history of the genre, all with stellar live cred built over decades, was enough to entice producers to quickly add a second weekend, and build the most anticipation of any shows this year.

Desert Trip also gives Goldenvoice parent AEG Live (a subsidiary of global sports and entertainment giant Anschutz Entertainment Group) the highest-profile live event of the year for the second year in a row, following the Grateful Dead’s 50th Anniversary Fare Thee Well shows last year.

Tollett typically shuns interviews, preferring the attention be focused on the artists he presents. Billboard was able to pin him down for an interview, however, and he and his team were making final preparations for what may be one of the greatest rock shows ever.

Billboard: How long has the idea for Desert Trip been percolating?

Paul Tollett: Around May of 2015 the thought started to come together -- then I went and saw each artist play again. I was blown away by how strong these artists’ shows were, and the varied demographic of the audience.

What was the general concept you wanted to present -- “greatest concert ever,” “biggest bands on earth”? A “boomer-targeted’ show, “your favorite bands,” “rock royalty”?

We didn’t feel the need to define it. Historic is cool and all, but we were more interested in putting together a great rock show. That never gets old.

Was the idea in place when the Indio city officials approved another event for the site?

We worked towards getting a permit for two more weekends with nothing specific in mind. With that permit in hand, then the wheels started turning in my head. We’re thankful that the City of Indio took a leap of faith.

Given you had the second weekend held, you must have had a fair amount of hopeful optimism, but did this exceed your expectations? Did you consider this a risky proposition, or were you confident?

We were on the fence about a second weekend right up until the day we announced and saw the reaction. We pulled the trigger on the second weekend around midnight before the on-sale, due to internet traffic on the Desert Trip website. It was four times the traffic of a typical Coachella announcement.

Describe the on-sale, where you were, the pattern, your reaction. Were you nervous?

It was maybe the most exciting day at the Goldenvoice office ever, you could feel the excitement in the air.

What can you tell me about the ticket buying pattern: demo, age, where they come from?

The buying pattern is the most across-the-globe to any other event we’ve ever promoted. We have many people in their 20s, and a few in their 90s, who have bought passes. It’s probably the first show that the number of people bringing their kids is equal to the number that are bringing their parents.

Do you consider Desert Trip to be a “festival” in the traditional sense of the word, maybe a festival for non-festival-goers?

It seems like a straight ahead concert, since it’s only two bands per day, but has the offerings of a festival. With the food and beverage programs and photography exhibit, we think it will be a very social experience.

This is surely the biggest talent budget ever; Can you give me an idea of how you took this concept to [AEG owner] Phil Anschutz? His faith in the event? How much convincing did it take to your colleagues? Any naysayers?

I didn’t really experience any naysayers; with our track record, [Anschutz] was receptive from the first mention of the concept. The lineup was self explanatory.

Who committed early and helped make it happen?

I was in slow talks with each of the six, and when it seemed like each artist’s schedule worked, and they were receptive to playing a big event, and then later this specific concept, I then sent a financial offer with a short window to confirm. It all went easy once the concept was out of the way; the money side of things wasn’t any drama, since we promote these artists elsewhere and have an understanding of their worth.

How did you arrive at scaling and pricing, reserved and GA?

We wanted to keep the GA price at Coachella’s price point ($399). The reserved seat is harder, but we just tried to vary it to have a price point for everyone. In the end, the price had no resistance -- no regrets for not charging more.

I would rather sell the tickets quickly and have no drama than trying to maximize and have that headache. We didn’t understand exactly what we were building in terms of a portable stadium, so we were cautious regarding sight lines. Now that we are knee deep in the build, we can see it’s going to be incredible, so we opened up some great seats and are putting them on sale.

How did you arrive at the pairings on each night?

PT: “Like a Rolling Stone” (a Dylan classic) made it a natural for Dylan and the The Rolling Stones together in my head, plus I saw a picture of a young shirtless Mick Jagger looking at a Dylan album, which is one of my favorite rock photos.  Neil and Paul were close, so that seemed to fit well, and then the Who and Roger Waters together seemed insane.  When I mentioned the running orders to the acts, all of them were cool with it right off the bat.

AEG Live and its Goldenvoice and Concerts West divisions have relationships and history with most of these acts. How helpful was that? Were there any agents or managers that were particularly helpful early on?

I would file this question under, “A little help from my friends.” Very helpful. Over the years, we have become so close to the other staff at the sister and parent companies of AEG, and this event is really the manifestation of what's been built here. 

[AEG Live CEO] Jay Marciano has been supportive of Goldenvoice, even prior to being at AEG. Concerts West [co-presidents] Paul Gongaware and John Meglen have helped through all aspects of the event, and even lent us [senior VP, marketing] Amy Morrison and her staff to help launch, because of their global reach. They invited me down to Buenos Aires to see the Stones, Stones attorney/manager Joyce Smyth, who is so so great, gave me a ride to the show. I stood waiting against the wall for hours, and finally got some time with Mick [Jagger],which was incredible.

[Artist Group International agent for Neil Young] Marsha Vlasic helped me arrange things for Neil Young through Elliot Roberts and Frank Gironda [Young’s management], the four of us have had a 30-plus year relationship.

[AEG senior VP, national booking] Larry Vallon vouched for me with Pete Townsend, Roger Daltry, [The Who management] Bill Curbishley and Robert Rosenberg from the Who.

[CAA agent] Brian Greenbaum walked me thru things with Dylan's manager Jeff Kramer, and even Bob Dylan at our show at the Shrine Auditorium.

Barrie Marshall (managing director of AEG affiliate Marshall Arts Ltd. and Paul McCartney tour director) and [McCartney manager] Scott Rodger were supportive from the beginning; since Paul McCartney played Coachella 2009, he had a good understanding of things. 

I met up with Andrew Zweck (Roger Waters’ tour director at Sensible Events) at the Who in June, 2015, at Hyde Park in London, and he may have been the first one I mentioned [Desert Trip] to. He liked it, and thought it was ambitious, so it was fun to report back to him as I was building it. He put me in front of [Waters’ manager] Mark Fenwick and Roger Waters so I could explain things. It’s been fun meeting with that camp, but also very technical because of Roger's performance. We had him at Coachella 2008, so we know that it’s a lot of work, but the results are worth it.

For me, it’s the Goldenvoice staff that makes this whole trip so fun. I'm in awe of how my friends and co-workers have learned so many skills and are able to show so many in California a good time.

What kind of brand do you have here in Desert Trip, and how might this concept evolve?

We’re not focused on the branding or any of those types of things. We want to focus on the six artists’ performances and the associated experience. For many, this event has a deep meaning, so we need to deliver for them.

Can you give me an idea of how robust VIP offerings are, how it’s different from Coachella?

There's something for everyone, from general admission, which is the price of a Coachella pass, to reserved seats that have three scalings ($699, $999, $1,599), to those who want a catered suite for 20-30 of their friends.

What are you personally looking forward to at Desert Trip?

The overall look of the event and operation. We have been planning all summer, and the staff is excited to present to the public what we have in store.

An edited version of this article first appeared in the Oct. 15 issue of Billboard.