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Inside Coachella's 20th-Anniversary Documentary: A Drug-Dealing Past, Decades of Footage & More

Coachella
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Coachella

A general view of the atmosphere during day 1 of the 2014 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Club on April 11, 2014 in Indio, Calif.

"We ended up with over a petabyte of footage, which was a figure I had never heard of before."

This time last month, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival was still on the books to begin this Friday, April 10. Oh how things have changed.

Even though the festival has since been rescheduled for October due to the coronavirus pandemic, organizers Goldenvoice and parent company AEG are aiming to make sure music fans still have something to do this weekend with a new documentary celebrating the storied event's 20th anniversary.

"Since our original timing of the release was essentially built around leading up to the festival, that changed once there was no April festival," says Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert executive director and head of AEG Studios Raymond Leon Roker. "After quite a lot of deliberation and several weeks of being in limbo, we made a decision to commemorate weekend one with streaming the project we had been working on so hard for the past six years."

Roker has worked for Coachella promoter Goldenvoice since 2013 and has been working on the documentary just as long, but the footage goes all the way back to chronicle the Southern California promoter's origin. The documentary tells the story of Goldenvoice founder Gary Tovar who got his start promoting punk shows in the 1980s and continued to grow the business and the scene until he was arrested in 1991 on federal drug charges related to the sale of marijuana. The company continued on, sometimes under a different name to avoid the affiliation, and eventually developed the debut Coachella Music and Arts Festival in 1999.

"Goldenvoice’s punk roots express themselves in being forward thinking enough and authentic enough to not push the festival in inauthentic directions. It has maintained its ability to be reflective of what’s actually happening, not what someone else wants to be happening," says Chris Perkel, the documentary's director and producer. "What makes Coachella such a fun subject and what makes it unique, is that it is a snapshot of popular culture on any given year. Because it has been able to stay completely contemporary and completely relevant over the entirety of these two decades."

Through artist and executive commentary, the documentary delivers a backstage look at the cultural touchpoint's humble beginnings, including the fact everyone hated festival founder Paul Tollett's choice to name Coachella after the local desert region where it's located, and that the event lost between $850,000 to $1 million in its first years. Despite the massive losses, promoter AEG decided to purchase Goldenvoice and keep the festival going. It wasn't until 2004 when Coachella finally turned a profit.

The documentary of course also chronicles the major performances that have defined the event over the past 20 years, including Morrissey in 1999 and Beyoncé's stellar 2018 set that was dubbed "Beychella." Between those years, through an astounding amount of archival footage, the film tells the story of a festival continually trying to improve on previous years' success with reunions and even the infamous 2Pac hologram in 2012.

"I got hired in 2013 to come and work for Coachella. One of the first things that I did was ask where things were. Where was the archive? Where was the photography? Where was the video? It was almost a personal mission of trying to find evidence of some of the experiences that I had had over 14 years or so of coming to the festival," says Roker. 

According to the producers, it took a full-time employee an entire year to digitize all the video footage from the festival's archives, including previously unreleased looks at Madonna's 2006 set at the dance stage in the Sahara tent and Daft Punk's game-changing pyramid performance that same year.

"We ended up with over a petabyte of footage, which was a figure I had never heard of before," adds Perkel. A petabyte is 1,024 terabytes or one million gigabytes. 

Outside of the obvious highlights from the festival's history, Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert touches on the cultural battles surrounding specific genres like EDM and hip-hop that were being sidelined by major festivals for years.

"We wanted to tell this story that demonstrated the evolution of a festival and the ways in which that speaks to these other musical evolutions or cultural evolutions," says Perkel. "We not only have the opportunity to trace the history of the festival but it gives you the opportunity to pull these broader implications out of that history. You’re not just talking about the Sahara tent, you are talking about the evolution of electronic music."

"It shows the way that communities have grown and come to represent the festival in both the crowd and on the stage," says Roker. 

Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert will be released for free on YouTube on Friday at 12 p.m. PST.

"We are social creatures and one of the things the film speaks to is the way in which festival experiences have become a way people choose to experience music. It is because people crave communal experiences," Perkell tells Billboard. "While it wasn’t the intention while we were making it, given where we are, I think there is hope that this can help tide us over a little bit or at least give us a bit of a reprieve. We can vicariously experience some of that community while we all wait to get out of our homes."

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