The first time Tame Impala played Coachella, as a little-known Australian band near the bottom of the 2011 bill, frontman Kevin Parker had barely heard of the desert festival. “But as soon as we got there we saw all these celebrities hanging out backstage,” he says. “We thought” — he pauses, searching for the right words — ” ‘This is different.’ ” Two years later, when the group returned to the Indio, Calif., event for a buzzed-about evening set, the VIP section was packed with press, major-label scouts and the only-at-Coachella duo of Danny DeVito and Tyler, The Creator. It was a breakthrough performance, with the band’s surging psych-pop perfectly complementing the desert sunset — despite the fact that a dust storm was kicking up and sound problems forced the group to borrow a bass from Dinosaur Jr. “We thought it was a disaster,” says Parker, whose band is returning this year with a slot just below headliner AC/DC on night one. “It wasn’t until after that we realized people liked it. It’s a festival like no other. There’s nothing like Coachella.”
As Katy Perry tells Billboard, “The lineup always introduces the best of the year for the rest of the year.” Perry has never played the festival, but goes to check out new acts and hang out with buddies including Rihanna. “I’ve gone over 10 times, and every year, I bring home a favorite new band to add to my playlist.”
Talk to artists, managers, promoters, booking agents and label executives, and you’ll hear the same thing: There simply isn’t anything like the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, which sprawls across the Empire Polo Club — an almost psychedelically perfect expanse of manicured, palm-studded fields surrounded by snow-capped peaks — during the weekends of April 10 and 17. Now in its 16th edition, Coachella looms over all others as the biggest, flashiest, most ground-breaking and most influential live music event in North America. (The fest grew to two weekends, each with the same lineup, in 2013.) And even as credible rivals have risen, from Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza to Austin City Limits and beyond, Coachella remains the leader, drawing 100,000 fans during each of its two weekends and pulling in a total gross of $78 million in 2014, dwarfing the $45 million take of its nearest competitor, ACL.
Coachella’s secret weapon, beyond the concessions and art and monster sound systems, is the unique ability of founder Paul Tollett — whose company, Goldenvoice, owns the festival with AEG Live — to book a stroll-able, serendipitous blend of cool, guitar-based acts, concussive EDM and everything in between. “I just want people to get out there and stumble upon” the music, says Tollett. For 2015, that boils down to a bill topped by AC/DC, Jack White and Drake; veteran acts from Steely Dan and Bad Religion to Raekwon and Ghostface Killah; buzzy experimentalists including FKA Twigs and Stromae; and dance music heroes like Alesso, Loco Dice and Danny Tenaglia — a total of 164 acts across eight stages.
At the heart of the experience? Rising stars like Billboard’s cover acts, Hozier, Father John Misty and Alabama Shakes: undeniable talents who are still building a fan base on the way, perhaps, to headlining the festival in years to come. “My first experience with large-scale festivals was spooky, because it’s not entirely your audience,” says Hozier, who has never even attended Coachella before. The event “is going to be a challenge, a place to really go for it.” Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes, who are also playing Coachella for the first time, says, “I love the idea that maybe someone is walking by and their ears perk up and they check us out, and we make some new fans.”
Another key to the festival’s magic is the major sense of occasion — that this isn’t just another gig. “The great plays are as unique for the artist as they are for the audience,” says Tim Smith, who manages two-time Coachella act Skrillex. “Coachella is at the very top of that list.” Tollett points to the location, with its vast, welcoming expanses of golf-course-ready turf that couldn’t be more different from the muck and mud of iconic fests like Woodstock and Glastonbury. “It’s so well-organized,” says Perry. “Not to mention the cleanest festival you’ll ever experience.” (The venue is so important to the experience that Goldenvoice purchased it outright in 2012.) Adding to the sense of occasion: The many celebrities, inside and outside of music, who attend. Past bold-faced festivalgoers include Beyoncé and her sister Solange, Kendall and Kylie Jenner, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Hudson, Jared Leto, Anne Hathaway and actor Aaron Paul, who met his wife there in 2011. And of course there’s Coachella’s history of once-in-a-lifetime moments: Daft Punk‘s first show with its illuminated pyramid in 2007, which created the template for the live EDM era; the reunions of both the Pixies and Kraftwerk in 2004; and the 2Pac hologram during Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre‘s performance in 2013, which proved that such moments can still work when they’re repeated a week later. “It was funny, adding that second weekend,” recalls Tollett. “It was even more exciting, waiting for it.”
For rising bands, Coachella brings some serious practical benefits. “It’s a statement to be on that bill,” says Kevin French, agent to Tame Impala, The National and other acts. “It can put a young band’s name on the map.” Part of that effect is due to the concentration of media and music industry players at the event, which is only a two-hour drive from Los Angeles. That makes it the ideal place to debut a project, which is what the Swedish EDM act Galantis — made up of Miike Snow‘s Christian “Bloodshy” Karlsson and underground DJ Linus Eklow — did in 2014. Post-Coachella, the duo launched a major U.S. tour, and its YouTube views for the single “Runaway (U & I)” soared past 5 million; this summer, Atlantic will release Galantis’ debut album. “Coachella was the start of everything for us,” says Karlsson. According to Tollett, getting the lineup right is mostly a matter of intuition. He describes the 2014 fest, topped by Outkast, Muse and Arcade Fire, as “a little pop-oriented.” This year, with AC/DC and Jack White, the pendulum swung back toward harder rock. “It probably was subconscious,” he says. Paydays for non-headline acts, according to sources, range from as low as $500 to more than $100,000, but generally are richer than a show the band would play on its own. Tollett starts locking in acts at least as early as August of the previous year, pulling from the 1,800 shows Goldenvoice books in addition to Coachella, pitches from agents and friends, and talent he discovers on YouTube or blogs. “There are AEG shows all across the country, and I see all their show lists and ticket counts,” he says. “So I see little things that are happening maybe before some others, because they don’t have that data.”
All of which adds up to an experience so trusted by fans that Goldenvoice puts many tickets on sale before even releasing the lineup. “We sold the majority [early] this year,” says Tollett. “We have to make sure we come through with a good time.”
That good-time promise isn’t limited to fans, either — artists love Coachella too, which creates a kind of feedback loop that elevates the festival for everyone. Take Interpol, returning this year for a fourth time. In 2011, famed director David Lynch crafted surreal visuals for the band’s set. “I made sure to take a moment when we were playing to look around,” says guitarist Daniel Kessler. “Like, ‘That’s David Lynch up there!’ I wanted to enjoy it.” Or, as second-time Coachella vet Father John Misty puts it, “I have this suspicion that by actually having an experience for myself, that’s the most powerful thing I can do for an audience.”
Additional reporting by Ray Waddell.
This story originally appeared in the April 4th issue of Billboard.