INDIO — The vast plain of grass, meticulously kept and vibrantly green, contrasts sharply with the dusty, craggy mountains that surround it. Winding paths, horse statues and other country-club trappings give the Empire Polo Field the feel of a plush oasis in this hardscrabble town. But look closely at the site and you also notice mounds of horse droppings drying under the desert sun.
That's fitting. This lush 78-acre venue is the field of dreams for the organizers of the first Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, but the promoters of the ambitious concert being staged Saturday and Sunday also know there are plenty of potential land mines.
"For Southern California, this could be the start of something really special," said Paul Tollett, one of the owners of Goldenvoice, the promoters for the show, which features Beck, Rage Against the Machine, Tool, Moby and more than 50 other acts, including a deep roster of electronic music artists.
The Coachella Festival, two years in the making, might be just as easily called the Great Experiment in the Desert.
The show is a daring attempt by Tollett and his partners to import the European concept of a multi-day non-touring festival to Southern California, where they hope to create an annual tradition that would be unique in the U.S.
There are music festivals anchored to street fairs in urban centers, such as Bumbershoot in Seattle, as well as all-star touring shows, such as Lilith Fair and Lollapalooza. But Coachella would seem to offer a different experience.
With its remote site and eye toward a larger regional draw, Coachella taps into the European festival model. Two stages and three tents also will feature a bevy of artists who were picked more for their critical acclaim than for commercial success.
"I can't think of any real parallels to this," says Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief of Pollstar, the concert industry trade magazine. "There aren't any Glastonbury or Reading festivals in the U.S., so this would be something different for the people of Los Angeles."
For Los Angeles and well beyond, according to Ticketmaster sales records, which indicate that fans in 42 states have bought tickets for the event and that one in 10 sales was made outside Southern California.
Still, there are challenges facing the event, from the distance from Los Angeles (about a two-hour drive) to the $50 per-day ticket price. The harshest challenge, though, may be a case of unfortunate timing: Tickets for Coachella went on a sale a week after Woodstock 99 went up in flames.
"We took a beating after Woodstock," Tollett said last week as he toured the Indio site. "It was the obvious question for people to raise, but our event is so different that the comparison is just . . . well, it's just not a good one."
The looting and arson at Woodstock 99 were blamed by many on the dehumanizing conditions at the former Air Force base in upstate New York. Prices for food and water were high, portable toilets overflowed and aggressive metal and rock-rap acts dominated the bill. Coachella is the first major multi-day U.S. festival since that July mega-festival.
The Woodstock debacle may or may not have scared away some Coachella sales, but it clearly defined the early press for the event and led directly to a 40% jump in the Indio show's insurance costs, Tollett said. In the desert city, community members have also expressed concerns about the event because of comparisons to Woodstock and to raves, the quasi-underground all-night dance parties that also feature electronic dance music.
"This isn't Woodstock, this isn't a rave. . . . It's a whole different animal," says Bob Puetz, the general manager of the Empire Polo Field. "Some [local residents] have still been concerned, but as they've found out more about it, they seem to understand."
Indeed, even a casual observer could see that Coachella is markedly different from Woodstock on many other fronts. A sellout crowd for Coachella would bring 35,000 people a day to the site, far fewer than Woodstock's crowd of 250,000. There will be no overnight camping at the venue (there are campgrounds nearby) and the show is scheduled to end at 11 p.m. both days. As of Monday, about 32,000 tickets for both days had been sold, but promoters were expecting a strong last week of sales.
Planners Emphasize Creature Comforts
The biggest difference, promoters say, may be the environment. The Goldenvoice promoters already had decided to make Coachella a model for a "high-comfort festival experience," and they redoubled those efforts after seeing the images from Woodstock 99.
Advertisements for the show seem to devote as much ink to creature comforts as to the music lineup: "There will be plenty of drinking fountains available to guests for free. . . . We are going to provide a higher ratio of restroom facilities than any other festival. . . . All bathroom facilities will be cleaned throughout the day. . . . We are also providing mist tents to cool off in."