Some things never change, so it's a good bet that a decade from now the star of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival will be some scruffy kid hailed as "the new Bob Dylan" (every decade has one) or a London band the British press calls the single greatest thing in the history of amplified music (those turn up at a rate of three per year).
What will be different is the main stage they play on. That's because Paul Tollett, the promoter for the massive festival that today kicks off its 2006 edition, believes that it's time to think outside the box when it comes to your basic rectangle stage for outdoor festivals. And "outside the box" may mean a giant robotic stage that moves like a metallic crab. Really, no joke.
"That's one of the designs, yeah, believe it or not, but I don't know really what it will look like exactly, but I do know it will be different and it will move," Tollett said. "Right now, stages are what they have always been, which isn't really anything special. We're going to try to change that."
Today, Tollett is in Indio, where Depeche Mode, Franz Ferdinand and Kanye West are among the first-day performers at Coachella, which will draw a crowd of 50,000 today and more than that on Sunday. But across the country, in New Haven, Conn., a glimpse of the future of the premier Southern California festival might be on display. There a graduate class of architecture students is presenting final projects, and the assignment is to completely re-imagine the stage of Coachella and to make it move.
It's more than an academic exercise to Tollett, who flew out to the Yale University campus a few weeks ago to review the works in progress. He came back not only impressed, but resolved to make his Coachella stage more than it is. "I know for a fact," he said, "that we will move toward some of the things we saw in those plans."
One reason is the young fans of today (and, even more, the young fans of tomorrow) put a premium on high-tech visuals and grand theatrics that move them viscerally. The rave scene has atrophied in recent years, but its aesthetic imprint was certainly made. Likewise, the CGI world of films and the hyper-reality of video game art have attuned generations to a show that promises a bit more than a microphone, amps and a raised platform.
Coachella is thriving as a business venture. Tickets for the festival this year were sold in all 50 states and in 19 countries. Bands vie to perform, and more than a few famous acts are quietly told, "Thanks, but no thanks." But Coachella now has plenty of competition in similarly styled festivals nationwide (the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Tennessee, for instance, this year for the first time secured a lineup that rivals Indio's) and the concert industry in general is finding it harder to lure fans through the turnstiles. There's also the fact that the Internet allows less-motivated fans to stay home and watch most festivals live and for free.
"So you have to be special and it's not just the music acts you get on stage, it's the whole experience and the way you set yourself apart from everyone else," Tollett said. He dismissed the notion that Coachella, which has enhanced its brand in the last year with a concert movie and the creation of a successful online fan community, can simply bank on its name. "No, you just can't stand still."
One unexpected way to keep a festival spirit moving turns out to be future architecture.
Last year, Tollett got a call from Los Angeles architect Greg Lynn, who is also a Davenport University visiting professor at the Yale School of Architecture. He asked if his class could use the festival for an intense project under the class-studio title of Giant Robot, which made clear the emphasis on movement for the structure. Tollett, a dedicated fan of architecture, didn't need to think twice. "I said, 'Are you kidding me? How much do I have to pay?' "
Tollett already had been chewing on ways to change the traditional stage.
"Some bands have already changed the way stages are shaped, like the way U2 and Metallica have fans in the middle of [an area hemmed in by stage ramps], and I think they are ahead of the curve. And in architecture, the future is buildings that have walls and sections that move. It's only a matter of time before the two come together."
For Lynn, the project was inspired by the buzz in architecture circles about incorporating robotics. He was also prodded by something a bit glitzier: Las Vegas stage shows. "The stagecraft of productions in Vegas, things like Cirque du Soleil, have changed the expectations of what a stage can be, and I wanted to see that on a more monumental scale with a free-standing building on an outdoor landscape."