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Coachella 2012: It's back to the beat

With its second weekend, the Coachella festival strives to keep its cool and keep its fans rocking.

April 20, 2012|By Scott Gold, Los Angeles Times
  • Fans react as Abel Tesfaye, a.k.a. the Weeknd, takes the stage at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival last weekend.
Fans react as Abel Tesfaye, a.k.a. the Weeknd, takes the stage at the Coachella… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

INDIO, Calif. — Deep in California's low desert, the sun would soon be up, not that anyone was keeping track anymore.

After two exhilarating days of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, most in the crowd of 85,000 had had enough. But for a small group of revelers, the party went on.

Fueled by a stew of youth, passion and substances unknown, they wore feathered headdresses and Zorro masks as a DJ spun bass spasms so powerful they could cure sciatica. The kids gyrated and leaped in unison — all in silence.

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Indio, the working-class cousin of nearby Palm Springs, has long welcomed the largesse of Coachella. It also bans amplified sound in the wee hours. So this year, organizers held a late-night silent dance party. They turned off the speakers, passed out headphones and created a vibrating dance floor on a repurposed roller rink so revelers heard the music and felt the beat, and danced the night away without a sound.

It was one of scores of painstaking calculations Coachella has undertaken to keep the event personal and tribal, and avoid losing its cool as it becomes, by many measures, the most successful music festival in the world.

This morning Coachella will launch a bold experiment. Faced with mounting concerns that an event long known for taste and taste-making was becoming overrun with crowds, scenesters, scalpers and gate-crashers, organizers settled on an unusual relief valve — Goldenvoice, its promoter, doubled the size of the festival.

Rather than one three-day event, it's now two consecutive weekends of music, with an identical lineup of 143 acts. Any contention that Goldenvoice took a foolhardy gamble didn't last long; $285 passes for this year's festival — the 13th — sold out in three hours and organizers said they could have easily sold out a third weekend.

Goldenvoice remains keenly aware, however, that sheer scope will never be enough — that "something for everyone" can be a self-defeating marketing ploy, a fast lane to a loss of identity.

To remain relevant, promoters envisioned the desires of individual fans — be they thirtysomethings drawn to megabands like the Black Keys or younger indie rock fans drawn to more underground discoveries.

"We talk about: What would that person think right here? What would they feel? We strive to make it more personal," said Paul Tollett, Coachella co-founder and Goldenvoice president.

"Not everyone is going to the same festival."

It sounds too easy to say that Coachella began at the grass roots. But in this case, it's quite literally true; the first substantive Times report on the festival, in 1999, noted the piles of horse manure — left over from a recent polo match — simmering in the Colorado Desert sun on the grounds where the festival is held.

The idea was to import a European model of a remote, multi-day, non-touring music festival offering a dizzying diversity of sound. It lost money its first two years, then began a meteoric ascent.

But by 2010 there were suggestions that Coachella was falling victim to its own success.

Rising ticket prices meant more than a bump in revenue; fans in faded Cure T-shirts were steadily supplanted by L.A. gentry clad in gladiator sandals and micro-shorts. Goldenvoice, which has its roots in L.A.'s early '80s punk scene, found itself fending off grumbles that it had become The Man — a tentacled, corporate monster akin to the Ticketmaster of concert promotion. Many of the bands booked to play both Coachella weekends, for instance, are contractually restricted from playing shows in the region between weekends other than those promoted by Goldenvoice.

Other festivals have struggled with age and growth. The Chicago festival Lollapalooza, another of the nation's largest, released its lineup last week. Online chatter by fans was decidedly mixed, including talk that despite some intriguing acts, the bookings were predictable and uninteresting.

Today, however, some in the music industry see an opening in Coachella's expanding girth.

The inaugural Desert Daze Festival is being held this month about a half-hour's drive from Coachella. While Coachella can easily be a $1,000 weekend including accommodations, travel and supplies, entrance to Desert Daze is a "suggested" $5 donation. It's a far smaller affair but still boasts more than 100 acts, including a host of buzzy L.A. bands, several of which are veterans of Coachella. Some attendees said they viewed it as the counterculture alternative to Coachella — which was, not so long ago, the counterculture.

"We're the thing that the people who couldn't afford a ticket to Coachella — or just weren't interested in going this year — are going to," said organizer Phil Pirrone.

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