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Is Coachella too big to fail?

By ; June 2, 2011 at 5:16 PM 

Photo by Christopher Alvarez

When this year’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival sold out in record time, it further solidified the venerable California festival’s status as one of the most important institutions in modern rock. It’s been going this way over the last few years—the names have gotten bigger, the event expanded from two days to three in 2007, and more and more celebrities every year have made it a point to be spotted in Indio. The near-immediate sellout of this year’s festival, which featured newly minted world-beaters Arcade Fire and all-around superdupermegastar Kanye West, was something of a victory lap, and to combat the unprecedented demand, the festival’s promoters, Goldenvoice, announced this week that next year’s edition of Coachella will be held twice, on consecutive weekends, with the same lineup each time. While it is certainly noble of them to go to these lengths to make sure as many people as possible can experience their festival, twin Coachellas present a wide array of challenges and leave just as many unanswered questions, and I worry that they may not know what they’re getting themselves into.

Goldenvoice is well aware of what it means to play their festival. What Lollapalooza was two decades ago to up-and-comers like Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden, Coachella is to Arcade Fire and LCD Soundsystem. An indie-rock band’s ascent from a day slot in the Mojave tent to a headlining gig on the main stage in the span of a few years has become the modern-day rags-to-riches tale that every artist’s publicists (not to mention music journalists) love to play up. When long-dormant luminaries like Daft Punk, Portishead, or Rage Against the Machine want to stage a high-profile comeback, the road almost always runs through the Empire Polo Fields. When baby-boomers such as Paul McCartney and Roger Waters want to expand their fanbases by a generation or two, Coachella is the gateway. As the concept of success in the music industry becomes more and more splintered, playing Coachella is one of the few things remaining that can almost universally be thought of as a big deal, no matter the act. Goldenvoice knows this.

With the decision to clone their festival, Goldenvoice are making the statement that their power and influence are so vast and set in stone that they think it realistic to expect all other parties to bend to their schedule. The 2012 incarnation of Coachella is over 10 months away. Presumably, most if not all of the acts have yet to be booked. By making the announcement this early that both weekends will feature identical lineups, they have essentially told any band that wants to play next year that they have to plan their tour itineraries around two separate weekends in the same market. Lesser-known acts may be willing to do this for the exposure, but if they’re hoping to book a Radiohead or Coldplay-level headliner? Forget it. There are plenty of other festivals those bands can play that won’t require them to abandon anything resembling a sensible touring schedule.

Maybe a Coachella built around smaller bands without as much star power would work, but I have a tough time believing two of them would. This year’s festival sold out as quickly as it did because of Kanye West. Offer someone of his caliber enough money and they’ll commit to planning one weekend of their tour schedule around a festival, but probably not two. Of course, getting a superstar headliner to agree to play both weekends might just be a matter of ponying up that much more money, but can Goldenvoice afford to do that for an entire three-day weekend’s worth of bands?

Paying big names for two weekends isn’t even a guarantee that both Coachellas will sell out. I’ve been to Coachella twice, and it’s a blast, but it’s also a significant commitment of time, money, and energy. In the last few years, Goldenvoice has introduced a successful and popular “layaway” plan, which allows festivalgoers to pay for their $269 three-day passes in installments. This year, they’re only making this option available during the presale, which takes place, um, this week. Nobody knows what the lineup will look like this far out, meaning Goldenvoice is essentially asking fans to buy passes purely on brand loyalty.

Typically, the Coachella lineup is unveiled around January or February. If next year’s lineup is underwhelming, those who are on the fence about going won’t have the wallet-friendly layaway plan to use to talk themselves into it. Conversely, if they do something truly earth-shattering like, say, coax David Bowie out of retirement, or settle Morrissey’s beef with Johnny Marr, they’re still asking two festivals’ worth of people to commit a large amount of money at once. Goldenvoice could wind up taking a huge loss on the 2012 festivals, and as a result may have to scale back future events, and that wouldn’t be good for anybody. As it is, the media outlets that cover the festival will have to commit their resources and manpower twice over, lest they pick the wrong weekend and miss out on something once-in-a-lifetime, which could lead to a lot of redundant coverage. And God knows there’s already enough nearly identical festival coverage on the Internet.

There are two ways that Goldenvoice could have handled the overwhelming demand for Coachella that would have seemed more rational than what they’re doing. One would be to hold the events in two different locations, allowing those who travel to the festival to pick the one closest to them. This would also make it easier for the bands they want to book to fit both weekends into their schedules. If, however, they have their hearts set on keeping both Coachellas in Indio, it might make sense to cut the festival back to two days, as it was constructed through 2006. Not only would this make the idea much more feasible from a logistical standpoint (less acts to convince to block off two weekends), but it would allow them to lower ticket prices significantly, making it more likely that enough people could go to justify having two festivals in the first place.

Make no mistake, Goldenvoice’s hearts are in the right place here. This year’s Coachella sold out almost instantly, and people get frustrated when high-demand events sell out, so it makes plenty of sense to try to open it up to more fans. But Goldenvoice may be overestimating their festival’s reach by promising twin lineups for the two weekends before any acts have been booked. There’s a good chance they’re setting themselves up for disappointment both in terms of quality of lineup and turnout, and it would be a shame to lose one of music’s most well-regarded institutions to this kind of overambitiousness.


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