Grass doesn’t grow at the Empire Polo Field. Not without the help of human hands, anyway. Yet on top of this man made lawn has sprung one of the finest music festivals in the world. What started as an ambitious, Southern California science experiment in the middle of nowhere has ballooned to a modern-day music pilgrimage whose outreach extends to all 50 states and beyond. But things weren’t always this good. There was a time when the festival teetered on the brink of extinction. Now that Coachella is in its eighth year—and increased to three days for the first time—we thought it was time for those who lived through it all to tell the story behind this generation’s greatest music festival.
* President, Goldenvoice / Southern California Concert Promoter and Coachella co-founder
It was good for Goldenvoice when the Lollapalooza tour was around because we promoted it. But when it went away, there was no big festival for us to promote. We had invested in some of the raves that were around, but they weren’t our shows. I stumbled onto the Organic show and knew all the people—Pasquale [Rotella], Phil Blaine and Gerry Gerrad, who was the agent at Chaotica and had all the artists. I became a fourth partner in that show and it fully blew me away. I remember thinking, “I really have got to do something. I don’t want to copy this because this is great, but there’s some rock things that could work.” And I just put it away for a little bit. Later, [I was talking with] my partner, Rick Van Santen—who passed away three years ago—and I said, “I want to do something bigger than Lollapalooza with some elements of Organic.” So we decided to go to Glastonbury in 1997 to take a look. I’d been to Reading and some of these other ones, but Glastonbury was sort of the mecca for this. I knew as soon as I walked in, “We’re doing this somewhere. This is too good to not be happening in America.” I had brought a brochure of our site to Glastonbury— pictures of the Empire Polo Field. I knew we were on a mission.
* Iconic SoCal rave promoter, Goldenvoice producer and Coachella art curator
Paul and I first met when I rented out the Palladium to do Prodigy, Moby and Cybersonick in 1992. I think he felt bad because I was going to lose money, so he gave me such a good deal on it. When he showed up, he saw all these people having a great time. As the scene was growing, Paul was always paying attention. The music industry was freaked out because they were signing bands for a million dollars that couldn’t sell out The Whiskey—they hadn’t sold enough records and nobody knew who they were. But then there were DJs no one had ever heard of playing to 4,000 people. A lot of America’s festival growth, especially in the Southern California market, came from raves. I think things really culminated when we did Organic together. Paul is a great businessperson to work with, so we co-promoted the show together, and he helped with some of the largerscale production qualities. Anything we could do to make the experience better, we did.
* Producer, Goldenvoice
I’ve got the head of parking at Staples Center as my parking guy. I’ve got a guy that teaches urban planning at UCLA as my traffic consultant. We’ve got a plan, and we think about this plan all the time. During Coachella weekend, first the ground keepers come on the field and they clean all the trash up. We usually work all night loading in their sound and their lights and the video, so when the first band plays the next day, the headliner’s stuff for that night is already set up. Usually, on the main stage and the outdoor stage, we have a complete change-over of the production. We usually have about 200 crew working. . .they start at 11pm that night and work until 8 in the morning. And then fresh crew comes in at 8 in the morning and works the show. The budget for this year’s show is in excess of $15 million. It’s a big risk, and it grows every year.
* President, Creative Marketing Agency / Coachella Attendee: 1999 – 2006
I’m sitting in Paul’s office and he shows me this huge plot of land. It looked like a golf course. And he goes, “Hey Sid, what do you think of this?” I said, “Man, it looks like a golf course. What do you plan on doing with this?” I knew in the back of my mind he had some kind of crazy plan going on. He tells me, “You’re going to help me put together the world’s best music festival.” So we started putting in some elements.
In 1999, we convinced Beck and Rage Against the Machine to play the first Coachella. As soon as we got them, everyone else started coming together. Originally I had a lineup that was Sting, Herb Alpert, Chemical Brothers and Underworld . . .almost as if the Great Gatsby were throwing an event. Goldenvoice was a punk rock company in the ’80s and ’90s. We wanted to push ourselves to do something different. We had done Pearl Jam at the Empire Polo Field in 1993, back when they were fighting with Ticketmaster and didn’t really want to play Los Angeles. The site didn’t look like it does now. It was just grass. No palm trees or anything. So I went to a country music event that was at the polo field, and I told the owner, “I’m going to do a big festival here. It’s going to be huge. We’re going to sell this place out.” [Laughs] I talked a real big game. So we announce the show the day of Woodstock ’99, and there were riots and fires and all sorts of different problems. It was on CNN all weekend long. “Festivals are out of control! Would you let your kids go to this stuff?” We just took the biggest gamble of our life, and the day we threw the dice, CNN was showing all these problems. I still think, to this day, that it contributed to us not selling that many tickets. We almost didn’t get our permits from the city. We had a little track record with the Pearl Jam thing. That’s probably the only thing that saved us.
* Director, Coachella Documentary
We had no money. Some of what was shot in ’99 was shot on short ends from a Mexican wrestling film. We were stealing golf carts to get around and do our thing. As you may recall, Morrissey played “November Spawned a Monster” that year. I was in the security pit with one of the three cameras that were pointed at the performance. I had a super-16mm camera on my shoulder. Those cameras take 400-foot loads, each of which lasts about 11 minutes at 24fps, and I’m filming him, realizing that my mag is gonna run out soon. I also know that I have to use every piece of film we’ve got. We can’t afford to waste. Then Morrissey walks over. Mind you, I’m a big Morrissey fan. And he comes over and he starts singing into my camera just as the film runs out. He just leans over and. . .gone. From the other camera angles, you can see that he’s leaning over and I’m pointing at the camera with no film in it—that I realize has no film in it—smiling like an idiot because I don’t want him to see me turn away from him and walk away.