Coachella. What was once just an innocuous stretch of Southern California desert best known for being home to Palm Springs is now synonymous with America’s most celebrated and recognized music festival.
The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival has exerted an outsized influence on the current wave of music fests in the United States. The annual event has established a prestige and mystique that transcends music to represent both a culture and a booming industry.
Over two weekends in April, the city of Indio, CA, set at the heart of Coachella Valley, hosts tens of thousands of music fans for three days of music, art, fashion, and so much more. While the biggest artists in the world grace the multitude of stages spread throughout the Empire Polo Club, brands and companies representing everything from fashion houses to fast-food chains descend on the area, hoping to capture some of that Coachella glow.
As the face of the modern American music festival, Coachella’s all-encompassing culture and state-of-the-art production values — which extend beyond the concert stage to myriad art exhibits, charities and adjacent VIP parties — is light years beyond the innocence and lack of preparation that marked the original Woodstock festival of 1969.
With the simple premise of assembling the brightest and most culturally relevant bands and performers for “three days of peace and music” on a farm in upstate New York, the dream of Woodstock producers Michael Lang, Artie Kornfeld, John Roberts and Joel Rosenman would go on to be so much bigger, grander and culturally cataclysmic than they ever imagined.
It was a concept still considered novel in the late 1960s, with only a handful of music festivals preceding Woodstock. The biggest of them was the Monterey Pop Festival in the summer of 1967, which featured the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Otis Redding at the Monterey County Fairgrounds in Central California.
Beyond just music, Woodstock’s timing in the summer of 1969 aligned with a groundswell of youth activism and awareness, with American teenagers and college students challenging the mores of the time.
Race relations, women’s rights, and the Vietnam War were top of mind, and the acts that populated Woodstock’s bill, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Joan Baez, Santana, Grateful Dead, Sly and the Family Stone, and the Who, were already providing the soundtrack for a disillusioned generation set on changing the world.
With race riots breaking out across the country in cities like Detroit, Baltimore, and York, Pennsylvania, the second wave of feminism sweeping the nation, and the Stonewall riots erupting in Greenwich Village for gay rights, the time was right for a galvanizing event to bring this new counterculture movement together. Woodstock would be that event.
From the moment the concert was announced, it was clear that Woodstock was going to be huge, selling more than 180,000 advance tickets. Fans began descending on the location in Bethel, New York, days before it even started.
By the time the festival began that Friday, August 15, far more people than the expected 200,000 were pouring onto Max Yasgur’s farm. With the event’s finances going towards building an adequate performance stage instead of fences and ticket booths, Woodstock would be a free show for a majority of the nearly half-million fans that attended the massive concert.
While intermittent rain, lack of food and poor sanitation plagued Woodstock, the spirit of unity among attendees still prevailed.
“The way people were sharing at Woodstock, if you were wet and cold, they would offer you their extra shirt,” remembers Zeke Boyle, who was a teenager at the time in the vast crowd. “They would offer you food. People were sharing everything.”
As artists performed around the clock throughout the weekend (the Who performed at 5 a.m., followed by Jefferson Airplane at 8 a.m.) with Jimi Hendrix closing the festival in the morning hours of Monday, August 18, to a dwindling crowd, Woodstock was already etched in history as legendary, and for many, life-changing.
“What’s important to remember is there’s possibility for things to be better and that people can make a difference,” explained promoter Michael Lang of the historic weekend. “That if you get involved and make a commitment to something, you can be part of change that’s positive for everybody.”
While the legend of Woodstock would be lovingly commemorated with anniversary events over the years, the attempt to fuse nostalgic reverence for 1969 with contemporary relevance was undone by the tragedy of Woodstock ’99, forever remembered for rashes of violence, arson and sexual assaults among disaffected youth fueled on aggression.
That same year, Coachella would launch at the forefront of its own revolution. The music industry as the world knew it was set to implode, thanks in large part to the launch of Napster and the dawn of the file-sharing age.
Eschewing radio playlists and sales charts to feature top alternative acts of the late-‘90s including Tool, Beck, Rage Against the Machine, and the Chemical Brothers over the weekend of October 9-10, Coachella launched as the brainchild of Paul Tollett and his promotion company, Goldenvoice. Influenced by the far more established festival culture in Europe, the inaugural event would draw fewer than 40,000 to the blistering California desert.
While the event proceeded successfully, Goldenvoice was unable to stage the event in 2000, and reduced it to a one-day concert in 2001 headlined by Jane’s Addiction.
Positive word of mouth surrounding Coachella buoyed the festival over the next couple of years, with the 2004 event boasting the launch of the Pixies reunion, Radiohead, and the Cure, leading to the show’s first sellout weekend of 110,000 fans over two days.
By 2006, Coachella was the hottest festival in America. With Depeche Mode and Tool headlining, Madonna would bring her mainstream pop to the show with a six-song set in the Sahara dance tent, creating a media frenzy that would expose the fest to its broadest audience to date. This was also the year that Daft Punk kicked off their comeback with a now-iconic performance that would cement the band’s status as electronic legends as well as Coachella’s place as an EDM champion.
As the show continued to grow and evolve, 2008 found Coachella expanding to include classic rock legends like Roger Waters and a last-minute addition of music icon Prince to the bill alongside such acts as Aphex Twin, Kraftwerk and Portishead.
Soon, the culture of Coachella began to coalesce, generating its own fashion sense that blended hippie-inspired styles with modern looks and began to influence and inspire designers to create their own Coachella fashions.
As Coachella’s reputation grew around the world, its success amplified the visibility of older and more established U.S. events as well as inspiring a slew of new ones.
The massive Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival debuted in Manchester, TN, in 2002, quickly evolving from a jam band-oriented event to include a wide range of artists and performers that rivaled others in the quickly growing field of competing fests. The long-standing PBS series Austin City Limits also debuted its own festival in Austin, TX in 2002.
In 2005, legendary ‘90s multi-act tour (and Coachella inspiration) Lollapalooza would reinvent itself as a Chicago-based festival, quickly becoming one of the Midwest’s most popular annual music events.
Since then, the American music festival circuit has become populated with scores of new festivals including Sasquatch! (George, WA), Firefly (Dover, DE), Outside Lands (San Francisco, CA), Life is Beautiful (Las Vegas, NV), Governor’s Ball (NYC) and the brand new Panorama, another New York City event that’s the brainchild of Goldenvoice and considered by many as Coachella East. Through it all, Coachella still stands above the rest as the premier American music festival, enjoying the most prestige and pulling the biggest headliner exclusives.
In 2016, that would include hosting the long-awaited return of Guns N’ Roses featuring Axl Rose and guitarist Slash officially sharing the same stage for the first time in more than 20 years (outside of a surprise club date in Los Angeles).
The event has now grown to two weekends a year that routinely sell out months before the lineup is even announced, drawing hundreds of thousands of people to Coachella Valley for the festival and its cohort of accompanying events, and Tollett and Goldenvoice continue to take risks and push the show forward with cross-cultural and female performers taking a leading role.
“Coachella’s jumped the shark now 11 years in a row, according to the press, but not according to the people who hit me up to buy tickets,” Tollett told the Desert Sun in a rare interview. “I think it’s still relevant — alternative musically and artistically.”
As Woodstock’s legend endures and Coachella’s is still growing, American festivals have moved to the forefront of the modern cultural landscape, a rite of passage for emerging generations of fans looking to experience these indelible moments of inspiration, action and most importantly, music.