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Desert legacy

24 April 2013 By Rob Cox

Once upon a time, there was a rock music festival held every April in the California desert whose meticulous curation of artists old and new made it the de facto tastemaker for the industry. Today, there is just Coachella. And although this three-day frolic in the sun may no longer be the most influential gathering of its kind, it has achieved something potentially even larger – an ability to sustain itself.

The three-day music marathon concluded its second weekend on Sunday, selling some 150,000 passes in total and making it the most successful festival of its kind, with gross receipts of about $50 million, according to Billboard. Almost 150 bands, musicians and performance artists made the trek to Indio, a scruffy suburb of Palm Springs, on two successive weekends to play on one of a half-dozen stages.

On this, the 14th Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, it would not be far off to say the event’s financial success has eclipsed its influence. Coachella was once the premier showcase for bands on the precipice of breaking out – Arcade Fire or LCD Soundsystem come to mind – or those re-forming, such as Pavement or Rage Against the Machine, to play for audiences who rediscovered their music.

Yet 2013 may prove to be the year that the festival, and the Coachella brand, transcended the music. Look no further than this year’s lineup. As music bloggers have remarked, Coachella 2013 was notably light on big names or breakout performers. The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Blur, main stage headliners on Friday and Sunday, long ago reached their peaks of popularity.

Saturday’s closing acts were New Order, Sigur Ros and Phoenix. The last, the youngest of the bunch, played the main stage. But having been active as long as Coachella has been in existence, Phoenix is hardly a breakout act.

There wasn’t even a major first-time reunion draw, one of the most successful Coachella features. British New Wave group Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark played for the first time on American shores in years. But not only did it play one of the smaller stages, the Gobi Tent, it played third fiddle to electronic acts Dub FX and Disclosure.

Yet despite a lackluster lineup, tickets sold out for both weekends. Most were gone even before the lineup had been officially announced. True, three-day general admission passes were advertised on the Internet for as little as half the $349 face value right up until the second weekend kickoff. But the crowds that jammed into Indio’s Empire Polo Grounds suggested there were not many unused wristbands.

Ironically, these queuing masses are an indication not just of Coachella’s popularity, but also of the festival’s ability to remain relevant even after its role as tastemaker has diminished. In a sense, what looks like a security gantlet designed to inconvenience may be best viewed as a reflection of sound long-term risk management.

After 9/11, Americans found their travel lives had been altered permanently by stepped-up security measures, having to arrive extra-early at the airport or having to doff shoes for the metal detector. Post-Boston, Americans must adjust to random violence – something that can turn any gathering of citizens, such as those waiting at the finish line of a race, into a lethal tragedy. Coachella’s organizers appear to have understood this well before Boston, though security was stepped up in subtle ways between weekend one and weekend two.

The venue is completely surrounded by metal fencing and checkpoints. The full-body pat-downs begin about half a mile from the festivities. Girls to the left, where a female guard runs her hands up, down, even around the underside of their breasts. Men queue to the right, where they must empty their pockets, turn their backs to the guard and submit to pockets, even wallets, being randomly searched.

An elderly concertgoer was busted with two joints in his pack of Marlboros and escorted to the “amnesty box,” where he was forced to dump his delicately rolled cigarillos. I was asked to doff my hat to ensure there was nothing hiding under it. After all this, festivalgoers must present their wristbands to an electronic reader. Even buying beer requires a round of security checks.

To experienced concertgoers, Coachella’s combination of a so-so musical lineup and airport-like security may not sound like a winning formula. But the veterans and music geeks are only along for the ride at this point. Coachella’s promoter, Goldenvoice, a division of the Anschutz Entertainment Group, has achieved something else.

Creating a safe environment – like a mall where even rainy-day music lovers get to sample a broad array of artists, including some like Nick Cave, who would not normally get to play in front of a large crowd – is what makes Coachella sustainable, commercially and culturally.

For older folks (such as this author) unaccustomed to passing through Checkpoint Charlie for a concert, for post-Boston America, the combination just might be sufficient for me to allow my children to one day attend. That suggests a viable business that crosses generations – even if it is just a big party.


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