LOS ANGELES Here’s the thing about the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival: It’s completely implausible. The Empire Polo Field venue in Indio is more than 100 miles from metropolitan Los Angeles—in a place where temperatures can soar above 100 degrees in April. Plus, at a time when other concerts are cutting prices to lure crowds, the cost of Coachella has not decreased: The three-day festival now costs $269, not including service fees, or $300 at the door, which means the cost for an average attendee’s weekend with lodging and food could easily hover around $1,000. And that’s in a recession.
Nevertheless, the tenth annual incarnation of the festival—which began on Friday with a sold-out program headlined by Paul McCartney that appealed to an older crowd on a mild-for-the-desert day and wrapped Sunday—drew thousands of its faithful into the desert, where acts including the Cure, the Killers, M.I.A., and Morrissey also got top billing among about 150 acts. To encourage attendance, festival organizer Goldenvoice—led by Paul Tollett—offered fans the opportunity to purchase their tickets on a layaway plan for the first time, paying either with 50 percent down or in three installments. Goldenvoice also offered camping passes on layaway. (Goldenvoice does not release official attendance numbers until after the show concludes and the official figure is tallied.)
In another sign of the times, Coachella this year offered attending fans a free iPhone app, allowing them to create lineups by customizing a list of acts they wanted to see—notoriously a bit of a scheduling challenge, since the field is a vast space with so many acts performing on five primary stages. The app also featured a map and a means of interacting with friends and sharing photos. And for tech-inclined non-ticket holders, AT&T Music offered a three-day live Web cast of the festival from its site, as well as highlights and clips available afterward.
Environmental nonprofit Global Inheritance reprised its role as the group responsible for overseeing Coachella’s significant recycling and other earth-conscious programs, including the popular 10-for-one water bottle exchange program (10 empties gets you one full bottle), and Carpoolchella (which rewards randomly selected carpoolers with V.I.P. festival tickets for life). New for this year: The group reengineered and artfully decorated golf carts as a medium to explain and educate festival goers about alternative energy.
“The cool thing about the festival is that you get people from all parts of the world,” said Global Inheritance’s executive director, Eric Ritz. “People look forward to it. They circle their calendars. In a city so jaded [as Los Angeles, where many attendees come from], it's really rare that you have something that people are excited about.” Ritz added that the much-beloved festival is not something that fans are eager to cut from their annual entertainment budgets, even in tough economic times: “In this economy, there are people who are skimping, but they find things that they love so much, they find a way. So if they are selling their cars [instead of skipping Coachella] or doing things that are less toxic for the world, maybe that's a good thing.”
Near the center of the polo field, L.A.-based artist collective the Do Lab constructed its annual spectacle, a huge-scale art installation that covered more than an acre of real estate and took about 70 people—mostly volunteers working for tickets and as a labor of love—close to one week to load in. (Because Goldenvoice reduced the artist collective’s budget by about 25 percent this year, the Do Lab asked for more passes to provide as incentives for its team; it secured about 100.) As for the installation, the Do Lab’s Jesse Flemming said, “We sealed the deal with Coachella about six weeks out, so we got a pretty late start this year. As soon as we got the word, we hit the shop.”
Within the space—which provided shade under its giant podlike structures—the Do Lab covered some of its installation in low-cost raw wooden palettes placed at oblique angles for a hurricane-hit look. On a stage within the environment, about 35 members from the surrealistic troupe Lucent Dossier performed, and water streamed from multiple sources. “We were messing around with a lot of new ideas and concepts, and trying to find a lot of different ways to play with water. We were trying to do what the casinos do [with fountain technology] in Vegas except on a much smaller, cheaper scale.” A waterfall ran through Lucent Dossier’s stage area, and the troupe used water canons and water guns to spray the overheating crowd—a liability-reduction technique, as well as a fun game, you might say. And the Do Lab’s lighting package was the most involved its ever been, with as many as eight lights in each structure, which chased and danced for visual drama.
Also new for this year: Students from the Southern California Institute of Architecture's “Rock and Roll Fantasy: SCI-Arc at Coachella” course set up a large-scale art installation at the concert venue. Goldenvoice chose one of the student's designs, and paid for the construction and materials used in the course. (Benjamin Ball, Gaston Nogues, and Andrew Lyon of Ball-Nogues Studio taught the course with direction from Coachella art curator Philip Blaine.)
All told, Goldenvoice continued its tradition of making the festival feel new and different—even in the downturn. “Of all the festivals we've worked with, Coachella comes to the table with a budget we can work with. They really want to be innovators,” Global Inheritance's Ritz said. “Most people want to do something after the fact. 'Do it first, and then we'll support it.' Coachella is the opposite. They're great in terms of taking risks and promoting new ideas. And they do that every year: They always want to see new things.”