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20 Moments That Made Coachella What It Is Today

on April 12, 2019, 1:03pm
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The first major mention of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival found in The New York Times comes in the form of Neil Strauss’ Pop Life column from September 1999 titled “A Festival Promises Safety.” Written less than two months after the monstrous Woodstock ’99, the article previews the first edition of the festival by dwelling on Coachella’s differences, from the complimentary bottles of water handed out to each attendee to promises of free parking and under-capacity shows. Musically, Strauss had this to say:

More similar in spirit to Monterey Pop than Woodstock, Coachella offers a lineup that appeals to a cutting-edge crowd, with many performers unused to playing in front of such large audiences. There is a strong emphasis on dance music and college radio bands, as opposed to acts that are popular on the Billboard pop charts or commercial modern-rock stations.

Twenty years later, the festival scene has changed, for better and worse, but Coachella still remains. On the eve of the 2019 edition, I’ve decided to give the fest an early birthday present. In the article that follows, you’ll find 20 moments that helped shape Coachella into its current form. Sourced from 20 years’ worth of coverage and recollections, these moments run from the tents at the Empire Polo Club to the conference rooms at Indio City Hall to interlaced web of social media and help tell the story of how Coachella became America’s preeminent music festival.

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Coachella Begins (1999)

coachella 1999 600x800 20 Moments That Made Coachella What It Is Today

Coachella 1999 Poster

You can’t have a 20th anniversary without a first edition. Coachella began its life during an unseasonably warm weekend in October 1999, with festivalgoers plunking down a paltry $50 (still only $75 in 2019 terms) for a stacked lineup featuring Beck, The Chemical Brothers, Tool, and Rage Against the Machine. Critics praised the fest for its smooth professionalism in the wake of the tire fire that was Woodstock ’99 just a few months prior, but it was still a financial bust; Goldenvoice lost a reported $850,000 and had to delay the festival’s next edition until 2001.

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Perry Farrell Kicks Off Reunion Fever and Saves the Fest (2001)

Between stints as Lollapalooza’s impresario, Perry Farrell found time to help out another fledgling music festival. At Coachella’s second, single-day edition in 2001, Farrell reunited Jane’s Addiction for the first time since 1997 and played for deferred compensation, a move that allowed his friends at Goldenvoice to regain their financial footing while still wowing crowds. It’s a relationship that’s lasted; as of this writing, Farrell made the festival a near-annual appearance between 2001 and 2011, only skipping the 2003 edition during that stretch. The appearance of Jane’s Addiction also kick-started Coachella’s reputation for hosting big reunions; over the years, that’s included The Stone Roses, Rage Against the Machine, My Bloody Valentine, and more.

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Camping Arrives (2003)

Camping at Coachella

Camping at Coachella

For a festival with camping as a core part of its identity, it’s always jarring to remember that Coachella once went tent-less. The camping scene that LA Weekly once called “the Wild West of the festival” where “campers [build] incredible structures to hide their debaucheries” began in 2003, with a single lot for intrepid weekenders to return to after sets from The White Stripes, Beastie Boys, Iggy and the Stooges, and more. Demand for camping passes would only increase the next year, thanks to a stellar lineup…

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Coachella (Literally) Sells Out (2004)

…that would see Coachella sell out for the first time in its history. Thank the Pixies for that one; though the massiveness of their reunion has been diluted by subsequent years of constant touring (and subpar records), the initial word that they’d be making their first major appearance at Coachella was enough for a reported two-day crowd of 110,000 people to change their spring break plans. According to L.A. Weekly’s Piotr Orlov, it was worth the wait, as Black Francis and company “tapped none of the ’80s nostalgia detractors have been grouping it with, basking in the power and glory of something that remains unique and ahead.” Appearances by Kraftwerk, Radiohead, and The Cure didn’t hurt, either.

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Daft Punk: The Fest’s First Legend (2006)

It’s rare for an festival set’s influence to extend much past those on the ground, but when it does happen, it’s the kind of thing people talk about for a long, long time. Case in point: Daft Punk’s transcendent appearance at Coachella 2006, in which Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo appeared as benevolent robot overlords, compelling the festival’s dumbstruck masses to dance from high atop their pulsating digital pyramid. The set overshadowed even the most high-profile names on that year’s lineup (including ones by a then-ascendant Kanye West and festival rarity Madonna) and instantly earned its place in festival legend.

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Coachella Expands (2007)

Coachella Poster 2007

Coachella Poster 2007

In less than a decade, Coachella went from losing nearly $1 million on its inaugural edition to celebrating its financial and critical success with a pair of pivotal growth moves. In 2007, Coachella caught up with its burgeoning competition in Chicago, extending to three days the year after Lollapalooza made the move. That year, Goldenvoice also launched Coachella’s sister festival, Stagecoach, which reached a completely different audience (in this case, country music fans) while maintaining Goldenvoice’s foothold at the Empire Polo Club. Both of these moves heralded ones yet to come, from the festival’s purchase of land adjacent to the venue and expansion to two weekends in 2012 (more on that later) to the launch of 2016’s Desert Days festival.

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Björk: The First Female Headliner (2007)

Festivals are only now starting to catch up to music’s gender gap, so it’s no surprise that it took Coachella a few years to book its first female headliner. They finally broke up the boys’ club in 2007 with Björk, the Icelandic art-pop sprite who brought her singular vision to the Indio desert. Clad in a bone-covered dress wild with multi-colored fibers, Björk put on a show that The New York TimesBen Ratliff praised as “visually beautiful;” 11 years later, Noisey’s Sarah McDonald elaborated: “Her songs are odes to the feminine and act as modern chants in tribute. A decade removed, you can still get chills listening to her literally jump through her catalogue.”

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McCartney Blows Past Curfew (2009)

Coachella’s always had a curfew; in 2009, the music was supposed to be over by midnight. That didn’t stop ex-Beatle and the festival’s heretofore biggest booking, Paul McCartney, from taking a look at that time limit and blowing right on past it. McCartney wound down around 12:54 a.m., an overrun that skirted a potential fine of $1,000 for every minute over (or $3,000 for a performance of “Get Back”, which, in those terms, sounds downright reasonable). McCartney wasn’t the only scofflaw that year, but he was the only one who got away with it; The Cure ignored their own time limit on Sunday night and had their sound cut in response. These overruns might’ve been worth the price; starting in 2010, Coachella ‘s curfew was extended to 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights.

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Single-Day Tickets No More (2010)

coachella2010 20 Moments That Made Coachella What It Is Today

Coachella Poster 2010

The divide between daytrippers and weekenders closed in 2010, with the latter declaring total and decisive victory. In 2010, Coachella eliminated the $99 single-day ticket option, leaving festival attendees with the $269 three-day pass as the most affordable option. In defending the move to the L.A. Times, festival founder Paul Tollett cited lower camping costs, limited area hotel space, and improving the festival experience for existing three-day pass holders as justification for the move. For many fans, however, the move signaled another shift towards ever-rising prices; a general admission pass to Coachella 2019 without shuttle service costs $429, a 59% increase since 2010 alone.

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Jay-Z: The First Hip-Hop Headliner (2010)

It took Coachella 11 years to book its first hip-hop headliner, but they made up for their tardiness by snagging the biggest player in the game. At the time, we summed up our review of Jay-Z’s set (which included, among other things, a 10-piece band, an Obama cameo, and a Beyoncé appearance) by stating the obvious: “The Jigga Man used his whole arsenal Friday night and did it bigger than anyone could have expected.” Hova’s appearance opened the door for a steady stream of hip-hop headliners to come, from Kanye in 2011 to Outkast in 2014 to Kendrick Lamar in 2017.

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YouTube Reinvents the Livestream (2011)

coachella youtube livestream 360 20 Moments That Made Coachella What It Is Today

Coachella livestream on YouTube

You could livestream Coachella before 2011; usually, that process involved interacting with some #branded #gum #content on social media. That changed for the better in 2011, when Coachella launched its first multi-channel, a la carte webstream in partnership with YouTube. Reviews at the time were breathless; at CNet, reporter Daniel Terdiman heaped praise on the “low lag, few technical glitches, and fairly unobtrusive advertising” that stood between fans at home and the full festival experience, and declared “if you didn’t catch [it] last weekend, you missed a chance to see the music world changing before your eyes.” Even in 2019, Coachella’s still adding to its streaming experience; this year marks the first time that the festival’s second weekend will be streamed live in its entirety, in case you want to compare Childish Gambino sets from the comfort of your couch.

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Two Weekends, One Festival (2012)

 

If one life-changing spring festival weekend is good, two identical life-changing festival weekends in a row must be even better, right? That was the calculous for Paul Tollett and company in 2012, when Coachella doubled its fun in the form of a newly added second weekend. The move followed Coachella’s acquisition of 280 acres of land near Empire Polo Club, and both signaled the festival’s intention of staying in Indio for the long haul to local politicians who’d only granted the fest a two-year contract in 2011. The moves, though risky, both paid off; Coachella 2012 sold out both weekends in a matter of hours, and Coachella’s future in Indio would soon be cemented.

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The Tupac Hologram (2012)

Coachella 2012 Poster

Coachella 2012 Poster

Much like Daft Punk’s appearance in 2006, Coachella created more instant mythology six years later during the Sunday night headlining set from Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg with a festival first: a performance by the deceased. The hologram-like apparition of the late Tupac Shakur shocked audiences with performances of “Hail Mary” and “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted” and instantly ignited a wider media discussion (as well as one of the most buzzed-about attractions for the second weekend). In the wake of the Coachella appearance, there were even rumors that the Tupac hologram would go on tour (a proposition that The Mercury News’ Tony Hicks called, “a bad idea whose time has come”) but seven years later, that festival cameo remains a twice-in-a-lifetime experience.

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Poetic Kinetics Arrives (2012)

There’s always been art at Coachella, but in the early years, those installations were often repurposed from previous engagements (Burning Man, in particular). That rent-a-sculpture system had almost completely vanished by 2012, replaced by a dedicated budget for exclusive or first-run artwork. That was also the year that the LA-based installation artists at Poetic Kinetics made their Coachella debut with the towering lotus flower known as Solitary Inflorescence. In the years since, Coachella’s art spending has continued to run high, and Poetic Kinetics has continued to delight; some of their subsequent pieces include the roving snail (Helix Poeticus) of 2013, the towering astronaut (Escape Velocity) of 2014, and the metamorphosing caterpillar/butterfly combo (Papilio Merraculous) of 2015.

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Coachella Signs Contract Through 2030 (2013)

Coachella 2019

Coachella 2019

Sometimes, the festival’s most important moments happen far away from the Empire Polo Club. Such was the case in 2013, when the biggest news out of the festival was probably the announcement that the city of Indio reached an agreement with Goldenvoice to keep Coachella and its sister festival Stagecoach in their desert home through 2030. Taking the festival on the road isn’t a totally foreign idea (remember 2013’s Coachella cruise?), but Coachella’s identity is so intertwined with its environment that making a permanent move would feel a little like blasphemy.

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H&M Ushers In Official Coachella Fashion (2015)

coachella hm clothing line 20 Moments That Made Coachella What It Is Today

Coachella H&M Clothing Line

Coachella’s been at the forefront of festival fashions for much of its 20-year run, but it took until 2015 for the fest to finally make it official. That year, sponsor H&M debuted the first officially sanctioned collection inspired by the Indio festival. The first edition featured a fast-fashion take on lots of standby festival garments, from washed-out tye-dyed shirts to popping print tanks to a lace dress built for the desert heat. While the festival old guard (including us and, uh, The Atlantic) arched some eyebrows at the triumph of style over substance, the reception was warm in the fashion world; PopSugar described the collection as “the head-to-toe look you’ll want to wear not just to Coachella, but to every festival all season long.”

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The NY Times Says “No Thanks” (2016)

Coachella 2016, photo by Philip Cosores

Coachella 2016, photo by Philip Cosores

As a comic book man once said, you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself deemed irrelevant by The New York Times. At least, that’s what happened to two of America’s biggest fests in 2016, when the music critics of the Grey Lady gave the festival the kiss-off in an op-ed titled simply “Why We’re Not Making Plans for Coachella and Bonnaroo.” In it, Jon Pareles, Ben Ratliff, and Jon Caramanica lay out a reasonable case: that, as music critics covering events that were less and less about music, they found no critical interest in “trying to figure out intelligent ways to cover the big, cross-genre, medium-cool outdoor pop festivals, which look increasingly alike in their vision of a codified, consensual, safe and purchasable bohemia.” It was a high-profile rebuke of the festival (which received a glowing appraisal in its first Times review in 2002), but it had little impact on ticket sales: the 2016 festival reportedly grossed over $94 million.

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AEG’s Political Ties Revealed (2017)

The world changed in the wake of the 2016 election, with Americans’ political polarization and increased activism coloring events as seemingly frivolous as a music festival. In January 2017, news broke that the owner of Coachella’s parent company, AEG’s Philip Anschutz, was a frequent donor to political groups engaged in anti-LGBTQ and climate-denial efforts. Anschutz decried the revelations as “fake news” and continues to make major donations to the Republican party (instead of political action organizations). The revelations sent a ripple through Coachella 2017; that year, New York punk band Show Me the Body vowed to donate their pay to pro-LGBTQ and climate advocacy groups, Downtown Boys issued a post-festival call to advocacy and action, and Ezra Furman delivered an onstage takedown of Anschutz during his performance of “Tell ‘Em All to Go to Hell”. It also gave festgoers one more thing to think about before buying their next ticket.

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Beyoncé Slays (2018)

Leave it to Beyoncé to dominated Coachella headlines for not one year but two. After Queen Bey’s much-hyped 2017 appearance was scuppered on doctor’s orders, she immediately vowed to make her Coachella debut the very next year and become the first black woman to headline the festival in the process. How’d that go? Here’s what our John Flynn said at the time: “Within a festival landscape that continues to offer up homogeneity, Beyoncé’s performance was, in the words of David Byrne, a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. […] The set wasn’t just the best performance of the weekend; it was a performance marking the winds of change in American musical and cultural history.” Sounds like it was worth the wait.

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2019: The Youngest Headliner and Sign of Things to Come

Ariana Grande at Sweetener Tour Kick-Off

Ariana Grande at Sweetener Tour Kick-Off

So, here we are. Twenty years on and the festival that was once the domain of rockists and indieheads is now a playground of Instagram adventures, endemic brands, and the broad-appeal pop you hear all over the radio (or, more likely, your algorithm-approved streaming playlist). If you ever doubted that a new generation is fully in charge, just look at this year’s most talked-about headliner. At just 25, Ariana Grande will soon become Coachella’s youngest headliner and only the fourth woman to receive top billing at the festival. She’ll arrive on the same poptimist wave that’s transformed Coachella over the last two decades, and one that seems poised to guide major festivals for years to come. In just a few hours, you can see this piece of festival history unfold for yourself.

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