Despite a dearth of creature comforts compounded by rain, the mud, hovel-like overcrowding with attendant poor sanitation, and paucity of comestibles, a sense of camaraderie and intimacy pervaded this crowd of nearly half a million souls’ in quest of some ineffable musical experience. Legends came: Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Joe Cocker, Blood Sweat and Tears, Ravi Shankar, the great Hendrix, the list too long to print. It was the end of a decade of anti-war revolution on college campuses from infamous riots at Berkeley to the even more disgraceful events at Kent State. And yet it ushered in an epoch of peace and love and non-violence by this “hippie” generation. It was the summer of 69’……1969 that is, and I am referring to Woodstock. Decades later many attendees wistfully recount satisfying their amorphous craving for transcendence…..but the more remarkable thing about this historic event, is despite the traffic jams, bad weather, and every other conceivable logistical nightmare, there was practically no violence.
It was this antediluvian gesture, shorn of all accoutrements of modernity that arguably serves as a crude model for the giant carefully choreographed music festivals of today. The progression has not been linear…..far from it. A scant four months had elapsed before the already uber-famous Rolling Stones and the great debacle at Northern California’s Altmamont Speedway. Promoted by the Stones and Mick Jagger and billed as “Woodstock West”, in addition to the Stones, it was to feature Santana, Jefferson Airplane, Crosby Stills Nash and Young among others. Perhaps cultivating some image of machismo, The Hells Angels were hired by the Stones for security detail for the 300,000 concertgoers who showed up that fateful December 6. Violence, murder, and mayhem were the order of the day.
After that, the tarnished genre lay in moribund state, though cryogenically preserved, long enough for those sixties hippies to grow up, get jobs, and even a few to become Republicans. In its reincarnation of 1991, Jane’s Addiction singer Perry Farrell thought up a farewell tour for his band and he titled it Lollapalooza. It was more akin to a traveling circus than a single venue festival. Multiple bands travelled from city to city crisscrossing America until, well, they didn’t. It was a financially troubled venture from inception and shut down in 1997. After a revival or two, new venture partners, the concept, since 2005, has been an extremely successful two day summer festival in Grant Park in Chicago.
In those intervening years the festival concept has caught on. It has gone viral with virtually every major U.S. city housing its own unique permutation. There’s the famous Bonnaroo in Tennessee and Austin City Limits here in Texas. But the granddaddy of them all, without any challenger, is right now concluding its second weekend of a star filled lineup of scores of bands turning out just about any breed of music one might conceive. Some are pretty big names, most are not. Amidst lush green in the desert, Coachella takes place on the Empire Polo Fields in Indio, California, a small hamlet about a dozen miles from Palm Springs.
I wanted to understand some nuance of this world unfamiliar to me. I had the good fortune to speak at some length with Mr. Doug Mark, a prominent music-industry expert, attorney and Founder of Mark Music & Media Law, P.C., based in Beverly Hills. Here are some conversation excerpts.
Richard: What is the big deal as to why these festivals in general and Coachella in particular have become both ubiquitous and so popular?
MARK: “There are so few music acts today that can fill a fifteen or twenty thousand seat venue. In the US, outside of Taylor Swift and a handful of others, the only bands that jam that many fans into an arena are the “Legacy Bands”; it’s Madonna and The Rolling Stones and people still pay big dollars to see them. Today there are just so many bands with so much more varieties of music……..and each with its own niche following.”
Richard: So Coachella is that single location that brings together this giant assortment of artists most of whom don’t quite have the muscle to draw to larger locations.
MARK: “Yes, today the music is much more diffuse than in the past. Our culture has branched into subcultures. Music has fragmented and musical tastes along with it. Most of the bands at Coachella haven’t been around long enough or don’t have a large enough repertoire to merit the larger auditoriums. Plus today, we have the internet. Kids download music from I-Tunes or their MP3’s. Whole albums don’t get downloaded. It’s one song at a time and maybe one bounces from the melodic rock of ColdPlay to a rap song. Everybody suffers from ADD (attention deficit disorder). Coachella is one place where these bands can get in front of 15,000, 20,000 even 30,000 music junkies and expand and develop their fan base. Over the two weekends Coachella may have over 500,000 attend with over 175 bands performing. ”
What do these artists do the rest of the year?
MARK: “Well, first there are a number of other big festivals to get your name in front of people. But the main way they earn their keep is on the club and theater circuit. Statistically, most of the clubs have occupancy between 500 to 2,000 fans. Ticket prices may range from $15 to $35 with the house taking up to half and the artist covering their own expenses including travel and paying their band members. You can do the arithmetic and figure out it can be a tough way to make a living. If a group can fill the 1,600 seat Fonda theatre in L.A. at $35 then they can make some good money…….but that’s not happening every night.”
Richard: The way I see it then is that the festivals are like “accelerators” for these musicians. Coachella is an imprimatur of credibility. By having the cache of Coachella or Bonnaroo on a resume is a calling card of acceptance to play the club circuit. Coachella is then complementary to touring. Coachella is a destination unto itself and music buffs that attend Coachella return home and then will inevitably recognize a touring band and get to see that group in a more intimate 1,000 seat venue……well that is a privilege.
MARK: “Yes, I think everything you say here is true. But don’t forget that is was in the smaller micro clubs performing to 200 people that these bands honed their skills. The repetition of hundreds of performances night after night earned them their spot on the bill at Coachella. So the smaller clubs are incubators as well, leading to a spot on a big festival, which then enhances the club audience, leading to a bigger spot on the next summer’s festivals and so on. They feed each other.”
Richard: What then do you see as the future of the large arena concerts?
MARK: “That’s a good question. Would you rather go to Coachella for $370 and hear dozens of live musicians fourteen hours a day for three days or go see the Madonna show for two hours and maybe pay close to the same dollars for one ticket. For the younger generation (under 35 or 40), the Coachella model is pretty compelling. All the social media and constant distraction means our world is daily getting less cohesive and even more splintered. With Pandora with the push of a button you can travel from folk to punk to pop nearly instantly. I said it before but the attention spans of the younger set is getting shorter not longer. It will be tougher and tougher for today’s bands to climb the ladder to the rarified air of superstardom. The club scene is massive and someday Mick Jagger will actually stop touring. So if anything, the gap at the top may grow larger. But the good news is, the ‘Coachella culture’ shows the diversity of the fans’ tastes. The same kid can buy 2 Chains, Bon Iver and Skrillex!”
MARK: “The other thing to recognize is that the radio broadcast business militates against these wonderful smaller but less well known acts. Major radio stations are for repetition and familiarity. It is all about playing the hits so I can get that man or woman in the car driving to work to listen to my ad and not switch the station. Most of the acts at Coachella never have been and never will have any mainstream radio air time. Also there is so much free stuff today. There are great videos on YouTube. The choices are almost limitless which results in much more fragmented audiences. This lack of homogenous listeners will continue to be the glue that keeps the festival concept alive and growing. It is a business model that sustains itself on our chaotic and impersonal internet world. Because for two weekends each spring, hundreds of thousands of people with differing tastes shed that world and come together and bond.”
Richard: Tell me a little about the festival itself and the music. I perused the lineup and maybe I recognized one in six bands and those mostly fell into the basket of “old timers” like Lou Reed.
MARK: “Coachella is dynamic. It is a quilt work of niches and themes. It is a study of youth and their culture. There is the classic rock of Lou Reed maybe followed by the Rap music of Action Bronson or the Synthpop of New Order or alternative Rocker Phoenix. Pop, folk, punk, indie rock or electronic…..it’s all there in a giant melting pot. With the exception of the few headliners, these are bands with no recognizable solo hits.”