Concert promotion — the business of hiring an act, booking a venue, selling the tickets and counting the money — is one of the music business' most lucrative enterprises. It's also one of its most faceless. How many fans at Prince's recent Staples Center show knew, or cared, that it was a Concerts West production? Or that Clear Channel is the promoter of Madonna's upcoming Forum dates?
But in two notable cases over the years, promoters have become true tastemakers whose musical passion resonates beyond the cubicles of booking agencies and out into the ears of music fans.
The archetype was Bill Graham Presents, rooted in San Francisco and flower power. Then there's Goldenvoice, which sprang from L.A.'s punk rock world in the early 1980s to exert a profound influence on the live music scene, ushering the leading punk, grunge and alternative rock acts to the city's stages. The standing of bands it has nurtured is indisputable, from No Doubt and Jane's Addiction to Nirvana, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Rage Against the Machine.
In the process, it became a culture fixture in Los Angeles, but with its Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, Goldenvoice's legacy has now spread far beyond Southern California.
Music fans — some 50,000 of them each day of the two-day event — will make the pilgrimage to Indio this weekend from all across the U.S. and overseas. This fifth edition of the festival gathers nearly 100 top-grade artists at every level of popularity, from stadium-fillers such as Radiohead and the Cure to niche club bands and cult DJs. Coachella is easily the premier large-scale event on today's U.S. rock landscape.
And it comes courtesy of a company that's been hit by three major jolts over the years: the federal drug bust of its founder, a potentially mortal financial loss on the first Coachella, and most recently a death in the family.
"That was the worst news I ever got in my life, about Rick," Goldenvoice president Paul Tollett says. He's talking about Rick Van Santen, his co-worker for nearly 20 years and the co-owner of the company since 1992, who died early this year at age 41 from complications of the flu.
"It's been what, six weeks?" Tollett, 38, continues, sitting in his Miracle Mile office at AEG Live, the company that purchased Goldenvoice in 2001. "Afterward there's been some great news too, some of the bands we've confirmed for Coachella. But the good news is not as good as the bad news was bad.... .There's been highs but there definitely have been lows, and the lows have been as low as you get."
That's Goldenvoice in a nutshell, more an emotional thrill ride than a standard business. It began in 1981 as an I-think-I-can upstart, stepping into a void left by mainstream promoters scared of punk and unaware of the vital rock scene bubbling beneath the Top 40 surface.
Goldenvoice had a field day bringing bands out of their do-it-yourself circuit into established venues with professional sound and production. The company also had a nose for the best of L.A.'s thriving scene. Tollett recalls a 1987 Goldenvoice concert at Fender's in Long Beach, where the opening act stole the show from the other nine bands. The group was called No Doubt.
Talent agent Marc Geiger, who represented such acts as the Smiths, Echo & the Bunnymen and New Order with his partner Don Muller, remembers how Goldenvoice dominated the underground music scene.
"Goldenvoice bought everything and, more important, they were also the nice guys," says Geiger, who later co-founded the Lollapalooza tour. "They'd be the guys who would be backstage handing out joints and letting extra people on the guest list and not being uptight, in a town where not being uptight gets you far."
From a cramped office at the Hollywood Palladium, and later from houses in Hollywood, Goldenvoice took on the big boys in the concert business. The tiny staff included musicians Pat Smear (formerly of the Germs, later with Nirvana and the Foo Fighters) and Paul Cutler (45 Grave).
"It was an awesome place, a creative place," says Moss Jacobs, a partner from 1994 until 2001. "We didn't have staff meetings, we just yelled across the rooms.... The controlled chaos of the operation enhanced its ability to move fast, act fast, act crazy and act creatively."
How fast? "I remember one Christmas morning," says Tollett. "There was a benefit that needed to be put together, and by 5 o'clock in the afternoon Rick had seven bands confirmed, on Christmas day."
That style had been set by Goldenvoice's founder, Gary Tovar, who started out doing shows in Santa Barbara before moving into the Los Angeles fray. In 1985 he hired Tollett, a chemical engineering student at Cal Poly Pomona who was producing small ska and mod shows on the side, to run the daily operations. For marketing he tapped Van Santen, a punk enthusiast and aspiring promoter from L.A.'s Westside.
Tovar was also doing some business — the illegal kind — in Arizona. He was arrested in 1991 and wound up serving 5½ years of a seven-year sentence in federal prison.
The arrest shook Tollett. He'd quit school to devote himself to Goldenvoice, and now his shaky ship had sprung a big leak. But he and Van Santen decided to buy the indebted company in 1991.
The timing couldn't have been better. Alternative music suddenly became a commercial powerhouse, and Van Santen's years of networking began to pay dividends.
Jay Marciano, now Tollett's boss at AEG, was a rival when he headed Universal Concerts in the 1990s. He saw the Goldenvoice magic at work. "When a band's at the 800-seat El Rey," he says, "and the guys are hanging out with them at 3 in the morning, they're going to enjoy a special relationship that the Universal Amphitheatre might not be able to have until years later."
Things were hopping in the '90s as Goldenvoice's core audience swelled to arena size. The company secured rights to the Hollywood Palladium, and Van Santen spearheaded expansion into Hawaii and Alaska.
He was "a booking machine," in the words of one colleague, and a prankster who loved to interact with musicians. Tollett, in contrast, was what one associate refers to as "a curator," a consummate nice guy with impeccable taste — but also tough at the negotiating table.
But despite the alt-rock boom, Goldenvoice couldn't outflank the relentless consolidation of the concert industry in the late '90s. Its giant rivals locked up exclusive rights to key venues. Goldenvoice was suddenly on the outside looking in at such longtime strongholds as the Palace (converted to the Avalon) and the Wiltern, both now tied to Clear Channel.
What to do?
Tollett had fond memories of staging Lollapalooza tour stops in the wide open spaces of Cal State Dominguez Hills and Hansen Dam Recreation Area.
"It taught us the whole fence-generator-toilet side of life, and it seemed really exciting," he says. "It just hit us like, 'OK, that may be our direction, 'cause we're never gonna own an amphitheater, we're never gonna own an arena. There's a million fields, let's go find some and come up with ideas that are fresh.' "
Coachella was fresh, a festival based on the European model that would present a connoisseur's view of the most creative rock going. But the very week the inaugural event went on sale in 1999, the Woodstock reunion turned into a fiasco. Rock festivals looked like hell on earth. Despite the presence of Beck, Rage Against the Machine and Tool, total attendance for the two-day Coachella event was a disappointing 40,000. The hit to Goldenvoice was in the neighborhood of $800,000.
"It was so hard financially," Tollett says. "But the next day, driving around, knowing about what we lost, I was just thinking, 'That was the greatest two days I've ever had. It's horrible that it's putting us out of business.' "
Coachella ultimately cost Goldenvoice its independence, but not for a while. And it didn't put it out of business.
"We were struggling financially, and when people smell blood they usually attack," Tollett says. But the sharks stayed at bay. Some rival promoters, perhaps hoping to form an alliance, lent Goldenvoice money. Geiger and Muller, the talent agents, even got their clients Beck and Rage Against the Machine to reduce their Coachella fees by some $200,000.
"There was a strategic reason; it wasn't just emotional," Geiger says. "You've got to be protective of those people. They played a very important role."
Tollett and Van Santen had regularly considered merging with another company, and things finally seemed right when AEG Live's Concerts West division came calling. The company, a national touring operation, set up Goldenvoice as its L.A. counterpart and allowed the firm to keep its name and longtime staff. And it's managed to keep its personality as well.
With AEG's deeper pockets, the Coachella festival got a second chance — a one-day affair headlined by Jane's Addiction in April 2001. It broke even. Backto two days in 2002, with Björkand Oasis, Coachella was on its way.
AEG Live now has Tollett involved in New Orleans' annual Voodoo Fest and formulating plans to stage festivals in other U.S. locations in the next couple of years. The company also will expand into conventional concert production in other cities.
But even with the triumph of this fifth, nearly-sold-out Coachella on the horizon, Tollett is subdued on this late afternoon in his office, still grappling with the emotion stirred by Van Santen's death.
"It's hard to get congratulations and then condolences," he says softly.
At Goldenvoice, it's something you learn to live with.