Passes for that annual desert festival sell out months before the lineup is even announced. Nocturnal electronic dance music fans brave the daylight to hear their favorite DJs, and everyone who's anyone wants to be seen in the VIP area. (Hello, Kanye and Kim.)
So what, exactly, are classic rock staples Steely Dan and AC/DC doing at the top of the bill opening night Friday?
Simply put: the wow factor.
To create buzz around the festival — and to ensure it continues to sell out — promoter Goldenvoice needs to offer a few surprises in the lineup each year, concert industry experts say. Two years ago, for example, promoters brought the Stone Roses back from a long hiatus (to mixed reviews).
"The concern is that, one day, you won't be selling out before the lineup is announced," says Kevin Lyman, a veteran Southland promoter and founder of the Vans Warped tour, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this summer. "But until then, you're in a great position to wow everyone with a curveball. To get everyone talking. That's what AC/DC does."
The difference this year is that neither AC/DC nor Steely Dan appears to be in Coachella's DNA. This is a festival with its roots in alternative rock and dance music; AC/DC is straight-up hard rock, and Steely Dan is a pastiche of rock, jazz and pop ("Genuine Dad Rock" is how one fan described Steely Dan's sound on the Coachella website's chat board).
Probably the only comparable act to headline Coachella was Paul McCartney. But as an ex-Beatle, he's in a class by himself.
It's a bold or misguided move, depending on whom you ask. Executives with Goldenvoice, a unit of sports-entertainment giant AEG, declined to comment for this story, but the promoter's track record speaks for itself.
Since launching 16 years ago on the Empire Polo Grounds in Indio, Coachella has emerged as the nation's most successful music festival. It was expanded from one to two weekends in 2012. Both weekends grossed an estimated $78 million last year.
Starting Friday, about 200 rock, rap, dance and R&B acts will perform on multiple stages this weekend and next — and smaller bands will be playing countless corporate-sponsored pool parties and other private events throughout the Palm Springs area. The business spinoffs keep multiplying; this year, fashion brand H&M has even launched its own line of Coachella-inspired attire.
But upping the ante in unexpected ways is critical at this point for Coachella — which must meet especially high expectations to continue its success.
One benefit of booking older-skewing acts may be the expansion of Coachella's audience. According to the festival's website, the vast majority of attendees are under 45.
Adding acts that may attract baby boomers with more discretionary spending power could increase sales of concessions, especially as the festival devotes more space to bars and gourmet food outlets.
Compared with other festivals, including Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and Outside Lands, Coachella is known for its high-end appeal and high prices. General admission wristbands go for $375, while its myriad VIP packages go from $900 well into the thousands.
As for extras, one can pre-purchase VIP parking closer to the grounds and a four-course meal in the Rose Garden for $225. And if traffic is simply too bourgeois, book a private jet as part of your special experience.
Still, for the Coachella fan who needs to eat ramen to save up for the fest, having a few legendary bands on the bill might help justify the expense.
"If younger means less affluent, when you talk about seeing AC/DC in a reserved seat situation, it can get really expensive," says Charlie Walker of C3, the promoter behind Lollapalooza in Chicago. "This is a way for them to experiment."
For AC/DC, whose members are almost all in their 60s, playing a festival with rapper Azealia Banks and EDM titan
"For the artist, it's a matter of trying to broaden your audience," says Gary Bongiovanni, president and editor in chief of the concert industry trade publication Pollstar. "Coachella has so much cachet to it, that even the heritage baby boomer rock acts can see the benefit in playing it."
Other top destination festivals will feature classic rockers at the top of their shows as well: Lollapalooza has McCartney, Bonnaroo has Billy Joel and San Francisco's Outside Lands will headline Elton John.
Not everyone's psyched about Coachella's reaching into the AARP catalog of rock.
"I want to see them, but I feel like it's almost inevitable that they'll conflict with someone I want to see more. I'm not going to pass up someone I'm genuinely stoked for . . . just to take a romp through the nostalgia fields," wrote one commenter on the festival's site.
AC/DC singer Brian Johnson downplays the buzz — good and bad — around his band headlining Coachella's opening night.
"Kids have been spoiled with so many things online, but I think … seeing bands live is still exciting," he says. "Still makes your hairs go up and get goose bumps. Not just us — any band that comes on and they're good."