FEST TRAIN ROLLIN’
More than 300 music fans, some of them dancing in the aisles, rode this chartered Amtrak train Thursday from Los Angeles’ Union Station to the low-desert city of Indio where this weekend they will join thousands of others for one of the signature cultural experiences of 2008 -- an all-star outdoor rock festival.
As train rides go, it was definitely a trip. Fashionably scruffy L.A. music fans, many scanning their text messages more than the view out their windows, chugged Coronas, ate free ice cream and bobbed to the thumping beats of four disc jockeys set up in corners of the six-car express train. It was a decidedly 21st century remix of the classic concert road trip and, more than that, a symbol of the gathering new momentum of the festival as a pop-culture force.
Jarron Phelps, 23, had traveled from Melbourne, Australia, and was giddy. “Festivals like Coachella -- what other way could you see so many great bands in one place?” Phelps asked, dancing in his seat. “And this train, what a way to get there.”
Today, Phelps and others will hear the opening chords of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, which last year drew 65,000 people per day. But similar scenes will play out across North America over the next four months in unprecedented fashion. Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, but 2008 is taking that franchise’s tie-dyed traditions to more fans in more places than ever before.
“It’s about the music, but it’s also about the experience -- for fans it’s as much about the journey as it is the destination,” Coachella founder Paul Tollett said as the train headed east toward the polo field where 125 acts will perform over three days. “Fans love festivals right now. It’s the way they want their music. It’s been amazing watching them grow.”
This will be the ninth edition of Coachella, headlined by Prince, Roger Waters, Jack Johnson, Portishead, the Raconteurs and My Morning Jacket. When it began in 1999, there was considerable skepticism as to whether huge, outdoor shows modeled on European festivals could be viable in the U.S., especially after Woodstock 1999 was marred by fires and brutish behavior. Now, the Coachella model is entrenched. This year, four festivals will launch, including Summer Camp in Chillicothe, Ill., near Peoria, of all places, which has booked the Flaming Lips, the Roots and other big acts.
The rock festival was a touchstone generational event for music fans in the 1960s -- Woodstock, the Monterey Pop Festival and Altamont became as recognizable as the stars on their stages. In the 1970s, rock entered its arena-concert era, and in the 1980s, the concert business reached the stadium level with such acts as the Rolling Stones, U2 and Bruce Springsteen filling the nation’s massive sports venues.
Today, though, even the biggest stars rarely mount stadium tours on their own. The festival era is again in full swing, including a reconstituted Lollapalooza, now anchored in Chicago, and Bonnaroo in Tennessee. This summer will add new names to the list: All Points West in New Jersey, Rothbury Festival in Michigan and Pemberton Festival in British Columbia.
Last week, yet another festival announced its lineup: Rock the Bells, the hip-hop franchise that last year scored a reunion of Rage Against the Machine and the Wu-Tang Clan, this year will be headlined by the Pharcyde and A Tribe Called Quest. Chang Weisberg, president of Guerilla Union and organizer of Rock the Bells, said that lean times in the recording industry had turned up the pressure on artists to perform and pull in crowds. That’s often easier to do with a host of stars sharing the stage.
“I’m on the side of the business that represents somewhere between 70% to 90% of an artist’s actual revenues,” Weisberg said. “The traditional record label deal probably violates anti-slavery laws. Festivals represent the live business that an artist can really put in their pocket.”
As the music scene has become increasingly diffuse, artists find themselves turning to television shows and commercials, film, video games and the Internet to reach an audience that has more entertainment options than ever before. A festival and its massive crowd are alluring to these artists not only as a payday but also as chance to cut through to audiences in a meaningful way. This year, media outlets from around the world will be covering Coachella, and tickets were sold in all 50 states.
On the train ride Thursday, a casual survey of passengers found fans carrying passports from Japan, Ireland, Australia, England, Canada, the Netherlands and Brazil.
Just before performing aboard the Coachella Express on Thursday, Junkie XL -- a Dutch-born, Venice Beach-based electronica disc jockey and remix producer who will also perform at the festival Saturday -- said that for artists, there was strength in numbers amid the industry malaise.
“Festivals present the opportunity for young people to catch a lot of different vibes,” he said. “It’s a unique opportunity. You can break through to the people who may have heard of you, who showed up to see Death Cab for Cutie or Prince. Only festivals can give you that.”
Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the concert industry trade magazine Pollstar, said that as record stores become less a part of American life, the festival stage has become a platform for brand-building.
“The important ones like Coachella and Bonnaroo, artists will route their tours around,” Giovanni said. “They’re important enough that artists want to play them, but it’s more than just a paycheck. Prince is surely getting paid well to perform at Coachella, but his prime motive isn’t money. It’s a chance to play what everyone thinks is a new, hot show.”
Tollett, whom many see as the pioneer of this festival era, has mixed feelings about the surge in franchises nationwide. He said he worried about marketplace saturation and a loss of the “wow” factor as festivals become more routine.
The three-hour train ride Thursday was a reminder of how far he has come and a hint of the future; he wonders if there’s a chance to use trains to link up festivals across the country and ferry fans in a European mode for a summer of travel and music.
Tollett has tried for years to get train service from L.A. to Indio for his festival, but it wasn’t until this year, with festivals reaching a new zenith, that he found Amtrak eager to talk. Tollett and his partners in Coachella, AEG Live, had a temporary platform built for the occasion and passengers were surprised with VIP passes for the festival.
“Right now I’m just enjoying this ride and this day,” said Tollett, who lost nearly $1 million on the first Coachella but not his faith in the model. “We’re passing to La Puente, this is where I grew up. I used to put pennies on this track that we’re riding on. My high school is coming up here.
“This is a great ride,” he said.