Coachella festival gets a new lease on life

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The Empire Polo Fields are 90 acres of pristine green in a land of craggy brown and represent a field of dreams for music fans as the home of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. But a few years ago, the festival, which brings international travelers together in this small, low-desert city, came close to being buried by bulldozers.

At the height of the real estate boom, owner Alexander Haagen III was tempted to chop up the polo grounds and covert them to residential uses at a big windfall.

“We would have been crushed, it would have been the end,” said Paul Tollett, the promoter who crafted the Coachella success story.

The downturn in the economy helped preserve California’s most celebrated music festival. Tollett, along with Coachella promoter Goldenvoice, just inked a pact with Haagen that gives the festival its first long-term lease on the property, which this past weekend brought a record 75,000 fans each over three days to see 128 acts, led by the crystalline space rock of Muse and the Cristal flow of rap star Jay-Z.

With the new lease now securing Coachella’s home for at least an additional decade, changes will be made to upgrade the electrical service and to unsnarl the traffic that overwhelms this small city’s roadways. Haagen, who rarely grants interviews, said Sunday that he had committed $1 million in landscaping improvements annually going forward. Coachella is already considered among the most gracefully appointed major rock festivals in the U.S.

“Now, for the first time, we can take steps to make long-term improvements,” said Tollett, who would not disclose terms of the contract. “Every year, on Sunday night I walk out and I think, ‘Well, next year is the last one.’ We’ve never had a deal that went more than a couple of years. We’ve always been on eggshells.”

This year, the festival added more than 100 acres of parking and Haagen gave concertgoers access to the rose gardens. After approval of the Indio City Council, the festival extended its hours on Friday and Saturday nights to 1 a.m., from midnight previous years.

The most visually striking addition to this year’s Coachella was a 150-foot-tall Ferris wheel that towered over the festival grounds and, with its lights, flashed and flared into the night. The wheel was a holdover from October’s Phish Festival 8, which also took place at the Empire Polo Club. Haagen said those sorts of one-offs would be part of the venue’s business plan moving forward.

On Saturday, as the sun hung low in the sky, the line to get on the Ferris wheel was 35-people deep and included a group of face-painted young women and a trio of shirtless guys wearing Vietnamese peasant hats. Sally and Jim Richardson from Austin, Texas, brought their 4-year old daughter, Shelby, to Coachella for the first time and christened the event by going on the Ferris wheel twice.

“The view from up there was fantastic,” Sally Richardson said. “We come here every year. I wasn’t expecting this.” Said Shelby: “I loved it!” Her father added: “More than all the music, I should point out.”

Major changes were made to its camping area to make the event more affordable. At the Forum Tent Camping grounds, campers got a plot for the first time that they also parked on, an innovation that was universally loved for three simple reasons: Car locks, car radios and car seats became part of the camping gear.

On Saturday, the campground was chockablock with tents, lean-tos and military tarpaulins, many built right up to and around cars. It took on the feel of an earthy party center, melding the usual beer-cooler tailgating scene at a sporting event with a sort of modern Woodstock ethos informed by the California rave era and the desert’s curled-cowboy hat fashion.

A typical set-up: The tricked-out Volkswagen camper van (with an attached tent housing a Persian rug and pillows) belonging to Darlene Fletcher, 22, a student from New Zealand, and her boyfriend, Stephen Chelsom, 27, who were grilling chicken apple sausages on a small hibachi.

“I like the campground as much as the festival,” Fletcher said. “The people are really great. Everyone shares their food and drink. And everyone’s here all weekend. So you make great friends.”

There was no camping when Coachella began on a brutally hot weekend in 1999 as Rage Against the Machine, Tool and Beck headlined a show that, by the way, left Tollett and his company, Goldenvoice, in the red. It didn’t help that tickets for the festival with the funny name went on sale one week after the Woodstock 99 Festival back east went up in flames, literally and figuratively. Also, the residents of Indio weren’t sure they wanted a neighbor who would bring along huge amplifier stacks and potentially troubling baggage.

Tollett promised his show would be different; his plan was to import the European-style model of festivals, such as Glastonbury, to the desert where lush lawns, giant stages and pristine white dance tents could lure fans wanting to escape the arenas and asphalt lots of radio-station shows.

Tollett and AEG Live (which bought Goldenvoice in 2001 by absorbing its debt, which exceeded $1 million, according to executives involved in the deal) launched a second music event, the Stagecoach Festival, a country-music franchise that uses the still-standing set-up the following weekend and became profitable even faster than its rock cousin.

This year, a mutual trust seems to have replaced thorny community doubts about the giant rock festival that brings purple-haired fans and tattooed rock kids to a community more at ease with golfers and truck drivers.

Haagen said Tollett had won over the city leadership and residents by creating “a classy event, a festival with panache that has gotten Indio positive press coverage about all over the world” and one that also sells out every local hotel.

That is not to say that Coachella, with its massive crowds and loud music, doesn’t have an unruly and loud personality. According to Mike Marlow of the Riverside Fire Department, 84 people have been transported from Coachella to the hospital this year. That includes drug overdoses, a broken neck, a private security officer who fell off his horse and a naked man under the influence of “unknown substances” who smashed out the windows of parked cars with his head before he was tasered by police.

The festival’s medical tent has treated around 1,000 people in all, if you include handing out Band-Aids and administering IVs. “It’s as busy as ever,” Marlow said. “It hasn’t been as hot but you have a much higher number of participants.”

Then there’s the chaos from beyond the borders of the event: The rock festival crowd and the concertgoers, who include many repeat visitors, are now familiar with the locals, even the local undercover narcotics officers who seem to rely too much on Hawaiian shirts as camouflage.

For Haagen, his first foray into music was in 1993, when Goldenvoice booked a performance on the polo grounds by Pearl Jam. Tollett was mesmerized by the venue’s broad plain of verdant grass and the Wonderland feel of little hidden corners that had fish ponds, bridges and statues. Six years later, Tollett came back with an idea for a far bigger concert. “Paul,” Haagen said, “is a true artist with the layout of things and the standards he brings to it all.”

Coachella made its mark with indie sensibility, booking offbeat acts and quietly turning away the fleeting one-hit wonders that would sell tickets in the short term but undermine its credibility over the years. Unlike other festivals, Coachella has also resisted the temptation to cover every wall with an advertisement or to bring on every sponsor. Now, with the future less mysterious, Tollett said he hopes to hold on to the nervous magic.

“When you’re putting the show together every year and you think it’s the last one, you go all out, you make sure it’s the best it can be,” Tollett said. “But we still have to live up to our history, too. We have that on our side.”