The three-day Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival is not one that would seem in need of a tune-up. After all, the 2011 edition, which opens Friday and will be headlined by the likes of rap star Kanye West and indie-rock heavyweights the Arcade Fire, sold-out in a record six days.
But the 2010 edition had its share of fissures. Thousands of gate-crashers cut through the fencing and holders of counterfeit tickets got past overburdened security, swelling the crowd to some 15,000 beyond the permitted capacity and creating what a festival security official called "a borderline riot situation."
Goldenvoice, the AEG subsidiary company that produces the event, has responded with a major upgrade in security and infrastructure, creating a nearly mile-wide fenced perimeter around the festival grounds that will be open only to paying customers wearing festival-issued encrypted wristbands, enforced by police checkpoints. The company also is working with the city of Indio to add and upgrade roads, hoping to minimize traffic jams stemming from the tightened entry controls. The will call and central ticket office will be off-site, at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.
Paul Tollett, the festival's architect and head of Goldenvoice, said shifting the entry points farther from the music stages and keeping out gate-crashers is intended to improve the experience of what has become the premiere rock festival in the West.
"We don't want it to feel when you're inside that it's a prison," Tollett said. "It has to feel very pleasant. Part of that pleasantness is you cannot have a bunch of people come in for free. Those who pay have to get the experience, and we can't have people getting in for free."
Last year, Goldenvoice and Indio police were expecting somewhere in the range of 75,000 to 80,000 people per day. Tollett concedes the actual number was closer to 105,000. Indio permits allow for up to 90,000 people on Coachella grounds.
"We put a new fence in last year, and we saw all the chain-link cut all the way around the grounds," Tollett said. "Then we knew this was serious. We found bolt cutters. Not a couple holes. I mean, Swiss cheese. And we were like, 'We need to fix this.' We knew it was bad, but we didn't know how bad."
Tait Reimers, a former Navy SEAL who's worked festival security the last two years, said that 2010 was "definitely a tough year from the year before," and he called the security breakdown "a borderline riot situation." This year, Goldenvoice shipped out wristbands relatively close to the festival date, and each is embedded with an identifying computer chip to prevent counterfeits or duplicates from entering the grounds. Reimers says he is "optimistic" about this year's fest.
There are fears that the checkpoints will further snarl traffic, which already was a problem, with some fans reporting four-hour waits. Tollett didn't say offhand how many checkpoints there would be, but he ensured there will be multiple entry points into the fest, and Benjamin Guitron, a spokesman for the Indio Police Department, believes Goldenvoice's plan will make entry to the grounds easier.
"About a mile outside of the event, [Goldenvoice's] security, along with law enforcement, will be out there checking every car, that's the intent," Guitron said. "It's not going to be an open free flow, there will be some delays. But the way we have it planned it should help us make things flow."
Tollett also said the festival has reduced the number of passes handed out to the media and even to performers.
"We've had to completely change how we do that and media-ticket giveaways -- radio stations and such," Tollett said. "We cut most of that out, if not all. Everyone has to purchase their tickets. I got two people in this year -- my daughter and her cousin."
The tougher ticketing policies could be contributing to increased complaints of counterfeiting. Goldenvoice has responded by using its website to advise fans on how to spot phony tickets and by hiring outside private investigators to track down counterfeiters.
"We get people calling saying, 'This person is making fake wristbands.' So what do you do? Just let that go?" Tollett said.
Meanwhile, the quick sellout -- last year the last ticket didn't go until the week of the event -- has created a secondary market.
Kevin Chan, 21, who splits time between La Habra and China but regularly attends Coachella, took advantage of the situation. "It's, like, a no-brainer. I bought three tickets. One for me and two to resell. I sold the first ticket for like $450 to a friend. I paid, like ... $330."
His third ticket is still up for grabs. "I'm trying to sell it for a higher price -- it's going for about $600. Whatever people will put up."
Tollett said that's a problem the festival probably will try to address next year. He acknowledged he's still adjusting somewhat to the increasing success of his brainchild.
"Our attitude up until two years ago was more, 'If we can just sell these tickets I will be happy.'"