Inside his mini-mart in the desert town of Indio, store manager John Stafford is busy stockpiling caffeinated drinks. Monster and Red Bulls mostly. He knows from experience that he’ll need plenty this weekend.
Tens of thousands of visitors will descend upon the desert region beginning Friday for the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. “Cigarettes and energy drinks,” Stafford said. “They need to stay awake out there.”
Fans and bands may need an extra stamina boost this year. Coachella, one of the biggest events for pop fans, the music industry and the Mojave Desert, is expanding for the first time from one weekend to two and will feature 143 bands. By cloning itself into twin festivals, with identical lineups, spread over consecutive three-day weekends, it will easily rank as the highest-grossing festival in the world this year, according to Billboard magazine.
The expansion of the festival is a boon for the economically challenged Indio, a city of 76,000 where the median income is just above $36,000 a year, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. It will more than double in population with the addition of 80,000 or more Coachella guests each weekend, and those two waves of visitors will bring money to spend. The influx of visitors also means sold-out hotels, packed cafes and a run on Smartwater in more affluent, surrounding areas such as the resort towns of Indian Wells and La Quinta.
The festival is a bright light for an increasingly fragmented music business still scrambling to find a solid revenue stream. Labels, band managers and concert promoters are watching the festival closely to see if this two-weekend model is a solution to at least some of the industry’s financial woes.
Last year’s one-weekend event grossed $25 million in tickets. This year that figure is expected to jump to the $50-million mark by the time the event closes on April 22. Three-day passes cost $285 sans service fees, and all 150,000 passes were gone within three hours of the lineup being announced in January.
“There were enough buyers in queue to buy online that we probably could have added another two Coachella weekends, and another Stagecoach weekend,” said Randy Phillips, president of AEG Live, which is equal partners with Coachella’s promoter Goldenvoice in that event and its country music cousin, Stagecoach, coming the weekend after Coachella ends.
Coachella also brings a payday bonanza for the acts that grace its five stages (this year that roster includes Dr. Dre, Pulp, Radiohead and Black Keys). Artists make double what they would have been paid to play a single weekend -- and perform in front of twice as many people.
“It’s pretty much ‘Groundhog Day,’ isn’t it?” said Pelle Almqvist, lead singer of the Hives, the Swedish rock band playing both Sundays. “It’s going to feel pretty surreal the second weekend, when it’s all the same people and the same set times. That week in between will be the highest rock star ratio in California of all time.”
The Coachella footprint is not only getting larger, it’s becoming permanent. This year AEG-owned Goldenvoice announced that it had purchased 280 acres of land that surround the Empire Polo Grounds. It signaled a commitment by the promoter not only to stay in the area but to continue to shape its surroundings.
“You’re talking 100,000-people-plus when you start adding in security, vendors and support staff. It becomes a small city,” said Indio Mayor Glenn Miller of Coachella’s effect.
The business communities in and around Indio, including neighboring cities Palm Springs and Palm Desert, will share in the hotel, restaurant and retail business from the concertgoers and non-ticketed partyers. “We have three hotels and they are at capacity for all three weekends,” said Les Johnson, planning director in La Quinta, a city of about 37,000. “We’re probably around 800 or 900 rooms, and they’re completely sold out.”
Coachella has made any space where you can sleep, eat or throw a party a premium commodity. “It’s an industry out here that’s growing faster and faster each year,” said Daniel Watson of Palm Springs’ McLean Co. Rentals. “The number of corporate parties this year has doubled over last year.”
Sylvia Schmitt of Bermuda Dunes’ Locations Unlimited said companies including Lacoste, T-Mobile and Skyy Vodka called her seeking spots to throw their parties. “You’re talking a minimum of $20,000 and as much as $50,000 for three nights,” she said.
But these days she largely avoids renting out to the Coachella party circuit. “They’ll tell you it’s only going to be five people staying there and they’ll have a couple people around the pool,” she said. “Then you get a call from the neighbors or the police and there will be 500 people in the pool.”
Robyn Celia runs Pappy & Harriet’s saloon and restaurant 53 miles away from the festival in Pioneertown. The desert denizens, she said, take a curious rather than defensive approach to Coachella revelers. “They’ve never been anything but welcoming to the out-of-towners. They get a kick out of it. I think the locals think it’s hilarious. It’s not something they’re going to see at Applebee’s.”
Whether fans will stay in the desert region between festival weekends remains to be seen, but either way, Goldenvoice has the market covered. Last month the promoter unveiled a full slate of April shows featuring Coachella bands. Artists who rarely tour, such as pop oddity Jeff Mangum or British reunion act Pulp, were given club dates in the desert region and L.A.
The challenge for bands not playing one of the in-between shows, said booking agent Tom Windish (who represents several acts that are playing this year), is what to do during the week. “Sitting around doing nothing for seven days gets expensive,” he said. “You have to pay for accommodations, and there’s equipment they’ve rented and they’re paying tour personnel to do nothing.”
The downside of playing a festival such as Coachella is that the gig usually comes with “radius clauses,” contractual rules against performing in the areas surrounding the festivals in the months before and after.
Many artists are traveling outside the embargoed areas to places like Las Vegas and San Francisco to earn extra money, though Windish says bands now make twice playing Coachella as they would have last year.
“If a band used to get paid $20,000 to play Coachella, now they’re getting $40,000,” he said.
Goldenvoice President Paul Tollett, and AEG officials, insist that their primary motivation for the doubling up of shows this year was not about multiplying profits, but accommodating fans. Tollett has estimated that last year as many as 80,000 fans who wanted to attend weren’t able to.
His rationale for mirroring the lineup over both weekends, rather than building separate shows like the two-weekend New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival does, was so that fans wouldn’t feel torn if they could only attend a single weekend.
“On paper it’s just math, and that’s the way Paul Tollett looked at it,” Billboard’s Ray Waddell said. “There was twice as much demand as they had ticket availability. But it was still a huge gamble.”
Since Coachella was born in 1999 -- a money-losing inaugural outing that nearly killed the concert promoter, Goldenvoice, that created it -- subsequent growth has inspired dozens of other festivals across the country to the point where nearly every weekend it seems like a music festival is taking place somewhere (Bonnaroo in Tennessee, Lollapalooza in Chicago, the Austin City Limits Festival in Texas . . .)
But for Indio, Coachella -- and the business it generates -- are what matter.
At a Palm Desert Albertson’s, a clerk who preferred not to be identified said the store was prepared for “mega-business” this weekend. New riser displays highlight alcohol and soda, and extra registers will be open. The grocery store is expecting business to be up a minimum of 10%. Asked what Coachella goers are after, the clerk said, “Alcohol, of course.”