Exclusive: Frank Ocean to headline Coachella in 2023
Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival co-founder Paul Tollett loves to drive, spending a typical work week crisscrossing Southern California, from Malibu to the desert, Pomona to downtown Los Angeles. And yet his most satisfying trip of late was a short drive to the Sunset Strip to see his first live concert in more than a year.
It was a surprise set at the intimate Roxy Theatre by hip-hop star Tyler, the Creator, who performed songs from his new album, “Call Me If You Get Lost.”
“That’s the only thing I’ve been to and, man, it felt great,” Tollett, 55, says of the June 29 performance. “Just being in there, and the energy... I missed it.”
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After a long 2020-21 derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Tollett is hoping to get that feeling a lot more often as the live music industry slowly reopens. In his role as president of Goldenvoice Productions, a subsidiary of AEG Presents, he typically oversees more than 2,000 shows a year across California and stretching to Las Vegas.
Most of his attention now is on finalizing details for the return of the hugely influential Coachella festival in 2022 — after an excruciating delay of three years since its 20th anniversary in 2019. He co-founded the festival with his late partner, Rick Van Santen, and retains half-ownership with AEG.
Looking even further ahead, he was ready to confirm something else: reclusive R&B visionary Frank Ocean will return as a headliner, but not until the 2023 festival.
Normally, Tollett would never reveal the name of any act so far in advance, but he says fans deserve some reassurance after the chaos and uncertainty of the last year and a half.
“Right now, it’s the Wild West,” he says. “I’m just trying to be as fair as I can to artists and to the fans to make sure that eventually they get to see everyone that we talked about.”
Originally booked for 2020 along with fellow headliners Rage Against the Machine and Travis Scott, Ocean was not available for the latest rescheduled Coachella, set to be held over the weekends of April 15-17 and April 22-24, 2022, at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, Calif. (Rage Against the Machine and Scott will be back, with a third headliner to be announced.)
Even with the wait, a Frank Ocean performance remains a rare commodity. He performed at Coachella once before, in 2012, and delivered an especially memorable set in 2017 at the FYF Festival that Times critic Mikael Wood described as “a one-of-a-kind piece of performance art devised by a musician uninterested in the ordinary.”
Tollett agrees: “His FYF performance was phenomenal.”
There are other challenges in bringing back Coachella, which is recognized as the most profitable music festival in the U.S., grossing more than $100 million annually, and where acts ranging from Beyoncé to Radiohead to Billie Eilish have delivered career-defining performances.
When the 2020 show was originally booked, rappers Megan Thee Stallion and Doja Cat were listed lower on the bill as compelling newer acts, but they have since become major hit-makers. That will have to be reflected in their placement on the bill.
“It’s a whole different conversation,” Tollett says, “different stage, different timing.”
Tollett, who doesn’t often give interviews, agreed to talk in part to announce the Ocean commitment but also to discuss the devastating limbo the live music industry has been in since March 2020 and the arrival of COVID-19. He spoke where he’s often most comfortable, behind the wheel of his car, at the moment parked in Atwater Village. He was dressed in his usual jeans and a black baseball cap.
At Goldenvoice, which shares an office building with parent company AEG within walking distance of Staples Center downtown, the freezing of all live events for more than a year was a staggering blow. Some of its approximately 200 employees were furloughed during that period, though virtually all have since returned.
Last March, Coachella was preparing for its opening weekend when Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an emergency stay-at-home order across the state. Few realized how long it would last.
Moving trucks were already on-site in Indio, with workers beginning construction on tents and stages. Then, ominous warnings about the virus began to reach Tollett.
“I remember thinking, ‘I wonder if it’s going to affect Coachella just for a day or two? Wow, this could be weird. Could we really postpone a show?’”
The large commissioned art pieces that are a mainstay of the festival were also going up — their installation was about 80% completed when all work abruptly shut down. That artwork remains in place, but not all of it was built to survive until April.
“Some of that stuff is not going to last two years. We lost a lot of money on things like that,” Tollett says.
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The festival was initially postponed until October 2020, and Goldenvoice staff quickly organized a new plan for its 180 acts in less than two days of calls and emails. Artists and their representatives didn’t object, and the process went surprisingly smoothly, but that relief was short-lived as it became clear that the pandemic was not fading.
“Then it got harder: ‘Oh, it’s going to happen again,’” says Tollett, recalling the second rescheduling to April 2021. “We started getting a feeling fairly soon like, ‘Oh, man, this is not getting any better.’ And you can always count on everyone not to work together. It’s a complicated country, a complicated world, with different beliefs and what they want to do.”
More than half of Coachella’s ticket-buyers requested refunds during the early months of the pandemic.
“I joked that we did too good of a job on refunds,” Tollett says with a smile. “I understand you want your refund. You’ve got your hotel, your airfare, all your stuff. Tickets are the smallest of it all, actually.
“I’d rather the ticket buyers be happy with us than hold onto their money and later be mad.”
During the worst months of the pandemic, some prominent voices quoted in publications, including Billboard and Vice, began declaring that live music events might never return to normal. Tollett says he kept his cool, neither panicking nor rushing back into operation this year as vaccinations began to push back the threat. Being connected to AEG, he adds, helped Goldenvoice remain cautious. There was no pressure to restart the cash flow.
“I told AEG, ‘We’re going to wait on Coachella.’ It wasn’t a fight at all,” he said.
One influence on his decision was seeing a photograph from an earlier Coachella that captured five young friends enjoying the festival without restriction: hair blowing in the breeze, holding hands, no shoes. Tollett decided he didn’t want to bring the festival back until he could re-create moments like that.
“I don’t want to force it too soon. I’d rather wait,” he says. “You’ll never remember that you had to wait, but you’ll remember if you went to a really bad event.”
When tickets went on sale in June for the 2022 festival, without even a single artist being named, all 125,000 for each weekend sold within hours, as usual.
As shows have begun returning across the country, the Delta variant of COVID-19 has presented an alarming setback. A planned Foo Fighters concert to reopen the Forum in Inglewood was postponed when someone affiliated with the rock band was diagnosed with the coronavirus.
Over this past weekend, the annual Lollapalooza festival in Chicago returned with crowds at full capacity of about 100,000 fans each day. Attendees were required to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within the previous three days.
Goldenvoice is only just beginning to promote shows again and is taking a wait-and-see attitude. The company isn’t requiring vaccinations or tests.
“We’re monitoring everything,” Tollett adds. “I don’t want to put anything in cement right now, because I just don’t know.”
About five years ago, Microsoft co-founder and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates attended Coachella, and Tollett gave him a personal tour. It turned out that Gates had given the festival some thought.
“He goes, ‘I’ve been following the show for a while. I think it can last forever.’ I think, ‘Oh, that’s so great. I’m so happy,’” recalls Tollett. “And he says, ‘Except for...’ and he names a whole bunch of things, and ‘pandemic’ was one of them. And I’m like, ‘Wow, you’re a buzzkill.’ But he was right.”
Not that Tollett hadn’t considered the possibilities himself. He is someone who likes to make lists, compiling ideas, problems, solutions.
“I think about those things nonstop,” he says, adding, “We didn’t have insurance. So what we lost, we lost.”
Tollett notes that Goldenvoice has done well over the years and that the company did not request government assistance. Larger companies that have enjoyed success with festivals, he argued, should not be dipping into that funding.
“You all started festivals to make a bunch of money and you did, and then you hit a whammy,” Tollett says of promoters facing challenges during the pandemic year. “That’s a part of business — hitting whammies.”
Now, he sees a coming traffic jam in the concert business as all the acts that had to cancel their 2020 touring plans rush out, alongside acts that were already set to launch in 2021 and 2022.
“Ticket prices concern me. Everyone is trying to make up for lost time,” Tollett says. “I’ve seen a bump in everything out there, not [just] music, but food prices, gas, everything. Everyone’s put a little something [extra] on, and that can’t last.”
Things at Goldenvoice are going well so far, although sales for country music concerts are lagging. Tollett notes that all the Goldenvoice festivals that have gone on sale this year are already sold out, including Coachella, the country-themed Stagecoach and the Just Like Heaven show in Pasadena.
“It’s a good market right now, but we don’t want to push it,” he says cautiously. “We just had to wait a couple of years.”
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