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Must Reads: As Coachella turns 20, its press-shy co-founder gets candid about sexual harassment and why Kanye dropped out

LOS ANGELES, CA-JANUARY 7, 2019: Concert promoter Paul Tollett, the longtime president of Goldenvoi
Concert promoter Paul Tollett, the longtime president of Goldenvoice Productions, is photographed in front of a mosaic of the Coachella landscape, at his headquarters in DTLA. Tollett cofounded the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, now heading into its 20th year.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

The fifth-floor lobby of Goldenvoice Productions greets visitors in downtown L.A. with a vibrant, wall-size mosaic that depicts a desert landscape close to the heart of concert promoter Paul Tollett. Its sun-baked mountains and palm trees represent the site of his Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, now in its 20th year.

Tollett, the longtime president of Goldenvoice, co-founded the hugely influential festival with his late partner Rick Van Santen to rave reviews and near-ruinous ticket sales in 1999. It survived to become one the world’s essential pop music events, with career-defining performances by the likes of Beyoncé, Prince and Radiohead, an annual two-weekend gathering of music, art and food with lineups that often inspire or inflame music fanatics.

Indeed, when the closely held 2019 lineup was revealed Jan. 2, Goldenvoice received both applause and grumbles from those demanding a far different balance of pop, rock, hip-hop, soul, country, Latin, avant-garde and EDM. That’s still part of the fun for Tollett, 53, who for this anniversary year announced 160 acts — headlined by Childish Gambino, Tame Impala and Ariana Grande — with few nods to nostalgia and no apologies.

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“This lineup is very 2019,” says Tollett, who had a nervous 36 hours before the lineup reveal that saw the abrupt exit of Kanye West as a headliner. Just weeks earlier, Justin Timberlake dropped out after bruised vocal cords disrupted his tour, which was Tollett’s first sign of trouble. “It was a little hard this year but, man, it worked out.”

INDIO, CALIF. - APR. 13, 2018. Beyonce performs at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival in Indio o
Beyoncé's 2018 Coachella performance is widely regarded as one of the festival’s best.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

In a year of concerts across California and beyond promoted by Goldenvoice, which began nearly four decades ago as a leading proselytizer of punk rock, Coachella remains the high point for Tollett. His corner office is filled with reminders of Goldenvoice’s history, with glass cases preserving ancient fliers for chaotic shows with the Ramones, Black Flag and Dead Kennedys from the company’s first decade of action.

In 2001, Goldenvoice was sold to live music giant AEG Presents. Its chairman is unapologetic conservative Philip Anschutz, whose political donations have led to calls for a boycott of the festival. Tollett, who is not a Donald Trump supporter, retains half ownership of Coachella.

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Dressed in his usual jeans, gray T-shirt and black Dodgers cap, Tollett is soft-spoken by nature and press-shy from experience. But he agreed to sit for three lengthy interviews with The Times to clear the air on issues that have piled up regarding the festival and other Goldenvoice business. Coachella drew a quarter-million music fans last year (and a worldwide streaming audience of 458,000), who witnessed a wildly ambitious headline performance by Beyoncé and her cast of about 100 dancers, musicians, a reunited Destiny’s Child and husband Jay-Z.

Beychella aside, recent years delivered complaints about gender balance at the top of the bill. There were reports of sexual predators, inspiring a just-announced program for security and awareness called Every One, led by Veline Mojarro. There was also a lawsuit over the fest’s radius clause that largely prevents Coachella acts from booking other gigs on the West Coast for months at a time surrounding the festival. It maybe explains why Tollett still thinks of the old Frank Sinatra hit “That’s Life” as his personal theme song: “You’re riding high in April, shot down in May ...”

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Paul Tollett pictured here in 1999 at the Empire Polo Grounds in Indio shortly before the first-ever Coachella.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
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The afternoon crowd at the first-ever Coachella in October of 1999.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

What do 20 years mean to you?

I’m not big on anniversaries, but it’s cool. Some of my staff aren’t that much older than 20 themselves.

When you and Rick Van Santen were putting Coachella together, were you seeing it as an open-ended thing?

The hope was that it would be annual. We never thought about two weekends. Never thought about a country version. Never thought about a Desert Trip. Those are all things that happened along the way.

Kanye very publicly bowed out this year. What happened?

When we were going through the stage ideas, he had some other ideas. He’s played Coachella, and he knows it very well. Both times were great, and so different. The last one was pure art. He has some great [production] ideas, but we just weren’t able to pull them off right now. I’d like to circle back with him and figure out a future plan of what to do with what’s in his head. He’s very capable of coming up with ideas that work that are pretty great. Up until Jan. 1, we were making a poster with Kanye on it. We started realizing we’re probably going to have an impasse production-wise.

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Kanye West at Coachella in 2011. He almost performed at this year’s festival.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
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When Kanye pulled out, what did you have to do?

It was surprisingly mellow. I had my team there. I told them, “OK, Kanye is not going to go this year.” There were some gasps.

Has Beyoncé raised the stakes for others who play the main stage?

It’s up to them. We’re giving them the platform to do what they want. It comes down to the songs too. These artists push themselves. I don’t want to take credit for anything they’re doing. Like for Beyoncé, we just don’t want to get in the way.

What was your first reaction to Beyoncé’s performance?

I had seen the rehearsal the week before. They basically rebuilt the stage indoors. I gasped when I walked in. I saw her sitting in front and picking camera angles for the crowd to see. There was no director in sight besides her. I thought, “Wow, we’re about to see something great here.” The thing I was most impressed with was her work ethic and the creativity of the message she was putting across.

Have there been cases where a headliner treated Coachella like any other tour date?

Once in a while that happens. There’s a whole business side of this too — the manager-agent-promoter triangle — and sometimes you’ll hear them talking, and they’re treating it as another stop. And who am I to change that?

How do you respond to criticism that you haven’t featured enough female headliners at Coachella?

They were right, so correct it. There’s been more recently. That should keep going. You shouldn’t be afraid to fix things. What’s bad is when you get defensive. It’s systematic in the industry. The submission list is all dudes. A lot of the charts are that way. Everyone needs to do better.

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Paul Tollett, right, pictured here at Coachella in 2003 with fellow co-founder Rick Van Santen.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

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Amid the otherwise sunny desert vibes at Coachella last year, Teen Vogue published an article that described “rampant” sexual harassment and assault. Its author, Vera Papisova, said she was groped 22 times in 10 hours, and interviewed 54 women on-site who related similar experiences. The sexual misconduct at the festival wasn’t described as an outlier but as a typical experience for women across all live music events. Tollett and his staff took notice.

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What was your reaction to the Teen Vogue article last year that suggested a lot of women were being harassed at Coachella and other festivals?

It spurred a lot of discussion internally. We have security, of course, and all the normal things that you have at public assemblage events. But in addition to that, we want to have something specific to this. Lots of things can go wrong where crowds are. This is one more thing coming to light now more than ever, since the #MeToo era.

There were three incidents that went to the police at Coachella [in 2018]. Two of them were above-clothing groping. They got one of the guys and couldn’t find the other. There was a sexual assault in an RV. It’s across all live events. It’s a serious time.

What is the Every One program starting this year at Coachella?

Every One is a comprehensive campaign rolling out for Coachella and Stagecoach to address assault and harassment at the festivals. We are committed to messaging, on-site support, trainings, and increased visibility and awareness for the campaign. We’re challenging staff and attendees to be an integral part of this culture shift. Through these steps, we believe that we can co-create a festival culture that encourages active consent, inclusivity and community responsibility.

What is the balance between male and female fans at Coachella?

It’s a little more female. About 54%.

Coachella debuted just months after Woodstock ’99, which was marred by rioting, fire and sexual assaults. At the time, Coachella seemed like a clear contrast as a safe environment.

We think Coachella is a safe environment to this day. We have security and staff to anticipate problems that happen. These are society’s problems that when you have the numbers we do that we’re going to see. There are bad people in this world. We need to be ready for those bad apples.

INDIO,CA -- SATURDAY, APRIL 21, 2018-- Sun setting at the Coachella Valley Festival during weekend
The 2018 Coachella grounds. A Teen Vogue story reported rampant sexual harassment and assault at the event.
(Maria Alejandra Cardona / Los Angeles Times)

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The purchase of Goldenvoice by the Anschutz Entertainment Group came with unexpected baggage for Coachella, after news stories circulated almost two years ago that AEG owner Philip Anschutz and his foundation donated to organizations with anti-LGBTQ agendas. AEG quickly responded with a statement: “We have immediately ceased all contributions to such groups.”

It left a stain for a Coachella clientele that tends to be young and benign in its approach to sexual orientation. Ever since, there have been scattered calls for a boycott of the festival, a frustration for Tollett, who points to recent large Anschutz donations to groups that support LGBTQ concerns internationally.

The same day as this year’s lineup announcement, there were messages online that if you go to Coachella, you’re supporting Donald Trump.

I’m not a Trump supporter. I think people know I’m the owner-operator of the show. I’m partners with AEG. Phil Anschutz is the one they’re talking about, and he owns thousands of companies. He’s so not thinking about Coachella. He has no opinion if I should pivot from dubstep to trap-house. Most billionaires are Republicans. The billionaire attached to Live Nation is a Republican Trump supporter. Ticketmaster, same thing. Madison Square Garden? Billionaire Trump supporter. I know Mr. Anschutz isn’t a Trump supporter. None of it matters to me. I run a show 365 days a year, making all the decisions. Anyone who knows me and the Goldenvoice staff, they know we have a very colorful public history.

They see our 1,400 shows a year. They know our well-balanced staff, diverse from the beginning. Currently more women than men, all races, all sexual orientations. We never had a plan to do it that way; it’s just what all of us are. We book our shows that way too.

This wasn’t the first call for a boycott because of Anschutz’s political donations.

He’s given hundreds of millions to charity and made some mistakes, and he’s addressed it. He made a very strong statement about his beliefs and people’s rights to their sexuality. He made a million-dollar donation to an AIDS charity that specializes in LGBTQ discrimination in Africa. I’ve seen it here at AEG: He’s good to all of us. There’s no discrimination.

How closely do you work with Anschutz?

I don’t see him that much. I lost a lot of money in 2008 — because I put Prince on at the last minute. Stagecoach was also just starting. I lost the most amount of money I ever lost. He came to the show. I was petrified.

I was ready to quit Coachella that day. I’m done. I’ve had some great years, now a bad one. He asks, “Do you know what you did wrong?” I explained a couple of things. He says, “OK, let’s drive on.” He’s shown that he sticks with culture. He sees who we book and hire. It speaks for itself how we are inclusive with everything.

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Paul McCartney at the 2009 edition of Coachella.
(Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times)

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The lineup and genres at Coachella have evolved two decades, but it’s never just based on charts and popularity. This is a curated event.

I like to go by what we’re living that year. In the previous year, we’ve seen a lot of small club shows because we’re doing at the Roxy, El Rey, Fonda, Glass House. I get to see as the stuff is breaking. If you’re out every night seeing those shows, you learn a lot. But there’s plenty of artists I don’t want to book at Coachella who are gigantic and sell a lot of tickets. That’s not the filter. It’s not just my taste; that wouldn’t be fair.

After starting as a mostly alternative festival, some were puzzled when you began including legacy artists like Paul McCartney and Roger Waters.

[Film composer] Hans Zimmer was a great example. At first, that seemed like an outlier. Then when he comes on, it makes so much sense because everyone grew up on those songs. It was so emotional. We saw people crying.

If you have a chance to get Paul McCartney, you grab that. People will be studying him for hundreds of years to come. You take it for granted because he might come to town every three or four years, but that is a superstar in the history of time.

Given the punk rock roots of Goldenvoice, it’s expensive to attend Coachella. Many describe the festival as a luxury item.

It’s in the category of, almost, vacation. It’s a different category I didn’t see coming. We built it as it went. I wasn’t seeing that side of it being a full weekend. People camp or go to hotels; they catch up with their friends. There’s so much more going on than I ever dreamt of.

Some of that stuff is expensive. Some of it is optional. I remember when Goldenvoice tickets went past $10. Punks screamed bloody murder. But they didn’t understand what the bands were getting and what bands needed to get across the country and fly over from England and things like that.

INDIO, CALIF. -- SATURDAY, APRIL 16, 2016: Guns N Roses Axl Rose on stage at the Coachella Valley M
Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses at Coachella.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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Coachella has a big footprint in Southern California and among music festivals across the country. Like Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza, Coachella has a controversial radius clause that restricts where its acts can perform before and after the festival. In Portland, Ore., the Soul’d Out Music Festival filed a federal antitrust lawsuit against Coachella, Goldenvoice and AEG over that radius clause. For local music fans, at least, its impact was mitigated when Goldenvoice began hosting special “sideshows” of festival acts in local venues before and after the two Coachella weekends.

For years, your radius clause has been an issue for some of your competitors and local fans who can’t get to Coachella.

One of the biggest complaints about festivals from fans is that every festival has the same lineup. I hear that nonstop. I’d rather find someone different. For me that’s the crux of it.

We want that first announcement. There are only so many artists. I have a list that I want, and there is another 3,000 or 4,000 that get submitted by the industry. I’m looking for 140 or 150 artists that are fresh. If you want to play a whole bunch of shows in town, I’m not mad at you. I just don’t have to put you on the [festival]. I want something unique and fresh for a 100-day window.

How does it work?

The radius clause is part of all business to some extent. You can’t put a car dealer every block; a car dealer has a region. These artists generally come back later that year. Sometimes two more times that year. So it’s just a moment of time that there’s a radius clause on that. Ours is more for that first part of the year right before Coachella.

Sometimes I’ll get a band back together and pay them a big number. And I’ll get another festival upset that I have the first announcement and they have to wait. I feel like: Wow, I went and talked to the four guys at their house. I got them back together. If I was a jerk, I’d also grab that other city. I’m more focused on Coachella and a couple of other things. But I’ll get another promoter calling, going “We want to announce.” And I’m like “You’re two months after me. You don’t even know the band.”

LOS ANGELES, CA -- FRIDAY, AUGUST 17, 2018-- As Coachella gets ready to turn 20, Paul Tollett, found
Paul Tollett is photographed at his record store, the Glass House Record Store, in Ponoma, Calif., in August 2018.
(Maria Alejandra Cardona / Los Angeles Times)

You somehow managed to get Guns N’ Roses back together with founding members Axl Rose, Slash and Duff McKagan. That was a tall order.

When I talked to them, I said, “I made your flyer when you played at Fenders with Johnny Thunders back in 1986 or ’87.” I sent it to them. That was a tricky one. I had a list of 13 people that I had to get through. You’ve got to go in order. If you go out of order you can piss off the wrong person.

Was Axl the first call?

No, it starts way lower than that. It starts with people around me. Then there’s agents, managers, attorneys. Us humans are a little fragile when you’re cut out of something. So I’m going around: “Hey, just letting you know I’m going after this. I’ll keep you in the loop.“ But you can call the wrong person, and they’ll maybe call Slash and Axl too early and spook the whole thing.

It’s not just about a dollar figure?

Oh, no. If you lead with that, you will always be shut down. An artist doesn’t want to feel that they’re just that. Plus, as much as Coachella can pay, there’s always someone who can offer more. It can never be the money. I actually think the youth side of the show really sells a lot to some of these artists: Let’s get the new generation, the cutting-edge people.

INDIO, CALIFORNIA: April 15, 2016 - An art installation reading “Besame Mucho” at the Coachella Arts
Art installation “Besame Mucho,” from R&R Studios in Argentina, took its name from Consuelo Velazquez’s early 1940s pop standard, a song that captured the panic and passion of love during wartime.
(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

***

In November 2017, Goldenvoice quietly cut ties to Sean Carlson, creator of the alternative music festival FYF, after allegations of sexual misconduct reported by The Times and Spin.com. The company ultimately took full ownership of the festival and announced a FYF for last July headlined by Janet Jackson and Florence + the Machine. Ticket sales fell short and the show was canceled, leaving FYF’s future uncertain.

What was Sean Carlson doing that made you want to be involved with FYF?

Really good curator. He knew music really well, and he picked well. It was all about the music. Ironically, it was a great show that was gender balanced and checked all the right boxes.

What happened with Sean?

There were allegations brought to light, and we felt they were credible enough for us to distance ourselves with him. It was complicated because we had just written a check to buy half of the festival officially. There is never an opportune time for terrible news. Even with the investment we just made, I felt we needed to move on.

We don’t want to be associated with anything close to that, at any cost. We made a decision that day. We have a team that’s an executive committee — half women and half men. I told the staff, “Before you vote, understand that it means our competitor is going to get this festival.” It came back unanimous.

LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 27, 2016: People enter the FYF Fest at Exposition Park. (Michael Owen Baker
The 2016 FYF Fest at Exposition Park.
(Michael Owen Baker / For The Times)

What was the vote for specifically?

To get out of business with Sean. That meant handing him the festival back, and he can do anything he wants with it. Flush the money we just spent, flush the efforts we just put into it, and know that thing is going to compete against us now. It was still unanimous. From that meeting, I sent a text to four or five of the agencies: “As of now, we are completely out of business with Sean.”

There are legal things you have to do to give back a business. There’s papers that need to be drawn up. It took a moment. Then Sean came back and says, “I’ll just give it to you. You guys can do the best with it.”

He gave it to you, without any additional money?

There wasn’t any other money given for the other half. Who knows what it was worth at that point. It’s hard to put a number on it. We weren’t able to make heads or tails of it.

What led to FYF being canceled after that?

We attempted to put a show together that was already half-booked. There was a lag. Some bands were sitting there, some went away. We launched late. It went on sale and didn’t do well. Sad chapter, all of it: what happened to the women, as a festival going away from this city. Sean was such a good booker. He was my replacement in my mind. I’d still own the festival, but maybe I would have transitioned for him to be on the forefront. So it was a lot of emotion all at once. But these are unique times. The #MeToo things that are coming to light are affecting everything, as it should. These things should come to light.

Does FYF have a future?

Potentially. If we do, it would be scaled down to what FYF was originally. It had a couple of big years, but what it should be is what it is. At a certain point, let’s do a redo.

When you look back on what happened, is there anything you would do differently?

Things come so fast. You just do your best.

calendar@latimes.com


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