The big question heading into last year's Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival was whether the event would survive the recession. This year, the only question was how fast it would sell out.
The answer: nearly a week before the show kicks off on Friday, despite the higher cost commitment to attend this year.
What began in 1999 as a two-day event for 38,000 ticket-holders has more than doubled in size, with 80,000 expected to attend each of the three days to hear 135 rock bands in a polo field 125 miles east of L.A.
Most hotels in the desert town of Indio have been booked for weeks or months, even though some have tripled or quadrupled their rates. Festival-goers, desperate to see performances by the likes of Thom Yorke, Jay-Z and Muse, are diving into Craigslist for lodging that in some cases is no more than a grimy spot on the floor of a mobile home.
"We almost didn't do Coachella this year," said Paul Tollett, 44, the organizer and founder of the 11-year-old show, which is promoted by concert heavyweight Goldenvoice and owned by AEG in Los Angeles. "We felt the economy wasn't looking so hot. But festivals seem to be hanging in there, and I'm as surprised as anyone."
The sellout is all the more noteworthy given a change in pricing this year that does away with single-day $103 tickets in favor of one entry fee for all three days that, with service charges, pushes the cost above $300.
"Coachella has been established as a tribal rite among hipsters who go just so they can say they've been there," independent music industry analyst Bob Lefsetz said of the sellout.
The young and trendy crowd has made sacrifices to afford the festival. "It's a cost sink, for sure," said Nicholas La Barre, 26, of Santa Cruz. The high school library employee is using his tax return to fund Coachella. He thought about spending it to visit friends in other cities, but said: "Those other places are still going to be there. You'll only have this lineup combination one time."
Yet the change has provoked a loud fan protest.
"Make it fair for all us people who obviously want to attend but cannot afford $269," reads a note on a Facebook group created by San Diego resident Brian Lozano, 22, who has drawn more than 6,000 supporters.
"I know a lot of young kids can't do Coachella," said Rich Holtzman, who manages Coachella-booked hard-rock act Portugal, the Man. "It's just too expensive, and it's three days. If you have a job, you have to take a day off work or skip classes. It's not a cheap ticket. Yet Coachella is . . . selling out, and that's a testament to what Paul does."
Other music fests, including Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits, Stagecoach Country Music Festival and New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, also are reporting strong ticket sales.
Live music is thriving, even as other parts of the music industry are faltering. Recorded music continued its downward spiral, with U.S. album sales falling 8% in the first three months of the year, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Even digital music, which had enjoyed a drumbeat of increasing sales, fell 1% in the first quarter, its first such drop since 2003, when Nielsen began tracking digital downloads.
But worldwide concert ticket sales busted through $1 billion in the same period, up 6.2% over the same quarter of 2009, another surprising first given that the quarter typically is slow for concerts, according to Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief of Pollstar, a concert industry trade magazine.
That is not to say that the music festival scene is immune to the forces of economics. The good news applies only to well-known shows.
Newcomers that sprouted in the last two or three years have evaporated. Live Nation and Good Boy Productions' Pemberton Festival in British Columbia, Canada, lasted all of one year. Vineland Festival, announced in 2008 from C3 Presents, is on indefinite pause. Earlier this year, AEG and Madison House Presents said Michigan's annual Rothbury Festival would sit out 2010, as would All Points West in New Jersey.
"It's a bad time to launch a new festival," said Charles Attal, principal at C3 Presents, which puts together Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits -- both of which sold out in the previous three years.
"People are picking and choosing which festivals they go to," he said. "The shows that have been around for a long time are doing well, because people know what they're going to get." Location and lineup are important parts of the formula, he said.
As for the ticket-pricing change, Tollett defended the decision even though it put Coachella at the high end of the premium festival market. Chicago's three-day August fest Lollapalooza, for instance, will set fans back $215, and general admission tickets to Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tenn., are closer to the $270 range -- and that's for four days.
But Tollett said no other major festival offered single-day passes and that the move was meant to preserve hotel rooms for serious fans by discouraging dilettantes who would check out the festival for a day but occupy rooms for the full weekend.
Organizers also offered interest-free plans for fans who would rather pay the bill over three installments. And they've lowered camping prices from $55 a person to $57 per slot, regardless of the number of campers.
Bands also still need to be paid, and headliners make far more than they did six years ago, when festivals were fringe events. Bands make an estimated $15,000 to the "high six figures" to play Coachella, and some top-billed artists are expected to break the seven-figure barrier in 2010.
For many bands, festival tours have become a staple of their income.
Despite the protests, attendees have been voting with their feet. Camping spots sold out weeks ago. Hotels 23 miles away in Palm Springs are also booked. Those that have rooms available have jacked up their rates. The Desert Hot Springs Spa Hotel 30 miles northwest of Indio on Friday charged $692 a night during the festival for a room that normally costs $152 a day.
Desperate fans have turned to the online classified ad site Craigslist. An ad posted last week offered to sell a reservation at the Hyatt Grand Champions Resort for $800. "You are buying the reservation from me and will still owe the hotel about $930 for three nights," reads the post.
Another ad offered eight spaces on the floor of a mobile home, or up to "10 squished," for $15 a piece.
"This is out of control," said Caroline Chouinard, 34, a Pasadena systems engineer who bought her ticket two weeks ago, then spent days scouring the Web for hotels. "I really have no idea what I will do."
Artist managers and booking agents are sympathetic to the cost, but recognize that Coachella still offers a compelling deal, at least at current prices.
"The value of the festival is comprised of so much more than any one single band," said Ben Dickey, who manages Spoon, one of Coachella's top-billed independent acts. "I think people will certainly hit a breaking point. If a festival was $500, bands would be playing to an empty field. There is a delicate balance."