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A festival for all

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New documentary shows the making of Coachella

Coachella documentary shows the steady growth of inclusion

With two decades under its eclectic belt, the documentary, Coachella: 20 Years in The Desertdirected by Chris Parkel, reviewed the history of the now famed festival. Paul Tollett—the founder and current C.E.O. of the concert promoter Goldenvoice—got the event started at the Empire Polo club in Indio, California, at the worst possible time imaginable. 

They had announced Coachella the Monday after the 1999 Woodstock had literally caught fire, ending in arson and violence. Paul recalled the backlash of trying to start after the disastrous attempt that same year: “Why would you do this right now?” he said, “trying to sell tickets when everyone’s saying how bad festivals are—it was pretty much impossible.”  

Although the reputation for festivals at the time was a cold, muddy experience, they pushed to use the space knowing it would break that standing. And while from the outside it seemed to work, in the early years it was not financially viable. Goldenvoice was close to closing several times. They had lost enough money early on that Tollett could not even cash a check personally. But by 2004, they started to turn a profit: “It was Radiohead and Pixies’ craftwork,” Tollett said.  

From there it took off, headlining artists like Madonna, Amy Winehouse, and Rage Against the Machine (RATM). But what really started to attract people was the cohesion of artists that Coachella brought together—it offered an ability to experience fan’s favorite artists and brand new ones. Coachella also was incredible at bringing bands back together that hadn’t played for a long time. Wu-Tang Clan member RZA recalled that seeing RATM reunited at Coachella was the moment they knew they would play at the festival.  

Parkel’s story telling was very chronological. But that seems to be the name of the festival. The documentary showed off the slow and steady progress that made Coachella what it is today. Conceived in one of the worst possible times for music festivals, it was rooted in redefining what that experience looked like, and who could feel confidently welcome. That was the true highlight of Parkel’s vision—steady growth and inclusion.  

Coachella facilitated the expansion of so many genres by allowing pioneers to pave the way. In the electronic scene, Daft Punk put on an unforgettable show, even establishing a hand symbol among the audience to reappear in future shows mimicking the pyramid stage design. The rise of rap was undoubtedly influenced by the festival, with artists like Kanye West, Jay-Z, Dr. Dre and the 2Pac hologram paving the way.  Even in the realm of R&B and pop, when they hadn’t been traditionally known to include the genre at the festival, they hosted the most theatrical show to date—Beyoncé.  

More importantly still, helping pave the way for new headliners from different genres to take the annual spotlight also changed the audience. Bringing in people from other nationalities, ethnicities, and orientations, to participate in an equally diverse celebration of music was what Parkel’s documentary really sought to highlight. Everyone could come unify their different experiences in the music.  

Their expansion of genre was a growth of representation in the artistic community.  

Raymond Roker of Goldenvoice said, “the artists are evolving; the show and the community is evolving. The fact that it represents a more fuller culture, like, that’s the bottom line.” And that means diversity of listeners, too—the opportunity to be with loved ones, with strangers, and to discover music. “For many people, I think that is just like that beacon, it’s part of their year where they know that all that is possible.”  

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