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What we learned from Coachella founder Paul Tollett’s new profile in The New Yorker

on April 10, 2017, 10:20pm

Coachella founder Paul Tollett is the subject of a new profile in the New Yorker. It’s a fascinating read for anyone who considers themselves a festival junkie and obsesses over how the renowned festival’s lineup comes together, the placement of acts on its poster, and plans for the future. Tollett also shares the origin story of Coachella and reveals how he managed to put together the historic Desert Trip lineup. You can read the full story here, and find a few key passages highlighted below.

Tollett passed on the opportunity to book Kate Bush:

In addition to curating the lineup, Tollett had booked the hundred and fifty acts himself, negotiating all the offers with agents—a six-month process. He also fielded a lot of pitches that he had to turn down. Marc Geiger, of W.M.E., described their working method: “I’ll say, ‘Kate Bush!’ And he’ll go, ‘No!,’ and we’ll talk through it. I’ll say, ‘She’s never played here, and she just did thirty shows in the U.K. for the first time since the late seventies. You gotta do it! Have to!’ ‘No! No one is going to understand it.’ ”

Editor’s Note: A representative for Bush told Pitchfork that the singer was never available to play Coachella. Meanwhile, Tollett has sought to clarify the comments, telling the Los Angeles Times, “Even going back before Coachella [started in 1999], Goldenvoice has been after her for 25 years,” Tollett said. “She just doesn’t do very many shows.” When discussing if Bush had been considered for Beyoncé’s vacated headlining spot at this year’s festival, Tollett continued, adding, “We’ve had a long history of delicacies at Coachella, and that is one of the ultimate delicacies. Of course we would want that.”

This year’s headliners were each paid between three and four million:

On the poster were the headliners for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday: Radiohead, Beyoncé, and Kendrick Lamar, respectively, each of whom would receive between three and four million dollars for playing. Below them were seven lines of artist and band names. The first line noted the reunions (New Order), the critical darlings (Bon Iver, Father John Misty), and the biggest E.D.M. (electronic dance music) d.j.s; the font for the second, third, and fourth lines became progressively smaller, allowing more artists to be listed. The lowest three lines were all the same size. Some of those acts make less than ten thousand dollars.

You’re not the only one obsessed with an artist’s placement on the poster:

For artists, placement on the poster translates directly into booking fees. “Agents will say, ‘They’re a second-line band at Coachella!’” Tollett related. Rarely has typography been so closely monetized. For E.D.M. d.j.s, in particular, placement on the poster can determine their future asking price, not only in the United States but internationally. “We have so many arguments over font sizes,” he went on. “I literally have gone to the mat over one point size.”

Tollett found out about Beyoncé’s cancelation the same time everyone else did:

the end, Tollett’s Coachella ’17 poster could not compete with Beyoncé’s growing family. In early February, when his headliner announced that she was pregnant with twins, Tollett learned about it on Instagram, like everyone else. At first, he hoped she would perform anyway, but her advanced condition at the Grammys, in mid-February, made that unlikely.

Tollett addressed the recent controversy surrounding A.E.G. owner Philip Anschutz and his charitable donations to alt-right groups (A.E.G. owns a stake in Coachella):

“I was offended,” Tollett said of the headline, while we were having lunch in Palm Springs the day the news broke. “I run the festival, but it’s rude to say that when you’re a partner with someone.”

Anschutz would supposedly be releasing a statement soon, Tollett said, explaining that his charitable organization, which has given out more than a billion dollars in a decade, had unwittingly supported the groups, without knowing of their anti-L.G.B.T. bias.

“He’d better say, ‘No fucking way.’ Anything short of that . . .”

“I’m telling you, these types of things can kill you,” he said. “There are big ships that go down over small things. You’re riding high, but one wrong thing and you’re voted off the island. It’s scary.” He noted that Bill Gates had come to Coachella one year, and, after first telling Tollett that he thought the festival could last forever, ticked off on his fingers all the “isms” that could bring it down. “Terrorism, botulism—you name it. The guy’s a walking actuarial table.”

Goldenvoice’s success in New York City’s is crucial to Coachella’s longterm sustainability:

In recent years both Live Nation and A.E.G. have established festive beachheads here. Live Nation bought Founders, a local company started by Tom Russell and Jordan Wolowitz, two friends from prep school who launched the Governors Ball, in 2011. Last June, Goldenvoice/A.E.G. débuted Panorama, a festival similar to the Governors Ball, on the same East River island, a month ahead of its competitor. Not surprisingly, tickets sold poorly. (Sales are better this year.) Founders, understandably irked, countered with yet another event, the Meadows Music & Arts Festival, last October. A.E.G. also bought fifty per cent of Bowery Presents, an experienced local promoter. In March, Irving Azoff upped the ante, booking his management clients the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac to play the new Classic East festival at Citi Field, the Mets’ stadium, at the end of July, on the same day as Panorama. (Classic West, with the same lineup, will play Dodger Stadium, in L.A., two weeks earlier.)

These startups may not make money for years, if ever; there’s a limit to how many festivals New York can sustain, at least as long as such gatherings are confined to lesser islands and stadiums. They’re placeholders—the first moves in a longer game. A.E.G. simply cannot allow Live Nation to dominate the New York festival scene (or vice versa). “Because then,” Tollett explained, “Live Nation could say to its artists, ‘Here’s forty of our festivals, including New York—skip Coachella.’ We can’t let that happen.”

Ultimately, Tollett believes, one great world-class New York festival will emerge from the current slate of second stringers. He envisions a kind of Coachella East, a multiday urban event that would involve not just music but “tech, art, fashion, and culinary leaders in New York,” he explained. But a great festival requires a great site.

That site could be Flushing Meadows–Corona Park:

Early one Sunday morning, I picked up Tollett at the J.F.K. Hilton—he had taken the red-eye in from L.A.—and we set off to inspect the locus of his vision: Flushing Meadows–Corona Park, in Queens, where the 1964 World’s Fair took place.

A light snow had fallen over the city the night before. The park was deserted, except for a few joggers negotiating the black ice. We stood with our backs to Philip Johnson’s New York State Pavilion, now the Queens Museum. (The Panorama Festival is proactively named for the celebrated model inside, which depicts the cityscape.) In front of us was the huge shallow circular pool, now empty, with the twelve-story-tall Unisphere in the middle.

“So you’d have a stage there, and another over there,” Tollett said, gesturing toward opposite ends of the park. Thus far, the city has denied permit applications from Live Nation (its Meadows Festival, which took place in the parking lot of Citi Field, is also wishfully christened), Madison Square Garden, and A.E.G. to use the park. It could easily hold seventy-five thousand people, he pointed out. “And you get to go back to your hotel and come back the next day. It’s not like the desert.”

Coachella 2017 takes place beginning this Friday at the Empire Polo Grounds in Indio, California.

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