clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How Coachella ’99 Lost a Million Dollars and Started an Empire

Before it was the megalithic event that towered over the music landscape, the Indio, California, festival was a money-losing weekend in the desert. Twenty years after Coachella’s October 1999 debut, artists and key players from the inaugural edition look back on the killer lineup, how the festival industry has changed, and all that dust.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Following a two-year, pandemic-induced hiatus, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival will return this weekend for its 21st edition. In anticipation, we’re looking at the event’s history and the festival-industry landscape. Below is an article we first published in 2019 about the festival’s first edition and its evolution. Be sure to check back next week for our coverage of Coachella 2022.

Eric San, the master turntablist known professionally as Kid Koala, vividly recalls the vicious 100-plus-degree heat. “I remember that, like, my vinyl started melting at one point,” he says of his surreal gig at the very first Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, held over two days, October 9 and 10, in 1999. “It’s weird, just ’cause you’re cutting back and forth in the turntables, and then all of a sudden the tempo starts drifting up and down, and you’re like, ‘What’s going on?’ And your vinyl starts to cone.”

He giggles. This is a pleasant memory; adversity notwithstanding, it was not an unpleasant experience even at the time. “I remember thinking, like, ‘OK, I might not be able to replace this record I’m about to put on this turntable,’” Koala continues. “It was almost like you’re going to put them on a stove element or something: ‘Am I gonna be able to find this record again?’ But I was like, ‘OK, I can throw it on there, cut it up, and get it back off the turntable and out of the sun in a short amount of time.’”

Yuka Honda, one-half of the effervescent art-pop duo Cibo Matto, vividly recalls the (very unpleasant) smell. “We were touring so much at the time, I didn’t even know that we were driving to Coachella that morning—you know, just following the tour manager,” she says. “And the car arrived, and I remember realizing we were at the festival because of the porta-toilet situation. Yeah. It was really harsh. It was really, really hot. And hot weather and porta-toilet, it’s a very bad combo.”

Amon Tobin, the indefatigable electronic-music producer and conceptualist, vividly recalls, uh, getting distracted. “They had a balloon ride—I think you could go up in a hot-air balloon,” he says. “And I of course had to go. I was late to my set—I was stuck up in a balloon, and people were trying to get me down to go and play, but I was having too much fun.”

Roni Size, the DJ and drum ‘n’ bass colossus, vividly recalls … well, this gets complicated. He has played Coachella four times along the Southern California festival’s 20-year arc from scrappy upstart to industry monolith, and he is thus not always able to pinpoint, for example, the exact year when he found Danny DeVito waiting for him in his trailer. “It said ‘Roni Size’ on my trailer door,” Size says, “And I just busted in there like, ‘Yo,’ and he was like, he’s in there, just sitting down. I’m like, ‘Danny DeVito, in my trailer.’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, I saw the name, I really like the name, so I thought, I’m going to sit in here, in this one.’ And we just got chatting, and that was pretty crazy.”

Probably that was not in 1999. Size is, in fact, quite shocked and delighted to be reminded about 1999 at all. “Do you know what? I never knew that, and I’m honored to be able to say that I was at the very first Coachella,” he tells me. “You need to send me that flier. I need to see that flier.”

The first Coachella convened 70-odd artists of various font sizes and cool factors over two days on the stately, scorching, and outlandishly picturesque grounds of Indio, California’s Empire Polo Club, a lovely two-hours-and-change drive from Los Angeles assuming you don’t hit any traffic. The setting has not changed much in two decades, whereas the math has changed dramatically. Early scene reports, for example, put the 1999 festival’s attendance at between roughly 17,000 and 20,000 people per day, barely more than half of what the longtime L.A. concert-promotion company Goldenvoice had hoped for.

Now, of course, Coachella is a transformative cultural event that since 2012 has stretched over two consecutive (and identical) three-day weekends, with a current daily attendance of 125,000 or so and a reported yearly gross of well over $100 million. But in 1999, despite no outright catastrophes (the pulverizing heat notwithstanding), the festival’s maiden voyage cost Goldenvoice around a million dollars, a crushing loss sufficient enough that the festival did not return in 2000 at all. The beginning was very nearly the end.

That million-dollar figure is courtesy of Coachella cofounder and longtime Goldenvoice CEO Paul Tollett, as quoted in a 2017 industry-titan New Yorker profile whose headline, “The Mastermind Behind Coachella,” implies somewhat of a turnaround. Indeed, despite the festival’s humble-to-the-point-of-disastrous origins—“We knew we were dust,” is how he describes the 1999 aftermath—Coachella returned in 2001 with a pared-down one-day lineup and began its inexorable rise to the top of an overstuffed music-festival scene propped up by hundreds of near-copycat events held in any decent-sized American city you’d care to name. Coachella is now so dominant, and so flagrantly imitated, that in early 2016 The New York Times proclaimed that it would not be covering that year’s model, in part because its lineup would be more or less replicated by so many other festivals nationwide.

That ’99 maiden voyage was a bust, yes, but also, in a few crucial ways, a world-historical success that changed live-music culture—and the live-music business—forever. And it all goes back to the firepower on that first flier.

Don’t discriminate by font size, either. The first-ever Coachella headliners are fearsome for their time, sure: Beck previewing his best album, Rage Against the Machine powered by the best album of 1999 by anybody, the Chemical Brothers proving that dance-music savants are indeed the new rock stars, Tool doing Tool. But the farther you get down that bill on either day, the wilder and more visionary it gets, an army of electronics-heavy behemoths ranging from the thrillingly cerebral to the bluntly joyous. Pre-saturation Moby! DJ Shadow! Carl Craig! Autechre! Richie Hawtin! Underworld! “I have no recollection of that lineup,” Tobin tells me. “But from what you’re saying, all of those people, I would’ve loved to have been in the same festival.”

Derrick May, the Detroit techno pioneer, vividly recalls almost nothing—“I don’t remember anything, and I don’t even use drugs”—save for a brief but reassuring encounter with Tollett, the festival’s most public champion. “I remember Paul had a straw hat on, almost like a hat that you would see on somebody from the Roaring ’20s,” he says. “And it was very nice, and he came out of a mobile home to talk to me. That’s what I remember.” To May and many of the other artists, Coachella ’99 had a modest, homemade, convivial feel that served to establish the otherworldly beauty of its desert setting and further burnish Goldenvoice’s longstanding reputation for good taste, even if the festival lost a ton of money doing so.

May describes the festival’s quick rebirth and subsequent growth—and the monstrous growth of the music-festival industry overall—as a tense battle between romance and business. “Well, that’s romantic—that is truly creative right there,” he says with admiration, after I send him the 1999 flier. “In the real world, that doesn’t make enough money to sustain a festival such as Coachella,” he concedes. But it lit up just enough of the right people, offstage and on. “You needed that kind of lineup to show others that they should play it,” he says. “Because that’s the coolest of the coolest right there. It doesn’t get any cooler than that.”

And it all began, according to Perry Farrell—Jane’s Addiction frontman, omnivorous solo artist, Lollapalooza founder, and larger-font Coachella ’99 star—in a posh Santa Monica hotel hot tub with Goldenvoice’s Rick Van Santen, who helped launch the festival and died in 2004. “He just kind of picked my brain: ‘What would I do for Coachella? We’re going to call it Coachella,’” Farrell recalls, and Farrell’s advice was simple: “I was telling him dance music is coming. ‘Everything you’re doing is great, but now just look at the world of dance culture.’”

For everything that would go wrong that first year, and as doomed as Coachella seemed once the raw numbers were in, just enough went right, in terms of reputation and musical vision, to keep the flame lit. “They did take my advice about dance music,” Farrell says proudly. “And they got into it fast and furiously.”

Press reports from the first Coachella were quite positive, and tended to offer a striking contrast with the year’s other major music festival, held a few months earlier in July: Woodstock ’99. Which was, of course, a shameful, criminal, demoralizing fiasco—denounced for its $4 water bottles, crowd riots, and multiple reports of sexual assault—that mercifully shared precious little in form or content with Coachella other than Rage Against the Machine as a headliner.

“Coachella Provided an Antidote to Woodstock 99’s Hangover,” praised the Rolling Stone headline; “Triumph of the Anti-Woodstock,” is how the L.A. Times put it. On another, darker timeline for American music-festival culture as a whole, Woodstock ’99 was an extinction-level event. “I’m thinking, should we be doing this?” Tollett, who declined multiple interview requests, recalled to The New Yorker. “A lot of bad things could happen.”

What saved Tollett’s young enterprise was, in large part, the California of it all. Anyone you know who has ever been to any year of Coachella has told you all about it: the lush green polo-field grass, the mountains that change colors as the sun sets, the post-hippie euphoria of the gently teeming masses, the fuckin’ vistas. “It was so hot, but I think everyone’s thought of a festival was either in an arena or on dirt,” says publicist Judy Miller Silverman, who was working with 10 artists on that first bill. “I think none of us could believe how pristine the lawn as a site was, so I just remember that really distinctly, and the mountain views, and just thinking, like, ‘Have I reached a little slice of heaven? But can you turn off the heat?’”

Dave Brooks, now a senior director at Billboard covering the live-music industry, was a sophomore music editor at U.C. Santa Cruz in 1999, and the FOMO back then was already ferocious. “A lot of people went, you know?” he says. “I definitely wish I would’ve gone. I’m sure I was broke.” (Tickets were a then-daunting $50 per day, plus fees.) “But I had friends who went. It was definitely something that everyone talked about.”

By the late ’90s, Farrell’s original touring version of Lollapalooza had run aground, and the biggest stand-alone music festivals were still all abroad: Think prestigious but super-grimy U.K. institutions like Reading and Glastonbury. Coachella “definitely felt different to any festival I’d played before,” says Gruff Rhys, frontman for the Welsh art-rock band Super Furry Animals, who played Glastonbury ’99 as well. “In that I was usually in the mud and rain, and a sort of apocalyptic feeling.”

Indio proved a vast improvement in terms of people-watching, as well: “I remember arriving and Perry Farrell was leading a kind of mantra,” Rhys says. “He was holding hands with a load of kind-of Hollywood actors and things, in flowing robes, and they were singing a mantra. I’ve never seen anything like that, that was quite exciting.”

The London-based electronic label Ninja Tune was a major source of the Coachella ’99 lineup’s power, offering up nine artists, from Kid Koala to Amon Tobin to Luke Vibert to DJ Food. All of whom were uncommonly happy to be there. “I mean, as far as we were concerned, it was cool,” says Jeff Waye, who served as label manager from 1996 to 2005. “Guarantee looks good. Rest of the lineup looks good. And, frankly, look—all those artists are used to inexperience and U.K. festivals, which are just fucking grim mud baths.”

Coachella’s first year was not without its environmental challenges, of course, from the biblical heat to the challenging parking situation to the ubiquitous dust. “I don’t know about you, but trying to get dust out of your nose like two weeks later, you’re like, [mimes blowing snot rocket],” Roni Size recalls. “At least with the mud, it stays on the ground.”

But the super-chill 1999 backstage area, with a friendly and gentle feel Kid Koala likens to Sesame Street, offered a genuine sense of camaraderie, one that allowed him, for example, to shoot pool with Beastie Boys collaborator Money Mark. “It wasn’t just like, ‘OK, here’s your picnic table and shitty box lunches,’” he says. “They set it up like a big living room for the bands to kind of kick it, you know?”

The modern conception of a mega-corporate festival—the pampered artists all holed up in their own luxury compounds, utterly indifferent to one another and only showing their faces to be zooted to the stage via golf cart—was subverted just a bit here, magnified by the opulent glory of an Empire Polo Club populated by roughly 20 percent as many people as attended Coachella 2019. Musicians and ticket-holders alike could relax, could stretch their limbs, could sweat profusely but at least not necessarily sweat on one another.

“We shared a kind of porta-cabin—there was a door from our room into the Jurassic 5 porta-cabin,” Rhys says. “And I was a big fan of them, so it was great. And also the Scottish band Bis had a porta-cabin down the way, and they were playing Brian Eno CDs really loud. So it was a good atmosphere.” Different groups would interact, albeit “in the way that you’d interact with someone at a bus station,” he continues. “It was good vibes, but it’s fleeting, often. And maybe I’d try to speak to people, but maybe they wouldn’t understand my accent.”

Alongside those vistas, what further differentiated Coachella from the beginning was Goldenvoice’s hard-fought expertise at handling not only backstage but onstage logistics. They knew what they liked, and knew what they were doing. Founded in the early ’80s by Gary Tovar—who handed the company over to Tollett and the late Rick Van Santen in the early ’90s, shortly before going to prison for marijuana trafficking—Goldenvoice started out doing punk-rock and hardcore shows in L.A., and quickly developed an artist-friendly reputation and a radiant sheen of impeccable taste.

“I was aware of their history up to that point just from having books of American punk flyers, and saw that Goldenvoice was on an old Fugazi poster, or Exploited, even,” Ninja Tune’s Waye says, which further helped sell the label on Coachella. “So, it seemed to be coming from a place of, ‘Well, these dudes are music fans. Let’s give it a go.’”

In 1993, Goldenvoice set up its first show at the Empire Polo Club, headlined by Pearl Jam at the height of the band’s anti-Ticketmaster crusade. (“You gotta run pretty far to get some space for yourself these days,” moody frontman Eddie Vedder observed from the stage.) The promoter’s biggest innovation, in the decades to come, would be to use that site to create an environment so captivating—and a cultural phenomenon so overpowering—that the headliners ceased to be the star attraction. Coachella, after some early stumbles, eventually become a millions-grossing monstrosity with better brand recognition than 99 percent of the artists who played it, now selling thousands of advance tickets months before the next year’s lineup is even announced. It’s not quite that the music no longer matters, but Beyoncé aside, the specific musicians are far less important now.

The challenge, as the numbers turned from red to black, was to retain any piece of that original Sesame Street vibe, and avoid crushing the growing hordes desperate to get through the gate or demoralizing all the artists clamoring for a righteous font size on the poster. Making money in this particular business is terribly challenging. Making money and still being cool is nearly impossible.

Amid the pulverizing heat, a major component of the coolness of Coachella ’99 was, to the promoters’ great chagrin, the poor attendance. “I would say that capacity was at one-fifth of what it is today,” Silverman says. “There was no chaoticness that comes with the current vibes. So in a sensory way, I think it was a peaceful, beautiful situation.”

That peaceful, beautiful situation, of course, is why Year 1 cost Tollett and Goldenvoice around a million dollars. “A couple bands let us slide,” Tollett conceded to The New Yorker, adding that shortly thereafter he’d been forced to sell both his house and his car. Coachella arguably turned into a completely different animal starting right in 2001, when the entertainment giant A.E.G. bought Goldenvoice and then bought half of Coachella itself (with Tollett retaining the other half) in 2004. But the worst was still technically yet to come: In January, Tollett told the Los Angeles Times that he actually lost the most money in 2008, the year he added Prince to the Coachella bill and was also devoting more resources to the country-music-focused Stagecoach Festival, held the weekend after Coachella and launched the previous year.

That massive initial loss in 1999 was much easier to foresee: As anyone with any music-festival experience will tell you, it was all but inevitable. “There has to be a year one,” says Ken Weinstein, who has run press for Bonnaroo since the Tennessee mega-festival’s 2002 inception. “You have to have a real strong constitution. You have to have patient investors, and you have to be creative. Most festivals aren’t going to make money on year one.”

Farrell is happy to confirm this. “It’s very hard—it requires your entire being and your soul,” he says of this particular racket, with the Enit Festival, his short-lived mid-’90s Lollapalooza offshoot, as another cautionary tale. “You keep your head up. I did the same thing. I did Enit, I lost a million dollars. And that was my own money.”

The anti-Woodstock praise aside, when Coachella ’99 was over, “all the reports were about how much money the festival lost,” Silverman says. “And it didn’t return the following year. So when it did come back from the dead, I think everybody was astonished, and wondering how they dug themselves out from the hole.”

The answer is likely as simple as the billion-dollar backing of A.E.G., which now runs more than 30 music festivals in America alone and is forever battling its fellow megacorp archrival, Live Nation, for live-music supremacy. But that association presents its own challenges, principally the 2017 outcry over A.E.G. owner Phil Anschutz’s donations to antigay organizations. The issue came up again when Tollett talked to the L.A. Times in January, as did Coachella’s own ongoing issues with combating sexual harassment.

That radical change in ownership and scale initially spooked Farrell, who performed at the first 12 Coachellas in different bands and guises (Jane’s Addiction headlined the second iteration in 2001) and served as an early avatar for the festival, emblematic of the savvy for both romance and business required to keep an institution this gargantuan afloat. (In 2005, he fully relaunched Lollapalooza as a Coachella-like stand-alone event in Chicago.) He also represents the challenge of preventing the business from fully squashing the romance. Thanks to Jane’s Addiction’s L.A. infancy, he had a tight relationship with Goldenvoice, and with Van Santen in particular. (Hence the hot tub.) But when Van Santen died, in 2004, of flu-related symptoms, Farrell feared the worst.

“I thought when Rick died everything would change,” he says of the funeral. “Because I saw people there, there were some agents—like, superagents—that were real pricks. Just some real jerk-offs in the industry. I saw my friend in a box go into the ground with them all around. Some of those guys did not mean me well. I thought it was the end of everything. I’m really happy that those guys survived it, and that I survived it. But that was a dark moment, a really dark moment, I felt. Because, you know, I called him my family.”

What changed, though, was less Coachella’s attitude or intentions than its sheer size. That hugeness—Coachella’s ascension to the cultural mountaintop—plots neatly onto a 20-year timeline of big names and somehow even bigger moments. The Daft Punk pyramid in 2006, which further redefined the term rock star for a generation and normalized the idea of a Coachella set as its own Disneyworld-caliber production spectacle. Prince in 2008, as costly as he might’ve been. Paul McCartney in 2009, an old-guard rock star made to feel young again, or at least to feel like his crowds were young again. The Tupac hologram in 2012, opening a slightly uncomfortable new frontier in the realm of “live music.” Beyoncé in 2018, a signature moment for, uh, humankind as a whole.

But at every phase, from the perilous lean years to the perilous-for-other-reasons boom years, Coachella has retained an unsexy but absolutely crucial core competency that might still be the brand’s secret weapon. “I’m often amazed that some festivals that I’ve done have survived, I will say that,” Tobin says. (He has a great story about an Italian festival thrown into chaos by a volcanic eruption.) “Because there’s no shortage of just shitshows out there that you’re just like, ‘Man, how are these people—you know, what the fuck is even going on here?’”

The real triumph of Coachella ’99, then, might be the absence of any memorable major fiasco, which kicked off a 20-years-and-counting no-fiascos streak that’s as tough to maintain when you’re making millions as it is when you’re losing them. It’s the little things, always, and how huge they always seem. “Oh, it’s really apparent,” Tobin says, of when a shitshow is afoot. “I mean, it’s like, when all the set times are like two hours behind. When people are fucking complaining because their accommodations are all fucked up. Just simple things like when you’re waiting for your, whatever, your wristbands or your access passes—you’re getting sort of funneled around by security to different places. Everyone’s tearing around in a panic.”

By avoiding any and all such fiascos, Coachella wildly mutated without quite alienating its artists, larger or smaller. In 2008, when Kris Chen—a label veteran whose career spans from Domino to XL to Nonesuch Records—was helping plot a young Vampire Weekend’s path to world domination, the festival played a crucial part in his game plan: “I just put Coachella in there in the same way that I put in Saturday Night Live, or playing Letterman, or the cover of this magazine.” The band played Coachella in 2008, 2010, and 2013, creeping higher up the bill every time.

But even for smaller, more adventurous acts not destined for that level of fame, the festival has been a gentle boon, offering good taste on a massive scale without crushing the tastemakers or the artists themselves. Chen accompanied the Argentinian singer-songwriter Juana Molina to Coachella 2004 and got her stage setup to sound good despite the often soundcheck-free rush endemic to most festivals. “But what really made me happy was that the tent, it wasn’t full all the way, but it was a bigger crowd then she probably ever had as a headliner, by far,” he says. “There was probably 1,000-plus people watching her who were kind, and respectful, and polite, and quiet.” It’s a matter of retaining some degree of that quiet, that peace, that sense of Music Discovery everyone’s always claiming to be clamoring for, no matter how gigantic and corporate and politically fraught these events get. Or no matter how many of these events there are.

In 2003, Derrick May took control of Detroit’s cutting-edge Movement festival, and he fondly recalls getting a congratulatory call from Paul Tollett. ”I didn’t even know he had my number,” May says. “He said we need more festivals like this.” The issue in 2019 is that there’s far too many festivals like Coachella, with many chasing the same zeitgeist-defining lineup. The music-festival bubble is real, and destined to pop, which will not affect Coachella so much as all the festivals desperate to copy it exactly.

“I think maybe the big, mega, multigenre fest is starting to play itself out, except for the established—I guess we would now call them ‘legacy festivals’ like Coachella, Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits, and Bonnaroo,” says Pollstar features editor Debbie Speer. “Those would probably be the Big Four. And now you see others that are dying out, but smaller, localized, curated, and more boutique festivals taking their place.” Festivals built around, say, bourbon. Or stupendously high-quality internet content. Or Bon Iver.

One major Coachella controversy that’s reached a crisis point in recent years is the festival’s enforcement of radius clauses, which prevent artists from playing many other festivals or West Coast dates for months surrounding their Coachella dates. (An Oregon concert promoter sued Goldenvoice over the issue in 2018, though the case was dismissed.) But for a smaller label like Ninja Tune, at the onset, Coachella could single-handedly launch American tours, not hobble them. It’s hard to understand that 1999 event now without understanding that it was one of the only festivals of its kind.

“Being in the midst of it, it just felt really vital, and really ‘Oh shit, there’s a lot of good music here, and also a fuck-ton of people here to see it,’” Ninja Tune’s Waye says. “It felt like an important thing, and we were dealing with so many U.K.- and European-based artists that the amount of touring we were able to base around that guarantee was huge for us. Obviously, they had a radius clause even going back then, but I can’t afford to bring the Cinematic Orchestra over with a full band, but we can now, because we’re at least anchored by this one massive guarantee that Coachella was paying. The rest of North America benefited from that as the anchor point.”

The American circuit is now a comical glut of anchor points, but what will sustain Coachella, even as the music-festival boom it helped create starts to go bust, is some improbable vestige of the style and savvy it first brought to Indio in 1999, at the year-one celebration (relatively) few people saw but (pretty much) everybody secretly wishes they had. It may have lost a million bucks, but its precise mixture of style and spectacle turned out to be priceless, and even harder to replicate than it looks.

“The sort of theme-park format that a lot of festivals seem to have adopted will eventually tire,” Tobin says. “I might be entirely wrong, but I just get the sense that people will eventually make that distinction between going to see a genuine, authentic music experience and the fairground ride. You know? There’s nothing wrong with either. Right? But they are different things.” He’s not wrong. But he can be right and still fondly remember that balloon ride.

Higher Learning

Beyoncé and Hip-Hop’s 50th Anniversary

Jam Session

The Grammys, Bennifer Drama, and Lily Allen’s Architectural Digest Tour


The Man and the Machine: On 20 Years of 50 Cent and ‘Get Rich or Die Tryin’’

View all stories in Music