Coachella and destination festivals: the hidden costs
With just under 80,000 people expected to descend upon the city of Indio for the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival this weekend, it's safe to say that the event, promoted by Goldenvoice and owned by AEG, has survived the recession. Coachella, for the first time in its 11-year history, has recorded an advance sell-out, a feat all the more remarkable considering that in 2010 only three-day tickets, which topped off above $300, were made available.
A story in Thursday's Times looks at how destination events such as Coachella and Lollapalooza in Chicago have managed to thrive while others have stumbled. Since Coachella debuted in 1999, a number of copycats, including those from industry powerhouses, have disappeared.
Live Nation and Good Boy Productions’ Pemberton Festival in British Columbia, Canada, lasted all of one year, and in 2008 C3 Presents announced the Vineland Festival for New Jersey – an event that never got off the ground. Earlier this year, AEG Live and Madison House Presents announced that Michigan’s annual Rothbury Festival would sit out 2010.
The festivals still standing have increasingly relied on big-name, superstar headliners, crafting lineups that, in the words of Spoon manager Ben Dickey, are "meant to impress." Leading Coachella is rap heavyweight Jay-Z, and Lollapalooza snared pop fashionista Lady Gaga. Coachella fees for most acts are said to start around $15,000, and extend into the "high six figures," with top-billed artists expected to break the seven-figure barrier in 2010.
“The money is really good at festivals,” said Dangerbird Records head Jeff Castelaz, whose Silver Lake-based label had a breakout year in 2009 with Coachella vets the Silversun Pickups.”It is extremely great for the artists in the top third of the billing. That’s the way the world works. If you’re an ascendant band, and you get onto a festival, it really makes you feel like you’re getting somewhere.”
Yet fees for the multitude of artists who perform at Coachella pre-sundown aren't increasing at the rate of those for headliners, said artist and label reps interviewed by Pop & Hiss. The fight, they said, to simply be a name on the festival poster has intensified.
“There is more competition,” Dickey said. “Every year, the bar for how good you have to be to get on a festival is perceived to be lower. A hot new band that is big on MySpace, or has a lot of Twitter followers but doesn’t have a record out, might be on Lollapalooza. That certainly wouldn’t have happened the first few years of these festivals.”
Brooklyn’s dance-rock duo Sleigh Bells fits such a description in 2010, as the Coachella act’s debut won’t be released until May 11. Chicago’s the Windish Agency is run by Tom Windish, and the company represents more than 20 acts who will appear at Coachella in 2010. Some of his artists may even lose money to do so.
“Artists will go out of their way to play a festival because it’s so advantageous,” Windish said. "But that means they may fly in to do it, and the expense to do it is very significant. Let’s say you get paid $10,000 to play the El Rey, and you get $15,000 to play Coachella, even though you’re getting more, you’re spending more to do the gig.”
And it comes with restrictions.
Though AEG and Goldenvoice don’t speak about such agreements on the record, it’s widely known that acts booked to play Coachella are subject to what the industry call “radius clauses,” preventing an artist from playing a certain market in the days and weeks leading up to the event.
There are exceptions, as this year the likes of She & Him, Jay-Z, PiL and the Specials all played pre-Coachella gigs, but those paying attention will notice the acts all appeared at AEG/Goldenvoice-owned venues.
This year, with Coachella already reporting a sellout, word has leaked about artists' post-festival touring plans. Pop & Hiss reported Pavement's Hollywood Bowl date Wednesday, and Scenestar noted that Vampire Weekend will also make an appearance at the famed venue.
Castelez said the touring restrictions don’t bother him.
“Look, there is a business reality," he said. "If Goldenvoice is putting up millions of millions of dollars to market and promote this festival, not to mention the money that they’re putting on the table as guarantees for the bands, they have to have rules about people playing in the markets where they’ll get their tickets from.... So if you can’t play the L.A. or San Diego area for 100 days before Coachella, you just plan accordingly.”
The ones perceived as being hurt most by such restrictions are local, club-level promoters. Spaceland Productions head Mitchell Frank did not return calls to discuss the topic, yet Windish said he has heard club owners complain about such festival rules in the past, and respectfully disagrees with them.
“Venues make a bigger deal out of the exclusivity than they should,” Windish said. “My clients can normally draw 1,000 people. To go and play in front of 20,000 people in front of Lollapalooza is fantastic for the long-term career of that artist, and the clubs they play in the future.
“If you only play clubs, you’re relying on converted fans to see you,” Windish continued. "Or you’re an upcoming act, which doesn’t pay much money at all. How big are they going to get if you just keep playing to the 500 people who will pay $15 to see you in Chicago?”
And with few exceptions – Chicago’s three-day tastemaker event the Pitchfork Music Festival among them – the old adage that bigger is better is increasingly becoming the norm for festivals.
“People are so infatuated with having huge things,” Windish said. “It seems like there’s an attitude where if you don’t have 75,000 people at your event, it’s a failure. I’d like to see that mentality change.”
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Photo: The Coachella crowd in 2009. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times