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How Phish Fest 8 rocked Coachella's world

April 14, 2010 |  3:29 pm


For any festival-goer left rubbing his hipster beard in confusion about what precipitated the biggest changes at this year’s Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival -- specifically the organizers’ choice to abolish single-day tickets, allow in-and-out privileges for the first time and enable car camping --  you can thank a band that represents the antithesis of almost all that is sacrosanct for Coachella’s too-cool-for-school, skinny jeans-wearing core constituency.

Namely, Phish.

To hear it from Coachella’s co-founder and mastermind, Paul Tollett, Phish’s hippie-dippy jam band idealism directly resulted in a sea change in Coachella’s approach to certain fundamentals.

Back in October, the Vermont-spawned improvisation-crazy quartet enlisted Goldenvoice (Tollett’s concert promoting company, which produces Coachella as well as its country music cousin Stagecoach) to co-produce Phish Festival 8. The three-day event -- which, like Coachella, was staged at Indio's Empire Polo Field -- consisted of eight sets of music by the group, fire-spewing sculptures and a crowd unafraid of letting its freak flag fly by dressing up in extravagant Halloween costumes. Needless to say, mass Hacky Sack tourneys, drum circles, patchouli incense burning and trance-like dancing ensued.

Tollett had never attended any of the group’s other fests but had what can only be described as an epiphany. He decided to apply what he’d learned at the Phish fry to Southern California’s signature pop musical event. 

“The Phish thing is one of the best things I’ve been involved in,” Tollett said. “It went so well, we decided to take off the training wheels for Coachella.”

For Phish Festival 8, the group stipulated that no single-day tickets could be sold, only three-day packages. Phish also had Goldenvoice implement a policy that allowed attendees to come and go from the festival as they pleased. “It’s a long day, so it gives people the chance to rest and go back to home base,” the promoter said.

As well, the Phish fest approach to car camping was nothing short of revelatory.

“In the old Coachella way, you camped in a tent and parked in a parking lot. You had to lug your equipment in,” said Tollett. “In the Phish way, you pull your car up and pull out your equipment and set up your tent. It’s a better camping experience. You can lock up your stuff. You can find your car. The Phish campground had it down.”

Moreover, Coachella -- like the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Tennessee, the UK’s Glastonbury Festival and Lollapalooza in Chicago before it -- did away with its $99 one-day tickets this year. (Three-day passes, costing $269, officially sold out earlier this week.) 

And in another WWPD (What Would Phish Do?) move, organizers cut camping cost from $55 per person to $55 for a vehicle-sized berth -- a substantial discount when you consider that a number of bargain-minded festival-goers could cram in together for the same price an individual would have paid last year.

Tollett is aware of all the chat room Haterade over changes in Coachella’s ticketing but is keen to dispel any notion that the move was made to goose the festival’s bottom line. As the promoter points out, doing away with single day tickets cuts into Coachella’s revenues (do the math: three individual day passes would have cost $297 versus a three-day pass’ $269) with the trade-off for attendees being a “better overall experience.”

“There’s a special feeling you get over three days that you don’t get when you go one day or come in for the headliner,” Tollett said. “You’ve been through a range of emotions. You feel a sense of community, like we’re all in this together. That’s the feeling we’re in search of.”

-- Chris Lee

Photo: Phish at Empire Polo Field, Halloween 2009. Credit: Jamie Rector / For The Times