'Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert': Never-seen-before glimpse at the origins of the phenomenal music festival

New documentary offers rare insight into the birth of the pioneering multi-genre music festival


                            'Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert': Never-seen-before glimpse at the origins of the phenomenal music festival
Beyonce Knowles (Getty Images)

April 10, 2020, marks the 20th anniversary of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, which sowed its seeds in 1999, and went on to become one of the biggest annual music festivals of all time. Coachella 2020, which was slated to take place for two consecutive weekends in April has been postponed to new October dates in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic sweeping its home country. 

Music fans, although dismayed at the cancellation, have another thing to look forward to now. YouTube Originals has released a documentary 'Coachella: 20 years in the Desert', giving music lovers and fans an intimate glimpse into how the highly anticipated music festival came into being. Fans have unrestricted access to the festival's success story from the comfort of their homes and can enjoy a 1-hour 45-minute documentary that chronicles the legacy. 

The first Coachella music festival took place in 1999, but it took Golden Voice, Coachella's parent company, a while to make that happen. The roots of the festival can be traced back to early punk-rock days of the 1980s when Golden Voice's Gary Tovar gave a platform for emerging bands to expand their fanbase through their music. Los Angeles was the epicenter of young aspiring and really talented musicians.

The film portrays Tovar's journey as a concert promotor and how he met with the man behind Coachella, Paul Tollett.

Tollett took over the reins of Golden Voice after Tovar went out of business following his arrest in 1991. The struggle was real, as money was tight. Yet Tollett had managed to establish himself and the company by continuing with its work and keeping it going. The real turning point for Golden Voice, however, was when they were approached by Pearl Jam in 1993.

The band had pulled out of performing at Ticketmaster venues because the ticket distributor refused to lower prices, and approached Tollett to book a low budget venue. They managed to locate the Empire Polo Club, in Indio, California and sold 25,000 tickets.

Festive atmosphere at the 2019 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival - Weekend 2 on April 21, 2019 in Indio, California (Getty Images)

Meanwhile, Los Angeles was introduced to the rave scene, imported from across the pond where it was a popular part of the British culture. Rave is an underground dance and music phenomenon, that typically takes place in an abandoned warehouse, which is precisely how it started off in the LA underbelly.  Eventually, it became a big part of the underground club culture, because it entirely broke off from the mainstream.

There weren't festivals at the time that were multicultural, or bring to the table a mix of various genres. Tollett wanted to bring these various genres of music together, as one diverse culture, which was how he came by the idea for a music festival. He proposed the name Coachella, despite many disagreeing with it and the location was set to the same Indio polo club.

However, it faced a setback. 1999's Woodstock made headlines for being one of the most disastrous events when brawls broke out, to the point that police reinforcements had to be called in and bonfires that went out of control basically burned the place down. The announcement for Coachella came out a week after Woodstock and the response wasn't exactly pretty.

"We announced Coachella the Monday after Woodstock, and it was a total disaster. People asked, 'Why would you do this right now?' Trying to sell tickets was pretty much impossible. The city wanted to cancel it," Tollett recalled.  But the plans for the festival's debut went through and it was pretty laid back, with about 40,000 people in total attending the 2-day event.

Rapper Kanye West performs during Day 3 of the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival 2011 held at the Empire Polo Club on April 17, 2011 in Indio, California (Getty Images)

The first edition of the festival was headlined by the likes of Beck, Tool, and Rage Against the Machine. While everyone seemed to have enjoyed the vibe the festival had set and saw potential in it, the producers still lost at least $1 million in its organization. And the following year, they skipped the festival in order to recover finances.  However, Coachella's reputation had already spread far and wide, so much that the producers at the Lollapalooza festival and AEG (Golden Voice signed on to be a music promoter for them) helped them with their financial debts.

Coachella returned in 2001 as a 1-day event after much encouragement and monetary backing from AEG. It took Coachella about three years to profit from its festivities, before reaching the magnitude that it has today. The Pixies, Björk,  Jane's Addiction, The White Stripes,  Radiohead, Nickel Creek, Bauhaus, Madonna, MGMT, Wu Tang Clan, M.I.A and LCD Soundsystem, were among those that performed as headliners in the 2000s, setting a new benchmark for the festival itself.

Coachella also featured artists who basically paved the way for modern hip-hop, like Beastie Boys, Kanye West and Jay Z, which, again, was  a wildly successful and talk about moment. By now, Coachella was drawing about 186,000 attendees, which included celebrities who brought media attention with them.

By the mid-2000s, Coachella had already managed to make a name for itself as a one of its kind alternative Indie festival, 'A Sacred Indie Temple', as DJ and producer A Trak deemed it. DJ presence became an actual thing at Coachella, especially when underground and electronic music was fighting to retain its prominence. Daft Punk's inclusion in Coachella 2006 was revolutionary for the festival itself. The response was insane, people were awestruck.

Coachella now became an intimate club experience but on a wider-scale with a massive audience. In 2008, Coachella introduced its VIP package that retailed at $4,500 inclusive of all-access passes and a 'Shikar-style' safari tent that came fully furnished with king beds, linens, pillows, dressers, carpets, air-conditioning and even an all you can eat buffet.

Coachella's popularity grew by leaps and bounds, and by 2010, it stopped selling one-day tickets and switched to three-day passes. In 2011, YouTube live stream feature took Coachella to people across the world.

A holographic image of Tupac Shakur is seen performing during day 3 of the 2012 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Field on April 15, 2012 in Indio, California (Getty Images)

In 2012, organizers realized that tickets had sold out for the one weekend shows and many concert-goers were left disappointed with no tickets. That year it expanded to two weekends and headliners included Radiohead, Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg, The Black Keys, Eminem, Wiz Khalifa and more. The highlight of that year's show, however, was a holographic performance from late hip-hop artist, Tupac Shakur.

2018 saw another show-stopping performance, 'Beychella'. Coachella had now expanded its horizons in terms of genres and culture. Beyonce was among the first pop-acts to smash the Coachella Stage with her performance. She was also the first black woman to headline the festival. Her performance set was wholesome featuring Destiny's Child reunion, Jay Z and even her sister, Solange. It was the biggest performance at the festival to date and she pulled it off seamlessly, leaving the festival-goers and fans streaming from home, gobsmacked.

The documentary also touches upon the festival's progress with the generational shift. The visuals in the documentary include performances by Billie Eilish (who holds the record for the youngest artist to perform at Coachella), Ariana Grande, Khalid, Tyler the Creator, Sia, Justin Bieber and more. Blackpink and Bad Bunny's 2019 performance was another milestone in the festival's history, as being one of the first K-Pop and Reggaeton acts to perform on the Coachella stage.

Blackpink perform at Sahara Tent during the 2019 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival on April 19, 2019 in Indio, California (Getty Images)

Raymond Roker, former Golden Voice content strategy director and Chris Perkel, director of 'Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert, brought together an assortment of never-before-seen footage of the festival collected over the years, in 2013.

While the initial plan was to produce a 10-episodic series, the idea was later scrapped. Instead, they decided to gather hand-picked footage and make a 100-minute documentary. So, the documentary only provides an overview of Coachella, the renowned music festival that has been 20 years in the making.

However, Roker and Perkel have done an impeccable job with the content and compiling it to make an effective documentary, that serves the purpose of narrating the festival's story from beginning till now.

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