Coachella Wins the Fight for Festival Headliners—and Profit

Music fans arrive at the 2013 Coachella Music Festival at the Empire Polo Club on April 11 Photograph by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Coachella

This weekend kicks off the 2013 summer festival circuit when more than 150,000 people descend on Indio, Calif., over two weekends for the Coachella Valley Music and Arts festival. In June, their Southern counterparts at Bonnaroo will sweat themselves silly on a Tennessee farm, and Midwesterners will flock to Chicago in August for Lollapalooza.

And, of course, there are dozens of other music events planned across the country: Pitchfork (Chicago again), Sasquatch (Washington State), Governor’s Ball (New York City), Austin City Limits (Austin, Tex.), and Beale Street Music Festival (Memphis), to name a few. They’re all slight twists on the same outdoor concert-and-food-truck concept, and they often book the same acts.

Beach House, Mumford and Sons, and the Lumineers will play Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo this year; the Postal Service and Phoenix will grace Lollapalooza and Coachella; Grizzly Bear will hit all three. Sometimes it’s hard to tell one festival from another. But Coachella has one trick up its sun-kissed sleeve: Every year it promotes at least one major reunion act that no one else has. This year it’s the ’90s Britpop band the Stone Roses, which haven’t played in the U.S. in nearly two decades—almost the age of the average Coachella attendee.

Coachella has been the family reunion of concert festivals since 2001, when Perry Farrell reunited Jane’s Addiction for the festival’s second year. (Farrell is a festival pioneer: He co-created the original Lollapalooza and has played at a dozen Coachellas.) In 2004, Iggy and the Stooges took the stage after nearly three decades off. Last year, Pulp, another British band that Americans almost never see, played both the festival in Indio and at parent company Goldenvoice’s inaugural S.S. Coachella cruise ship concert. Frontman Jarvis Cocker even gave cruisers a PowerPoint presentation about how he formed the band in high school.

The difficulty of coaxing semiretired rock acts onto the stage is not an easy task, but it’s amazing what offering a big check can accomplish. And the checks they require are rarely as large as those commanded by the biggest names still regularly touring. In 2008, Coachella paid an estimated $2 million for Prince to headline and ended up losing money when the festival failed to sell out. That explains why this year, a headlining deal with the Rolling Stones is rumored to have fallen through because the band’s fee was too high. The festival’s organizers haven’t said what they paid the Stone Roses for their appearance, but it’s a safe bet it’s less than what Mick Jagger and his mates would have taken in. Tickets to the Stones’ regular concerts run as high as $750, more than twice the amount of Coachella’s $349 general admission.

The Stone Roses might have less name recognition than the Stones, or even some of the bands playing on Coachella’s smaller stages, but they’re a name no other U.S. festival has this year. They’re small, but they’re beloved. And if you fit the High Fidelity record-collecting profile of someone who really loves the band’s 1989 U.K. hit She Bangs the Drums and want to hear it live—well, you simply must buy a ticket.

Coachella has learned the cost-benefit ratios of high-priced performances the hard way. The first festival, in 1999, lost $800,000 and nearly disappeared for good. When it reformed two years later, it often had to ask bands to accept a deferred payment plan—Beck, Rage Against the Machine, and Tool accepted the deal. “They let us pay some talent three, four, five months later,” Paul Tollett, Goldenvoice’s president, said during a panel discussion at the 2012 Billboard Touring Conference. “Employees were willing to take a paycheck guaranteed to bounce.”

Luckily for Goldenvoice, its days of bounced checks are over. Coachella is now the most profitable festival in the U.S. Last year it sold 158,000 tickets and pulled in $47.3 million, up from $17 million in 2007. Tickets for this year sold out in 20 minutes. Apparently the festival doesn’t need the Rolling Stones to get some satisfaction.

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