Coachella Isn’t All That Chill About Its Brand
“Am I really going to end up in court explaining why my Instagram has a Coachella hashtag?”
This was the question asked by a man named Sean. He’s a partner with a cannabis growing company that found itself at odds with the huge, annual music festival scheduled to start this weekend in the California desert. Sean doesn’t like to reveal his last name because of the business he’s in.
His company, Lowell Farms, created a Coachella-branded pack of pre-rolled joints aimed at festival-goers, a novelty that gained popularity on social media. Sean says he didn’t really consider the possibility that there would be trouble over the name, but he was wrong. He says his Los Angeles-based company received a cease-and-desist letter from the senior in-house counsel at AEG Presents LLC, the parent company of Coachella Music Festival LLC. (Copies of the letter and emails were provided to Bloomberg by Lowell Farms). AEG didn’t reply to phone and email requests for comment.
That a company would seek to protect its intellectual property should come as no surprise. But Coachella made its name as a laissez faire, hippie-chic alternative to, say, Burning Man. In its first year, tickets sold for $50 and the headliners were Beck and Rage Against the Machine.
Though the original ethos was largely non-corporate, even back then Coachella had a large promoter, Goldenvoice, and sold tickets through Ticketmaster. Goldenvoice was established to showcase punk rock bands in the 1980s. According to an obituary for Rick Van Santen, a co-partner with Paul Tollett, Goldenvoice helped establish such bands as Jane’s Addiction and Nirvana, and it sought to model Coachella on European festivals. Two years into Coachella’s existence, however, AEG purchased Goldenvoice.
As it’s grown into a multi-weekend behemoth with 600,000 attendees paying hundreds of dollars each, the event’s owners have also grown more protective of its identity.
A month ago, for example, AEG sued Urban Outfitters Inc., accusing its subsidiary Free People of selling apparel using the Coachella trademark. Last year alone, the company sued hundreds of John and Jane Does for trademark infringement, accusing them of being “bootleggers,” according to the complaint. Even energy giant Phillips 66 Co. was sued by Coachella last year for trademark infringement and unfair competition. Coachella filed a lawsuit against Kamil Al-Ahdali, who operated the music festival Hoodchella, for trademark infringement. Al-Ahdadi reportedly agreed to change the name of his festival, and the case has since been closed. (Urban Outfitters and legal counsel for Al-Ahdali didn’t respond to requests for comment. Dennis Huss, a spokesman for Phillips 66, said the case was “dismissed pursuant to a confidential settlement agreement.”)
In the case of Lowell Farms, its cease-and-desist letter—which also focused on trademark claims—came after one of its cannabis blends gained popularity online.
It all started, Sean says, with a decision by some Lowell Farms’ employees to attend Coachella. They decided to create a marijuana concoction that reduced anxiety while simultaneously enhancing sound and light—perfect for an outdoor concert under California skies. “They created a blend for those effects. They made it, they showed it to us, and we found a dispensary in Palm Springs that wanted to distribute it,” says Sean.
The blend was inserted in pre-rolled joints that cost as much as $60 for a pack of 10. To market them, Lowell Farms created a flower crown—popular garb at music festivals going all the way back to Woodstock. These, however, were made of both flowers and cannabis, and were to be given away to the first dozen customers to wear, smoke, or both. “We posted about it on our Instagram and there started to be some press for it. It was really popular; it was in Cosmopolitan,” Sean says. “Then we got a cease-and-desist.”
Lowell Farms has created location-themed cannabis blends in the past, including packs for Denver and San Francisco. “To us, Coachella was like the name of a place, like a Denver omelet,” Sean reasoned. “AEG obviously feels differently.”
According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO), “Coachella” is a registered trademark owned by the Coachella Music Festival. One trademark concerns itself with apparel, such as sweatshirts and t-shirts, while another focuses on the production of the festival itself. The company also registered “Chella” and “Coachella Music Festival.” In the cease-and-desist missive, AEG demanded that Lowell Farms stop “further use of unlicensed Coachella intellectual property” and remove references to Coachella from its digital platforms and social media pages. The letter also requested that any hashtags related to Coachella be removed.
Despite the numerous trademarks for “Coachella,” “#Coachella”—as in, with the hashtag—doesn't appear to be registered with PTO. The office does allow hashtags to be trademarked, says intellectual property attorney Sonia Lakhany. “Protection for hashtags is a gray, cloudy area with the PTO,” she says. “How do you stop the use of a hashtag all over social media?"”
In response to the AEG letter, Lowell Farms posted a copy of it on their Instagram, adding the hashtag “Coachella,” without removing any social media posts referencing the festival. Lowell Farms says it plans to continue to sell the pre-rolled joint packs at the music festival, and to give away the cannabis flower crowns, but the name “Coachella” will be removed from the pack. It will instead read “NotChilla.”
Sean says the company didn’t seek the advice of legal counsel prior to making this decision: “I just have a general policy that I’d rather burn money in the backyard of my farm than give it to a lawyer.” He says Lowell Farms will continue to use the hashtag: “If they want to sue me,” he says, “good luck serving me.”