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Twenty Years of Coachella

A look back at ‘America’s greatest music festival’

With most major annual music events being cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of would-be attendees are waiting eagerly for the return of festivals in 2021. Whilst the wait for UK festival-goers is likely to last until next Summer, US music fans can (hopefully!) look forward to the return of music festivals as early as April and the reinstatement of Coachella, America’s most popular music festival.

‘America’s Greatest Music Festival’ — Coachella
Photo by Billy Farrell – REX/Shutterstock

Coachella has grown astronomically since the first event took place in the Autumn of 1999, having now seen iconic performances from some of the world’s biggest artists and grown into one of the world’s most famous festivals. We’ll take a look at where it all began, the legacy of Coachella today and some of the highlights from the last twenty years of California’s biggest party:

It started in the Autumn of 1999

Had this year’s event taken place on its proposed postponed date, it would have been the first time Coachella had been held during the month of October since the inaugural event in October 1999. However, the festival’s first outing looked completely different to the glamorous affair we see today. 

‘America’s Greatest Music Festival’ — Coachella 1999
Coachella 1999

The first ever Coachella was initially intended to take place across three days, but turned into a two-day event instead. Perhaps this was due to the underwhelming ticket sales – organisers hoped to attract 70,000 music fans to the event, but attendance fell short by over 13,000. Despite being a smaller event than planned, the festival still saw performances by some of most popular alternative artists of the time, with Beck, Morrissey and The Chemical Brothers being among the big names on stage, and received critical acclaim in the months following. Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times was particularly impressed, writing that the event ‘laid the foundation for what someday may be a legacy of its own’

It wasn’t all smooth sailing, however. Organisers Goldenvoice lost $850,000 by holding the festival, a loss which took the company two years to even begin to recover from, and led to the decision to cancel Coachella’s planned return in the year 2000. 

Nevertheless, founders Paul Tollet and Rick Van Santen weren’t prepared to give up that easily; subsequently giving Coachella a comeback in the April of 2001 with a single day of performances. The festival was, once again, well-received by attendees and critics alike, and despite profits evading them once more, Tollet and Van Santen could see an impressive future for Coachella in the world of live music.

The start of something special

Sadly, Van Santen passed away in 2003 of complications from the flu, but not before witnessing the beginning of Coachella’s rise to prominence as one of America’s biggest music events. The 2003 event saw camping being offered for the first time – a dealbreaker for many festival-goers when deciding which event to attend – as well as headline performances from alternative rock legends Red Hot Chilli Peppers. With these changes in place, Coachella drew its biggest crowd to date, attracting over 60,000 attendees. 

Art installations are placed throughout the festival
Art installations are placed throughout the festival

The 2003 event was most certainly a turning point for the festival overall, with tickets selling out every year between 2003 and 2008 (and every year following 2012) and with the line-up getting bigger and better with each passing event. Coachella was well on its way to becoming an American music icon (in 2003 it also sold to the music and entertainment giant AEG group). 

Festival goers are known for their creative boho outfits - Coachella
Festival goers are known for their creative boho outfits

It was in 2012 that everything changed for Coachella, however. Goldenvoice announced that they had purchased 280 acres of land in Indio, California to stage the festival each year. This new and dedicated space allowed Coachella to add more camping space, a general store, recycling facilities, washrooms, extra food and drink areas, more amusements, extra stages and, due to very high demand, stage the festival across two consecutive weekends with identical line-ups. With these extra dates added, the event could accommodate twice the amount of attendees – Coachella had become a world of its own, and subsequently became the most profitable festival in the United States.

Legendary performances

Coachella has seen a host of incredible performances over the years, from hundreds of huge global artists.

One of the festival’s earliest and most iconic sets was the headline performance from Radiohead for Coachella’s 2004 outing. Paul Tollet credits this particular appearance with elevating the festival’s stature to the point where Rolling Stone magazine labelled Coachella ‘America’s Best Music Festival’. 

Daft Punk performs at Coachella, 2006 Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images
Daft Punk performs at Coachella, 2006
Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images

Daft Punk also put on a memorable show for Coachella attendees. Their 2006 performance is often praised as one of the most memorable performances in the festival’s history, and has been said to have changed the very landscape of the Electronic Dance Music genre as a whole. 

“From that moment on, dance music needed to have a giant spectacle on stage,” said radio presenter Jason Bentley, “You could love it or you could hate it, but the fact is that nothing was the same after that performance.”

Beyoncé’s astounding 2018 headline spot has gone down in history, widely as one of the most iconic live performances of all time. A full marching band and cast of majorette dancers took to the bleachers to perform behind Beyoncé, who was also joined by husband Jay-Z, J. Balvin and her former Destiny’s Child co-stars on stage for this incredible set. The performance was even the central focus of a documentary produced by Beyoncé for Netflix entitled ‘Homecoming’. The documentary followed Beyoncé in the lead up to the performance, which led Variety to proclaim that “Beyoncé is the premier musical performer of our time”.

Queen Bey's world-famous performance at Coachella
Queen Bey’s world-famous performance at Coachella

Coachella has even seen its fair share of all-time firsts. In a performance that shocked and amazed viewers worldwide during the now-legendary 2012 Coachella, Tupac performed posthumously, having been ‘brought to life’ using computer hologram technology. The appearance of the late rapper was a huge shock to the audience, but one that cemented the festival’s reputation for being truly unique. 

What’s next for Coachella?

After a difficult period for millions around the world, 2021 could be a landmark year for events such as Coachella, which will likely hope to come back bigger and better than ever. 

Loyal fans make the annual pilgrimage to the desert to enjoy music, art and even some great fashion
Loyal fans make the annual pilgrimage to the desert to enjoy music, art and even some great fashion

The 2020 line-up included a host of popular artists, with Rage Against The Machine, Travis Scott and Frank Ocean set to headline the weekend, alongside featured appearances from Lana Del Rey, Rex Orange County, Calvin Harris and Thom Yorke of Radiohead. It is unclear how much this line-up will change between now and the rescheduled date, but this particular bill of artists was certainly well-received by fans.

We are yet to see how the landscape of music festivals will change in the United States and across the world in the wake of the pandemic, but the fighting spirit that kept Coachella going after facing significant complications and financial losses during the early days will most likely be back in full force. 

Overall, it is hoped that Coachella will return next Spring – to once again reclaim its title as America’s greatest music festival.


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