On Friday, tickets for the 2012 Coachella festival went on sale, and a few hours later it was evident: Coachella is the strongest brand in music.
Coachella sold out two complete weekends in a matter of hours. In previous years, the festival — put on by Los Angeles concert promoter Goldenvoice — sold out days, even weeks after it went on sale. Concertgoers had time to check out the lineup, search for flights, secure transportation and housing and make plans to go to the festival with friends. Not anymore: If you weren’t online with credit card in hand when tickets went on sale, you’re not going.
How did this happen? Smart branding and incredible word of mouth.
Coachella is not just a concert, it’s an experience, and that experience is what sells the festival. Held on a polo field in the Southern California desert, two and a half hours east of Los Angeles, the setting is unlike any other concert setting in the United States. The polo field is lined with palm trees on one side and backed by mountains on the other, creating a gorgeous, serene atmosphere. The grass is finely manicured. You feel like a guest when you’re there, like you’re privileged to be a part of something so special. And that’s before one note of music is even played. (Bonnaroo, on the other hand, takes place on a farm in rural Tennessee. Nothing special about it.)
Lineup-wise, there is no festival that is curated as closely as Coachella. The festival books premier, top-tier acts, the cream of the crop from the worlds of indie rock, dance and pop. It caters to music obsessives, and lands bands and exclusives that other festivals can’t. When Iggy and the Stooges reunited, it was at Coachella. When the Pixies reunited, it was at Coachella. When Daft Punk played its first show in years, it was at Coachella. And so on. Festivalgoers trust the lineup will deliver, so much so that the fest sold a good number of tickets last June, seven months before any sort of lineup was released.
So between the experience and the lineup, Coachella gained a reputation as a one-of-a-kind festival. But by 2010, it had grown out of control. The festival was plagued by overcrowding, and traffic snarls getting in and out of the festival created lines of several hours for fans. The trust had been broken, and the experience that had been so touted by Coachella’s fervent fanbase became compromised because promoters sold too many tickets. But rather than taking the money and running with it, Goldenvoice reassessed, and changed things up for its 2011 festival, selling less tickets than the year before while expanding the festival’s physical footprint. The result: The fan experience was touted as one of the festival’s best ever.
So in a stroke of marketing genius, Goldenvoice hatched a plan to double down on Coachella, creating two weekends — each with identical lineups — instead of one. The idea of holding the same festival twice challenged the very notion of festivals being one-off experiences, but it seems to have worked, and on Friday — four days after the lineup was unveiled — the two weekends sold out in record time. Now the only question is whether Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and other major American festivals will try to follow suit with multiple weekend packages.
The festival wasn’t always a success. Launched in October 1999, the first Coachella came just a few weeks after the disaster of Woodstock ’99, when American festivals were at their lowest. The initial lineup included Beck, Morrissey, Rage Against the Machine and Tool, but it lost money and the festival did not return in 2000. In 2001, a leaner, one day version of Coachella was launched, headlined by a reunited Jane’s Addiction. It was successful enough that in 2002 it returned and expanded to two days, and by 2004 — when Radiohead and the Pixies headlined — Coachella was off to the races. A third day was added in 2007, and now that the fest is two weekends, who knows where it’s headed next.
When people go to Coachella, they become believers, and those believers come back and tell their friends about it. Those friends tell their friends. And before you know it, two weekends isn’t even enough to accommodate everyone who wants to be a part of it. See how that works?