The first major mention of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival found in The New York Times comes in the form of Neil Strauss’ Pop Life column from September 1999 titled “A Festival Promises Safety.” Written less than two months after the monstrous Woodstock ’99, the article previews the first edition of the festival by dwelling on Coachella’s differences, from the complimentary bottles of water handed out to each attendee to promises of free parking and under-capacity shows. Musically, Strauss had this to say:
More similar in spirit to Monterey Pop than Woodstock, Coachella offers a lineup that appeals to a cutting-edge crowd, with many performers unused to playing in front of such large audiences. There is a strong emphasis on dance music and college radio bands, as opposed to acts that are popular on the Billboard pop charts or commercial modern-rock stations.
Twenty years later, the festival scene has changed, for better and worse, but Coachella still remains. On the eve of the 2019 edition, I’ve decided to give the fest an early birthday present. In the article that follows, you’ll find 20 moments that helped shape Coachella into its current form. Sourced from 20 years’ worth of coverage and recollections, these moments run from the tents at the Empire Polo Club to the conference rooms at Indio City Hall to interlaced web of social media and help tell the story of how Coachella became America’s preeminent music festival.
Coachella Begins (1999)
You can’t have a 20th anniversary without a first edition. Coachella began its life during an unseasonably warm weekend in October 1999, with festivalgoers plunking down a paltry $50 (still only $75 in 2019 terms) for a stacked lineup featuring Beck, The Chemical Brothers, Tool, and Rage Against the Machine. Critics praised the fest for its smooth professionalism in the wake of the tire fire that was Woodstock ’99 just a few months prior, but it was still a financial bust; Goldenvoice lost a reported $850,000 and had to delay the festival’s next edition until 2001.
Perry Farrell Kicks Off Reunion Fever and Saves the Fest (2001)
Between stints as Lollapalooza’s impresario, Perry Farrell found time to help out another fledgling music festival. At Coachella’s second, single-day edition in 2001, Farrell reunited Jane’s Addiction for the first time since 1997 and played for deferred compensation, a move that allowed his friends at Goldenvoice to regain their financial footing while still wowing crowds. It’s a relationship that’s lasted; as of this writing, Farrell made the festival a near-annual appearance between 2001 and 2011, only skipping the 2003 edition during that stretch. The appearance of Jane’s Addiction also kick-started Coachella’s reputation for hosting big reunions; over the years, that’s included The Stone Roses, Rage Against the Machine, My Bloody Valentine, and more.
Camping Arrives (2003)
For a festival with camping as a core part of its identity, it’s always jarring to remember that Coachella once went tent-less. The camping scene that LA Weekly once called “the Wild West of the festival” where “campers [build] incredible structures to hide their debaucheries” began in 2003, with a single lot for intrepid weekenders to return to after sets from The White Stripes, Beastie Boys, Iggy and the Stooges, and more. Demand for camping passes would only increase the next year, thanks to a stellar lineup…
Coachella (Literally) Sells Out (2004)
…that would see Coachella sell out for the first time in its history. Thank the Pixies for that one; though the massiveness of their reunion has been diluted by subsequent years of constant touring (and subpar records), the initial word that they’d be making their first major appearance at Coachella was enough for a reported two-day crowd of 110,000 people to change their spring break plans. According to L.A. Weekly’s Piotr Orlov, it was worth the wait, as Black Francis and company “tapped none of the ’80s nostalgia detractors have been grouping it with, basking in the power and glory of something that remains unique and ahead.” Appearances by Kraftwerk, Radiohead, and The Cure didn’t hurt, either.
Daft Punk: The Fest’s First Legend (2006)
It’s rare for an festival set’s influence to extend much past those on the ground, but when it does happen, it’s the kind of thing people talk about for a long, long time. Case in point: Daft Punk’s transcendent appearance at Coachella 2006, in which Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo appeared as benevolent robot overlords, compelling the festival’s dumbstruck masses to dance from high atop their pulsating digital pyramid. The set overshadowed even the most high-profile names on that year’s lineup (including ones by a then-ascendant Kanye West and festival rarity Madonna) and instantly earned its place in festival legend.
Coachella Expands (2007)
In less than a decade, Coachella went from losing nearly $1 million on its inaugural edition to celebrating its financial and critical success with a pair of pivotal growth moves. In 2007, Coachella caught up with its burgeoning competition in Chicago, extending to three days the year after Lollapalooza made the move. That year, Goldenvoice also launched Coachella’s sister festival, Stagecoach, which reached a completely different audience (in this case, country music fans) while maintaining Goldenvoice’s foothold at the Empire Polo Club. Both of these moves heralded ones yet to come, from the festival’s purchase of land adjacent to the venue and expansion to two weekends in 2012 (more on that later) to the launch of 2016’s Desert Days festival.
Björk: The First Female Headliner (2007)
Festivals are only now starting to catch up to music’s gender gap, so it’s no surprise that it took Coachella a few years to book its first female headliner. They finally broke up the boys’ club in 2007 with Björk, the Icelandic art-pop sprite who brought her singular vision to the Indio desert. Clad in a bone-covered dress wild with multi-colored fibers, Björk put on a show that The New York Times’ Ben Ratliff praised as “visually beautiful;” 11 years later, Noisey’s Sarah McDonald elaborated: “Her songs are odes to the feminine and act as modern chants in tribute. A decade removed, you can still get chills listening to her literally jump through her catalogue.”
McCartney Blows Past Curfew (2009)
Coachella’s always had a curfew; in 2009, the music was supposed to be over by midnight. That didn’t stop ex-Beatle and the festival’s heretofore biggest booking, Paul McCartney, from taking a look at that time limit and blowing right on past it. McCartney wound down around 12:54 a.m., an overrun that skirted a potential fine of $1,000 for every minute over (or $3,000 for a performance of “Get Back”, which, in those terms, sounds downright reasonable). McCartney wasn’t the only scofflaw that year, but he was the only one who got away with it; The Cure ignored their own time limit on Sunday night and had their sound cut in response. These overruns might’ve been worth the price; starting in 2010, Coachella ‘s curfew was extended to 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights.
Single-Day Tickets No More (2010)
The divide between daytrippers and weekenders closed in 2010, with the latter declaring total and decisive victory. In 2010, Coachella eliminated the $99 single-day ticket option, leaving festival attendees with the $269 three-day pass as the most affordable option. In defending the move to the L.A. Times, festival founder Paul Tollett cited lower camping costs, limited area hotel space, and improving the festival experience for existing three-day pass holders as justification for the move. For many fans, however, the move signaled another shift towards ever-rising prices; a general admission pass to Coachella 2019 without shuttle service costs $429, a 59% increase since 2010 alone.
Jay-Z: The First Hip-Hop Headliner (2010)
It took Coachella 11 years to book its first hip-hop headliner, but they made up for their tardiness by snagging the biggest player in the game. At the time, we summed up our review of Jay-Z’s set (which included, among other things, a 10-piece band, an Obama cameo, and a Beyoncé appearance) by stating the obvious: “The Jigga Man used his whole arsenal Friday night and did it bigger than anyone could have expected.” Hova’s appearance opened the door for a steady stream of hip-hop headliners to come, from Kanye in 2011 to Outkast in 2014 to Kendrick Lamar in 2017.