The First Coachella in 1999 Was Almost the Last

The inaugural Coachella Festival was held at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, California on October 9 and 10th 1999 and featured a musical who’s who of the 90s. 

Coachella

Headliners included Rage Against the Machine, Beck, Tool, Morrissey and Moby.  As well, Perry Farrell, of Jane’s Addiction and Porno for Pyros, played a solo set on opening day.  The headliners were joined by about 50 others acts over the two days of the festival.

Moby performs at Coachella 99

A Los Angeles Times article from October 11, 1999 described the scene this way:

“the festival grounds were dotted with art exhibits, such as murals and bizarre mechanical sculptures, including some ominous-looking contraptions that gobbled up shopping carts.”

Los Angeles Times

Coachella was founded by Paul Tollett and Rick Van Santen of music promoter Goldenvoice who modeled it after overseas events such as Britain’s Glastonbury Festival.

Although the first festival largely got positive reviews, it failed to attract the 70,000 attendees that Goldenvoice needed to turn a profit.  They only managed to sell about 25 thousand tickets over the two days.

Coachella 99

Part of the problem could have been the weather.  Coachella Valley was hit by what media called “a freakish heat wave” with temperatures in the triple digits. Concert-goers may have also been scared off by the disaster that took place at Woodstock ’99 three months earlier. 

Woodstock ’99, which was held to mark the 30th anniversary of the original Woodstock, was plagued by poor planning, high prices for food and water and a bad location. The result was a chaotic nightmare which included, riots, fires and sexual assaults. 

The first Coachella on the other hand was a mostly peacefully event with no major problems.  And organizers went out of their way to keep fans comfortable with trailer home restrooms, cooling-mist tents, clean-up crews and free water at the gate.

But there was one major issue for organizers, because of low ticket sales, the first Coachella was not profitable and as a result the festival was cancelled in 2000.  In 2001 they decided to give it one more try, and Coachella has charted an upward course ever since.  In fact, it is now considered the unspoken gold standard of music festivals.

By 2012, Coachella had grown so popular that Goldenvoice decided to add a second weekend and the festival now includes up to 160 acts, attracting upwards of 125,000 people per day!

While the location at the Empire Polo Field has remained the same throughout the years, the cost to attend Coachella has skyrocketed.  In 1999 tickets were $50 a day.  Twenty years later, in 2019 tickets were $429 for general admission and almost $1,000 for VIP passes.  Despite the cost Coachella is known to sell out within minutes of tickets opening up.

Coachella 2020, which was set to be headlined by Frank Ocean, Rage Against the Machine, and Travis Scott was cancelled because of COVID but the festival is expected to resume in April 2021.  The lineup has yet to be announced.

For more stories from the 1990s, make sure to check out my podcast “History of the 90s” on ApplePodcasts, Spotify, Google Play and anywhere else you stream audio. You can also listen at http://www.curiouscast.ca

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