paul tollett

Breaking the Sound Barrier

Coachella impresario Paul Tollett loves to stage reunions, but when searching for music’s cutting edge, he listens abroad.

Bruce Fessier Arts & Entertainment, Current PSL

paul tollett

Thousands of cars filled dusty lots across from Empire Polo Club in Indio. In April, this would be the site of VIP parking for the Coachella Valley Music and Arts and Stagecoach festivals. But it was January, and these cars were here for a national lacrosse tournament. I was caught in the event’s traffic en route to the Eldorado Polo Club home of Paul Tollett, CEO of the Los Angeles-based Goldenvoice company that produces the blockbuster music festivals. The access road to his property was closed, and other arteries were clogged with cars as if Kanye West and Kim Kardashian were having a garage sale at their nearby mansion in The Madison Club.

Tollett said he’d see me Saturday in Indio, but we had no specific appointment. When he didn’t reply to my texts and emails by 11:30 that morning, I packed a book and sack lunch, drove to his neighborhood, and found a place to park after talking my way through security. Waiting for Tollett has become routine, but, unlike waiting for Godot in the absurdist play by Samuel Beckett, Tollett has always rewarded my patience with journalistic bounties.

Tollett revolutionized the music industry in 1999 when he and partner Rick Van Santen produced the first Coachella, reviving the festival traditions of Monterey and Woodstock. Its success changed the way people experienced live music. A whole circuit of summer festivals blossomed by 2004 as a younger generation realized that instead of spending $25 to watch one or two artists, you could pay another $50 and see 100 acts.

The first Coachella fest lost a fortune. Tollett often says he lost his house, his car, and his wife. He and Van Santen sold their company to Anschutz Entertainment Group, retained ownership of Coachella, and ran Goldenvoice as a division of AEG. AEG’s then-CEO Tim Leiweke invested millions of AEG dollars into the festival, finally buying half ownership in 2004. Tollett became managing partner after Van Santen died in December 2003.


Beck, Rage Against the Machine, and Tool headlined the original, two-day Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in 1999. Tickets to the event cost $50 a day.

Leiweke, who left AEG in 2013, credits Tollett for creating the destination festival blueprint. “The genius of Coachella is Paul,” he said last summer at the announcement of the arena project. “He’ll say he didn’t do it, but it’s all Paul.”

Tollett insists he’s only trying to show people a good time. If that requires buying land to accommodate traffic, he’ll do it. If it means upgrading standard festival grub to California cuisine, he’ll do it. If it means commissioning the creation of a giant caterpillar that can morph into a butterfly and traverse the festival, he’ll do it.

Tollett, who owns homes in Malibu and La Quinta’s Madison Club, dresses as inauspiciously as when he was starting Coachella while staying at a Holiday Inn behind an Arco station in Cathedral City. His 6-foot frame is inevitably dressed in an untucked shirt, jeans, and baseball cap. The 54 year old is well read, obsessively current on vital music, and quick with a quip. When told he’s built a veritable utopia in Indio, he says, “We like utopias. We like autotopias, too.”




German electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk play Coachella in 2008, paving the way for EDM inclusion at the festival.

After waiting 90 minutes, a security guard told me to move my car. So I called Tollett. He was at the Empire Grand Oasis, site of the new 4xFAR festival in Thermal. He suggested we meet at the marketplace there.

I found Tollett surrounded by business associates. We moved to a long, flat rock behind a crystalline blue swimming pool-type lake, and discussed ground rules for our talk. I wanted insights into his documentary, Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert. He said it would be available for free on YouTube but declined to discuss its content.

We marveled at Coachella’s history of staging reunions and the global diversity that has made the festival a cultural juggernaut.

In 2004, Tollett reunited the pre-grunge rockers, the Pixies, and positioned them on the poster on a line below the headliners with the reclusive German techno quartet, Kraftwerk. Both were 15 years past their peak popularity. But the hugely influential British rock ensemble Radiohead called it an honor to follow the Pixies. Two years later, the enigmatic French electronic duo Daft Punk built on Kraftwerk’s precedent with a show that has been called the festival’s best, featuring a giant LED-lit pyramid.

Tollett presented a historic rap parade in 2012, featuring Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, and a Tupac Shakur hologram. The Hollywood Reporter called it one of “10 Moments of the 2010s That Are Already Changing the 2020s.” Tollett followed that in 2013 with a 20-year reunion of Wu-Tang Clan that drew an overflow audience to the second stage.

“That was an important show for us because they were such building blocks,” Tollett says. “When you describe certain genres of music, you mention them as a certain thing. So, it’s important to have something like that.”


Fans brave the heat as they wait for the Pixies to perform. The prolific indie rock band reunited at Coachella in 2004.

Jane’s Addiction, Iggy and the Stooges, and Guns N’ Roses were among Coachella’s early rock revivals. Before this month’s event was postponed, the big reunion was to be the Korean (K-pop) band BIGBANG, who a decade ago inspired the massively popular BTS, aka the Bangtan Boys. BIGBANG re-formed as a quartet last year after an original member retired following a sex scandal.

“It’s not necessarily a reunion that’s exciting,” Tollett says. “It’s when an artist hasn’t played in a while — the uniqueness, the scarcity. I’m always looking for artists that have some scarcity to them, who haven’t overplayed.”

The return of BIGBANG would have underscored the festival’s global flavor. Coachella has long been America’s most lucrative annual festival. But it has grown to become more international in its programming and fan base.



Artist Phillip K. Smith III of Palm Desert created Reflection Field for the 2014 festival.

Tollett’s nieces ignited his interest in K-pop’s blend of tight vocal harmonies, rap, and dance. As connected as he is to agents, managers, and fellow promoters, Tollett’s most trusted adviser is his older brother, Perry, whose two daughters learned to speak fluent Korean by listening to K-pop. One actually moved to South Korea. Paul booked his first K-pop boy trio, Epik High, at Coachella in 2016. Last year, he featured the all-female BLACKPINK. This month would have seen Epik High return to the bill with BIGBANG.

“[Epik High members] went into the military — forced military — and, coming out of it, we’re getting the first show,” Tollett says. “I had no idea when we contacted them they were going to do another show, so it was exciting to get them.”

Another Asian artist who was on the bill was Hatsune Miku of Japan — only she’s not real; she’s computer-generated. Asked to describe her, Tollett smiles and says, “Return of the hologram,” referencing Tupac’s ethereal 2012 appearance.


The 2020 line-up includes Brazilian drag singer-songwriter Pabllo Vittar; R&B powerhouse Frank Ocean; Mexican group Banda MS.


Last year, Calypso Rose, a little-known 79-year-old “queen” of calypso music, stood out in a year of great young female artists, including 2020 Grammy notables Billie Eilish, Ariana Grande, Lizzo, H.E.R., and Rosalía. Tollett flew to Tobago in the Caribbean Sea to sign Rose and then recorded her in L.A. between Coachella weekends. This month, he’d planned to present Koffee, a 2020 Grammy Award winner from Jamaica, age 20, whose style of island music includes reggae, rap, and dancehall.

While stylish rapper Travis Scott and Frank Ocean, a reclusive R&B artist who would have been Coachella’s first queer male headliner, were to top the Saturday and Sunday bills, the rest of the lineup was rich in international talent. The gypsy band Leningrad (spelled in Cyrillic on the poster) was the second consecutive recruit from Russia. Banda MS would have continued the trend of showcasing large traditional Mexican bands. Aya Nakamura is a French pop singer born in Mali to West African storytellers, or griots. Pabllo Vittar is a Brazilian drag superstar, and Anitta is basically Brazilian Beyoncé. Mika is a Grammy-nominated, Lebanese-born British recording artist whose latest album is My Name is Michael Holbrook. Seun Kuti, son of the late Nigerian legend, Fela Kuti, is playing with his father’s band, Egypt 80. Tollett booked him after flying to the New Afrika Shrine in Lagos, Africa, and talking Afrobeat music with him.


Rage Against the Machine headlined Coachella in 1999 and 2007. The band reunites for the 2020 festival.

United Kingdom artists Calvin Harris and Thom Yorke were to return in supporting roles after once headlining some of Coachella’s biggest crowds. Yorke fronted Radiohead in three headline sets and was to make his second solo appearance after earning three Grammy nominations this year, including best alternative music album for Anima.

Tollett has drifted in the same international current as his longtime friend and collaborator Pasquale Rotella, who has expanded his Electric Daisyland Carnival to Japan, Mexico, China, and South Korea. Tollett is providing insights into his international artists by telling their stories on the YouTube series “Coachella Curated.”

“It seems to be happening right now,” Tollett says. “People all around the world are watching it on live stream, so it would make sense that we would bring some artists from around the world.”

Tollett’s juxtaposition of related acts, revealing where music has come from and where it’s going, is key to why Leiweke calls him “something special.”

“You want somebody who goes to the show to see a lot more than just this year’s pop,” Tollett says. “It’s important, but if you can go and see some things you thought you’d never seen before, see some history, it’s incredible.”

A pivotal band in the festival’s history is the politically charged rap-rock group Rage Against the Machine, who were to return for their third headlining shows this month. Their 2007 set, featuring incendiary songs such as “Bulls On Parade,” “Bullet in the Head,” and “Killing in the Name,” transmitted so much energy in that early presidential campaign season that bonfires broke out on the grounds. But the crowd dispersed in orderly fashion when the music stopped.

“That was something special,” Tollett says. “I think their crowd is positive. Just because you have a hard sound, you can still be positive.”

The band’s 1999 show helped launch Coachella.


They came into the inaugural festival after being part of a day at Woodstock that tarnished the upstate New York event’s peace-and-love brand. Frontman Zach de la Rosa burned the American flag and Limp Bizkit leader Fred Durst threatened to take a chainsaw and “skin your ass raw.” Durst was blamed for inciting a gang rape and multiple acts of destruction. Festivals were suddenly seen as dangerous environments for youths.

“[Coachella] went on sale the Monday after Woodstock — one day after Woodstock — which was crazy,” Tollett recalls. “It was all pre-set. Bad timing.”

De la Rosa was in ill health at Coachella, but he and the band were so dynamic, the crowd went home buzzing about the whole festival. Los Angeles Times critic Robert Hilburn dubbed it “the anti-Woodstock ’99.”

“He went for it,” Tollett said about De la Rosa. “It’s easy to forget these are humans that have human things happen to them. There’s always that chance that, like an athlete, you’re not at your physical peak that day. But still, sometimes people go for it.”

Rage, Tollett says, is as important to America’s political process as it is to the festival.

“They’re such an important artist at this time in history,” he says. “They’re a voice that many look toward, so that’s super important to me. They really helped build the festival. They were there from day one.”

This month’s lineup was set to feature several 2020 Grammy nominees and winners, including Lil Nas X, Lana Del Ray, 21 Savage, DaBaby, FKA twigs, Steve Lacy, and Lewis Capaldi.

Goldenvoice has a permit from the city of Indio to produce five music festival weekends per year. The city is eager for Tollett to produce another fall event like Desert Trip, which became the highest-grossing festival of all time in 2016 with acts including the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, and Bob Dylan. Tollett’s polo club landlord, Alex Haagen III, would like him to produce another Desert Trip and “a Latino Coachella.” If Tollett declines the latter, Haagen says he’ll create one at his Empire Grand Oasis.

Tollett isn’t saying no to any new ideas. But he says he prefers to stay “in the moment” to be able to actualize the next waves of inspiration. “You have to decide,” he says. “Are you going to stick to your guns and do what you started out with and only do that, or are you going to keep your eyes open and be able to drift to things that interest you? We chose that [the latter].”

Meanwhile, Billboard regularly includes Tollett on its Power List of promoters while naming Coachella the Best Music Festival.

“I never thought it would get to this level,” he says. “I don’t think anyone could have thought something this far out of Los Angeles would have worked so well. But it never gets old when you see [a reference to] it in a new place — a film or a TV show or just a bumper sticker when I’m in another state. You’re in a national park and you see a Coachella sticker. Like, right on!”



Coachella International Acts

Hayden James (DJ)
The Chats (band)
King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard (band)
GG Magree (singer)
Flume (DJ)
Dom Dolla (DJ)
Sampa the Great  (singer-songwriter)

Kruder & Dorfmeister (DJs)

Anitta (pop singer)
Pabllo Vittar (singer-songwriter)

PUP (band)
Orville Peck (singer-songwriter)
Jessie Reyez (singer-songwriter)
Carly Rae Jepsen (singer)
BADBADNOTGOOD (instrumental group)
Jayda G (DJ)
Whipped Cream (DJ)
Testpilot (DJ)
Dan Snaith (DJ)
Daniel Ceaser (singer-songwriter)
Tiga (DJ)

Aya Nakamura (singer)
Tchami (DJ)
L’Impératrice (band)
SebastiAn (DJ)

Chris Liebing (DJ)
Dixon (DJ)
DJ Koze (DJ)
Ellen Allien (DJ)
Kim Petras (singer-songwriter)
Monolink (DJ)

Mura Masa (DJ)

NIKI (singer)
Rich Brian (rapper)

The Murder Capital (band)

Sahar Z (DJ)

Koffee (singer)

Hatsune Miku (vocaloid avatar)
Joji (singer-songwriter)
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu (singer)
Mana (guitarist)

Banda MS (band)
Ed Maverick (singer-songwriter)

The Hu (band)

Satori (DJ)

Seun Kuti (singer)

Cashmere Cat (DJ)
girl in red (singer-songwriter)

Leningrad (band)

South Africa
Black Coffee (DJ)
Kyle Watson (DJ)

South Korea
BIGBANG (boy band)
Epik High (hip-hop group)
Peggy Gou (DJ)

Cariño (band)
Paco Osuna (DJ)

Viagra Boys (band)

United Kingdom
Altın Gün (band)
Anna Calvi (singer-songwriter)
Beabadoobee (singer-songwriter)
Bishop Briggs (singer-songwriter)
black midi (band)
Calvin Harris (DJ)
Damian Lazarus (DJ)
Dave (rapper)
Lewis Capaldi (singer-songwriter)
Detlef (DJ)
Disclosure (electro duo)
Ezra Collective (jazz group)
Fatboy Slim (DJ)
Floating Points (DJ)
Friendly Fires (band)
Hot Chip (band)
IDLES (band)
Nilüfer Yanya (singer-songwriter)
Yungblud (singer-songwriter)
Mele (DJ)
Rex Orange County (singer)
Sleaford Mods (DJ)
Slowthai (rapper)
The Comet Is Coming (DJ)
Thom Yorke (singer-songwriter)
TNGHT (Scottish-Canadian DJs)
Charli XCX (singer-songwriter)
FKA Twigs (singer-songwriter)