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Lessons in Crisis Response from Coachella

By / Jan 15, 2019 (epicurean/iStock Unreleased/Getty Images Plus)

Over its two-decade history, the organizers of the popular music festival Coachella have dealt with numerous crisis situations, whether related to last-minute changes, safety issues, or even financial problems. Here’s how the organization has tackled them.

Coachella has come to define the way that people consume music. The massive music festivals bring in big acts—and big bucks.

There’s plenty to learn from Coachella’s successes, but there might be even more to learn from its struggles—places where the festival has moved nimbly to respond to crises.

In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, Coachella cofounder Paul Tollett—who rarely gives interviews—discussed the controversies and crisis situations his company, Goldenvoice, has managed over the years.

“It was a little hard this year but, man, it worked out,” Tollett said.

Among them:

Losing your headliner a day before the big announcement. Coachella originally planned to have two major acts with decades-long track records—Kanye West and Justin Timberlake—at the top of its famous poster this year. But Timberlake dropped out due to vocal cord issues, and West’s demands for an ambitious stage treatment led to him being removed from the setlist at the last moment. Tollett emphasized that Goldenvoice was careful to take the change in stride, though there were “gasps” among staff members. He emphasized that he would be happy to work with West in future years. “I’d like to circle back with him and figure out a future plan of what to do with what’s in his head,” he told the Times. “He’s very capable of coming up with ideas that work that are pretty great.”

Keeping attendees safe. Last year, a Teen Vogue story drew much attention over concerns of widespread sexual harassment at the event—a significant problem for Coachella, which originally saw success as a “safe” alternative to the controversy-laden Woodstock ’99. As a part of its recent announcements, the organization launched a new campaign, Every One, to help boost safety and access to attendees. “We are pushing ourselves and our guests to do better and to be better,” the festival stated on its website. The festival has also added drones to its security infrastructure in response to the 2017 mass shooting at a Las Vegas country music festival.

Responding to diversity criticisms. In the past, the event faced concerns because of a lack of female headliners—something Tollett says the organization has worked to solve in recent years, including with Beyoncé in 2018 and Ariana Grande this year. “You shouldn’t be afraid to fix things,” he told the Times. “What’s bad is when you get defensive.”

Keeping the ship afloat. Going further back, Coachella hasn’t always been able to make the revenue numbers work—leading to a situation in 2008 where Prince headlined the event in a critically acclaimed—but money-losing—performance. (See Prince’s performance of Radiohead’s “Creep,” above.) Despite this, Tollett was able to maintain the trust of his boss, billionaire investor Philip Anschutz, by owning up to the mistakes that were made that year. “I’ve had some great years, now a bad one,” Tollett explained. “He asks, “Do you know what you did wrong?” I explained a couple of things. He says, ‘OK, let’s drive on.’”

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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