One would be hard pressed to name an individual who has had more impact on the festival industry than Paul Tollett.
As a promoter, Goldenvoice dates back to 1981 and though prominent in SoCal, Tollett was a relatively minor player in the national concert scene until he and his team launched the Coachella Music & Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Grounds in Indio, Calif., in 1999. A lot has happened since then, and Tollett remains the same low-key, soft-spoken music nerd he was then. Never, ever mistake his quietness for weakness – or nerve.
And, many would say, he has a certain amount of genius, not only for the vision behind Coachella, but also in navigating the rough waters of financial viability as Coachella struggled out of the gate and as a top-shelf talent buyer. Tollett has been massively successful as the maestro assembling an exciting alchemy of live performances that, in its best years, has been transcendent. He performed a similar feat in a different (and some would say, more challenging) milieu for country music with Stagecoach; Tollett has since handed over Stagecoach duties to protégé Stacy Vee, whose striking career development serves notice that Tollett has an eye for executive talent, as well.
Now at two weekends and selling out before the lineup is announced, Coachella is the highest-profile, highest- grossing festival in the world and, with New Orleans Jazz Fest, the flagship of AEG’s festival portfolio. Tollett still books Coachella, plays a role in programming other events and serves as the Southern California promoter for AEG Presents. As the first major festival of the year each April, Coachella heralds the beginning of festival season, serving not only as a barometer for festival ticket sales and a platform for acts to rise to the occasion, but also provides an indicator of trends in fan tastes and what’s hot overall.
Tollett famously turns over every rock in his quest for the perfect lineup, and remains a powerful influencer for talent buyers across the globe, whether he acknowledges that or not. When lineups are announced, everybody’s a critic – then, in many cases, they follow suit. Agents want their acts to play Goldenvoice-produced events, fans want to attend them and other talent buyers and promoters pay attention.
Pollstar: 2019 was Coachella’s 20th year, did the magnitude of that sink in at any point?
Paul Tollett: Not necessarily the 20 [years], but just that we’ve been at it a while. It feels good. We’ve had a fun run and we’ve taken it farther than we ever dreamt.
With Stagecoach, in 2007 people were surprised that a rock promoter in California was staging a country festival. Now it’s regarded as the most important country music festival play west of the Mississippi.
I’m very happy with how that’s come about and that Stacy [Vee] runs it. I consider it Stace-Coach, she’s just incredible, the energy she has and how she understands every facet of the show. It’s in her hands.
Do you still come to Nashville to meet agents and managers?
I come to Nashville for Coachella [artists], too. Nashville has become a hub for all music. Stacy has it handled so I don’t put too much brain power into that.
I would assume the reception in Nashville now is a little different.
Nashville was very welcoming from the beginning that we were trying to put on an event that was so big. They’ve followed through with that support the whole way.
How has the booking process for both events evolved?
Nowadays you don’t have to explain what the event is, it’s pretty self-evident. But there are artists who have never heard of Coachella. We had two this year: Los Tucanes de Tijuana thought they already played it because they had played in the town of Coachella. That was funny. And Calypso Rose from Trinidad had never heard of it. So there’s still places around the world to get the word out.
What’s the scope of what you do now?
I still book Coachella and love doing it. A big part of it is just making sure the team, the staff, we have a plan. That’s a big focus of what Stacy and I do: make sure everyone around us has the tools to do their job correctly.
What else is under the Goldenvoice banner?
Southern California concerts are under us, certain festivals and tours are under us. Susan [Rosenbluth] just did the Blackpink tour and that was really successful. I went to their show in Texas, that was fun. Who would have thought Texas would do 12,000 people for a K-pop band?
That makes a statement about both Texas and K-pop. Perception is not always reality.
It really does. I first heard about K-pop 10 years ago from my niece living in Oklahoma. She was in high school and started learning about K-pop. I was like, “what?”
Welcome to the internet.
So many festivals launched since Coachella began. Have we reached a saturation point?
Anything that’s good can last. Is there a time that there’s too many amphitheaters, or too many arenas, too many concert halls? Yes, but if a good one comes around, it gets traction.
The trend toward boutique and artist-curated festivals, how much is Goldenvoice involved in those?
I love those. Goldenvoice has been doing some of those, down at the Queen Mary in Long Beach [Calif.].
Those have been very successful. It takes someone who really understands that scene each time. [Talent buyer] Jeff [Shuman] is uniquely qualified, just the way his brain works. That’s why he’s been delivering like that.
Desert Trip in 2016 was arguably the greatest weekend of music in history, certainly for a certain age group.
It was a highlight for me, too. I watched all six artists with my daughter next to me, and it might have been the greatest weekend of my life because of that.
It may be something that could never be duplicated. I know people were asking you almost as soon as it was done if you could ever do it again.
[Laughs] Sure, me too, I was curious if I could do it again. I would love to someday, if it was right. You can’t force anything.
What’s left for you to do that you haven’t done?
Every day is something fun. Tomorrow [May 14] we’re announcing The Cure in Pasadena, where we do Arroyo Seco.
Like what you were just talking about, [The Cure’s] Robert Smith curated it, The Cure curated the show, and it has been really fun to watch.
Are you working on anything you can give a hint about?
I always have a handful of ideas floating around in the head.
I bet your head is a pretty interesting place to take a tour of.
Yeah, there’s cobwebs in there, too.
It sounds like you’re having fun in general.
I am, it’s a fun time right now. There are so many opportunities out there, so many great artists from around the world. We’re noticing that, more than ever, you can sing in your own language and make it in America. That’s interesting to me.