Just as one right-leaning businessman takes command politically, another has become the focus of debate in rock and roll. Earlier in January, the music press suddenly seemed to realize that the parent company of Coachella, the iconic two-weekend Southern California festival, is owned by Philip Anschutz, a prominent Republican donor who has supported efforts hostile to LGBT rights. The fallout: calls for boycotts, accusations of “fake news,” and a petition asking headliners Beyonce, Radiohead, and Kendrick Lamar to donate their festival profits to the Human Rights Campaign.
The situation that led to the brouhaha isn’t new. In fact, it’s one that is very familiar in American entertainment. A large corporation long ago acquired a cultural organization valued for its coolness, and left-leaning consumers and creators continued to patronize it in spite of the fact that large corporation owners don’t tend to lean left. Only by a quirk of the moment—some combination of the online media economy, shifting generational mores, the election, and this year’s particular headliners—have the politics behind Coachella become a factor.
The festival’s operator Goldenvoice first made a name as an independent champion of underground sounds in Southern California in the ’80s and ’90s, but in 2001 Anschutz Entertainment Group bought it. “The deal … should give Anschutz’s concert division, Concerts West, added credibility in rock music circles,” the Los Angeles Times wrote back then. Coachella’s present national profile largely came about after the acquisition—as did its multi-weekend format, sister classic-rock and country-music festivals, and $375 general-admission price tag (up from $50 in 1999).