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How reunions became the hallmark of Coachella

Melody Lau

Over the past 16 years, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival has become one of the world’s biggest music festivals. Its diverse (though still not diverse enough) lineup is a veritable smorgasbord of artists offered to fans of rock, electronic, hip hop, rap and folk music fans everywhere but its biggest draw isn’t their ability to curate artists of certain genres; it’s their famous finesse for reuniting old acts.

Coachella has been the marquee stage for reunions well before reunions became a trend or yearly listicle, but it took the southern Californian festival a few years to find its footing and winning formula for building great lineups. When Coachella launched in 1999, its lineup was admirable – heavily focused on rock and electronic acts like Rage Against the Machine, Tool, the Chemical Brothers and Underworld – but attendance fell far below expectations and the festival lost $800,000. They took the following year off and returned in a one-day format in 2001. While its second run was an improvement, numbers wise, they continued to lose money.

Coachella reintroduced its initial two-day format in 2002 with heavy-hitting acts such as Bjork, Oasis, the Strokes and Foo Fighters. Although they weren’t a headliner, Siouxsie & the Banshees became one of the event’s biggest stories, marking their first show together in six years. The British band would go on to do a brief tour that year, but Coachella was the first to secure their grand return. After all, its vast 78-acre desert premises had consistently been one of the biggest advantages the festival had. It was a big, dramatic stage that, at its busiest, has held over 75,000 attendees per day.

Coachella continued to reunite acts every year since, although not always giving them headliner status. Iggy and the Stooges returned in 2003, the Pixies played in 2004, Bauhaus got back together in 2005 and inaugural headliners Rage Against the Machine even came back in 2007, seven years after they broke up. Of the bands named, only Rage Against the Machine headlined, but reunions often got prime secondary spots on posters. After all, reunions are a fickle bet. Will enough of their fans care? More importantly, will they care enough to travel to Indio, California?

But continued reunions (Pulp, the Stone Roses, My Bloody Valentine, Outkast) paired with strong complimentary headlining acts (Paul McCartney, the Flaming Lips, Arcade Fire, Red Hot Chili Peppers) have helped draw hundreds of thousands of fans from around the world to Coachella, which is now one of the most profitable festivals in the U.S. (making the budget for artists, especially ones reuniting, much more substantial). The event’s poster reveal is an annual event in itself, there’s a “Coachella reunion speculation thread” on Reddit and there are even templates available online for you to create your own dream Coachella lineup. (This is our current favourite.) In addition to its ability to book some of the biggest acts, the festival has also drawn some big-named attendees. Over the past few years it has become the hot spot for celebrities like Jared Leto, Katy Perry and Kendall Jenner to parade around in flower crowns and fringe outfits.

This week, Coachella release its 2016 poster/lineup revealing two very different reunions: legendary rock group Guns N’ Roses and dance-rock band LCD Soundsystem. The two acts very much represent Coachella’s goals when trying to book a successful reunion act. The festival wants a reunion that will shock fans (Guns ‘N Roses), but they also want a band that will also uphold a certain cool factor (LCD Soundsystem). These two also reflect the festival’s original genre emphases on rock and electronic acts. It’s interesting to see if either will uphold their promises of drawing a large audience though as both face their own challenges.

Guns ‘N Roses will perform together, in some carnation that will include lead singer Axl Rose, guitarist Slash and bassist Duff McKagan, for the first time since 1993 which is definitely a long enough wait to rile up its fans. But with years of strained relationships between band members and some notoriety for wild (re: spotty) performances, this big reunion can go either way.

LCD Soundsystem on the other hand may be dealing with scorned fans who were led to believe their final show was at New York City’s Madison Square Garden in 2011. The band has only been gone for five years (lead singer James Murphy has stayed busy producing other bands’ music, DJ-ing and opening a wine bar) so the short hiatus period may affect the demand for a reunion performance. That being said, LCD Soundsystem have always put on fun and energetic shows and their spirited dance hits feed into one of the festival’s strongest draws: dance, electronic and EDM-oriented artists. (The third headliner this year is Scottish pop collaborator/DJ/producer Calvin Harris.)

While reunions are not the only reason Coachella has flourished over the years, it is evident that it's their most appealing advantage. The chance at seeing your favourite band come back and return on the big, and we mean big, stage and triumphantly perform in front of thousands of people is the stuff of bucket lists and fantasies for some music fans. And to those people, Coachella has become their musical fairy godmother making their wildest dreams come true.