Founder Gary Tovar remembers the hazy early days of his influential concert promotions company
Southern California concert promotions company Goldenvoice was known as Goldenvoice from day one. It may not surprise you that the organization was named for a type of marijuana, but it may surprise you that the company once had actual ties to the drug.
"Goldenvoice ganja," founder Gary Tovar says now, with a smile in his voice. "When you smoked it, they said it was like when angels spoke to you. There was also Elephant ganja, which they say felt like an elephant stepped on you. I figured [Goldenvoice] was more musical. Otherwise we would be Elephant Productions."
Little known to some of the early bands, musicians and employees Goldenvoice dealt with on a daily basis, Tovar had a secret: He was a marijuana trafficker, beginning some 10 years before the conception of Goldenvoice. In fact, it was the money Tovar had collected throughout the years via pot — reaching into the double-digit millions — that enabled Goldenvoice to function.
"We were ahead!" he admits. "We had the resources ... enough to gamble. And be very daring and bring bands over who were ahead of their time. Some of the bands, they would come through and people would tell me six months later how I should get 'em. We were ahead of the fans in a lot of ways. And I paid for it dearly by losing money."
Despite what it looked like from the outside, Goldenvoice wasn't exactly a lucrative company. Tovar's own wallet took a beating. "I lost $3 million to $4 million over 11 years — that's 1980s dollars now," Tovar says. "I had a lot of money, but it was like $300,000 to $400,000 a year.
"I had two worlds," Tovar continues. "I had my Goldenvoice legit world, and then I had my marijuana smuggling world. But in the middle of the marijuana world, people were going down and I knew it was only a matter of time before something happened to me."
He ended up pleading guilty to four charges of participating in a ring that attempted to purchase marijuana in Arizona for distribution — and served seven years in Arizona and Nevada prisons starting in 1991 as a result. Social Distortion, Porno for Pyros, Thelonious Monster, the Meat Puppets, Tender Fury and fIREHOSE threw a benefit concert at the Palladium to raise money for Tovar's legal bills.
But before Tovar served his sentence, he signed over ownership of Goldenvoice to the two men responsible for how we know the company today: Paul Tollett and Rick Van Santen.
Tovar had met a then–19-year-old Tollett at a Bad Manners show at Long Beach's Fenders Ballroom. Tollett, now 46 and from Laguna Beach, has a palpable sense of admiration and respect in his voice when he speaks of Tovar. He's sitting at a picnic table just outside Newport Beach's Kéan Coffee. He wears a black Dodgers L.A. cap, black Asics and a Quiksilver flannel. By the time the afternoon's conversation arrives at the 2012 Coachella lineup (Lesson learned: Tollett is good at secrets), the hipster kid with the horn-rimmed glasses at the next table has nearly decapitated himself craning his neck, trying to listen in.
"I remember the first time I met Gary," Tollett says with a small smile, "I was walking past this alley and I look and just see these two good-looking dudes with great hair talking to each other."
Those two good-looking dudes? Tovar and Social Distortion's Mike Ness.
Tollett was a fledgling promoter, hustling for small ska shows around Pomona. He had heard of Goldenvoice and decided to chat with Tovar about his upcoming Pomona shows; Tovar offered him tips on where to properly publicize it in the city. Tollett began fliering for Tovar at shows and stores and dropping off tickets at record stores.
"When Gary first started doing ska, I go, 'OK, I gotta go talk to him.' I wanted to work for him. So we hit it off, I felt — you should verify this with Gary," he laughs. "But we had fun right out in the beginning."
Van Santen, just 20 when he began working for Tovar, was the manager of 45 Grave (guitarist Paul Cutler is still Goldenvoice's graphic designer) and began helping out with publicity, booking and advertising. Tovar says Van Santen was very bright: "When I left, I made sure I put the two of them together."
Tollett says he and Van Santen were inseparable from 1988 to the time of Van Santen's death of flu-related complications in 2003. "We couldn't have done it without each other," he says now.
Tollett is the current president of Goldenvoice, "but we don't use titles or have business cards." The lack of business formalities seems to be a habit left over from the foundations of Goldenvoice.
"[Tovar] didn't seem like a boss, he was a friend," Tollett says. "He never acted like he was my boss — we were just together. I didn't know it, but he was obviously the guy in charge. He didn't treat you like that. I hope that was passed on to me with my staff. I hope they don't think of me [as their boss]. I just want to be their friend. People doing shows together."
And Tollett isn't just the president of Goldenvoice — he's also the founder and producer of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, which first started in 1999 with a bill that featured Beck, Morrissey, Rage Against the Machine and Tool, among others.
"At Coachella, when you get out to the desert, there's no titles, there's just friends taking care of each other," he says. "There's a lot of stuff going on, but just like a punk show, there's no one person who's in charge of this and that. It's very communal."
Goldenvoice suffered a near–$1 million loss that first year, and Tollett says there was no single turning point for Coachella. "It was the equivalent of throwing a Hail Mary pass," he explains.
Tollett and Van Santen decided to sell Goldenvoice to Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) in 2001, with no regrets. (Fifty percent of Coachella itself, however, remains under Tollett's ownership.) "Owning it, not owning it," Tollett says, "thing is, I still get to do the shows and I'm happy."
Coachella has since grown into a Southern California behemoth, with legions of die-hard fans heading out to the desert each year, snapping up tickets before headliners and lineups are unveiled.
The annual Stagecoach Country Music Festival — now in its sixth year — is another testament to Goldenvoice's stellar reputation, drawing a different type of reveler since its debut in 2007.
In 2012, Coachella will expand into two consecutive weekends — and Tollett is working on plans to bring a Goldenvoice-produced festival to Irvine's Great Park.
When asked if he learned anything from Tovar, Tollett responds: "Everything."
He explains, "[Tovar] was always drive-drive-drive. I liked it. But the thing I liked the most — and I think this is probably what I picked up — I liked how he built shows. Stacked the bill, stacked the deck, understood the bands and how they fit in with other bands. Which ones would resonate with people when they saw it on a flier. If I had to point to anything to this day, one of the No. 1 things that relates to how Coachella works, it's understanding the music first."
This story was excerpted from Chang's O.C. Weekly cover story "His Golden Voice."
By Vickie Chang
Thursday, Dec 15 2011