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Marooned In L.A. For A Week, Coachella Bands Make Do

The massive Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival came to a close in California on Sunday after two weekends worth of sold-out shows by over 150 artists.

One of those acts was the Austin, Texas, band Explosions in the Sky, which first played Coachella back in 2007 and has seen its profile grow since then.

"We were going from playing in rooms that were 400, 500, maybe a thousand people," says Munaf Rayani, one of the band's guitarists. "After that Coachella, and after a couple of things around that, we came back to California and the Palladium in L.A., which [has a capacity of] 4,000, and filled it up."

The festival itself has seen its stature rise as well. When it first launched nearly 13 years ago, Coachella couldn't get an audience or a profit. But sales have become so reliable that this year, tens of thousands of tickets were sold before any bands — or holograms — were announced. Coachella also announced a second set of shows, with an identical lineup, the following weekend, April 20-23.

That was good news for fans, but the response in the music industry has been mixed. Especially for those who operate in geographic proximity to the festival.

That's because of something called a "radius clause" in the musicians' contracts with the festival's promoter, Goldenvoice.

"They basically want their event to be as exclusive as possible," says Tom Windish. A booking agent who had 20 bands playing Coachella this year, Windish knows the contract the festival has his bands sign. The radius clause essentially bans artists from playing any shows in most of Southern California — starting several months before the festival begins and lasting a full month after it's over — without the festival's consent.

With songs and albums available for free on the Internet, bands these days rely on proceeds from touring. So Windish had to find places for his bands to play. "The radius clause has existed forever," Windish says, "so we know what's outside of it: Las Vegas and San Francisco."

That's where he booked his bands, including Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Gotye, which both played San Francisco between the Coachella weekends.

"Basically, I found out what the dates of Coachella were going to be, immediately emailed about 50 venues and said, 'Let's start talking about some shows,' " Windish says.

No one with the festival would agree to an interview — with tickets selling out in a matter of hours, they didn't need the press, and radius clauses have caused problems for other festivals, including Chicago's Lollapalooza. In 2010, that festival's organizers were investigated by the office of Illinois' attorney general after local venue owners complained that the festival's exclusivity restrictions kept them from booking bands.

But an offer from Coachella is still attractive, even with the radius clause, and it hasn't stopped many of the bands from playing during the festival's gap week. Some bands, like Windish's, performed outside the limited zone. Some bands — including Pulp, Bon Iver, St. Vincent, Wild Flag and M83 — played the greater Los Angeles area in between the two weekends of the festival, but those were Coachella-sanctioned events, mostly at venues associated with Goldenvoice or its parent company, AEG, one of the world's largest concert and sports promoters.

The Georgia band Black Lips did not get to play one of those shows. Singer and guitarist Cole Alexander says he and his bandmates were happy to play Coachella, but not to sit around in L.A. for a week.

"Honestly, we would like to play, like, while we're in L.A. and DJ, but they told us not to," Alexander says. "So we're like, 'Whatever, we'll just record.' "

Thanks to the Coachella radius clause, they may have even found an unlikely collaborator: When NPR spoke with the band, Ke$ha was there, talking about a potential album. Black Lips' label insists the collaboration hasn't yet actually made it into the studio, but there are plans for the band to record with the L.A.-based singer and rapper. Maybe something did come out of all that sitting around.

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Amy Walters is a producer for NPR based at NPR West in Los Angeles.