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Coachella's experimental weekend is success

Deep in California's low desert, the sun would soon be up, not that anyone was keeping track anymore.

After two exhilarating days of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, most in the crowd of 85,000 had had enough. But for a small group of revelers, the party went on.

Fueled by a stew of youth, passion and substances unknown, they wore feathered headdresses and Zorro masks as a DJ spun bass spasms so powerful they could cure sciatica. The kids gyrated and leaped in unison -- all in silence.

Indio, the working-class cousin of nearby Palm Springs, has long welcomed the largesse of Coachella. It also bans amplified sound in the wee hours. So this year, organizers held a late-night silent dance party. They turned off the speakers, passed out headphones and created a vibrating dance floor on a repurposed roller rink so revelers heard the music and felt the beat, and danced the night away without a sound.

It was one of scores of painstaking calculations Coachella has undertaken to keep the event personal and tribal, and avoid losing its cool as it becomes, by many measures, the most successful music festival in the world.

This year Coachella launched a bold experiment. Faced with mounting concerns that an event long known for taste and taste-making was becoming overrun with crowds, scenesters, scalpers and gate-crashers, organizers settled on an unusual relief valve -- Goldenvoice, its promoter, doubled the size of the festival.

Rather than one three-day event, it's now two consecutive weekends of music, with an identical lineup of 143 acts. Any contention that Goldenvoice took a foolhardy gamble didn't last long; $285 passes for this year's festival -- the 13th -- sold out in three hours and organizers said they could have easily sold out a third weekend.

Goldenvoice remains keenly aware, however, that sheer scope will never be enough -- that "something for everyone" can be a self-defeating marketing ploy, a fast lane to a loss of identity.

To remain relevant, promoters envisioned the desires of individual fans -- be they thirtysomethings drawn to megabands like the Black Keys or younger indie rock fans drawn to more underground discoveries.

"We talk about: What would that person think right here? What would they feel? We strive to make it more personal," said Paul Tollett, Coachella co-founder and Goldenvoice president.

"Not everyone is going to the same festival."

It sounds too easy to say that Coachella began at the grass roots. But in this case, it's quite literally true; the first substantive Los Angeles Times report on the festival, in 1999, noted the piles of horse manure -- left over from a recent polo match -- simmering in the Colorado Desert sun on the grounds where the festival is held.

The idea was to import a European model of a remote, multiday, non-touring music festival offering a dizzying diversity of sound. It lost money its first two years, then began a meteoric ascent.

In the end, of course, Coachella is about the artists.

Fans could choose, and were forced to choose, this year from a staggering array of acts -- so much so that they routinely sprint across the grounds to catch the next act. On the main stage they could hear Radiohead, a headliner that has sold 30 million albums -- or traipse to a side stage to see Childish Gambino, the rapper moniker of the actor-writer Donald Glover, whose first album came out a few months ago.

Los Angeles Times writers Jessica Gelt and Gerrick D. Kennedy contributed to this report.