Why the Rodeo Is Houston's Coachella

The past week or so, music news has been dominated by two big announcements: first the 2014 lineup of the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in the California desert about three months from now, and the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo's entertainers for its 83rd season this coming March.

On the surface the two events could not be more different. Coachella is shorthand for all that is hip and current, a magnet for the blue-state bicoastal media that fancies itself the arbiter of respectable musical taste. Much like Memorial Day weekend at the movies, it's also the opening salvo of music-festival season and the biggest island in the archipelago that also includes Bonnarroo, Sasquatch, Hangout, Outside Lands, Houston's Free Press Summer Fest, ACL Fest, and others.

The rodeo, meanwhile, is exactly that: not only the world's largest roping-and-riding competition, but also the biggest expression of traditional values and Go Texan pride to be found anywhere, period. Here signs of faith, family, patriotism, and respect for both education and the armed services are around every corner, on every video screen and in every exhibition hall. Although the beer and liquor flow liberally, for sure, it's a long way from the cornucopia of hedonism Coachella and most other big music festivals are usually made out to be.

Musically, alternative/indie rock, hip-hop and EDM continue to dominate Coachella, while the rodeo casts a wide net across country, pop, R&B and classic rock in its three-week run. The difference is that it takes one entertainer to pull the same-size daily crowd at the rodeo versus dozens at Coachella, whose 2014 headliners include OutKast, Muse, Arcade Fire, Queens of the Stone Age, Skrillex and the Replacements. The desert festival prefers the "something for everyone" approach, while Houston's mega-carnival aims more for "one size fits all."

But even after all that, the two are more alike than you might think. For starters, both are tremendously successful. Coachella has already sold out both weekends this year, April 11-13 and 18-20. The rodeo replaced its entire Top 5 single-night highest attendances in 2013, and looks poised to do it again with a concert lineup that includes Reba, Robin Thicke, Eli Young Band, Selena Gomez, Luke Bryan, Keith Urban, Zac Brown Band and a trifecta of alumni from NBC's The Voice — Usher, Blake Shelton and Adam Levine's Maroon 5. (The one festival whose roster arguably bridges the Coachella/rodeo divide, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, announced its own 2014 lineup somewhat quietly Tuesday.)

But on an even bigger level, both events dominate the cultural conversation of their respective domains for weeks. If you work anywhere near the music business, the sun rises and sets on Coachella from well before the lineup is announced until long after the last load of trash has been recycled. Many Coachella headliners pinball around the festival circuit the rest of the season; it will hardly be surprising to see more than a few land at both FPSF and ACL.

As the Houston area grows further and further away from its actual agrarian past, it has embraced the rodeo more and more enthusiastically, setting new overall attendance records every year since 2009. (Last year's was right at 2.5 million people.) Starting with the barbecue cookoff and Rodeo Parade, it's difficult to think about anything else around here the entire month of March — a rodeo fever driven by Go Texan sales at big retailers and dealerships, traffic snarls around the South Loop every night, the jam-packed MetroRail and local media that seems to think of little else. How could we?

The similarities don't end there; for another example, both events appreciate the value of giving something back. The rodeo will award more than $12 million in scholarships this year, plus millions more in graduate assistantships and educational grants. Coachella funnels a portion of its box-office take to a list of about ten charities, including the City of Indio, Coachella Valley Community Trust, Martha's Village, and the Silverlake Conservatory of Music.

Finally, the engine driving both is youth. It's a given that Coachella will be overrun with high-schoolers and twentysomethings. Most music festivals are almost by nature, but this might surprise you: according to the rodeo, whose exhaustive market research borders on the census-like, the percentage of attendees under 25 years of age varies year to year, but hovers right around 35 percent.

That means one in three people at Reliant Park between March 4 and 23 this year will have been born after March 1989. Hundreds of thousands of them, enough children of the smartphone age to drive the rodeo into Facebook's Top 10 most checked-in locations last year, not far away from Fenway Park and Universal Studios Hollywood.

But the greatest similarity of all is pretty simple: both organizations have placed fans front and center, and reaped the benefits handsomely. Although it feels like we should point out that we don't see Coachella anywhere on that Facebook check-in list.

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