Gary Tovar is known as a music promoter and marijuana smuggler in the US. He named his music concert business Goldenvoice Productions, after a strain of marijuana that users said gave them a feeling of being spoken to by angels. Tovar is no longer involved with smuggling but acts as a consultant to Goldenvoice, which now operates the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival that has been compared to the Glastonbury Festival and is the most profitable music festival in the US.
Early life and drug trafficking
Tovar was born in Los Angeles and began smuggling illicit goods as a 14-year-old when he brought fireworks into the US from Tijuana in Mexico. Influenced by someone referred to as LaRue, who was connected to Timothy Leary's The Brotherhood of Eternal Love, Tovar's involvement with marijuana began in the late 1960s, with his sources for the seeds that he distributed including US servicemen on furlough from the Vietnam War. His organization was such that he was able to guarantee a market and a distribution network for the growers to whom he sold the seeds. The strains that he imported included Thai stick and Acapulco Gold. He earned many millions of dollars before being arrested by federal drug agents on March 9, 1991. He fought conspiracy charges from Los Angeles County Jail before being imprisoned in October 1992 for seven years on four counts relating to trafficking from Arizona.
Tovar's interest in music promotion developed in 1981, when his younger sister told him that the police were stifling the development of punk rock music in southern California. This was three years after he and his sister had attended the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco to see the last concert performed by the Sex Pistols. The punk rock genre was not popular with promoters or authorities, mainly because of its association with violence, but Tovar believes that "We had every right to perform and every right to this culture" and he was not perturbed when put under pressure by the police. He considered punk to be the successor to the ageing hippie ethos and he caught an anti-establishment adolescent wave, saying that "The hippies were getting old and turning into yuppies. They behaved toward their children as their parents had to them." The business was at first called Golden Voice, with the words later being concatenated.
By now splitting his time between homes in Santa Barbara and Huntington Beach, Tovar promoted his first show in Santa Barbara on December 4, 1981. That featured the US bands T.S.O.L., Shattered Faith and Rhino 39. Basing his Goldenvoice business in Huntington Beach, he gained a reputation for being an atypical promoter: he did not rip off the performers, paying them reasonable rates for their work and thus soon became influential in the business in California. He also had influence beyond the state through his booking agency, which assisted bands such as The Vandals and Social Distortion in their national breakthroughs.
In 1982, Tovar visited Britain on a scouting mission and eventually, using money obtained through his smuggling operations, he financed shows in Los Angeles by British punk bands such as the Anti-Nowhere League, The Damned, GBH, Public Image Ltd and Siouxsie and the Banshees. A highlight was a series of monthly concerts involving international punk bands held at the Grand Olympic Auditorium in the years around the time of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. His shows there, which featured groups including the Dead Kennedys and Bad Religion, were priced cheaply and attracted over 4000 fans, twice as many as were attending similar events in New York City. His promotions were ultimately loss-making — he estimates his losses at between three and four million dollars over a ten-year period — but they did provide a means for him to launder money from the illegal drug business. He has said that
We were ahead! We had the resources ... enough to gamble. And be very daring and bring over bands 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.
The Olympic Auditorium shows ended in 1985 as interest waned but Goldenvoice moved successfully into other venues such as the John Anson Ford Theater, where tickets for concert by The Ramones were sold for US$5. The business promoted some of the first concerts by bands such as Nirvana and Red Hot Chili Peppers, expanding beyond punk to be in the vanguard of the speed metal, Goth and alternative music movements. In 1986, he had met and employed Paul Tollett, an upcoming ska promoter; a year earlier, he had employed Rick Van Santen, who managed 45 Grave. Tovar pulled out of the music venture in 1991 and has cited the losses and the increased levels of violence as his rationale. There had been, for example, three major riots at promotions in 1983. Now facing the trafficking charges, Tovar signed the business over to Tollett and Van Santen free of charge. Goldenvoice launched the Coachella festival in 1999. Tollett and Tovar remain friends, and Tovar attends Coachella every year as well as acting as a consultant to the company; Van Santen died in 2003.
Tovar now has a medical marijuana card. He is sometimes called an Anglophile and is no longer involved in illegal activities, describing his current interests as "English fun". He believes that the present-day movement towards legalization of marijuana in the US and the fact that music from punks such as The Ramones is played in such commonplace settings as elevators vindicates his past maverick activities. He organised a multi-night festival called GV30 at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in December 2011 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Goldenvoice. This event caused Black Flag to begin performing again.
- Appleford, Steve (April 1, 2012), "Nonstop Gigs: Moshing with the guys behind Goldenvoice, the concert promoter that gave life to the Coachella festival", Los Angeles Magazine, retrieved April 14, 2014
- Chang, Vickie (December 15, 2011), "Gary Tovar Has His Goldenvoice", OC Weekly, Orange County, CA, retrieved April 14, 2014
- Helmore, Edward (April 11, 2014), "Coachella's Goldenvoice founder Gary Tovar on how the counterculture won", The Guardian, London, retrieved April 14, 2014
- "Rick Van Santen, 41: Concert promoter helped edgy rock find place in L.A.", Chicago Tribune, January 5, 2004, retrieved April 14, 2014
- Prato, Greg (February 7, 2013), "Flag Reunites Black Flag Veterans", Rolling Stone, retrieved April 14, 2014
- Rashidi, Waleed (April 12, 2012), "The Men Behind The Fest", Inland Empire Weekly, retrieved April 14, 2014
- Sandler, Adam (October 6, 1992), "GoldenVoice founder gets seven years", Variety, retrieved April 14, 2014
- Weiss, Jonathan (November 10, 2011), "Punk far from sunk, resurfacing in L.A.", Culver City News, retrieved April 14, 2014
- Let Them Know: The Story Of Youth Brigade And BYO Records (2009) - a film by Jeff Alulis, featuring interviews with Tovar and other significant people involved in the Southern California punk music scene.