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Cowchella vs. Coachella: Why Are the Mega-Fest’s Lawyers Going After a Tiny Minneapolis Nonprofit?

Cow Tipping Press, a local literary nonprofit that advocates for writers with intellectual/developmental disabilities, is being asked to change the name of its annual event.

2:02 PM CDT on August 22, 2023

Jessica Fredette|

A scene from Cowchella 2023. Notice the lack of Bad Bunny and Blink-182.

Reasonable people could never mistake Cowchella for Coachella.

The former is an annual free event staged by Minneapolis literary nonprofit Cow Tipping Press; it draws around 200 folks who want to support readings from diverse writers with intellectual and developmental disabilities, plus enjoy live music and food pop-ups outside of St. Paul's Springboard for the Arts. The latter is one of the world's largest and most expensive music festivals; it draws around 100,000 folks per day who want to hear Bad Bunny, Billie Eilish, and Beyoncé perform with dozens of other top music stars in the desert outside of Indio, California.

But lawyers representing AEG, the monopolistic concert giant that owns Coachella, don't think the two fests can coexist under similar names.

"AEG recently learned that Cow Tipping Press presents an annual event called
COWCHELLA," reads the cease and desist letter Cow Tipping Press received earlier this month. "While we applaud your mission of advancing artists with disabilities, this use of COWCHELLA creates a likelihood of confusion and mistake as to the affiliation, connection, or association of your event with Coachella and with AEG. Such use therefore constitutes trademark infringement and false designation of origin."

Does anyone at the L.A.-based law firm Tucker Ellis LLP or Coachella find this threat of legal action to be pretty silly? We asked that verbatim question via email, but didn't hear back.

Another scene from Cowchella. No Ariana Grande to be found.

Rachel Lieberman, the program director at Cow Tipping Press, is able to find some humor in the whole ordeal.

“Cowchella is a very small festival that makes no money for the organization, we run the whole thing on like a $500 budget,” she says with a laugh. “It was honestly just a dream I had toward the end of lockdown—I wanted people to gather and create a space for and celebrate artists with intellectual disabilities for all their creativity and multitudes.”

Lieberman cooked up the name Cowchella, and when she first noticed the cease and deist letter in her inbox, she assumed it was "a weird, fake spam email."

"Then I thought, 'Oh this is a bummer...' because Cowchella is really gaining momentum," she says. "It's not easy to make a space for young, BIPOC, queer arts communities and people with intellectual and development disabilities that a lot of people come out to. I really think it's a special event."

That momentum is real, with yearly attendance doubling since 2021, though Cowchella is likely not a financial threat to Coachella, which banks over $115 million in gross ticket sales each spring. This year, the St. Paul fest even scored a nice plug on MPR's "Art Hounds" roundup, with local writer Sasha Warren telling public radio listeners:

"You can occupy the same space as a group of people who are oftentimes excluded or marginalized from events like this, and just from public life in general, and it feels like it offers a vision of a world where instead of saying 'we should integrate people with disabilities into the arts world or into the literary world,' it offers a vision of an event where it’s already happened."

Cowchella 2023 concluded on August 3, and Lieberman says her org is exploring its legal options for what the event will be called next year. Even though Cow Tipping Press is locked in a showdown with fancy corporate lawyers, they're not ready to give up on the Cowchella branding quite yet.  

"It's a wild story. At first I thought: We've made it now!" she says, noting that her org has not responded to AEG's lawyers. "We'll figure it out, we might push back a little bit... We'll keep having the event whether it's allowed to be called Cowchella moving forward or not."

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