Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival

A music festival is a bit like an iTunes playlist. You’re not going to listen to everything, but it’s great knowing it’s all there. And in a sense, a music festival is a lot like iTunes itself: a key tentpole propping up the industry. Even as the business of recording undergoes perpetual contraction, there are perhaps more festivals available to the American music listener than ever. Every state in the union hosts an annual festival, from North Dakota’s International Old-Time Fiddlers’ Contest to Wisconsin’s Summerfest, an 11-day behemoth certified by Guinness as the largest musical festival in the world. My hometown got into the game in 2002; the Austin City Limits Music Festival is now one of the largest for-profit festivals in the country, along with Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, and Coachella.

Of that group, Coachella is arguably the highest-profile. From their inception, they’ve booked an impressive range of acts: titans and up-and-comers from modern rock, hip-hop, alt rock, and electronic music. Last week, the impressive lineup for Coachella 2013 was announced, featuring superstars including Blur, the Postal Service, Phoenix, and Vampire Weekend being supported by the likes of DIIV, Father John Misty, Jessie Ware, and Youth Lagoon — and dozens upon dozen of others, spanning demographics and genres. Coachella’s festival peers have adapted their approach (Bonnaroo, for instance, began with a plummy mix of folk-rock, jazz, and backpack hip-hop; their 2012 lineup found room for Skrillex, EMA, Ludacris, and Alice Cooper); their successors have copied it. Coachella’s promoters (Goldenvoice, a subsidiary of Anschutz Entertainment Live) have also demonstrated a deftness in inducing reunions. They’ve gotten acts like Rage Against The Machine, the Stooges, Bauhaus and Love and Rockets, Pixies, Jesus And Mary Chain, and At The Drive-In to set differences aside, if only for an hour. And of course, Coachella 2012 provided the year’s signature festival moment: Hologram 2Pac.

For all this, they have been handsomely rewarded. Last year, Coachella added a second weekend with roughly the same lineup; Billboard Boxscore pegged last year’s gross at $47 million, with an additional $13 million coming from Stagecoach, Goldenvoice’s post-Coachella country-music festival. A recession, an out-of-the-way location, music piracy, competing festivals, $8 beers: Nothing has slowed the Coachella juggernaut. Really, one could say that about the American festival industry in general. People who can’t be convinced to drop $9.99 on an album will happily part with a few hundred to watch the Roots while sitting on a beach towel. A time traveler from 1969 might see the vast, rapt crowds watching Cults or M83 and assume this is our pop royalty. He might be shocked to learn that a big get for a modern festival can regularly top out in the five-figure sales range.

Critics kvetch about too much music competing for their attention, but rarely do they say the market is saturated. However, it’s worth investigating whether the American festival circuit is hitting its peak-oil phase. It’s already happening in Britain. In 2008, live music overtook recorded music as the top revenue generator. The global recession followed, but seemingly anyone with a field and a dream was undeterred. Last year, the axe finally dropped: 12 festivals were scotched before 2012 was half-over, including stalwarts like dance-heavy the Big Chill and the hard-rock extravaganza Sonisphere. The Big Chill’s organizers cited difficulties booking artists around the Olympics, while Sonisphere — a European traveling festival — still made its dates on the continent. But the main factors were more intuitive: priced-out fans and a saturated market.

Over in the States, where we have five times the population and 40 times the area, promoters should breathe easy for a while longer. Indeed, the industry registered a number of impressive accomplishments in 2012: Summerfest pulled in 800,000 over 11 days despite a brutal heat wave. The CMA Festival attracted a record 71,000 attendees. The dancetastic Electric Daisy Carnival added New Jersey’s Metlife Stadium as a venue; 45,000 EDM fans showed up for each of three days. Taking Coachella’s lead, ACL Fest announced last October that next year’s event would expand to two weekends.

It’s not all smiles and glowsticks, though. The inaugural Catalpa Festival in New York hoped to change the city’s rep for not sustaining big-time outdoor shows, but was plagued by lousy weather and disappointing sales. Philadelphia’s Made In America Festival, curated by Jay-Z and partially funded by the city, had the same issues, despite an appearance by Kanye West and a closing performance from Pearl Jam. And after 10 years, New Jersey’s rock-heavy Bamboozle Festival took 2013 off.

People will always make music, and they will always perform music. But will they always do it in strict 50-minute sessions with thousands of people glancing over from the beer lines? The modern festival, with its multiple stages and tents, allows you to pick and choose your entertainment, creating a sort of ambulatory mix CD. You kind of have to, if you want to recoup your investment. A general-admission ticket to Coachella will set you back $349. That’s not including travel, lodging (Coachella’s happy to provide you tent or car-camping space for a fee, or you can book a hotel, RV park or stranger’s couch), food, beer, and … I dunno, let’s say drugs. Even some of the bands who perform are going to take a bath, but who’s going to turn down a chance to play for more people at one time than you could with a year in hometown venues?

It’s a hell of a thing, of course, to play a festival, especially if you’ve only been a functional musical concern for a short time. All slots save the earliest attract the kinds of crowds that would make political organizers jealous. Whenever an on-stage camera operator films from behind the act, it’s an astounding view: a sea of engaged faces stretching to the horizon. Behind them, of course, is a sea of migratory attendees, thousands of people on the sojourn from lawn chair to burrito stand. But I’ve never witnessed a performer comment on it, and these people are vain. The sheer scale of a festival does much to cover the sins of lax presentation and shallow discographies. One of the more common rejoinders to the woes of the recording industry is “play more live shows,” which doesn’t work for a lot of acts for a lot of reasons. But a one-shot gig that could put a decent check in your pocket while making you feel like Jay-Z? That’s something else entirely.

Of course, Jay-Z knows how to rock thousands: He’s got the back catalog, the budget and the charisma for it. He’s made performing the same song eight times in a row an event. For aspirants to the throne, it’s usually enough just to show up. The festival stage makes acts look larger than life, which is another way of saying it keeps them at a remove. I apologize for getting all listicle on you, but how many noteworthy festival moments can you think of offhand? For every awesome incident — like L7′s Donita Sparks tossing a tampon into a Reading Festival crowd, or Woodstock ’94 security relieving Green Day’s Mike Dirnt of superfluous teeth — there are a hundred thousand beach balls being casually batted about while your dad texts you to ask if the Lumineers are any good. At ACL last year, I watched Iggy Pop try to mix things up by howling for people to join the Stooges onstage. I’d seen this happen with N.E.R.D. in 2008. And M.I.A. in 2010. And if you weren’t there, both moments were looped with footage of other acts from years past on the stage’s video screens. After a couple of songs, the fans were ushered back to ground level.

Some people, though, didn’t have to leave, and they represent an increasingly important revenue source for festivals. Coachella VIP passes will set you back $799, a significant hike from last year. What do you get? Shaded sitting areas, access to a full bar, private bathrooms and “a spectacular view.” ACL Fest has two price points above general; the Platinum level gets you on-stage seating, air-conditioned restroom (with flushing!), a catered private lounge, concierge services, and a hospitality suite in downtown Austin, for starters. Even if you prefer the air conditioned-flushing of home, you’re covered: live-streaming is gaining in popularity. As Chris Roach, head of business development for Goldenvoice parent company AEG Digital Media noted to Pollstar, “We’ve seen the average view time is over an hour in one sitting… [t]hat’s a pretty engaged eyeball for an advertiser to put their dollar against.”

Right about here it’d be easy to crack about the true meaning of rock ’n’ roll or whatnot. But the festival scene is its own beast. Promoters may think of their events as the spiritual descendents of Woodstock. It’s debatable whether the Aquarian Exposition was truly an historical inflection point of expanded consciousness, but it’s clear that the modern festival has perfected its formula, establishing a baseline level of competent organization while limiting spontaneity to the the occasional special appearance. A festival like Coachella is — like similar destination events such as Bonnaroo and even Burning Man — its own justification now. You go to say you’ve been. Speculating on the next year’s Coachella lineup is a cottage industry at this point, but no matter who makes the cut, the general contours will remain: a healthy mix of indie rock, art-pop, EDM, and hip-hop. Not buying a pass to a Björk-less Coachella would be like avoiding a buffet because it lacks chiles rellenos.

Still, an all-buffet diet is no way to live. Coachella and its like offer a particular experience: a weekend with friends beset on all sides by music, a chance to gorge on buzz and revel in nostalgia. Comparing it to the a la carte option of individual shows isn’t remotely fair. A club gig puts you closer to the mechanisms. Band members are much more likely to run the merch table or watch the other acts from the floor. Interactions between audience and performers is closer to a conversation than a commencement address. Brand presence is mostly limited to the gear. There’s less pressure to focus on the hits. And underrepresented styles can thrive. (It’s also in the price range of way more people.) The nature of the festival is more: more choice, more spectacle, more people. Playing and attending Coachella are mutually-reinforcing validations. The scale confers importance; the crowds confer worthiness. Eighty thousand people can’t be wrong.

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Comments (41)
  1. Great deconstruction of what makes the Coachella experience worth the investment. I’ve actually had a change of heart about this year’s lineup / potential attendance over the weekend after doing a bit of deconstructing of of my own. The conclusion I came up with is that this lineup would have thrilled me back in 2006, before Coachella was overrun with E! News highlights and Los Angeles high schoolers there for the sake of being there, and it’d be foolish to pass up what I’m expecting to be a more chill vibe Coachella rather than a glowstick bro culture one. It’s got an “old” feel to it tailored for its veteran Coachellagoers / “Real” music fans as opposed to the past years which spoon fed trendy headliners.

    • The “old” feel is just you getting older. Priorities are shifting…

      • You’re so right. Tickets went on sale this afternoon and I went back and forth with pulling the trigger on purchasing them as they were in my virtual cart, the internal debate being — as J. Sperling Reich outlines below — whether or not $400 for tickets + ~$500 plane ticket + hotel / food / dehydration and feeling like my body is eating itself for a lineup I like, but don’t love and for bands I’d otherwise not chance seeing on their own is a worthwhile investment. As it stands right now, I just can’t justify it this year. My mid-20s self wouldn’t question it, but my 30 year old self sees the money spent better on efforting more shows or different destinations throughout the year.

        • Are tickets still on sale? 2012 was sold out by this time last year.

          • Weekend One sold out within a half hour, but tickets for that were already depleted during the pre-sale anyway. Weekend Two is still available. I’m having another change of heart! I can’t make up my mind. I mean, Blur is the last reunion act on my bucket list I need to see, so maybe just suck it up and do one last hurrah. The saga continues…

  2. It should also be noted that while Bamboozle took 2013 off, the festival that it replaced known as the Skate and Surf Fest has returned in its absence, and their audience is pretty much the same.

  3. Great read Brad, and I hate to use your comment section as a sounding board but:

    HOW COME NOBODY IS TALKING ABOUT THE FACT THAT DAFT PUNK HAS A NEW ALBUM COMING OUT THIS SPRING?!

    http://www.nme.com/news/daft-punk/68380

  4. you summed up festivals pretty well; quantity vs. quality. Also, something thats always bothered me about festivals besides the obvious is the live sound. Outdoor festival sound systems make bands sound terrible unless your lucky enough to be right in front. Seeing Grizzly Bear at Lollapalooza 2010 was kind of a drag, not because they played poorly but because it sounded bad 30 rows back. Their sound needs to be able to reverberate naturally in a room. I saw this past year in a small-ish room and it blew my mind. In fact, out of the best shows i’ve seen in my life, none of them were at an outdoor festival.

    • Totally agree. Festivals can’t replace seeing a band you love in a small, intimate club (then again, nothing can). And I am less likely to get sunburned in a club, so that’s a plus.

      That said, at Sasquatch last year the Walkmen played a gorgeous set as the sun was setting and then Spiritualized took the stage and the combination of the two literally blew my mind (with the help of some choice substances). Then I had the hardest time ever trying to eat a burrito during Beck and basically dropped it all over someone. And then a friend hooked up with a girl in the woods. Hard to do all that in a club.

      • I’ve seen the Walkmen at both a club and at a festival and thought they were actually better at the festival. Oddly enough on both occasions the lead singer seemed kinda ticked at the audience. At the festival people were bouncing beach balls and when one ended up on stage during “The Rat” he bit a hole in it and chucked back into the audience. Then at the club gig he complained about how much weed people were smoking. That’s what he gets for letting Father John Misty (who may have actually given a better performance that night) open for them, though.

      • the woods? where is there a wooded area at the gorge?

    • I think it depends on the band. Arcade Fire’s closing set at Lolla 2010 (That was 2010, right? I’m too lazy to google it right now.) was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, which makes sense because their sound is perfect for a festival. “Wake Up” never sounded better than with 50,000 people screaming the OOOHHHHH OOOHHHH… chorus. However, Yeasayer, on the same stage earlier the same day, sounded downright awful. A couple months later I saw them at a club and they were great.

      Similarly, I was always sort of “meh” about both Grimes and the XX until I saw them live at last year’s Treasure Island festival in San Francisco. Smaller scale festivals like that one or Pitchfork fest in Chicago are my favorite. They stay small enough so you’re never quite out of range of the good sound and artists like those two who rely heavily on bass can really benefit from the massive PAs at a festival.

      I’ve never seen Grizzly Bear at a festival but I can’t imagine it being as good as when I saw them at a small(ish) theater. Their music requires a great deal of intimacy and it takes a really special performer to generate that in a festival atmosphere. People don’t go to festivals for introspective bedroom rock and when the people around you aren’t in to the music it throws the vibe off and makes everything feel kinda awkward and not fun. The artists pick up on that too and I think their performance tends to suffer. I remember this being a problem with Joanna Newsom’s set at Treasure Island. She’s one of my favorite artists but I felt like I was the only person there who was paying attention which was just annoying.

      • i saw grizzly bear at a festival right around when veckatimest came out, playing to a small-ish crowd at about 2:00 in the afternoon. not ideal. hate to say it, but the whole thing was pretty forgettable, despite the band playing just fine and me being a fan.

        also, i was at treasure island last year and totally concur on joanna newsom. lots of talking during that set. i understand that it’s shitty (i had the same experience with sun kil moon a few years back, who are one of my favorites), but by the same token i get that most people go to festivals *both* to see music and party all day. i’m guilty of it, for sure. introspective bedroom rock time is usually go buy a bowl of teriyaki noodles time for me.

  5. Festivals here in Australia hit some kind of critical mass in the late 00′s where they suddenly became insanely popular, selling out in seconds. One or two years later the same thing started happening to Coachella and Lollapalooza and it seemed to take everyone in the US by surprise too.

    I still head along because down here it’s usually the only way to see most of the bands on the lineup until next time they tour, 2 or three years later.

    I’ve also been to Lolla in the US which felt like an Australian festival only bigger and with more drugs, and Roskilde in Denmark which was a different beast entirely. They book that one full of headliners and buzz bands too, but also a heap of arty, off-trend genres and and out there music. It’s the only time I’ve found a major festival to be really exciting, and all the others seem like they are going through the motions by comparison.

    A major festival could be amazing if it’s well curated and unique. Instead, everyone books variations on the same lineup and presents an interchangable show as a result. I saw an interview with the lady in charge of one of Australia’s most popular: Splendour In The Grass. She said she’d love to go back to the fetival’s more quiet, hippy-ish roots and stop booking the current batch of international festival acts. But she won’t, because it’s worth fat cash to get Phoenix and Blur this year, or whoever it turns out to be.

    It’s a shame but it reflects, in a way, a similar problem with the music itself: what we consider more artistically valuable usually makes far less money.

  6. I don’t fully agree with the breakdown of how Bonnaroo has “adapted” Coachella’s style. You could say the two festivals have become more simular since Bonnaroo’s inception, but I think Bonnaroo’s growth is linked more to it’s grassroots beginnings and when he got successful enough to turn into the festival it wanted it did so. The fun thing about Bonnaroo is that it still has all the quirky styles that separate it from the other major festivals (major as the main three), but with a whole bunch more thrown on top of it. It still has a bunch of jam bands, bluess grass, folk, and jazz artists and now a days you also see a bunch Coachella acts on top of that. But it’s not even as if Bonnaroo just too Coachella and added it to Bonnaroo (rather then turned into Coachella), but it has also evolved in aspects that are different from it’s beginnings as well as different from Coachella. I believe while Bonnaroo and Coachella both attain up and coming/it/hip/indie artists and obviously both try to land big name headiners, Bonnaroo makes more of an effort to still give the more distinct genres a presence in the festival. While Coachella might have a handful of these kinds of artists scattered across their decade of lineups, Bonnaroo books straight punk, metal, reggae, and country acts more so than Coachella in my opinion, which is great because the quality artists in these categories don’t really have a big of a stage to grow their audiences as before (for example Warped Tour gave up on booking decent punk acts and Ozzfest has disappeared) not to mention I think punk and metal bands for instance stand up more and can be appreciated better when their not performing as one of a hundred punk or metal bands in a row. For example the example of Alice Cooper is a fun little quirky act that I wouldn’t see Coachella being the first in line to book or the much more obscure act GWAR. Throw in the heavy presence of what could be considered to be “world” or international acts that are not present at festivals like Coachella. I think it is a fairly inadequate description of Bonnaroo and it’s growth to simply say they were this and they’ve morphed into Coachella. Obvisouly, I understand the point of the article isn’t to give a detailed breakdown of Bonnaroo, but I guess it would just make more sense to me to either act like this solely an article dedicated to Coachella or an article about festivals that would leave more things in generalities rather than acting like it’s an article about festivals, which is pretty much an article about Coachella because Coachella is your favorite.

    • haha I was wondering how big that was going to turn out, I think it is safe to say that absolutely nobody is going to read this.

      • I’ll read it because I’m in your debt.

        But before I read let me just say: “You have a pending friend request from: Paragraphs”

        • I like to tell myself that if I take stuff like paragraphs, spelling, and grammar into account then then I’d be putting too much effort into writing in a comment section and therefore taking it too seriously, thankfully writing a four thousand word essay in a comment section does not have the same effect on me. As long as its incomprehensible I’m not a loser…or something like that.

    • I hear you re: Bonnaroo’s palate cleanser, buffet-style approach. It rewards the adventurous listener moreso than many other festivals. Which could be good or bad depending your intentions. I’ve always found it to be good. Some of my favorite shows in years’ past were the shows I never intended to see, but accidentally did and ended up loving.

    • > “world” or international acts that are not present at festivals like Coachella.

      Not true. While Bonnaroo has more, and its crowd is likely more welcoming to those acts than the Coachella faithful, world/international artists are indeed booked at Coachella. For instance, last year I saw Seun Kuti on one of the bigger stages. And I’ve seen a handful of rock en Espanol bands there as well.

      Otherwise, I definitely get what you’re saying. Bonnaroo’s producer, Superfly, started a festival here in Vegas in 2005 (Vegoose) that was more like Bonnaroo, and by 2007, it was more like Coachella. Though I’m a big Coachella fan, Vegoose was a better festival when it was more Bonnaroo-like.

      • Fair enough and to clarify I didn’t mean to say any other festival is completely void of these acts, they just don’t have as much of a presence.

  7. all tomorrow’s parties.

  8. Having attended Coachella since its inception, I agree with many of the arguments and theories put forth in this piece by Brad Shoup. With ticket prices rising for Coachella I really had an internal debate about whether to attend this year’s festival. Would it be better to just go see the bands that I was interested in at their own gigs? Certainly it might be cheaper and they would sound much better.

    The reality is, when those acts come around I probably wouldn’t buy tickets. There would be some commitment that got in the way or tickets would sell out before I could buy them. Being able to see all the bands in one place over a three day period is probably the only way I’d see half these acts. As Mr. Shoup and several comments have pointed out, it’s an economy-of-scale; attending Coachella, and I’m sure other festivals, is all about quantity, more often than not, over quality or comfort.

    As Mr. Shoup also highlights, it’s also about being there. To be on the field or in the tent when Arcade Fire drops hundreds of glowing beach balls on a crowd of 60,000, or to witness Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg bring Tupac back to life as a hologram. Could I live without actually being there in-person to see such moments? Sure, but life is just a little bit better when I’m only a few yards away from all the madness.

  9. Ah, a fellow alum of every Coachella! Pleasure to meet you.

    As a kid who grew up in the Coachella Valley, this fest will always hold a more special place in my heart than any other (and I’ve been to Lolla – the weird 2003 tour – Warped, SXSW, Glastonbury, Virgin Fest in Toronto, EDC, Bamboozle Left…). It’s nice to know you CAN go home again, every single year.

    I think Coachella also has more of those “it” moments than most other gigs. I was there pushing Wayne Coyne in his bubble. I was there when Roger Waters’ pig deflated over the golf country club. I was there for the resurrection of Tupac. And when Madonna helicoptered onto the Empire Polo Field. And when Prince played Radiohead’s “Creep.”

    I know I’m biased, but Coachella will always be the be-all end-all festival for me.

  10. I’ll admit, I stopped at “my hometown got into the game in 2002″. Ummm, South By Southwest? 1987? That’s kind of the template for most of the American festivals. Maybe you make some great points, but I doubt it , after that.

  11. I live in a decent size city but we’re a bit out of the way geographically so lots of bands skip over coming here. Going to a festival is the easiest way to see a bunch buzz bands in one go that wouldn’t come here until their 3rd album comes out and everyone has already moved on.

  12. It’s any musician’s dream to play at a festival – if only Coachella wasn’t so far away, attending is a dream too. If any of you know of any festivals, why not share them here: http://www.myrockbook.com? We’d love to know what’s happening and when and where.

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