Coachella 2013: Southern California music festival evolves into cultural event
"Big changes & announcements at work all I can think is nooo this month is localchella I can't be bothered at work"
More than a week before the Coachella Valley Arts and Music Festival, the Twitter-sphere was already buzzing about the annual two-weekend event, which begins Friday. Judging by the above tweet and thousands of others just like it, the desert party held on polo fields in Indio had already begun at least in the tweeters' minds.
Not bad for a festival that nearly died after its first year in 1999 when only about 10,000 attended.
This year, both weekends sold out in less in than an hour. With temperatures expected in the 90s, the event will draw more than 80,000 people per day.
Last year, ticket sales alone reportedly grossed $47.3 million for the event's promoter, Goldenvoice, and an economic report said the festival brought in $254.4 million for the desert region of Indio. A deal was announced last week that keeps the festival in Indio until 2030 and expands daily capacity to 99,000.
So how has Coachella turned into such a hot destination spot every spring?
Obviously, social networking has played a major role in the festival's rise, but what people are saying about it on the Internet may be surprising considering how the festival bills itself. Fans excitedly counting down the days tweet about hooking up with friends, looking for tickets and selling them. An inordinate number of tweets come from corporate sponsors, businesses and individual entrepreneurs flogging their wares - totes, tops, shoes, short-shorts, hippie-looking stuff, you name it. Check out #coachella on Tumblr. It looks like a clothing catalog.
What hardly gets a mention, though, is the event's music, despite the fact that there are a mind-boggling 180-plus acts at the so-called music festival.
As far as art goes, it's still part of the title and there will be a few installations. More than likely, though, the word is being applied to the growing number of Electronic Dance Music artists.
In the past decade, EDM increasingly has become a chief component of Coachella as important, if not more so, as having rock veterans The Stone Roses on top of the bill.
What differentiates EDM from old-school DJ-ing (someone with laptops and turntables) are the giant trippy, pop-show video walls and lights that accompany the performances. Some think Daft Punk's famed 2006 Coachella show, where the French duo hopped around in robot costumes in front of a giant flashing pyramid to pulsating music, set the standard everyone since has been trying to top.
That performance is easily available to view on YouTube because so many people today record such shows on their phones so they can share them with the world. If you watch it, the effect looks more like a gigantic rave than a music-oriented, Woodstock-type festival, although comparisons to the legendary 1969 event invariably come up when talking about Coachella.
Author and USC communications professor Josh Kun of the Annenberg School says that during the past decade the desert festival has been adept at incorporating the changing ways music is being consumed, including new platforms (ie. iTunes, Spotify) and social networking.
"I think more and more the way young people experience music has less and less to do with the music," he says, "which is to say they experience music as part of a larger cultural or social experience."
So, maybe, the bands don't matter as much as putting Coachella all over your Instagram.
That's not to say music isn't important to some in the Coachella universe. It certainly is to KCRW Music Director Jason Bentley, the host of "Morning Becomes Eclectic," one of Los Angeles's most influential radio programs. "The nice thing about Coachella is that it's a real music-lovers' festival. It's not limited to one genre. Also bands know that it can be a real game-changer for your career," says Bentley, who will be one of the acts this year, "old guard" DJ-ing in one of the festival's tents.
Kun points to Coachella's lineup as a widely mixed and eclectic group of artists who represent "very different key demographic audiences," from dance music to hip-hop to indie rock. As the festival has grown it also has increasingly brought in mainstream headliners and bands having reunions, "guaranteeing a slightly older audience," he says. "I think there is a kind of smartness in that the festival caters to people who are open to seeing different things while getting the things that they want."
Of course, success always comes with a price, which is being passed on to ticket buyers. A three-day weekend pass went for $349 this year, if you were lucky to get it at face value. But that was only an entrance fee. More expensive packages included camping on site. In addition, there was transportation, parking, lodging, food, sunscreen and et ceteras (you know "et ceteras" to enhance the experience) to consider when calculating the cost of Coachella.
"10 days till #coachella and da BFFs are togethaaaaaa," goes another Tweet.
Kun says that Coachella is an excuse for friends to get together, "the glue that allows social interaction happen." Each year, he see his students planning well in advance and saving money to go to the festival with their buddies.
"So Coachella really has mastered that feeling of creating a kind of commune, collectivity, a let-it-all-hang-out vibe that in some ways is the nod to Woodstock, although stripped of any countercultural association. It's become sort of a completely corporate-sponsored Bohemia."
"just googling 'hippy flower headbands' for #COACHELLA next weekend," reads another Tweet.
It sounds a bit like dressing up for Halloween, doesn't it? Do Coachella goers see any contradiction in trying to re-create the feeling of Woodstock, which became a free event and a spontaneous 400,000-person community, within a planned, commercial and fairly expensive event?
"There is no irony nor critical engagement," Kun says flatly. "It is what it is."
Adams Ferrick, a disc jockey at KCSN, has been to Coachella five times but isn't planning on going this year because the public-radio station is beginning its pledge drive.
He, though, is concerned about rising prices. "Over the years, it's become a bigger sort of corporate event, and I think that's taken away from it a little bit, but I can't complain too much because I saw that it was going to happen."
Still, he believes the festival has been a great place to see bands - new and old.
"They do a good job of balancing the acts."
KCSN, like KCRW, has been spotlighting a number of the Coachella acts with interviews and by playing their music. Bentley recently returned from the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, where a number of the Coachella artists also performed. He sees the events as two different animals, though, calling SXSW more music-industry driven.
"That's not really the mission of Coachella," says Bentley, who has attended every festival. "If you love music, it's your ultimate holiday."
Young people, he notes, are exposed to a wide variety of sounds and "aren't limited to one part of the record store."
That sentiment is echoed by longtime music critic Billy Altman, who observes that many of today's new artists are creating a pastiche of sounds that no longer fit neatly into any one genre.
With its wide-ranging bill, Coachella clearly uses its diverse mix as a selling point. A big part of the festival's experience is "musical wanderlust," says Bentley. "You want to stumble on something."
When fans do, record stores like Amoeba in Hollywood are ready. Chris Carmena, the general manager, says most of its employees don't get to the festival because they are getting ready for national Record Store Day on April 20, but they do hear customers getting energized about Coachella. So the store makes sure to stock up on CDs of acts playing at the event.
"After Coachella is when we experience the rush of customers coming in and picking up albums from the artists they saw," Carema says.
Last year, the festival wowed audiences with a hologram of the late rapper Tupac Shakur, and people have been speculating for months about what might be planned this year.
Whether or not anything like that happens may not matter, really. Coachella, itself, is such an idyllic setting anyway, Bentley says.
"You're always dazzled by the surroundings with the mountains out there in the desert. Late in the day the sun is setting on the palm trees and you just look around and go, 'This is just amazing.'"
Kun agrees that it's hard to beat Indio as a place to put on a festival and that the area was already embedded with a long history in Southern California of "tourism and partying, experimental ideas and new ways of thinking."
"In a way, the old Palm Springs spring-break mentality has now shifted to a must-take pilgrimage in the spring to the festival," he says.
As one Tweet reads: "my teachers are trying to kill me...don't they realize that i have better things to do?! #coachella"