There’s a reason most of the Coachella tickets sell out nearly a year in advance. Sure, some people go hoping to see or even meet their favorite celebrities. Some people go because it’s the “cool thing” to do that weekend. Yet, dedicated music junkies travel across the world to attend. Why? There’s more to Coachella than celebrities and selfies.
Let me dispel this myth right now: Coachella isn’t a festival where music lovers go to die. Despite the reputation it’s gained over the years, Coachella is at its heart a music festival. A damn good one at that, arguably the best music festival in America. I have attended Bonnaroo, Ultra, Lollapalooza, Pitchfork, EDC Orlando and several others; Coachella beats them all. I quickly learned during my first experience that its reputation is largely unfounded. When I was there, I was in a music lover’s paradise.
Let’s start with the music. Coachella arguably builds the best lineup in America each year, complete with nearly every genre: EDM, pop, hip-hop, latin, jazz, punk, alternative, house and techno, country and more. This year, the festival did double down a bit on popular names on its top lines, but deep in the undercard is where Coachella packs its heat. Good luck finding another American festival that has Justice, Lorde, Hans Zimmer, Maya Jane Coles, Kaytranada, Kendrick Lamar and more on the same day.
With most artists getting 50 or so minutes to play, sets are tight, controlled and exciting. Bands and DJs mix big hits with a few deep cuts, while deeper DJs who receive 90 minutes take attendees on unforgettable journeys. The amount of good music I witnessed during Weekend One of Coachella was staggering; Bicep played their hits and dedicated 20 minutes to unreleased material, Porter Robinson & Madeon brought both the crowd and themselves to tears as they finished the penultimate Shelter performance, Justice played their strongest live set ever, Four Tet, Daphni (Caribou‘s dance alias) and Floating Points mixed everything from disco to techno during an insane 3.5 hour b2b and Hans Zimmer proved that even orchestral music can get a festival crowd jumping without someone on the mic asking them to jump every two minutes.
Beyond the music, Coachella crafts a wholly immaculate experience. The production to each stage is mind-boggling, with the main Coachella Stage containing massive screens that gave each artist headliner-ready production, the Sahara tent towering over attendees with lasers and giant LED panels, the Yuma tent emulating a club experience with seven disco balls — one of which was the tell-tale shark disco ball — and perfect sound, the Sonora tent decking out its walls with graffiti-inspired art and so much more. Artists bring their own production as well, with Radiohead, the xx, Nicolas Jaar, Moderat, Lorde, Kendrick, Hans Zimmer, Floating Points and Röyksopp standing out as the notable examples.
The Empire Polo Club venue gives a lot of atmosphere to the festival, with awe-inspiring views of the neighboring mountains dominating the skyline. Coachella also goes extra lengths to include unique art pieces each year, with this year’s selections including giant, abstract creatures, a field of Dr. Seuss-esque formations, a Dalí-inspired treehouse and a new stage/art hybrid called The Antarctic, which featured an experience way too good to spoil in this review.
In terms of organization, Coachella has mastered the art of efficiency. No lines ever took longer than a five minute wait — and that was for food, drinks, water, entry, etc. — the shuttles were regularly available to take attendees to and from the festival, the stage layout prevented significant overcrowding (with one notable exception I’ll address further down) and allowed attendees to quickly walk from one stage to the next. Given that this was Coachella’s 18th year, it was no surprise organizer Goldenvoice has its organization down to a science, but it was very refreshing to experience a festival that excels so well at “getting it.”
One of Coachella’s biggest criticisms takes aim at the allegedly detached, trendy crowds. While some crowds were a bit chill — usually around 2 or 3 p.m. in 90+ degree weather — overall the energy and vibe of the attendees was positive, almost shockingly so given the festival’s reputation. The Yuma tent in particular drew dedicated electronic music fans, and people never stopped dancing or smiling. I couldn’t help but think the people who criticize Coachella for its crowd haven’t attended before, and I implore said critics to at least go one year to give the crowd and festival a proper shot.
Since Coachella is America’s flagship festival and two hours away from Los Angeles, you’d nearly expect the entire endeavor to cost a fortune. Yet, Coachella continually surprised with its unique ways of giving all attendees a VIP experience. $2 water bottles and the option to donate water bottles for free water, a poster or a VIP upgrade, couches, bean bags and chairs in the Yuma and Sonora areas — not to mention those stages are air conditioned — legitimate shuttle buses that came with the shuttle pass, food options ranging from paella to lobster rolls that never charged exorbitant prices and so much more. I felt truly welcome, even more so than I have at any other festival I’ve attended.
No experience is perfect, and one notable flaw was consistently voiced among attendees this year: the Sahara. While a huge stage, the combination of slotting huge artists like Martin Garrix, having a limited space and attracting big EDM fans lead to dangerous overcrowding. Coachella’s been excellent about correcting issues in the past, but this seems to be the festival’s Achilles heel. Whether it be proper counter-programming, a stage expansion or placing the big names on the Coachella Stage or Outdoor Theatre, several possible solutions exist for this persistent problem. Your move, Goldenvoice.
There’s so much more to say: the impeccable mood of the Do LaB, the warm and beautiful sunset each evening, the soft, green grass (sorry Weekend Two folks), the intimacy of the Heineken House – which featured Energy Floors’ proprietary dance floor that stored the kinetic energy created by dancing to unlock refreshing blasts of icy-cold air to cool down attendees; Coachella truly has it all. In addition to unprecedented programming, it’s aspects like these that set Coachella apart, and despite some fears that the crowd would ruin the experience, I am officially a Coachella convert.
Cover Photo Credit: Charles Reagan Hackleman ©Coachella 2017