In 1993, as a boycott to the monopolisation of the American concert landscape, Pearl Jam went inland from the LA metropolis and escaped to the desert to play a rock show.
They were frustrated by Ticketmater’s control of American music venues and inflated ticket prices. On the plush polo fields of Indio Valley, miles from the Ticketmaster owned arenas of urban USA, 25,000 fans attended their gig for the love of music. Unbeknownst to them, the show would set a precedent for Coachella Valley as live music’s new part-time annual getaway in the desert.
From making close to a million pound loss in 1999 – it’s inaugural year –Coachella now oozes money, not just in terms of being one of the most profitable music festivals in the world, but from the commercial goldmine it has become – a long way from the anti-establishment foundation it traces its roots.
Swaths of twenty-somethings, who think that the fun and free life suits them for a weekend don their flower crowns and fringe. It’s undeniable that the appeal of Coachella is tantalising, and for the British festival-goer, more accustomed to she-wees and pac-a-macs, it’s festival Utopia. Forget navigating a farm with a wheelbarrow of booze; at Coachella, revellers park trucks full of BBQs, bud light, cool boxes and home comforts in their neatly pre-marked out camping spots, passing the Thursday with sunbathing, sunrise yoga and celebrity spotting amongst the palm trees.
Coachella’s 2017 line up topped by Radiohead and Beyoncé make it a music event of world-class importance. It has also been a festival know for it’s notable music moments. Snoop Dog and Dr Dre’s resurrection of Tupac, Amy Winehouse’s daytime intimate slot, Prince Headlining in 2008, and Daft Punk’s 2006 set. The festival is also a pivotal platform for new artists on the cusp on their international career. Many of who, including Frances, Declan Mckenna and Blossoms, are on the bill after graduating the SXSW circuit the previous year.
However, through the utopian desert haze a hierarchical, celebrity-centred lifestyle event has developed, whereby music is becoming a distant mirage, and the brand sponsored celebrity hangouts, exclusive ‘no-chella’ after parties and VIP areas reserved for the beautiful people take centre stage. It’s hard to tell if people are there more for the world-class array of artists or Instagram opportunities.
The VIP culture of Coachella is as present on the festival floor as online. As Arcade Fire’s Win Butler put it bluntly, “there’s a lot of fake VIP room bullshit happening at this festival – but it super sucks in there, so don’t worry about it.” $800 tickets get you access to viewing pens and exclusive garden areas, but the annual pilgrimage from the Hollywood hills to the California desert has been a powerful catalyst for the expansion of more exclusive peripheral events. Clothing brands, lifestyle magazines and drinks companies host Coachella parties, where the clientele are more likely to mingle with the headliners than show up to catch them live. It’s a modern haven for celebrity influencers and product placement in the digital age.
Forget the music, big names means big business as Victoria’s Secret models and celebrity YouTubers embrace bohemia, free-spiritedness and, above all, massive endorsement cheques. It was reported that Lea Michael was paid $20,000 to wear Lacoste during the weekend. Are we shifting towards the capitalisation of counterculture affairs? Corporatisation of the very events that developed out of non-conformism and revolt of corporate greed.
Coachella’s place remains firmly set in the world festival calendar with a distinguished musical offering. But as brand, fashion and celebrity culture increasingly hog Coachella’s limelight, it’ position as a music festival for music is quickly blurring.
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Words by Alice Hamer