- Original publication date: 22 June 2013
From the 19th to 21st of April 2013, I attended the Coachella Music Festival in Indio, California, USA. This is Part 5 in a series of 5 articles, summarising and reviewing the overall festival experience; from purchasing tickets to camping to the influence of art. All photos are my own.
Looking back on the whole Coachella experience, right from those tentative moments purchasing a ticket online in South Africa back in January, to standing on that sacred Californian landscape in April, it feels like a continuous tapestry, woven together with inspired touches of belonging and associating with the festival brand.
The devil is in the details, starting with the official souvenir box, shipped out to all ticket-holders in early March. It is primarily a vehicle for delivering the hallowed wristband that ensures entry to the Empire Polo Club grounds, and the box succeeds on that front, but also immerses you in the quirky Coachella lore.
In addition to the extensive welcome guide to the festival (which highlights the many fantastic features to be found, functioning as a useful to-do list before and during the event), one is presented with a mini calendar stand, complete with cardboard cut-out objects to create a Coachella diorama. To allow one to further marinate in the Coachella history, the eye-catching photo cards used for the calendar (running from April to April – a personalised move) showcase festival line-ups from yesteryear.
Security And Authenticity
Looking past the do-it-yourself toys, the festival’s first point-of-contact (apart from the online interface) is an immediate connection with what the event embodies, making a first-timer or five-time veteran feel at home. All this pageantry helps serve two greater purposes: security and authenticity.
The event wristband is a complex little beast, engineered to ward off scalpers and guarantee personalised service and interaction. The first feature is a cunningly simple piece of plastic that functions as a form of Chinese finger trap, since the organizers are well aware of the tricks used over the years by sneaky festival-goers to slip off wristbands and bracelets. Basically: once it’s tightened, it can’t be undone at all, which actually warrants an extra how-to guide in the festival booklet.
The second feature of the wristband is the RFID chip contained within it, which when registered online, opens up a plethora of opportunities to connect with Coachella. Before the event, you can browse the extensive Frequently-Asked-Questions, create a personalised line-up, sort out your travel plans and accommodation arrangements, as well as access the message boards to get some tips and advice. This functionality also proves useful when inside Coachella, where the strong influence of social media is catered for by having dedicated check-in boards dotted around the grounds (particularly on the boundaries of the stages and tents), and the swiping of your band can automatically update your Facebook or Twitter account to where you are, even down to the stage.
Whilst the Hollywood elite may lounge around vacation homes and mansions in nearby Palm Springs over the Coachella weekends, or snap up every hotel suite in the surrounding area, the best way to feel a part of the festival is to camp on-site.
According to Coachella Project Manager Justin Ferreira in the free Camp magazine handed out at the grounds, since on-site camping began in 2006, the amount of campers has grown from a few hundred tents to thousands of cars, totalling more than 40 000 people in 2012. Being right close to the action 24 hours a day is clearly quite a draw card for many, but how does one keep the logistics in order for such a multitude of people without the situation devolving into chaos?
In getting to the festival, carpooling is greatly encouraged by Coachella organisers, and what better way than through a competition? Carpoolchella is an attention-grabbing lottery that primarily links fellow festivalgoers, builds a community and reduces traffic. The most rewarding part, aside from flexing your creativity with your crew to decorate your car, is the jaw-dropping lifetime VIP Coachella festival passes that are on offer to be won.
With hopefully less cars coming into the grounds, organizers can better manage the vehicular mass. Parking is arranged in named-and-numbered ‘streets’ on specifically demarcated campsites, which proved incredibly useful in wearily finding one’s way home through the assortment of lots after a long day.
The abundance of activities available in the campgrounds themselves, such as yoga and Pilates classes, an art studio, and a silent disco, keep the dedicated campers entertained; enough so that Ferreira declared, “I’m convinced some people camp at Coachella just to play dodge ball”. The fiercely competitive team game pits friends and strangers against each other for glory or, on the odd occasion, the rights to a VIP shower. In the searing desert heat (where the mercury reached higher than 35 degrees Celsius), the little luxuries do matter.
A big part of Coachella’s quirky constitution is artistic expression, and it was surprising to find out how explicitly that is manifested, proving that the term is not just for show. Not content to just be confined to an ‘art section’ of the festival, the massive installation art pieces rose up all over the desert plains like statues, thematically linking the campgrounds and festival grounds with their humourous and inventive style.
Some of these pieces didn’t like to keep still: a giant snail named ‘Helix Poeticus’ sneakily manoeuvred its way around the ground, leaving a trail of bubbles in its wake for delighted followers, whilst a truly epic kite-like chain of balloons over 500 metres long had to be monitored by individual wranglers.
But most were of a more stationary nature, such as the stately ‘Mirage’ (a mid-21st century modernist retreat, evoking the architectural style of the Palms Springs houses of that era), Recyclasaurus Rex (a scary 12-metre high sculpture made of recycled materials, who is ready “to chow down on every bottle, can and gate-jumper he can find”, according to the official festival guide), and the hilarious Coachella Power Station (run by wacky hippo-suited scientists performing a series of checks and experiments day and night, offering an ‘inside look’ into how the Coachella engine is kept running). With over 300 artists initially submitting proposals for these stunningly original installations, Coachella’s creative spirit can be found onstage and amongst the crowds.
Throughout the weekend, you’re likely to encounter that warm atmosphere of inclusiveness (not to be confused with sunstroke – stay hydrated, kids).
The festival is an all-ages event, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to see some children and teenagers roaming the grounds, but access to the designated beer gardens is suitably strict and implemented by various ID checkpoints, which provide you with an additional ’21-years-and-over’ wristband.
A quick visit to the merchandise tent and its neighbour, Zia Records, in between sets is also one for the music junkie’s bucket list. If you’re not content with just buying your favourite band’s t-shirt, a healthy collection of vinyl records are available for sale, and wildest dreams come true when some of the artists performing at the festival host signings at various points in the day for those dedicated fans who purchased records. Nothing brings fanboys and girls together quite like meeting their idols.
Establishing tradition takes time, and prominence often goes hand-in-hand with that process. Coachella has reached the point where it has become a way of life for some people, and will most likely continue to be (as seen in the Camp magazine’s ‘Coachooser’ section, where a 10-year-old interviewee proudly stated that he has attended the festival a whopping seven times thus far).
This transition from a relatively underground affair to a global mega-event came through a careful cultivation of culture, subtly and steadily pooling together a rainbow of music fans from all walks of life. Diversifying hasn’t diluted the Coachella experience; it has enriched the event with an array of perspectives, and as utopian as it may sound, if you arrive bearing peace, love and a wristband, there’ll be a place for you under the palm trees in the Coachella Valley.
If you’re looking for the blueprint of a successfully integrated, innovative and immersive music festival: this is the one.