Why Coachella rules.

April 23, 2012

I’m 42 years old. I just got back from Coachella, a three-day outdoor rock festival near Palm Springs that took place in peak heat of 107 degrees.

If you’re around my age, it probably sounds like a nightmare.

But it was absolutely fantastic.

I’ve been trying to figure out why, and apart from the chance to hang with a good old friend and listen to fantastic music for three days, a lot of it comes down to the organizers, Goldenvoice.

They actually treat customers with respect. Like they want you to come back.

Think about how rare that’s become. Airlines. Banks. Your cable company. Your phone company. Your gas station with those TV commercials they now play while you’re filling up. Almost every business transaction leaves you feeling ripped off, like you’re always getting a little bit less while they’re charging you a little bit more, or shoving more ads in your face.

Most rock concerts are like that too. More money, less music. Less fun.

Now, Coachella IS a three-day outdoor concert with 70,000 people and no seats. If you’re the kind of person who shells out $500 for James Taylor tickets then yells “down in front” every time somebody stands, you’ll hate it.

But Goldenvoice did as much as they could to make a three-day outdoor concert with 70,000 people and no seats comfortable. Even pleasant. Like:

  • Every act started almost exactly on time. This made planning easy and eliminated those annoying “when’s it going to start?” waits that kill concert momentum. They must fine artists for being late. They even got Snoop and Dre to go on within 5 minutes of their supposed starting time, which if you know anything about hip hop shows is an incredible achievement.
  • They didn’t oversell it. There was plenty of room to move between stages, and with a little planning, my friend and I were easily able to get within 100 feet of the stage for Radiohead on Saturday night.
  • They never ran out of anything. At 9 pm on the third night, all the food vendors were still fully stocked. There was always plenty of water. Plenty of iced lemonade. Plenty of beer.
  • Fair prices. Small water bottles cost $2, and once you bought one you could fill it up free at water stations throughout. You could get a decent meal for $9. The only blatant ripoff was the beer — $9 for a pint, with Heineken and Newcastle your only choices. But do you really want to be drinking all that much beer at a concert anyway? (And do you really want to be around extremely drunk people? I don’t.)
  • Speaking of not wanting to drink too much beer, they made sure to pipe in music from all the concert stages into the main beer garden by the entrance, so all the people who came just for the party would at least be REMINDED that, oh yeah, there’s also music going on. You could get drunk at home — go see some music already!
  • And also, the bathrooms were minimally unpleasant. The less you have to think about them, the better. But somebody has to think about them so you don’t have to. There was never a line of more than about a minute, and the porta potties themselves were kept amazingly clean. Not clean enough to eat off, but it was clear that they were being cleaned, regularly. The smell was bearable. The soap dispensers actually had soap. The toilet paper dispensers actually had toilet paper. Every time, 100%.
  • Surprisingly little garbage. Speaking of clean, they must have had armies of people working from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. because every day when we arrived the grounds looked brand new, like there hadn’t been 70,000 people there the previous night. There were no overflowing garbage cans, no uncollected garbage bags piled up waiting for pickup, no mountains of crap pushed up against the fence. The park in my neighborhood in San Francisco is often dirtier.
  • Reasonable security. The Indio Police and the concert security corps did a very thorough patdown on the way in. They even made me lift up my hat to make sure I wasn’t smuggling anything. But once you’re in, they basically leave you alone. Nobody’s trying to force comfortable people to move out of their little patch of shade, like they do at the (awful) Sasquatch festival outside Seattle. Nobody’s yelling about last call in the beer garden. Nobody’s busting kids for smoking anything or being obviously starry-eyed.
  • Plenty of hotel shuttles. Each night when the show ended, there were hundreds of buses just waiting in a field to take everybody back to their hotels. They came from all over the place — I saw a San Diego tour charter bus, and rode in what seemed like a decomissioned public transit bus. There was even a purple school bus. There was never a wait or a line.
  • A sense of mischief and fun. This is hard to explain, but everybody working the show seemed to be having fun. The vendors and bartenders smiled and were friendly. The people guiding hotel visitors back to the shuttles cracked jokes through the megaphones. It even showed through in the “dos” and “don’ts” sign, where the first instruction was: “No musical instruments (especially drums!!!)” In other words, hippies fuck off to Burning Man.

The result of being treated with respect is a crowd that acts respectfully.

I saw zero belligerent drunks — not a single one in three days, although I did see the medics attending one unconscious guy with a line of police separating him from the crowd. There was no overly aggressive pushing to the front of the stage. (Nudging with “excuse me” is the accepted protocol.) No slam dancing, no fights, no thugs, no angry yelling disputes over who was standing where first. It’s like all the gangstas, fratboys, and annoying lawyer types who complain when you block their view stayed home. Or at least put their aggression on hold for three days.

About the only time I felt a little uncomfortable was when I ventured near the Sahara tent, where the DJ crowd hangs out. That’s where the serious party kids were seriously partying, packed tight and jumping up and down like maniacs at 4 in the afternoon. There was definitely some weird energy in the air, and some of the people had those eyes that looked like they hadn’t slept in a couple days, and wouldn’t be sleeping tonight either. (Side note: anybody in the music industry who’s NOT betting their future on DJ music is stupid.)

But even there the vibe was basically happy and fun, not angry or aggressive or tweaky or stupid or drunk.

Credit must be given to the armies of laborers who helped pull it off — the people doing all the unglamorous garbage pickup and porta-pottie cleanup. I hope Goldenvoice pays them well, because they deserve it.

All in all, I went in thinking this would probably be the last one of these big shows I’d go to. But now, I’m excited to go back someday.