I got a last-minute ticket to Coachella, the festival as famous for its flashy outfits and Instagram-heavy attractions as its music. Here's what it's really like to attend.
- The Coachella Music & Arts Festival takes place over two weekends in April at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, California.
- I decided to go to Coachella for the first time this year.
- While I loved the musical performances and felt that the event was well-organized, I probably won't be attending again as it is too much hassle to arrange all the logistics - and too much money to attend the festival.
- Visit BusinessInsider.com for more stories or check out more of our coverage on this year's edition of Coachella.
I'll be honest: I never really thought I'd go to the Coachella Music & Arts Festival.Living in New York, I never thought it made much sense to ship out to Indio, California, for one of Coachella's two weekends of music and fun.Advertisement
That's without getting into what Coachella is supposedly about, which, according to varying reports, is both a glittering entertainment-industry party and a bunch of Orange County teenagers skipping school to drink. The weekend has become such an event for social media influencers, models, and celebrities that some have dubbed it the "influencer Olympics."
When Business Insider asked me to cover the festival, I was determined to go in with as little preconceived notions as possible. And, with this year's Coachella lineup featuring Childish Gambino, Anderson .Paak, Janelle Monae, and Tame Impala, some of my favorite artists, it was hard to not get amped up.By the end of the weekend, I had seen some incredible performances, discovered amazing new artists, found my way into an ultra-exclusive afterparty, danced the night away at a hidden stage, and was convinced I probably wouldn't ever come back.
Here's what it was like:
My journey to Coachella was a long one. I flew from New York on the Wednesday before the festival because the airfare was cheaper, rented a car, and then drove out Friday morning. I had heard horror stories about the traffic, with some saying the two-hour drive takes seven hours or more. It ended up taking me three.
Before I could go to the festival, however, I had to stop in Indian Wells, a town near Indio, where attendees pick up their Coachella wristbands. The lines moved quickly, but it was still a pain to have to go to a separate town just to get my wristband.Advertisement
Before I could go to the festival, I still had to drive 30 minutes to Palm Springs. Lodging is the most expensive part of Coachella. Even budget hotels charge $350 or more a night. By staying in Palm Springs, I was able to stay at a boutique hotel called the Hideaway Hotel for $379 a night. The hotel looked like a Mad Men set.
The festival offers an $80 shuttle to take festivalgoers back and forth between hotels outside Indio and the concert. The ride from Palm Springs took an hour with traffic and the shuttle was full of rambunctious college kids drinking beers. There was a near mutiny when the bus bathroom door didn't open. Thankfully, we made it to the grounds before people started peeing in bottles.Advertisement
The shuttle drops festival-goers about a half-mile away from the entrance to the grounds. As soon as you step off the shuttle, you can feel the energy buzzing in the air. Attendees were jumping up and down and shouting in excitement as they walked — or maybe they just needed to pee.
There are two separate entrances to the festival: one for VIP and one for regular folk. If you don't want to walk the half-mile in the blazing desert sun to the entrance, you can pay a few bucks to hop in one of the colorfully decorated rickshaws blasting music.Advertisement
Every day, I entered the festival between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m., more or less prime-time, and there was barely a wait. A tap of the wristband and a quick patdown and I was through. To be honest, I couldn't help but feel a bit taken aback by how lax the security seemed.
Each day I entered the grounds, I made a beeline for the main stage. While there are great acts on other stages, there was usually someone I wanted to see on the main stage in the afternoon. Signs out front list the lineup at each stage, but I mostly used the Coachella app, which lets you create your own lineup and sends you notifications when your artists are about to start.Advertisement
In past years, I've scored VIP passes to Panorama, Goldenvoice's New York-version of Coachella. At Panorama, there were designated VIP sections directly in front of each stage. At Coachella, the only stage-front VIP section is a small one in front of the main stage. With VIP costing $999 for the weekend — double the price of general admission — it hardly seems worth it for that section and a secluded food and beverages area.
Coachella has eight different venues on site, each with its own lineup. Three of the stages were large, open-air tents that were perfect for catching up-and-coming acts.Advertisement
On Sunday, I caught Norwegian indie pop band Boy Pablo on the Gobi Stage, one of the medium-sized open-air venues. The benefit of these stages is that they keep out the heat and keep in the sound.
Visual art is a major part of the festival. There are giant art installations all over the grounds. The festival's art team starts building installations as early as six months before the event. Architecture studio Office Kovacs designed these seven cactus sculptures, dubbed "Colossal Cacti." The tallest one is 50 feet tall.Advertisement
Berlin-based architect Francis Kéré created 12 multicolored towers out of steel and wood. They are modeled after the African baobab tree. "Baobabs have multiple uses as food and medicine. It's the place where you get together, celebrate, and discuss," Kéré told Artsy.
One of the most ambitious art projects on the grounds is "H.i.P.O. (Hazardous Interstellar Professional Operations)," a multimedia installation consisting of sculpture, performance art, architecture, design, and music.Advertisement
While "H.i.P.O." is a little hard to explain without seeing it, the concept is that a race of sentient hippos is trying to start a space program and launch a rocket. There are six performance spaces where 180 performers, artists, and engineers cycle in and out to improv ridiculous and hilarious scenes of the hippos trying (and failing) to perform their duties.
Coachella's musical lineup is wildly diverse, if a little short on old-fashioned rock. You can find electronic music, hip hop, funk, R&B, indie, pop, and more. On Sunday afternoon, I saw rapper Pusha T run through a wide variety of hits and covers.Advertisement
Coachella has become known as a place artists crank up their energy and performances another notch to meet the audience's high expectations. As you can probably tell from the ecstatic expression on these attendees' faces, Pusha T was lighting it up. He was rapping "Grindin'," his first single as part of iconic hip-hop duo Clipse.
While old hippies and longtime festival-goers have long been complaining that festivals have become cannibalized by corporate sponsors, I found "corporate synergy" to be relatively unobtrusive. One of the more fun tie-ins was Cupcake Wine's Frozie Factory.Advertisement
It's a $16 rosé slushie that Cupcake will print with your selfie on the spot. It's shamelessly made for the Instagram set, but when the photos are that accurate, it's pretty cool.
There's no getting around it. The desert is hot. There are several water stations dotted on the grounds, but they get pretty crowded. I brought a hydration pack so I only had to fill up once a day.Advertisement
One of the best parts about any festival, in my opinion, is lounging on the grass to a laid-back artist. On Saturday, I whiled away an afternoon to the goofball rock of Mac DeMarco.
I'm not going to pretend like this wasn't an Instagram-obsessed millennial crowd. It was. But you can choose whether you let that annoy you or not.Advertisement
As Coachella has grown, the festival has worked to build out integrations to bring the comforts of home to the grounds. This year, the festival debuted a tie-in with Postmates, where you could order from select vendors and pick up your food at a designated location without waiting in line. It worked pretty seamlessly, but the food selection was minimal.
The biggest corporate tie-in on the grounds is with American Express. Card members have access to, among other perks, an exclusive members' lounge — an air-conditioned hang-out space with a dedicated bar. If you're willing to wait on a long line, you can also get a manicure by celebrity nail artist Britney Tokyo or a sneaker cleaning by Jason Markk.Advertisement
If you want to drink alcohol at the festival, you'll have to head to one of the cordoned-off beer gardens or 21+ areas. At first, I thought it would be a pain, but then I realized how much cleaner it made the grounds and how many fewer drunk people were bumping into me in crowds.
There are tons of food and beverage options. Eater LA has said Coachella's food lineup is "as impressive as its music." I don't know if I would go that far, but there were plenty of tasty options from Spicy Pie to Japanese katsu sandwiches by Konbi.Advertisement
One of the stranger phenomenons of the festival is how, everyday, as the sun begins to dip below the horizon, attendees begin congregating around the art installations to get sunset Insta-shots.
It's more or less impossible to get a photo without half a dozen other people in your shot during that hour of the afternoon. A popular spot to shoot is in front of a 57-foot-long astronaut sculpture by Poetic Kinetics that has become something of a mascot for the festival since it was first debuted in 2014.Advertisement
Coachella's artist scheduling is impeccable. Each evening, as the sun finished setting, the organizers had scheduled a high-energy performer to set the tone for the night.
On Friday, Anderson .Paak and the Free Nationals got the night bouncing with their funk-and-soul inflected grooves. On Saturday, it was J Balvin who lit the night's fire with his vibrant reggaeton. Electronic music producer Zedd woke up the sleepy Sunday crowd with fist-pumping electro that sent thousands running to the main stage.Advertisement
Friday night's lineup was stacked with three of my favorite artists: Anderson .Paak, Janelle Monae, and Childish Gambino. My partner and I made the bold decision to fight our way to the front of the stage and hold our spot for six hours. It's not every day you get a chance at essentially a front row ticket to those artists.
I did skip out of my spot once, so that I could run to the bathroom and purchase this delectable bowl of lobster mac-and-cheese. Finding my partner again wasn't easy, but I got back in time.Advertisement
All of the waiting paid off. Childish Gambino's team had built a runway that extended deep into the crowd. The singer-rapper-actor-renaissance-man was standing five feet from me for much of his set.
On Saturday, I explored the festival's varied night offerings a bit more. First, I got in line for Coachella's famous Ferris Wheel, which is said to the world's largest transportable Ferris wheel. I surprised to find that the line moved pretty quickly.Advertisement
I was on the Ferris Wheel in ten minutes. And, thanks to another American Express perk, I got on for free. It usually costs $5 a pop. The view at night is spectacular, even if the windows are a little dirty.
For those fatigued from trendy headliners and Instagramming teens, the Do Lab is a small, independently operated stage that acts as a refuge. Featuring exclusively up-and-coming electronic music acts, the space is focused around dancing and good vibes.Advertisement
A PR brief described it to me as "Coachella's best-hidden secret." I obviously was skeptical but checked it out on Saturday. I ended up dancing for over an hour to Mr. Carmack, a DJ who is known for blending hip-hop and dance music. When I checked back in over the course of the weekend, the Do Lab was never packed, but it always had a solid core of dancers having an excellent time.
It didn't hurt that my media pass got me access to a backstage lounge area where I could enjoy the music and chill behind the Do Lab.Advertisement
I closed out Saturday night by listening to the mind-bending stylings of Tame Impala. While I certainly could have bobbed and weaved my way to the front, some artists are more fun to sway to with plenty of space. For me, Tame Impala is one of those bands.
Having heard so much about Coachella's afterparty scene — which some VIPs swear is far better than the festival itself — I finagled an invite to Zenyara Estate for one of Coachella's "most exclusive after parties." But with Uber having a 90-minute wait time for cars, I walked the two miles to the party. The security looked like they thought I was insane when I walked up.Advertisement
Clearly, they had a broad definition for "exclusive." The party was so overcrowded that the fire department threatened to shut it down and no one from the guest-list was allowed in. That is, until they decided that anyone willing to throw down $150 cash for an on-the-spot ticket could get in. For my part, I went home and ate ramen.
On Sunday night, I got into the real exclusive after-party, thrown by one of the hottest nightclub brands in the US, 1 Oak. There were no tickets to the event. You had to be invited. I was picked up in a decked-out van by Gravity, one of the co-sponsors of the event and a new luxury car service startup.Advertisement
The event was held at Lago Vista Ranch and featured an open bar, a big dance floor and a DJ booth, a food truck, and all the music industry insiders one could hope to rub shoulders with. The event was hosted by Tyga and featured appearances by Lil Pump, Meek Mill, Desiigner, Two Chainz, and Paris Hilton, of all people. The pours at the open bar were very heavy. It was a ridiculous end to a ridiculous weekend.
The following morning, I hung out in my hotel, exhausted. A weekend of festival-ing was more than enough for me. I had a blast. The performances were top-notch, the festival was well-organized, and the setting was beautiful, but I'm not sure I would do Coachella again. Spending $2,500 and taking the flight-car-shuttle combination it took to get to Indio for the weekend is too much money and logistics to be an annual affair. But I can see the appeal if you live in California.Advertisement
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