Are the Glory Days of Coachella Behind Us?

Days out from Coachella 2024, ticket sales are sluggish while the cost of attendance rises with each passing year. Add in a less-than-well-received lineup and festivalgoers are wondering whether the once iconic fest still lives up to the hype.

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From its origin as a music event inspired by Europe’s turntable resurgence to a bonafide cultural phenomenon that’s spawned major moments in fashion and music, Coachella should, ostensibly, be gearing up for its glitziest production to date as it nears its 25th iteration. Originally launched in 1999 by the founders of production powerhouse Goldenvoice, the inaugural event drew in just under 40,000 attendees paying $50 USD a pop to the Empire Polo Club – still the festival’s home base today. By 2006, the polo club’s capacity was maxed out with around 120,000 fans in attendance each day, securing its status as the US’s largest music festival.

On the quarter-century anniversary, festivalgoers are debating whether the actual experience still stands up to its legacy. Coachella 2024’s April 12 kickoff date is just around the corner, however, tickets are still available for the second weekend (April 19-21), a far cry from the near-instantaneous sellouts the festival experienced in years past.

In 2015, both of the festival’s weekends, VIP passes included, sold out in less than an hour. As recently as 2022, the festival’s return after a three-year pandemic-induced gap, tickets took four hours to sell out, and the following year, it took over a month to move all of its passes. Fast forward to 2024, and aftermarket tickets on StubHub are reselling for just $25 USD more than the original $499 USD purchase price. What’s behind the downturn?

Scattered Lineup

Among the most hotly debated potential factors for Coachella’s “decline” is the 2024 lineup. “Is it just me or is this the worst reaction Coachella has ever gotten?” one reddit user titled a recent post. Other Redditors flooded the thread to weigh in on what many referred to as the “weak” roster, headlined by Doja Cat, Tyler, the Creator, Lana Del Rey and the reunion of Gwen Stefani’s No Doubt. While all of the headlining artists are music A-listers and suggesting that festivalgoers, as a whole, are fundamentally opposed to a genre medley is taking a far too macro view, the lineup was nevertheless called out for a lack of cohesion when it dropped in January. Many pointed out that there wasn’t a singular theme behind its curation, as there was for 2018’s trio of Beyoncé, The Weeknd and Eminem or even 2015’s headliners: Nine Inch Nails, U2 and Elton John. While 2018 and 2015 were drastically different in genre, they each catered to a specific audience, with 2018 drawing in hit contemporary artists while 2015 brought together an assemblage of acts hailing from the ‘80s and ‘90s — not so out of the box considering Coachella was once billed as a rock festival.

Coachella has been known for its ability to tap the most exclusive artists in the world – anticipation for a rare festival appearance from Beyoncé was so high that the event was fondly dubbed Beychella. Critics pointed out that the 2024 lineup simply lacked the usual “holy cow” factor, as well as the absence of many of this year’s hottest artists, especially those that had recently put out albums and would presumably be shoo-ins, like Olivia Rodrigo, Ariana Grande, SZA, Troye Sivan and Vampire Weekend – although Coachella’s organizers may be saving one or two names for a surprise reveal. And in all fairness, it’s borderline impossible to impress an audience in the TikTok-age, which constantly demands “bigger and better” moments from festivals.

For those who previously envisioned a Coachella trip on their horizon and actually like this year’s lineup, Frank Ocean’s now infamous Coachella 2023 set now serves as a reminder that a return on their (quite expensive) festival investment isn’t guaranteed either. Artists can drop out entirely or deliver a lackluster performance – in Ocean’s case, it was both. Though Fred again.., Four Tet and Skrillex stepped in for Ocean on weekend two with a last-minute set that’s now celebrated as one of the best electronic performances in recent memory; the opposite effect is also possible. Ye, for instance, dropped out just weeks before Coachella 2022 and was replaced by Swedish House Mafia and The Weeknd, the latter of whom had already headlined Coachella just two festivals prior.

Increased Competition

As new festivals are launched and older names are expanded to new cities yearly, festivalgoers have more options for alternate experiences. Tyler, the Creator’s Camp Flog Gnaw in Los Angeles and J. Cole’s Dreamville in Raleigh, North Carolina (founded in 2012 and 2018, respectively) both offer a mix of rap and R&B acts to an audience of almost 100,000 over a two-day experience. Those who prefer more hard-hitting rap may gravitate towards Rolling Loud, which hosts dozens of global events: in 2023 alone it expanded into Thailand, The Netherlands, Portugal and Germany. Chicago’s Lollapalooza, Alabama’s Hangout and New York’s Governors Ball are among those with a more eclectic roster of artists, begging the question of what drives festivalgoers to invest the time, effort and money into going to Coachella when lineups for major fests throughout the US boast many of the same names – a month after Coachella, Lana Del Rey, for instance, will headline Hangout.

Many people are attending Coachella for the overall experience: it’s spacious; filled with art installations, activities and parties; and of course, photo opps. (Were you really there if you didn’t pose in front of the ferris wheel?) With ticket sales slumping, it begs the question of whether a promised “experience” can stand the test of time when the collective consciousness begins second-guessing whether Coachella is actually worth the hype.

Eye-watering Prices

Peripheral costs may play a role in lower attendance as well. Coachella’s admission price isn’t that different from its competitors: 3 days of general admission goes for $499 USD before fees, compared to $299 USD at Hangout, $339 USD at Gov Ball and $409 USD at Lollapalooza. Rolling Loud is $359 USD, but offers layaway plans — a savvy move given its young audience. But the ticket is only one part of the Coachella cost: getting there is another story entirely. Out-of-state Coachella attendees first have to land in Los Angeles and then take a short flight to Indio or Palm Springs, unless they’re willing to spend four figures to fly direct, or drive about three hours after their flight. Hotel and AirBnB prices are known to hike in the summer but particularly around Coachella weekend. One attendee reported that while their Palm Springs hotel typically averaged $150 USD per night, the bill skyrocketed to over $1,000 USD during the three-day Coachella weekend. Camping in your car or tent is $149 USD a night, and the festival’s on-site “glamping” accommodations start at $3,198 USD for two people.

“It’s something to do once and then never again.”

For the vast majority that lodge off-site, getting to the festival grounds is an exhaustive effort in and of itself. While the sheer scenic spaciousness is an integral part of the event’s identity, the consequence is that most accommodations are still an hour’s drive from the festival — even when it’s only 10 miles from downtown Palm Springs — due to the immense traffic it generates. The fest offers select shuttles to and from partnering hotels for $140 USD, but those residing elsewhere will have to take their chances with surge pricing on rideshare apps or reserve a private driver. Add in food, alcohol and other incidentals and it’s hard to spend less than a few thousand dollars during the typical Coachella weekend, even when taking the “cheaper” route by camping. One anonymous 27-year-old who attended Coachella in 2022 and rented a house with friends said they anticipated spending $2,000 USD max but wound up shelling out upwards of $3,000 USD. “I’m glad I did it but it was a lot of money,” he said. “It’s something to do once and then never again.”

Inflation is partially to blame, and the festival has no way of regulating the cost of flights, hotels or Ubers. In a time of economic uncertainty in the US, it’s understandable that people aren’t allotting Coachella into their budgets. It’s a natural cycle for things to rise and fall in popularity and Coachella, despite having cemented itself as a cultural touchstone, is no exception. With weekend one sold out, the festival is still far from struggling. People will evidently still flock to Coachella, even if only for the one-and-done experience of simply being there —and yet, there’s no denying that 25 years on, the glamor and promise of the Coachella weekend is a little less lustrous.

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