On November 5 1993, Pearl Jam were preparing to escalate their assault on American concert outlet, Ticketmaster. The grunge veterans would subsequently file suit with the U.S Justice Department, alleging that the ticket giant was monopolizing the concert market, gouging music fans by continually inflating prices, and giving bands no alternatives but to perform at Ticketmaster-approved venues.
As a means of proving they could survive playing auditoriums outside Ticketmaster’s vice-like grip, Pearl Jam put on a show on the undeveloped desert lawn at the Empire Polo Club Field, located in the arid, blisteringly hot Coachella Valley, near Palm Springs, attracting an audience of 25,000.
On October 9, 1999, almost six years after Ticketmaster crushed Pearl Jam’s attempt to wriggle free from their control, the same venue played host to a weekend-long music festival with a line-up headlined by Beck, Morrissey, The Chemical Brothers, Rage Against The Machine and Tool. Medical professionals treated numerous addled audience member for heatstroke and the promoters ended up making an estimated $800,000 loss.
On April 15 of this year, the sixteenth Coachella Festival begins a two-weekend run. 100,000 attendees per day are expected, each of whom will splash out $375 on admission and considerably more on refreshments, merchandise, transport and accommodation.
While last year’s box office gross of $84, 264, 264 from 198,000 tickets sold made Coachella the most profitable music festival in the world, this year’s show, featuring reformed headliners Guns N’ Roses and LCD Soundsystem, has a shot at breaking that record.
From its inauspicious origins, Coachella has ascended to the status of unofficial American national holiday. It’s like a second Spring Break, only with less alcohol consumption.
How did this happen? How did demand for Coachella reach a place where Uber could launch a helicopter charter service to whisk concertgoers to the event? How did the term Kendall Jenner Coachella Outfit become a Google search?
How did America’s notoriously impoverished millennial generation come to the communal decision to make this expensive and uncomfortable annual pilgrimage to the desert?
America had a Woodstock, an Altamont and a Lollapalooza. But it never had a Reading or a Glastonbury. It never had a yearly music Superbowl, which is what Coachella has become. The event’s promoters, Golden Voice, made two astute decisions.
First,they catered to the segment of the American audience who adored the music that used to be labeled electronic and had not yet been rebranded EDM.
That audience segment had no desire to search dark alleys in the scary parts of downtown Los Angeles for the whereabouts of secret underground raves, but they were happy to dance to their favorite DJs in big billowing tents in the desert.
Golden Voice’s second smart idea: they got a much-missed band to reform every year, starting with Jane’s Addiction in 2001, continuing with the likes of Rage Against The Machine, Nine Inch Nails and, most memorably, 2012’s performance by a holographic representation of 2pac.
But if a single performance can be credited with altering the trajectory of Coachella from festival to religious experience, it is Daft Punk’s 2006 performance.
That was the night they unveiled their pyramid and converted appreciative fans into obsessed disciples. The only people who were more affected by attending the Daft Punk show were the people who had failed to make it to the Daft Punk show.
Demand from consumers scared of missing out on another iconic performance forced the promoters to expand 2007’s Coachella to a three- day event. In 2009, the festival unveiled its most mainstream line-up, with Paul McCartney, The Killers and The Cure headlining.
The following year, Jay-Z was the first rap bill-topper. 2012 saw such a hunger for tickets that Coachella evolved into two weekends of three-day shows. And, just as there are now two weekends, there are also two Coachellas.
Los Angeles is a mere two hour drive away from the Coachella Valley. Los Angeles is justly notorious for it’s population of pretty young people who enjoy having their photos taken.
Long before Kylie Jenner’s first pout, formative celebrity socialites the caliber of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan were swanning up to the Coachella VIP tents to be snapped in desert-appropriate attire.
Their presence acted as a siren song to corporate bodies who might previously have given the festival a wide berth.
Fashion houses, beauty companies, high-end alcohol manufacturers and lifestyle brands began making a stealth approach in the late 2000s. Initially, they sponsored events on the outskirts of Coachella.
Now, they’re an entire festival of their own. It’s not so secretly referred to as No-Chella: an endless circuit of pool parties in luxurious hotels where Instagram stars are sponsored to model designer clothes and gulp down designer drinks.
Fashion has laid claim to Coachella to such an extent that high street giant H&M has a ready-to-wear collection in 55 of its stores. The line, called H&M Loves Coachella, gives shoppers the chance to purchase the same kind of crop tops, fringed robes, beaded shorts and floral shirts, long-time concertgoers used to dig up in secondhand shops.
California tanning salons have also seen their sales shoot through the roof as Coachella season approaches.
“No one’s looking for a subtle glow at Coachella,” declared noted spray-tanner Katrina Brown, proprietor of The Bronzing Boutique.” What goes with the really cool ethereal hippie fashion is a deep bronze’.
Famed hair remover Paz Stark, owner of LA’s in-demand Stark Waxing Studio is equally effusive. “ Coachella is such a huge brand now. People are definitely getting groomed. There is no way they are going to go to the festival, then lay out at the pool, wear a bikini and show a lot of pubic hair.”
What better portrait is there of America in 2016 than Coachella? A single massive sprawling chunk of land populated by two disparate entities, one penniless, the other privileged, neither acknowledging the other’s existence, both wishing the other wasn’t there.
Somewhere, Eddie Vedder is laughing bitterly at what he inadvertently started.