Coachella used to be a battle. We’d head out to the Polo Club knowing we were in for an all-day struggle, against brutal heat, overfilled tents and sad beer, not to mention terrible traffic, remote parking and fast-dying phones. Yet we’d go smiling, and do it all over again the next day, confident our reward would be the best collection of live music we’d get all year.
Sixteen years after the festival was founded (and 13 since I started attending), much has changed in Coachellaland. By moving forward on the calendar—from late April/early May to early April—the fest has ditched its famous triple-digit temps. Last weekend, the thermometer in Indio, California, topped out around 90, leaving sweat and sunburns mostly out of the equation.
Crowds? Coachella sold all of its tickets months ago, but it never really felt full, at least not the way it used to. The fields around the two outdoor stages seemed notably sparser than usual, both for heavy hitters like AC/DC and Jack White and hip sub-headliners such as Tame Impala and St. Vincent. And the tents, where we once showed up a time-slot ahead of a must-see band to score a prime spot? Usually less than half-full, for bands both new (Cloud Nothings, Parquet Courts) and old (Ride, Swans), and hardly crushed to capacity even for it acts like Caribou or Run the Jewels.
Beer? Gone is Heineken’s longtime monopoly, thanks to a craft-beer garden loaded with rotating taps. Traffic and parking? No problems that I experienced, with drives in and out swift on all three days and the walk from my daily lot a quick shot to the entrance. Hell, even our phones stayed with us this year, saved by the arrival of charging stations and free Wi-Fi in some parts of the venue.
By those metrics, Coachella 2015 would seem a raging success, all that we wished for back when we were whining. And yet, somehow, it wasn’t, at least not completely. In the end, what it lacked was spark, that intangible feeling of yes. Could it be that by striving to be perfect, the festival made itself less so? Did we need to endure those hardships for the payoff to truly pay off? Has Coachella become too comfortable?
It would explain a lot, like why so many there seemed so ambivalent about the music. Back when being there was tough, you had to really want it to put up with all that went into it. Now, $375 price tag aside, it makes for a relatively easy weekend spent with friends, with the acts onstage clearly a bonus, rather than the main draw, for some.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my time out there, and I caught some Grade A sets. Swans’ thunderous Saturday capper was a noise-lover’s treat; Ride delivered a dreamy dose of ’90s nostalgia on Friday; and St. Vincent closed out my Sunday with a strange but satisfying hybrid of guitar heroics and performance art. I also caught memorable chunks from at least a dozen others, including Eagulls, The War on Drugs, Tame Impala, Todd Terje, Perfume Genius, Run the Jewels, Panda Bear and Built to Spill, but most of the time, I didn’t sense much energy around me.
I’m told the biggest crowds showed up for the DJs—Kaskade, Axwell & Ingrosso and David Guetta and others—but coming from Las Vegas, where most spin regularly, they weren’t near my must list. Their huge turnout does raise a question, though: Might the fest consider filling its main stage primarily with DJs, and putting even its biggest rock acts somewhere else?
Logistically speaking, that might make sense, but I say doing so would chip away another big piece of Coachella’s true identity. Then again, I’m the guy kinda wishing he’d driven home with some sunburn on his neck.