Coachella is intended to overwhelm. The art dazzles the eyes. The food wakes up the tastebuds. The vibration of the bass makes your heart race. The smell of pretty girls in expensive-looking clothing perfumes your walk across the field as you draft in their golden slipstream. It all makes the pile of the money you dropped on the weekend seem worth it.
But Coachella 2017 also overwhelmed in a manner that was less “whimsical fun” and more “pervasive anxiety.” There were moments, for example, like being pushed through a crowd of DJ Khaled fans so packed that anyone attempting to escape lost control of which direction they were going and had to succumb to the sweaty mass of humanity pressed up against them. There was the moment when the Yuma Tent filled up so quickly for Solomun’s Saturday night set that you found yourself forced up against the wall of a space that had been fairly empty 10 minutes earlier. Coachella should be exciting, but it should not be actually scary.
There were just too many damn people at the festival this year.
Last spring, Goldenvoice announced a 40-acre expansion of the festival site and a parallel increase in capacity, which boosted the Coachella crowd from 99,000 to 125,000. Most of this new space was devoted to increased car camping and general-admission parking areas, and indeed getting into the GA parking lots during the day did feel more efficient than ever. (Getting out at night was still a multihour, bumper-to-bumper test of patience, but when has it ever not been?) On the festival grounds themselves, the Gobi and Mojave tents and the Outdoor Stage were all pushed back from their previous positions. On the other side of the field, more acreage was added by the entrances, with a new stage, the Sonora, making its debut. This real estate boost was presumably meant to absorb the extra 26,000 attendees roaming the grounds, yet it was hard not to feel like cattle for most of the weekend.
Everywhere, there were people. Sleepy bros you had to step over to get to the bathrooms. Shiny teenage girls whom you bumped into over and over again because they were too busy Instagramming themselves into the void to watch where they were walking. There were hordes of people huddled in pools of shade. People in line for the ID check. People in line for free water refills, to the point where it was easier just to go buy another bottle of water. People in line for tacos, lemonade, ice cream, cold-pressed juice. Wide-eyed artists made brief appearances in the craft beer area, professing their shock at the conditions in GA before slamming IPAs and scurrying back to the artist compound.
Coachella is a singularly in-demand ticket. The show has sold out within hours of going on sale for the past six years, despite expanding to two weekends in 2012. (“We could do five Coachellas with the amount of people that want to come to that show,” Goldenvoice vice president Skip Paige told The Desert Sun last April.) Coachella 2017 sold out in three hours, despite the 52,000 more tickets available over the course of the two weekends.
One can see how Goldenvoice, the company that puts on the festival, is in a tricky position. The show is now ubiquitous. It is a worldwide mega-brand, an H&M fashion line, a youthful promise, a utopian dream swaddled in Free People rompers. People around the globe want to participate and will pay $399 for a GA wristband or $899 for VIP to do so.
There are thus insane, Scrooge McDuck–swimming-through-pools-of-gold amounts of money to be made. Coachella was, in fact, the highest-grossing music festival in the world, until another Goldenvoice event held on the polo fields, Desert Trip, eclipsed it last year. Coachella raked in $94 million in 2016, and revenues this year will surely be higher given the expanded ticket sales. This is obviously good for the local economy in Indio. Not taking cash that’s essentially begging to be made would have been a questionable business decision at odds with the relentless juggernaut of capitalism.
That said, while the expanded site was huge, it just didn't feel big enough for the number of people in attendance. Crowd members from the Mojave to the main stage were overheard commenting about how there were way too many bodies on the field. (Meanwhile, the VIP area was rumored to be pretty spacious, because money = privilege 4VR.) For the GA crowd, however, one had to arrive early to any show they really wanted to see to avoid getting stuck on the fringe of yet another packed crowd. One of the appeals of a festival like Coachella is the ability to see a little bit of a lot of bands, but the opportunity to do so this year felt compromised, particularly with the increased distances between stages. One attendee reported walking a casual 22 miles over the course of the weekend.
Coachella 2017 stands to make more money than any music festival in history. That’s great for Goldenvoice and parent company AEG Live — but to improve the experience of every person on the field, the Coachella overlords should reinvest some of those profits into additional acreage or other crowd-mitigation efforts.
The good news is that weekend two is always less packed.