Is it time for the most celebrated music festival in the United States to just give up the "rock" ghost and rename itself the Coachella Rave?
That’s what some music fans are wondering after the first weekend of the 2014 event, which was marked by beyond-capacity crowds for electronic dance music acts and spotty attendance for beloved, high-profile rock bands. The divide between rock hounds and electronic dance music is starting to look like the California desert’s own version of a civil war.
Although Arcade Fire drew a big enough crowd for their closing set Sunday night, frontman Win Butler made reference to the split in some pointed remarks from the main stage: "Shout-out to all the bands still playing actual instruments at this festival."
The previous night, the band Muse had trouble drawing a quorum of attendees to their headlining set. Noted the Los Angeles Times: “While a trickle of committed fans progged out with the English hard rock trio, all the action was deep in the Sahara tent,” where "one of the kingpins of the American EDM wave,” Skrillex, "led a beyond-capacity crowd.”
The Times’ writer suggested that Skrillex "should have been the one on the main stage last night," adding, "Coachella should give up its noodly classic rock ambitions and give into our new wave overlords."
Statements like that will come as music — throbbing, repetitive, horrible music — to many of the indie-rock fanatics who’ve thought of Coachella as their festival since it began with a Rage Against the Machine-driven bang in 1999.
The Arcade Fire singer’s comments reflect a polarization that previously came to the fore at the 2012 Grammys, when Dave Grohl gave a speech about how "singing into a microphone and learning to play an instrument (is) the most important thing for people to do," stating that music is "not about what goes on in a computer." He subsequently clarified that he loves electronic dance music, but the cheers his initial comments drew from rock fans and catcalls from EDM buffs made it clear there was a war a-brewing for the musical soul of America’s youth.
Is the town of Indio big enough for the both of ‘em — rock-ists and dance-ists? Maybe not. It wasn't just Muse suffering from the southward movement toward the two dance tents. The Times described legend Bryan Ferry’s set as "criminally underattended." As as a sign that "this change in the Coachella attendant had never been more apparent," Paste pointed out that Neko Case "played to a mostly empty field." Noted Billboard: "Superchunk similarly soldiered through an under-attended performance, entertaining a half-empty Gobi tent while Rudimental blasted its international hits to an overflowing crowd in the adjacent Mojave tent." Likewise, "Queens of the Stone Age and AFI lost huge chunks of their audiences to catchier concurrent sets from Skrillex, Empire of the Sun, and Bastille.”
The most anticipated reunion of the festival belonged to the Replacements, who were nominated for (but not quite voted into) the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this past year. As Billboard noted, "Only a few hundred festival-goers watched Paul Westerberg and company perform their first show in California since 1991, and perhaps as an acknowledgement of the low turnout, Westerberg slathered all of his commentary with a fresh coat of bitterness." Among Westerberg’s snide remarks: "I'm looking for a girl who's never used the word 'awesome'" — which the Times decried as "an out-of-touch-grandpa moment."
Coachella has come a long way from the late 2000s — when they booked veteran headliners like Paul McCartney, Roger Waters, and Prince — if now even mid-career rock acts like Queens of the Stone Age and Muse are being seen as over-the-hill by young attendees who just want to get lost in the beat.
What’s changed so significantly over just the last five years… besides the fact that a electronic dance music figure like Skrillex is now big enough to make the cover of Rolling Stone?
It might have as much to do with Coachella’s changing ticket policy as a total signal change in musical tastes. For most of its life, the festival did not sell out in advance and offered single-day tickets, so that if you wanted to come out on just a Saturday or Sunday to see your favorite band, you could. Now you have to buy a full three-day pass — including Friday, whether you can get the day off or not — and all tickets sell out before the lineup is even announced. That change lends itself toward the type of attendee who is drawn toward the festival as a lifestyle event rather than as a fan of individual acts.
And while there are certainly EDM acts who have a cult of personality, as Skrillex’s Rolling Stone cover will attest, most fans of the genre are unlikely to balk at the particulars of the lineup as long as the scene lives up to their expectations. They crave a weekend of full immersion, whereas rockers may be fine waiting for whichever favorites get booked at Coachella to show up at a venue where everyone keeps their shirts on later in the year.
For indie fans who did count on Coachella as a one-stop shopping point for the best in alternative music, it may seem like the tipping point has arrived where the genre that was once the festival’s token adjunct has now become its mainstream. Festival organizers certainly welcomed that transition in 2013 when they greatly enlarged one dance tent and added another. It was last year that the Sahara Tent was enlarged to something bigger than the size of a football field, while the smaller, air-conditioned Yuma Tent was introduced for moodier or more experimental forms of EDM that are less about bare chests and fist-pumping. Given how packed these hangar-sized outer venues are, it can only be a matter of time until the L.A. Times gets its wish and Muse is banished to the Sahara while the massive field is given over to the truly epic dance party waiting to happen.
The losers in this are the rock acts that count on Coachella as a media launching pad for new tours or albums, only to face headlines about how they flopped at the festival. The Replacements certainly gambled and arguably lost by pinning attention for their reunion on Coachella, leaving fans angry that the band would rather take Coachella’s money and play to a dwindling and disinterested crowd of the semi-curious rather than the sold-out theaters they could have faced (and maybe still can) on their own road trip. But will venues shell out for them or Ferry after news reports that no one cared at Coachella?
There were other signs that indie-rock has moved way down on the list of what anyone associates with Coachella. Justin Bieber jumped up on stage to sing with Chance the Rapper. Beyonce drew headlines just for a brief dancing appearance alongside her sister, Solange, cementing the notion that no Coachella will ever pass again without a token appearance by Bey, Jay-Z, or both.
The celebrity presence is perhaps best summed up in a random Perez Hilton headline: "Emma Roberts & Evan Peters Share Coachella Kisses While Listening To Music! SO Cute!" The paparazzi had a field day — literally, in a field — snapping the not-indie-er-than-thou likes of Selena Gomez, Lindsay Lohan, Michelle Pfeiffer, Minnie Driver, Katherine McPhee, Vanessa Hudgens, Joe Jonas, Kate Capshaw, Paris and Nicky Hilton, Lance Bass, Ashley Greene, Scout Willis, Ireland Baldwin, Hillary Duff, Emily Rossum, and David Hasselhoff. A brief fan-shot video of the back of Leonardo DiCaprio dancing to MGMT had more than 800,000 views, at last look.
And some of these folks were getting paid to attend Coachella, according to the New York Daily News, which reported that Lacoste and McDonald’s were paying Lea Michele and Vanessa Hudgens $20,000 and $15,000, respectively, to hit the festival as well as their attendant daytime pool parties at nearby estates or hotels. (Lacoste denied the report.)
There are also more luxury accommodations than ever on the festival grounds, for those able to pay. Win Butler won cheers for addressing it: "I just want to say that there's a lot of fake VIP room bulls--t happening at this festival," he said, "and sometimes people dream of being there – but it super-sucks in there, so don’t worry about it."
Be pampered by day, rave on at night — it’s not the "indie" aesthetic, but it may be Coachella’s. Or it will be at least until festival organizers decide that it’s time to hold separate gatherings for rock and EDM fans. Probably the only thing stopping them from that right now? The palpable fear that a dance-music-only festival in the desert could dwarf a separate gathering that returned strictly to "bands still playing actual instruments,” as Butler puts it. Guitars are nice, but as Don Henley prophesied: All she wants to do is dance.