July 17, 2024

Why locals can’t go to Coachella

Why locals can’t go to Coachella

It was with a seven-piece Mongolian heavy metal band belting out guttural war cries while playing Motorhead-style riffs with traditional horsehead fiddles, electric guitars and flutes. Behind me, people of all backgrounds bob their heads, raise their fists and scream in harmony. I’m watching The Hu at Coachella, the first music festival I’ve attended since the world forever changed. And they’re f—king epic. 

Equally enchanting is Spiritualized, an English space rock band who performed to a modest crowd at the Sonora stage. When the band starts singing gorgeous, choir-like arrangements, it does that thing that all powerful music does: It makes my wandering mind meditate. Hit by a wave of nostalgia, I think about the past and how this festival, for all the flak it rightfully receives, was a blessing to experience as a Coachella Valley teenager who felt trapped and misunderstood. 

My first trips to Coachella were in the late aughts, back when catty indie gossip websites like Hipster Runoff dominated the odd corners of the internet and everyone wore dumb stuff like “tribal” print leggings and braided headbands. But at that time, when I was an irritable suburban goth living in the California desert, I looked forward to going to this festival every year in high school.  

These days, the world-famous event brings nearly 250,000 attendees to the valley each spring. People line up to shell out hundreds, even thousands of dollars for tickets, sometimes paying nearly $10,000 for air-conditioned, “Shikar-style” camping tents. A backdrop for the rich and famous, it’s been attended by the likes of Kendall Jenner, Justin Bieber and Rihanna, even spawned a luxury vacation rental industry catering to festival elite. 

But it wasn’t always like this.  

In 2009, 2010 and 2011, Coachella was sweaty, surreal, and a whole lot of fun. 

In 2009, 2010 and 2011, Coachella was sweaty, surreal, and a whole lot of fun. 

Courtesy of OWL

The year is 2010, and you danced yourself clean 

Before it started hawking $375 sushi dinners and $7,600 VIP travel packages, the festival gave bored Coachella Valley teenagers a direct line to alternative culture. The first time I went was in 2009, when I was just a 14-year-old freshman — and when general admission tickets were about two-thirds the price they are now.  Every spring, my peers and I would pore over the lineup as soon as it dropped, deliberating which artists we wanted to see and whose house we’d crash at. 

And when we arrived at the polo grounds, we got to experience total anarchy: My stoner friends would sneak entire Ziploc baggies of weed in their maxi pads; we’d peer pressure boys to hop the fence, and the ones who actually did gave us bootlegged wristbands so we could all drink warm beer in the Heineken Dome (TM). While we pushed our way to the front of the crowd to watch artists like M.I.A., Arcade Fire and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, we smoked ridiculous, pastel-colored cigarettes and incorrectly inhaled from “stealthy” marijuana pipes. 

It was sweaty, surreal and a whole lot of fun. 

However, it’s important to note that even when the festival offered $99 day passes and $249 three-day tickets, it was still a privilege to attend. I was fortunate that my family saw the value in experiencing live music and got me those tickets – but these days, it’s even harder for local kids from low-income and middle class families to have that same opportunity. So after 11 years, I decide to return to the festival to see whether it still possesses that same magic — and who’s able to actually attend. 

An aerial view from the Coachella Music & Arts Festival, 2022. 

An aerial view from the Coachella Music & Arts Festival, 2022. 

Courtesy of Coachella/Pooneh Ghana

Locals pushed out

Tragically, I learned that the average Coachella Valley teenager will probably never be able to share that same experience I had. 

“I don’t hear about a lot of students going to Coachella,” says 17-year-old Palm Springs High student and student government President Keona Corona. “They come from low-income families so they’re not able to do so.” Corona says that the festival caters to celebrities and the wealthy, making it near-impossible for her and her peers to attend. “A raffle should occur at a high school where students have the opportunity to go,” she says. 

Similarly, Corona’s friend, Riley Keane, a 17-year-old Palm Springs local, says that she wanted to go see Harry Styles but couldn’t. “It’s because of how expensive the tickets are … and because of parking, dealing with the lines and even trying to get near the Coachella grounds. It’s all just a mess.” When asked who she thinks the festival is for, she tells me that it’s mainly for social media influencers, as opposed to “normal” people.

But Rafael Lopez, aka Alf Alpha, a resident DJ who’s been playing Coachella since 2011 (and who DJ’ed my high school dance junior year) says that accessibility isn’t an issue. “If you want to go, you buy a ticket. Goldenvoice has been offering local ticket sales to all local Coachella Valley residents,” he writes via email. While Coachella does offer general admission passes to locals, they’re sold at “full price” for $599 — meaning that residents pay about $100 more than those who buy Tier 1 general admission passes. 

Regardless, Lopez says that Coachella has revitalized the area. He explains that it put the valley on the map, turning the local community into a “mecca” for music, art and culture. “The festival has inspired lots of economic growth in the valley. The festival has also introduced many new visitors. … It’s given our valley more life.” 

Resident DJs say the festival put the valley on the map, turning the local community into a “mecca” for music, art and culture. 

Resident DJs say the festival put the valley on the map, turning the local community into a “mecca” for music, art and culture. 

Courtesy of Coachella/Jorg Photo

And he’s right — it brings big business to the desert. 

Indio’s city manager, Bryan Montgomery, says that locals who rent out their houses during festival season use that income to pay off their mortgage for the entire year. Thomas Soule, Palm Desert spokesperson, says that hotels in the area book for $700 to $800 per night during Coachella weekend. Attendees also dine out at local restaurants and shop nearby outlets, boosting the city’s economy. “This is when most people make their money for the year,” he says. 

Since 2020, there’s been burgeoning interest in the desert: The prices of properties in Indio are rising by about 33% every year. And from fiscal year 2016-2017 through January 2022, Palm Springs raked in a staggering $57 million in transient occupancy taxes — an 11.5% tax on vacation rentals like Airbnbs or VRBOs. 

The valley itself is slowly becoming a venue.

The valley itself is slowly becoming a venue.

Courtesy of Coachella/Interior Pixels