Why the locals can't go to Coachella

Why the locals can’t go to Coachella

It was with a seven piece Mongolian heavy metal band who put out guttural sounds while playing Motorhead style riffs with traditional horse head violin, electric guitars and flutes. Behind me people of all backgrounds bow their heads, raise their fists and shout in unison. I watch The Hu at Coachella, the first music festival I’ve attended since the world changed forever. And they are f—king epic.

Equally enchanting is Spiritualized, an English space rock band that performed on the Sonora stage for a modest audience. When the band starts singing beautiful, choral-like arrangements, it does what all powerful music does: it makes my wandering mind meditate. Struck by a wave of nostalgia, I think about the past and how this festival, despite all the criticism it has rightly received, was a blessing to experience as a Coachella Valley teen feeling trapped and misunderstood.

My first forays into Coachella were in the late s, when catty indie gossip websites like Hipster Runoff dominated the weird corners of the internet and everyone wore silly things like “tribal” printed leggings and braided headbands. But back then, when I was an excitable suburban goth living in the California desert, I looked forward to going to this festival every year in high school.

Today, the world-famous event brings nearly 250,000 visitors to the valley each spring. People queue up to pay hundreds, even thousands of dollars for tickets, sometimes paying close to $10,000 for air-conditioned “Shikar-style” camping tents. A setting for the rich and famous, it has been attended by the likes of Kendall Jenner, Justin Bieber and Rihanna, and even spawned a luxury vacation rental business catering to festival elite.

But it wasn’t always like that.

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

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

Thanks to OWL

It’s the year 2010, and you’ve danced yourself clean

Before it started selling $375 sushi dinners and $7,600 VIP travel packages, the festival gave bored teens in Coachella Valley instant access 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 study the lineup as soon as it came out, deliberating which artists we wanted to see and whose house we would crash into.

And when we got to the polo grounds, we were met with utter anarchy: My stoner friends would stuff entire Ziploc bags of weed into their maxi pads; we would pressure guys to jump the fence, and those who did give us smuggled wristbands so we could all drink warm beer in the Heineken Dome(TM). As we made our way to the front of the crowd to watch artists like MIA, Arcade Fire, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, we smoked ridiculous pastel-colored cigarettes and misinhaled “creeping” marijuana pipes.

It was sweaty, surreal and a lot of fun.

It’s important to note, however, that even when the festival was offering $99 day passes and $249 three-day tickets, it was still a privilege to attend. I was lucky enough that my family saw the value in experiencing live music and got me those tickets – but today it’s even harder for local kids from low-income, middle-class families to get the same opportunity. So after 11 years I decide to return to the festival to see if it still holds the same magic – and who can actually attend.

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

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

Thanks to Coachella/Pooneh Ghana

Locals expelled

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

“I don’t hear that many students go to Coachella,” said 17-year-old Palm Springs High student and student government president Keona Corona. “They come from low-income families, so they can’t do that.” Corona says the festival is aimed at celebrities and the wealthy, making it nearly impossible for her and her peers to attend. “A lottery should take place in a high school that students have the opportunity to attend,” she says.

Likewise, Corona’s boyfriend, Riley Keane, a 17-year-old Palm Springs resident, says she wanted to see Harry Styles but couldn’t. “That’s because of how expensive the tickets are… and due to parking, dealing with the lines and even trying to get close to the Coachella grounds. It’s all just a mess.” When asked who she thinks the festival is for, she says it is mainly for social media influencers, and not for ‘normal’ people.

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

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

According to local DJs, the festival has put the valley on the map, turning the local community into a 'mecca' for music, art and culture.

According to local DJs, the festival has put the valley on the map, turning the local community into a ‘mecca’ for music, art and culture.

Thanks to Coachella/Jorg Photo

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

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

Since 2020, there has been a growing interest in the desert: property prices in Indio are increasing by about 33% every year. And from fiscal year 2016-2017 through January 2022, Palm Springs raked in a whopping $57 million in temporary occupancy taxes — an 11.5% tax on vacation rentals like Airbnbs or VRBOs.

The valley itself is slowly becoming a location.

The valley itself is slowly becoming a location.

Courtesy of Coachella/Interior Pixels

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