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Debauchery In The Desert: A Beginner’s Guide To Coachella

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Every April, the sun-drenched desert of Southern California transforms into an oasis of sound, art, lights, colour, good vibes, and pool parties. The Empire Polo Club in otherwise-nondescript Indio becomes one of the world’s most famous musical playgrounds, a monster of a festival that draws diehard music fans, celebrities, and wide-eyed onlookers who are simply curious to see the spectacle.

Welcome to Coachella. Here you’ll experience some of the world’s biggest musical acts alongside the up-and-coming stars of tomorrow. You’ll play with interactive art, dance with strangers, and drink more water than you ever thought possible. You’ll meet people from across the globe and be tired – so *#&@ing tired – of cutoff shorts and flower crowns. And at the end of it all, you’ll be both exhausted and aching to do it again.

Coachella is a one-of-a-kind experience that consistently breaks records and makes headlines. Want to be part of the madness? Brush up on the basics with our beginner’s guide.

The Road To Indio

Coachella’s orgins can be traced back to a surprising source: Pearl Jam. The alt rock legends played a 1993 concert at the Empire Polo Club that proved the site’s suitability for hosting large events. Paul Tollett, whose promotion company Goldenvoice booked the venue for Pearl Jam, began toying with the idea of a full-scale music festival.

Six years later, the inaugural Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival was held at the Empire Polo Club over two days in October 1999. Beck, The Chemical Brothers, Tool, Morrissey, and Rage Against the Machine headlined the event, which billed itself as “the anti-Woodstock” by booking acts based on artistry rather than popularity. Although attendance fell short of the goal, the event ran smoothly. Attendees and critics were both charmed by the experience, and Pollstar named it festival of the year.

After skipping 2000, Goldenvoice brought Coachella back in 2001. It has run every year since, constantly expanding in size and scope. The festival increased to three days, then two consecutive three-day weekends. On-site camping was added. Tickets sold out for the first time in 2004. A decade later, with the event a firm favourite on the global festival calendar, tickets sold out in an eye-watering 20 minutes. Coachella, clearly, is here to stay.

Arts & Entertainment

There would be no Coachella without the music. Tollet set out to book trendy artists who hadn’t necessarily scored chart success. He wanted to recreate the vibe of the European festivals he’d attended – small crowds, a memorable setting, and a focus on talent over anything else.

It was a winning combination. The list of performers who have graced Coachella’s stages (named after famous deserts, like Mohave, Gobi, and Sahara) is long and getting longer. AC/DC, Amy Winehouse, Björk, Dr. Dre, Paul McCartney, Wu-Tang Clan, Coldplay, The Killers, Radiohead, Daft Punk, Kanye West, Gorillaz, Nine Inch Nails, The Strokes, The White Stripes, Lana Del Rey, Muse, Foo Fighters, and Florence and the Machine are just a few of the festival’s notable appearances.

What makes Coachella a unique animal is its motley approach to music. Acts come from all eras and genres. In a single weekend you could see Guns N’ Roses, Major Lazer, Sufjan Stevens, A$AP Rocky, and Ellie Goulding perform on the same stages. Whatever sound you’re searching for, it’s out there waiting to be found.

But don’t just call it a “music festival.” Along with cranking out endless epic tunes, Coachella also has a thriving artistic side. A variety of visual arts are showcased, including installations and sculptures. Many of the pieces are interactive to provide an added treat for attendees. Like the festival itself, the artwork becomes increasingly grand every year, as both Coachella and the artists try to outdo themselves.

Know Before You Go

As free spirited and free wheeling as Coachella is, you can’t show up and hope for the best. Careful planning is required before you can go with the flow and let festival fortune take you where she may. Your desert adventure begins with…

Tickets

You will need them, and you’ll need them ASAP. The lineup on each of Coachella’s weekends is the same, so choose whichever one suits your schedule and lock down your 3-day pass as soon as possible. If you’re going with a group, square away all your additional options (housing, VIP, shuttle, etc) so everyone can purchase tickets together.

Note that single-day passes are not available and no passes are sold at the venue. On the plus side, your Coachella pass is a wristband that’s good for the entire weekend – one wristband grants you access to all of the artists performing during those three days (well, as least as many as you can squeeze in without a psychotic break).

Travel

The Californian desert is your home away from home during Coachella. Palm Springs International is the closest airport to Indio, but festival-bound flyers more frequently land in Los Angeles at LAX. Others fly to San Diego, Phoenix, or Las Vegas and treat themselves to a road trip.

Once you’ve touched down, there are a variety of options for getting to the festival grounds. Indio can be reached by bus, train, or car (some rental companies offer Coachella discounts). Taxis and Uber are also efficient options. For an additional fee, you can purchase a pass for Coachella’s official shuttle, which services a selection of hotels in the area as well as a few other key stops.

Accommodations

There are both on-site and off-site options for accommodations. For the most complete Coachella experience, camping is the only way to go. The campground site is adjacent to the venue grounds and boasts a variety of cushy amenities – including free showers, a general store, mobile phone charging stations, water refill stations, and even an internet cafe with free wifi. Camping passes go on sale at the same time as festival passes and also sell out quickly, so don’t sleep on it.

If cost or availability means on-site camping isn’t an option, there are other campgrounds nearby. Hotel rooms are available but be prepared to pay higher-than-normal rates for the privilege of staying inside actual walls. In-the-know festival goers who shun on-site camping prefer Airbnb or other home rental options. Indio and the surrounding cities have a plentiful supply of pads with multiple bedrooms, pools, grills, and other perks that feel extra A-list after hours in the Californian sun.

The Coachella Cheet Sheet

Debauchery in the desert awaits! You’re almost ready to slip into your festival threads and join the singing, swaying, Flash-tattoo-wearing masses in Indio. We’ll leave you with five final pieces of advice to make the most of your weekend of Coachella bliss.

Pack stylish and smart.

Festival style ultimately comes down to personal taste, but there are a few musts. Planning your outfits ahead of time ensures the experience goes smoothly. Prepare for blazing hot weather but have warmer things on hand. Coachella can cool down or rain unexpectedly. Bring shoes you can comfortably spend several days of dancing in. Take multiple pairs of sunglasses, none of which are the prized pieces in your collection – they are both a necessity and easily lost. Also advisable: a refillable water bottle, a phone charger, a hat, a bandana to shield against dust, ear plugs, sunscreen, and allergy meds.

Make a game plan.

With acts performing on every stage simultaneously for the duration of the event, it’s impossible to do it all. Make peace with the fact that you may miss a favourite in order to see another favourite. To minimise that as much as possible, check the festival guide at the beginning and make a game plan for your day. If you’re with a group, agree on a meeting place for each stage and for the end of the night. Don’t expect to rely on your phone for any of it. Coachella’s service is notoriously spotty. When serendipity is calling, don’t be afraid to ditch your plans. Part of the fun of a festival is going with the flow, discovering new bands, making new friends, and seeing where your adventure takes you.

Practice self-care.

You won’t make it past day one if you don’t take care of yourself. Top of the list? Stay hydrated. It may feel like you’re on another planet, but you’re still in a desert. Water is key to Coachella survival. Eat regularly, even though the heat may cause your appetite to dwindle. Enjoy the booze but pace yourself. A raging hangover is guaranteed to kill the mood.

Party on.

If the main event isn’t enough hedonism for you, the party continues off the festival grounds. Day parties and after-parties take place throughout Coachella season, hosted by major clubs and big-time brands. Some are free, others require cover, and some are ultra-exclusive, invite-only affairs. Vestal Village and Neon Carnival are two of the crown jewels if you can finagle entry.

Don’t be “that guy.”

You know that guy. He’s the one who’s so out of his mind that he can’t figure out his shoes. Or the one blocking everyone’s view with a huge stuffed animal. Or the one elbowing his way to the front of a crowd that’s been patiently waiting to see their favourite act. Or the one loudly begging for drugs. Coachella is a place of peace, love, and harmony. Be on your best behaviour. You never know who might be in the crowd.

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