Coachella: Seven Tips to Maximize Your Festival Experience

In the early 1990s, the rock band Pearl Jam held a concert in the middle of nowhere to protest Ticketmaster’s monopoly on event access. Despite its distance from a major city and the heat of the desert, tens of thousands of fans made the trek to the Empire Polo Club of Indio (which sits 25 miles outside of Palm Springs). It was a smashing success. Suddenly, the town previously known for its sweltering spring temperatures and its higher-than-average date palm production became the new hotspot for live music, and in 1999, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival was born.

Through the careful curation of its lineup, a mix of legacy rock-n-rollers, hyped reunions and up-and-coming acts of every genre, Coachella has grown into the most famous music festival since Woodstock. Because of this, everybody has an opinion on the festival. There’s a “there to be seen” celebrity aspect, and the rise of electronic dance music is unpopular with rock purists of the festival's early days. However, to truly judge Coachella, one needs to attend. And once you attend, you’ll want to return every year.

Indagare’s Colin Heinrich, a veteran of nearly a decade’s worth of Coachella festivals, has 7 tips to help first-timers (and seasoned festival goers) experience the event to its fullest.

Get the lay of the land.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="620"]Parking lot at Coachella Courtesy Chris Miller[/caption]

The polo grounds have changed very little since the inaugural Coachella. The company Goldenvoice, who bought the grounds outright a few years ago, have made minor improvements over the years—adding permanent toilets to the terrace, moving stages and the Ferris wheel around to fine-tune issues with sound bleed and crowd traffic—but ultimately the lay of the land is the same as it was back in 1999. The grounds are made up of an opening terrace, full of food options, merchandise and the Beer Barn, as well as the main field. Food stalls dot the sides of the fields, and the VIP areas are crammed in the corners next to the Main Stage and the Sahara Tent. The campgrounds are located directly next to the grounds, and the Safari Tents (more on those later) are clustered in their own private area with a dedicated entrance to the grounds.

There are six stages at the festival, sitting on the edge of the fields like spokes on a wheel. The Main Stage, the largest, is for headliners and other large acts. The Outdoor Theatre, next to the Main stage jutting out at 45 degrees from the corner, is for secondary acts who nevertheless have fans who could not fit into a tent—Lana del Rey, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Pharrell have played this stage in the past. Notably, The Outdoor Theatre is a congregation of sunset serenades, where quieter acts like Jeff Mangum and Bright Eyes play to swaying crowds in the festival’s ultimate moments of peace.

Next to the Outdoor Theatre is the Gobi Tent, a smaller space with a dark interior draped in chandeliers. Smaller, more experimental acts usually debut here—the fame of both Flume in 2014 and Disclosure in 2013 exploded shortly after their appearances. There’s also the Mojave Tent, slightly larger than the Gobi and featuring a mix of acts who haven’t yet grown large enough for the outdoor stages. In the corner of the festival is the Sahara Tent, a behemoth of a stage that nearly eclipses the main stage in size, and certainly eclipses it in production value. This is where the DJs and producers play, with all the lights they could want for a show. Yuma Tent, a small stage, dark and air-conditioned, captures the feeling of a grimy London club, and the Do Lab, an independent stage that hosts its own lineup of acts, sprays its visitors down with water cannons, a welcome respite on hot desert days.

If you are looking for a VIP experience, find a Guest or Artist Pass.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="620"]Tents at Coachella Courtesy Andrew Jorgensen[/caption]

There are several different categories to Coachella tickets, and all of them are pretty hard to get. But it’s important to know, specifically, what each ticket provides. The General Admission pass is the most basic and the VIP pass is a step up, with additional private viewing areas and exclusive food and beverage options.

However, the VIP passes are not optimal, as the viewing areas themselves are pushed into the corner and offer poor views.

The real insider experience comes with a Guest or Artist pass. These exclusive wristbands are given to artists playing the festival, as well as their entourage, family and friends, and offer such amenities as full backstage access—or even sidestage or onstage access—golf cart transportation between areas of the festival, a private viewing area directly in front of each stage, and more. Indagare members can contact our bookings team for help scoring one of these illustrious passes.

Another truly VIP experience is staying in a Safari Tent. These accommodations, pitched onsite next to a gorgeous lake, are on par with luxe safari camps of Africa. All are air-conditioned, come with a full bar, a Concierge service and—most importantly—Guest passes all around. While the hotels and private villas of Palm Springs are lovely and popular way to stay, none offer the quintessential Coachella experience quite like a Safari Tent, where guests fall asleep at the end of each exhausting day with the towering spotlights of the Polo Fields as a nightlight. While spaces are extremely limited, Indagare can assist in booking a Safari Tent.

Decide which weekend will fit best with your tastes.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="620"]Ferris wheel and hot air balloon at Coachella Courtesy Oliver Walker[/caption]

In 2012, Coachella grew too big for its own good and underwent a sequence of mitosis. Now replicated over two identical weekends, the new schedule gives music lovers a better chance to attend. However, identical in lineup doesn’t equate to identical in experience, and there are subtle differences between the two weekends that can have big impacts on your enjoyment of the festival.

Strangely enough, one of the most important differences is in the grass. The perfectly manicured, green grass of the polo fields is one of the defining characteristics of the festival, and there are few experiences as satisfying as laying back in the early afternoon with a slice of watermelon, letting the gentle beats of an acoustic set drift over you. But there are hundreds of thousands of people trampling the grounds each day, and by the second weekend, this field of dreams becomes a wasteland of brown. Without the grass, dust storms kick up with ease. This is especially prevalent at sunset, when the winds begin to blow before calming down at night. The sunset filters through this dust, and your picture-perfect Instagram comes out looking like the apocalypse.

A more obvious difference is in the crowd. As a status-festival, the first weekend is far more popular with both celebrities and the average Joe. For better or for worse, there is simply more going on. The second weekend, on the other hand, features a calmer and demonstrably more patient crowd, which makes it easier to traverse and certainly easier to take in.

That’s not to say one is better than the other. Both hold their surprises—the infamous Tupac hologram of 2012’s first weekend, Kanye West’s appearance with The Weeknd in 2015’s second—and both have fans who will rabidly proclaim superiority. But if this is your first year going, don’t get swept up by the hype on either side. It’s Coachella. You can’t go wrong either way.

The food is part of the Coachella experience.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="620"]Long outdoor dining table at Coachella Courtesy Brian Feinzimer[/caption]

Many music festivals relegate food to an after thought, a burden you have to bear throughout the weekend. But at Coachella, the food lineup is as important as any of the artists, and the organizers actively promote its chef bookings.

Years past have featured celebrated Los Angeles–based culinary geniuses like Alvin Cailan of Eggslut, Roy Choi of Kogi and Kazunori of Sugarfish. This year’s offerings are even better, with headlining chefs Nyesha Arrington (2015 Los Angeles Chef of the Year), along with Chris Oh of Seoul Sausage, Antonia Lofaso of Scopa, and Michael Voltaggio of Ink.

Many chefs serve their food at stalls and trucks scattered throughout the festival grounds, but the best gastronomic experience is at the special “Outstanding in the Field” dinner, held with two seatings every night of the festival. This four-course meal is curated by several different chefs each night with an omakase-style menu and includes beer from California’s booming craft brewery scene and wine from its reigning champion wine region.

If you choose to skip the curated dinner—it does require a commitment that may take time away from your favorite bands—you’ll still never be far from a good meal. Crab fries, a heaping pile of French fries covered in fresh crab meat and sauce, are a crowd favorite that people wait all year for, and there is a craft beer barn that features over 100 breweries and all types of porters, lagers and ales.

Come for the headliners, stay for the undercard.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="620"]Stage at Coachella Courtesy Andrew Jorgensen[/caption]

In 2008, Amy Winehouse swept the Grammy Awards. Her music played the backing beat to every sorority's spring social and many macho men’s unashamed belting session in their cars. But in 2007, Amy Winehouse was featured on the very bottom line of Coachella’s poster. A nobody. She played a daytime set in a tiny tent to what may have been the smallest crowd she’d ever see again.

Coachella is known for bringing in the big names. You’ve heard of Guns N’ Roses and Calvin Harris. You may have even heard of LCD Soundsystem. But on the bottom line of Coachella’s 2016 poster is a list of names you’ve never seen before, and it’s a list of names you probably think you’ll never see again. But pay attention. Because as much as Coachella is known for bringing in the big names, it’s also known for launching the careers of artists who would go on to take the industry by storm.

So while it’s tempting to relax by your villa's pool or hang out in the beer gardens all day, don’t forget to check out the early acts. There’s an Amy Winehouse every year just waiting to be discovered.

This year, Friday’s undercard features Gallant (essential song: “Weight in Gold”) and Låpsley (essential song: “Hurt Me”), two young singers that have recently made big waves at SXSW in Austin. Saturday will feature sets by Matoma (“Running Out”) and Rhye (“Open”), while Sunday has Anderson .Paak (“Am I Wrong”), Kamasi Washington (“Change of the Guard”), Alessia Cara (“Here”) and Young Fathers (“Low”). Watch their sets and you'll be on the right side of history.

Drink more water than you know what to do with.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="620"]Coachella crowd at night Courtesy Chris Miller[/caption]

You’d think it would go without saying in a desert where the temperatures regularly top 100 degrees, that the dry heat leeches moisture straight out of your skin. It’s hot. And yet, every year, somebody in your eyeline will sway like a leaf in the wind before toppling over from heat exhaustion.

Coachella is one of those magical times where you can lose yourself in the moment, but it's important to not let yourself become so removed from your own awareness that you forget to hydrate. In a desert like the Coachella Valley, you should be drinking at least four times the amount of water than you do in a typical day. And where you’re on your feet all day, drinking alcohol and dancing like you’re still in college, you should be drinking double that again. Your body will actually crave the water so much that you’ll hardly even need to use the port-a-potties (which, let’s be honest, you’ll want to avoid in the first place).

Look out for off-site carnivals.

If a rising tide lifts all ships, then the world's most popular music festival turns the region into one big party each year. Satellite events—unaffiliated and unendorsed by the main attraction, mind you—pop up throughout the Coachella Valley for days before and after the festival. These range from the classy—a cocktail event at the Parker Palm Springs in years past—to the debauched sideshows of various booked artists.

The most exclusive of these satellite parties is the Neon Carnival, produced each year by Paper Magazine in an airplane hangar at Palm Springs International Airport. Its name is entirely accurate, complete with bumper cars, a Ferris wheel, carnival games and more, all draped in a cascading tapestry of neon rainbows. Access is reserved for VIPs and strictly controlled, and since the Carnival is independent of the festival itself, not even a Guest or Artist wristband is guaranteed to get you in. Once inside, though, you’ll get to watch Leonardo DiCaprio dance like nobody’s watching and realize that you’ve made it. Indagare can provide access to this exclusive event for members. Contact the Bookings Team for more information.

Published onApril 7, 2016

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