How Coachella became the world’s worst music festival

"You're never seeing us again': Blur's Damon Albarn performing at Coachella
"You're never seeing us again': Blur's Damon Albarn performing at Coachella

Damon Albarn dropped one heck of a Blur bombshell as the Britpop veterans played the second of two headline performances at the much-derided Coachella Festival this weekend. “In the spirit of clarity and truth, this is probably our last gig,” he said. “No reflection on Coachella – I love Coachella.”

It says a lot about the reception Albarn and bandmates had received at their first Coachella show the week previously that the second gig was regarded as an improvement - even if it did see the singer apparently announcing the end of Blur. Seven days earlier, on April 13, the usually matey Albarn had thrown an “I’m not angry – just disappointed” dad-strop when the Coachella audience declined to sing along to mega-hit Girls and Boys. “You’re never seeing us again, so you might as well f______ sing it,” Albarn had grouched. “Know what I’m saying?”

Coachella did not know what he was saying. The showmanship Albarn has honed across decades playing festivals such as Glastonbury proved worthless in the deep desert, 132 miles south of LA and past the San Bernardino Mountains, where the assembled ranks of influencers and celebs are more interested in selfies than singalongs and where stand-storms can blow through at any moment – leading to the phenomenon of the “Coachella cough”, which festival-goers often experience after exposure to the dust and high winds.

The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival has long been an anomaly – a festival without mud, where alcohol has historically been restricted, and the glamorous guestlist has always overshadowed the music. It’s the anti-Glasto – and this year, the wheels have finally come off its gilded carriage.

Even before Albarn appeared to announce Blur were calling it quits, this had been a disastrous Coachella. Headline performances were plagued by technical issues. Lana Del Rey’s spot on the first Saturday (the festival runs identical bills over two consecutive weekends) saw the singer battle with a microphone that continually cut out. Del Rey and her crew were finally forced to do an impromptu sound-check mid-set – not the stuff of which golden festival memories are made.

Her slot was a triumph compared to that of producer and DJ Grimes, whose set descended into farce. After several stop-start attempts, Grimes – real name Claire Boucher – admitted defeat and asked her audience to make the best of a difficult situation. “All my tracks are double tempo, and I can’t do the math,” she said. “They’re borderline un-mixable, so the rest of my set won’t be mixes, but it’ll still be fun.”

It was not fun. Nor was it exactly a shock. Technical issues have long been an occupational hazard at Coachella – when Bad Bunny brought on Post Malone for a cameo in 2023, mic issues rendered the surprise guest practically inaudible. They finally admitted defeat, forcing Bad Bunny to perform his hit Yonaguni a cappella.

Grimes performing at Coachella 2024
Grimes performing at Coachella 2024 - Getty

There is also the outrageous pricing. Tickets for Coachella are in the region of $500 (around £400) – the same vague ballpark as Glastonbury (camping is an additional $149, and a VIP pass starts at $1,269). Then come the hidden expenses– such as transport to the desert valley, three hours from Los Angeles. Plus, once you get there, you’ve got additional eye-watering costs – with a single Heineken reportedly priced at $15 and two servings of hot dogs and fries setting you back $45. In 2023, a festival-goer went viral when they revealed they had paid $54 for two coffees and a pair of burritos.

This year, you could at least wander up to the front of Blur with beer in hand. At previous Coachellas, drinkers (over 21 naturally) were confined to special booze pens – as if watching Post Malone battle a failing mic in the withering desert heat wasn’t sufficiently dystopian.

Will Smith performing Men in Black with J Balvin at Coachella 2024
Will Smith performing Men in Black with J Balvin at Coachella 2024 - Getty

It should be noted that not everyone feels negatively towards Coachella. For American artists, headlining the festival is often regarded as an honour: when Billie Eilish played the main stage in 2022, she was overwhelmed and intimated that she did not feel worthy of the privilege. “Thank you, Coachella. I’m sorry I’m not Beyoncé,” she said. I love you, good night.”

But, reading between the lines, others are less keen. “It’s not that we don’t like Coachella. It’s just that we can’t stand it,” the pop-metal band 21 Pilots announced at the rival Firefly Music Festival in Delaware in 2017.

“The problem with Coachella, as with most things and places, is the people that go there. They’re the worst. Absolute worst. Not there for the music. They’re there to pose. They’re there just to say that they’re there,” agreed LA-based comedian Mark Hayes that same year. “They’re there for the Snapchats and the Instagram stories and the flower crown filters.”

Billie Eilish performing at Coachella 2022
Billie Eilish performing at Coachella 2022 - Getty

For some artists, that juxtaposition of open desert skies and indifferent audiences can be too much. In 2019, Mercury-Prize nominated singer Jessie Ware considered giving up music altogether after a “shocker” Coachella set.

“I clashed with Cardi B, a phenomenon that year, who was playing on another stage. Our equipment didn’t work,” she recalled. “You know how the audience at Coachella is, uh, pretty young? I’m up there, 33 years old, singing about motherhood. It was just… tumbleweed. My mum was there with me. Oh, she was honest. She said, ‘Darling. Quit’.”

Ware did not quit, but many are turning off Coachella because of its association with influencer culture. In recent years, the festival has struggled to sell out: in 2024, only 80 percent of the event’s 250,000 tickets were shifted.

The problem for Coachella now is that it is synonymous not with iconic music but with A-listers milling around backstage (the 2024 crop included actor Barry Keoghan and socialite Paris Hilton). The apparent obliviousness of the organisers to what makes a great festival doesn’t help. In 2017, Coachella co-founder Paul Tollett said he would not book Kate Bush because “no one is going to understand it.”

The great irony is that this most commercial event had its roots in one of the last serious attempts by musicians to resist the corporate takeover of the industry.

The first gig ever held at the Coachella Valley was by Pearl Jam in 1993, who were forced to explore off-the-grid venues during their boycott of Ticketmaster. Their struggles would prove fruitless, and Ticketmaster would conquer all. And now Coachella has come to embody the worst in music – a TikTok hellscape of dust storms, $45 hot dogs and a peeved Damon Albarn potentially pulling the plug on Blur. From Parklife to desert strife, it’s been quite a comedown – but, as the dust settles over the valley, it’s clear the real loser is not the disillusioned Albarn but Coachella itself.