Why wild horses couldn’t drag me back to Coachella

Coachella’s many flaws highlight just how good we have it when it comes to festivals in the UK  (Getty for Coachella)
Coachella’s many flaws highlight just how good we have it when it comes to festivals in the UK (Getty for Coachella)

It was the second rickshaw that did it. The winding, dusty trail that leads from the Coachella taxi drop-off to the festival site proper is so long and circuitous that cyclists ply their trade along the marathon route. A couple of years ago this week, after half a mile or so of hiking in the baking sun, I finally caved and agreed to Venmo a jock with thighs the size of Christmas hams half a week’s wages to pedal me towards the distant strains of music. Eventually, we came to a fence, then a gate, and beyond it… another crowd of cycle rickshaws.

I blinked the dust out of my eyes and realised this was no mirage. For some arcane, inexplicable reason the road had been divided into two sections and I was now faced with either selling a kidney to pay for another rickshaw ride, or joining the luckless masses blistering their feet as they trudged joylessly through the dirt. I weighed my options and came to an easy decision: I never wanted to see this blighted hellscape of a festival ever again.

Coachella – back today for two more sun-dappled weekends – has a reputation as one of the world’s great parties, but in my experience, it’s a festival you’ll spend mostly sitting in traffic and paying obscene amounts of money to end up thoroughly underwhelmed. Still, I admit there was a time when I was desperate for a ticket – despite the $400 (£320) price tag (accommodation not included). From a faraway vantage point, Coachella looks pretty good. Beautiful people partying under palm trees as some of the world’s most talented musicians take the stage? Where do I sign up?

My first Coachella was 2013, a cursed year perhaps best remembered for insouciant French rockers Phoenix making the ill-advised decision to invite not-yet-convicted sex criminal R Kelly to join their headline set. I left home wide-eyed and in search of a California dream. I came back sunburnt, exhausted and with a newfound appreciation of just how good we have it in the UK when it comes to festivals. There’s a certain je ne sais quoi to partying all night in British fields that Coachella just can’t replicate.

Although I’m now an LA local, I grew up in England, raised amid the chaos of Reading Festival, where crowds of feral youths regularly transformed the campsites into Lord of the Flies – if Jack, Ralph and Piggy had been really into indie sleaze. Soon after, I graduated to Glastonbury, which remains to me the Platonic ideal of a music festival experience. It’s another world, an altered state you submerge yourself in for a long weekend.

Regulars, however, will know all too well that there is one recurring grievance. At some point in the night, once the headline acts have played their final note, some 200,000 people will try to move en masse to the after-hours party in the South East Corner, an underground rave area sometimes dubbed the festival’s “naughty corner”. This creates an immense and lengthy crush, think the tube during rush hour but a thousand times worse.

At Coachella, they’ve taken this perennial problem and added cars. Lots and lots of cars. Imagine Glastonbury if immediately after the Pyramid Stage set ended, half the crowd called an Uber and the other half wandered the fields too drunk to remember where they parked. It would be a traffic snarl-up of epic proportions, and it happens every single night at Coachella. Spare a thought for the vast swathes of rideshare drivers, who’ve typically travelled in from out of state to take advantage of the beyond-surge pricing, and who have as little idea about what’s going on as anybody else. Last year, my 10-mile trip took 48 minutes and cost $87.

This all begs the question: why is everyone so desperate to get to their cars? Because there is no “naughty corner” at Coachella. The after-parties happen off-site, mostly at luxurious rented homes in nearby Palm Springs – which aren’t covered by your ordinary ticket. To put it another way, after-parties aren’t really part of the festival at all, so they only add yet further expense and hassle to what’s already a logistical nightmare of a weekend.

To be fair, some people do camp at Coachella, but there’s precious little going on in the campsites after the headliners finish. Not to mention, everyone parks their cars next to their tents, which makes the whole thing very civilised and boring. Three kids from Reading with a box of fireworks could raze the whole place to the ground in about 30 minutes – and they’d probably have more fun doing it than many of the perfectly coiffured but joyless influencer types seem to have all weekend.

Given the stress required to get on and off site each day, you’d imagine the festival site itself must be little short of Shangri La. Guess again. Once you’ve made it past the extortionate food prices – $64 (£51) for two burritos and two coffees – it gets even worse. I have no doubt that what I’m about to say will shock and upset British festivalgoers, but it’s my duty to report the truth: at Coachella, it is impossible to drink booze while wandering from stage to stage.

Thanks to statewide drinking regulations (another reason why Brits do festivals better), you can only consume alcohol within certain designated fenced-off areas, and only a handful of these have a space where you can also glimpse a stage. Predictably, these areas become highly sought-after real estate, so the chances of finding a space to simultaneously sip something refreshing while watching a headliner play the hits are vanishingly slim. Frequently I’ve found myself penned inside a drinking cage like a battery hen, screaming internally: “My kingdom for a cider bus!”

This year, it seems I’m not alone in my disdain for Coachella. According to reports, ticket sales were at their slowest in 10 years and far fewer people have booked places to stay in the vicinity than they had this time last year. Some of that is surely down to the cost of living crisis: how can one justify a weekend that’ll cost upwards of $1,000 when doing the weekly shop is hard enough? You have to imagine, though, that memories of traffic jams and multiple rickshaws through dust clouds don’t help. Personally, this year I’ll be spending Coachella on the couch, watching the livestream with a steady supply of homemade cocktails on hand. Some things just look better from a distance.

Coachella 2024 takes place between Friday 12 April and Sunday 14 April, and returns for a second weekend on Friday 19 April