Inside Track: Coachella Wrestles With Pandemic Hangover, Influencer Audience

Inside Track: Coachella Wrestles With Pandemic Hangover, Influencer Audience

A full two years after Coachella became one of the earliest major music festivals to cancel amid the spiraling global pandemic, North America’s largest multi-genre event finally kicked off again April 15–17 with the first of two sold-out weekends in the baking sun and throat-irritating dust of Indio, Calif.

Amid the euphoria of an event that resembled 2019 in many ways, the scars from the health crisis that forced an unprecedented live-music shutdown were still visible. For festival organizer Goldenvoice, the return of Coachella is a symbol of the resilience of music culture and a celebration of the art form through masterful production and staging.

For many attendees, that message felt muddled by the presence of a large influx of influencers, who seemed more intent on posing for staged selfies and being on the invite list for Palm Springs’ most exclusive party – Revolve Fest.

Goldenvoice has never addressed the influencer culture that has developed around Coachella, opting instead to redirect the conversation to the artistry of the festival through its YouTube live and “Coachella Curated” documentary series. But is taking the high road working in 2022?

On Weekend One, the Coachella stages were often uncrowded, especially before sunset, while lines snaked through the grass for dozens of yards outside the seven-story Spectra tower in the center of the grounds, where attendees waited to ascend rampways and pose for photos against the multi-colored glass.

“I have a beef with the influencer girlies who are at Coachella,” @quelepasa_a_lupita said on TikTok on Sunday, tapping her screen with a long nail for emphasis. “Coachella at this point has just become a backdrop for these photos…This year I have heard more about the influencers…than about the music. That says a lot because Coachella is about the music.”

She also took issue with the fashion sense of this year’s edition, even among celebrity attendees. “Coachella is the Met Gala of the desert,” she said. “And you choose to go casual?”

Spectra, Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival

Spectra, a seven-story spiral walkway up to a viewing deck, is seen at night at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California, on April 15, 2022.

Most festival attendees reveled in the lack of COVID-19 restrictions, with tens of thousands interacting freely — hugging, kissing and making new friends with little to no apprehension. Only a small percentage wore masks or bandanas — even in the indoor Yuma tent — with them in place as much to protect from the blowing dust that worsened by Sunday evening as out of concern for an uptick in virus cases back in Los Angeles.

Compared to earlier years, there was a distinct lack of staff presence, following layoffs and the furloughing of thousands of on-the-ground workers and security personnel in the live industry due to promoters’ financial struggles. Parking lots were slow to empty, with traffic backed up for more than two hours after Friday night’s shows, while desperate festivalgoers throughout the weekend struggled to reach their ride-share cars and some resorted to paying $100 or more to unmarked drivers to take them home.

While there were a few technical snafus — Indonesian singer NIKI noted to Billboard that there were some glitches in her Friday evening show — the event went on without any headline-worthy problems, as did YouTube’s livestream.

Dance Music’s Coachella Realignment

Amid headlining performances from pop stars like Doja Cat, Harry Styles and Billie Eilish, the lineups revealed a distinct cultural and generational shift away from the EDM genre stars of years past and towards hip-hop and newer dance acts.

The Sahara tent, formerly the mecca for EDM, while still featuring big-name dance stars like Duke Dumont and Slander, was mostly hip-hop this year. On the Mojave stage, U.K. rapper Dave brought a superfan on stage for “Thiago Silva” on Sunday, while his friend Stormzy whipped up the VIP area by instigating a major mosh pit.

Dance music prevailed on other stages, with Disclosure and Jamie xx holding down shows on the Outdoor Stage and Fred again.. doing a transcendent Mojave set that was packed. And the Yuma tent featured some of the biggest house and techno stars of the world, including Richie Hawtin, Fat Boy Slim and techno DJs Anna from Brazil and Peggy Gou from South Korea.

With Kanye West’s late pullout from his Sunday headlining slot, Swedish House Mafia got bumped up to a back-to-back main stage show with The Weeknd as replacements. Whether the Swedes’ show — which featured a giant, concrete-looking “O” held up partway by cables and frenetic but minimalist visuals — will be enough to boost slow ticket sales for their summer swing through North America remains to be seen.

SHM were also part of one of the more memorable off-site events. Spotify held a highly curated party on Friday to launch Paradise Again, the trio’s first studio album — marking the streaming platform’s first major artist livestream. Major brands like Absolut and BMW backed the event at the Zenyara Estate, where the Swedes performed for more than two hours while a bevy of social-media influencers posed for their camera crews in sunken fire pits and while riding around in small boats on the faux lake.

The Swedish House Mafia party was one of the only events Billboard encountered that required proof of vaccination status against COVID-19. (As Billboard previously reported, group member Sebastian Ingrosso suffered for three months after catching the virus.)

Revolve Fest Nearly Gets Burned by the Fyre

Further away from the Coachella site there was even more intrigue. Transportation and logistics problems at Revolve Fest, an invite-only event for influencers and fashion bloggers, drew comparisons to 2017’s Fyre Festival, after videos surfaced of attendees chasing down shuttles and complaining about being forced to wait in the desert heat for hours with little access to food or water.

As with Fyre Fest, which was an unmitigated disaster, Revolve, which is three miles north of the Coachella music festival, soon generated a viral reaction from its unhappy attendees.

Revolve Fest is the marquee event for women’s clothing retailer Revolve, an online fashion brand created in 2003 by co-founders Michael Mente and Mike Karanikola in the aftermath of the tech bubble bust in late 2000. The company is one of several hundred brands that host unauthorized events in Palm Springs during the festival targeting Coachella-goers.

REVOLVE FESTIVAL

Hailey Anastasia attends the REVOLVE x The h.wood Group Present REVOLVE FESTIVAL at Merv Griffin Estate on April 17, 2022 in La Quinta, California.

Coachella organizers have few options to stop authorized events and will not dispatch its lawyers unless a brand illegally uses the festival’s name on any of its marketing or promotional material. Sources say that since launching their event at the Palms Springs estate of late TV host and media mogul Merv Griffin in 2017, Revolve has gotten as close as it can to crossing the line, relying on its deep network of social media influencers to flood TikTok and Instagram with posts about its festival-centric fashion lines and draw the festival’s online audience into Revolve’s own social media feed.

The company is creating so much content around Revolve Fest that finding photos of the transportation drama meant sifting through thousands of posts from influencers who were given tickets to attend in exchange for a promise to hit social media posting quotas from the event.

The posts created would then fuel a steady stream of Coachella fashion posts, created almost entirely by women, detailing the different items making up their outfit for the day. These videos were watched more than 173 million times, according to TikTok, and in 2018 generated 4.4 billion impressions — five times more than the festival’s official fashion partner, H&M.

A Revolve representative told Billboard on Tuesday that as the festival was reaching capacity late Saturday afternoon, “shuttle access to the venue was limited in order to remain in compliance with safety requirements causing longer wait times for entry and resulting in some guests not being able to attend the festival.” The rep added: “We sincerely apologize to all the guests who were impacted. We always strive to provide a great experience and we promise to do better.”

The event, which drew millions of eyeballs to the company’s social media pages, was greeted warmly by investors, who snapped up shares on Monday, pushing the share price of the company — which trades on the New York Stock Exchange — up 6%.

Additional reporting by Katie Bain.

Inside Track: Coachella Wrestles With Pandemic Hangover, Influencer Audience A full two years after Coachella became one of the earliest major music festivals to cancel amid the spiraling global pandemic, North America’s largest multi-genre event finally kicked off again April 15–17 with the first of two sold-out weekends in the baking sun and throat-irritating dust of…