Canary in the coal mine? Is Coachella our first look at how fans now balance fear against fun?
2nd Update (3/10/2020). Goldenvoice announces Coachella is postponed until October 9th and 16th. Update (3/6/2020). Today SXSW was cancelled. I believe Coachella goes next. The dominoes are starting to fall. Put your sunscreen away until 2021.
In the time of Coronavirus how will the Coachella music festival perform? Will it be canceled, poorly attended or thrive? This is a 3-day event for 125,000 people per day to wander back and forth across the Eldorado Polo Club’s fields between seven stages. With 125,000 wristbands per weekend being delivered now for the festival which is set for April 10th through 12th, repeated April 17th through 19th and followed by the country version “Stagecoach” April 24th through 27th, how or if the festival takes place will likely set the model for the entire festival season, and the arena or stadium shows which are already booked through the summer.
Coachella is a critical boost to the economy of the entire desert region surrounding the festival grounds. Hotels and rental houses are sold out from Palm Springs to Thermal. An influx of upscale tourism is expected. Restaurants, bars, golf courses, spas and shops are ready.
Typically, during the first week leading up to the festival there is massive spending by brands seeking to gain by association with the festival. Neon Carnival takes over a portion of the Thermal airport property to host a party for carefully curated influencers — those whose followers are measured in six digits or more. Levi’s clothing hosts a giveaway suite complete with DJs and bar for days at a Palm Springs hotel as do dozens of other brands from beverages to sunglasses. Last year Adidas built a popup show store in the middle of the windmill farm. Two years ago Dior hosted a spectacular dinner in Pioneer town.
All weekend there are events with closely guarded guest lists at which Snoop Dogg or Diplo will play, all struggling to attract the hottest influencers or social media stars with the biggest following. Some are in rented mansions, some are in hotel ballrooms, almost all are partnered with big money brands seeking to be associated with the perception that Coachella and those who attend set the pace for what’s hot and who’s cool. Just last year the Zenyara Estate, a massive property with a private lake near the festival grounds hosted the Adidas Sports Club, a display of Rolls-Royce automobiles and an entire weekend of invitation only parties.
These aren’t just parties with a guest list and a prize for attending. DJs are omnipresent, as are bands, video crews and product placements. Two years ago I saw Post Malone play a stage erected in the backyard of Kylie Jenner’s rented home for a party which began around midnight and ran until morning. Sponsors included BMW, Perrier Jouet champagne, plus brands which included Avion tequila, sunglasses, and Kylie cosmetics.
The scale of this party was massive. There were more than a thousand people there. Just, for a minute, imagine how many people were employed just for that event: bartenders and servers, drivers, cooks, security personnel, the audio and video crews to run sound and capture images and the Uber/Lyft drivers to get everyone to and from the staging area. Access was tightly guarded. You had to know where the staging area was, in a sand lot near the El Dorado polo field. There, in a purpose built tent was a crew equipped with iPads to confirm your invitation before you were allowed to board a shuttle bus which ran back and forth to the house where the party was held. You were issued a wristband, one of several if not dozens of bands you could acquire that weekend granting access to all the tightly controlled events around town. How many wristbands you wore as the weekend progressed telegraphed your status.
As you may be beginning to understand, Coachella is not simply a music event on the El Dorado polo grounds, it’s a massive undertaking from one end of the valley to the other offering full employment to anyone willing to work, including those temporary workers brought in for the three weeks the events run.
So, one question to consider is which is more important for the people who bought wristbands: avoiding crowds in hopes of avoiding Coronavirus contamination or showing up for one of the most important Instagrammable events of the year? This is not the perfect test as most of the attendees for Coachella are young and outside the definitions of the vulnerable population at risk for severe reaction to the virus. But, panic is panic and definitionally not rational behavior.
Another question is whether Goldenvoice and AEG, the promoters of the festival can risk bringing 150,000 people into town each weekend between attendees and support staff for them at the festival and throughout the valley into contact with a large population of more at risk retirees? In other words, can we trust the festival goers and the Uber and Lyft drivers or bar backs who come to work the festival are not Coronavirus carriers placing the entire population of the Coachella Valley at risk?
What is the reputational risk of holding the festivals over three consecutive weekends: the first two weekends of Coachella followed by their country tinged brand Stagecoach on the third weekend? How much money is too much to leave behind balanced against what’s the chance this ever happens again if the festival weekends go forward and leave behind hospitals full of the sick and dying? I’m not sure either outcome is entirely predictable, insurable or frankly a management problem capable of being solved. We know that Italy has now sequestered arena level sporting events, the Miami Ultra Music festival set for March 20–22, 2020 was postponed to 2021 and the Geneva auto show was cancelled.
Now, I think that Coachella is still the pace setter of festivals and I think I have taken a broad enough survey to say that. I’ve been to:
Life is Beautiful
Bourbon and Beyond
Desert Garden Jam
Nothing, and I mean nothing replicates the magic of being on that field for Coachella as the desert sun sets, the stars appear, lights color the trees, the strings of lit balloons wave across the sky and there’s nothing between you and bliss beyond your budget and your conscience.
As someone who is at least twice the average age of the attendees, Coachella is one of the rare places where I get high-fived just because I’m ambulatory. There aren’t many in my demographic out there, something I discussed with promoter AEG’s head Dan Beckerman during the Milken Global conference last year. Honestly, he and I share the experience of wandering the field like two lost Dads, in possession of some of our original hair, artist wristbands and a well-earned weariness which comes off to this population like we are their Dads in residence.
Looking at the numbers, Coachella is effectively sold out, with secondary prices today, March 5th, 2020 trending near or slightly above face value for Weekend one prior to fees, and just at or below face value for Weekend two. The number of tickets available for sale today increased by 185 for Weekend One, and remained steady at 1,934 for Weekend Two. This may be because wristbands have just started to be delivered to purchasers today, triggering those who question whether to go to list them for sale. Certainly some of those tickets are speculative listings, for which the seller hopes to fill with tickets bought at a lower price. Let’s assume a more realistic assessment is there are 2,000 Weekend one tickets and 1,500 Weekend two tickets out there looking for new homes. Historically, with a good lineup like we have for this year, prices surge into the festival as last minute decisions to attend cause a FOMO (fear of missing out) based spike in demand.
I don’t for a minute think there is substantial risk for the population of fans who attend Coachella. This group of drink passing, joint sharing, raw-dogging partiers don’t even always test the MDMA pills they pass around to make certain they don’t have this year’s free fentanyl enhancements. They don’t fear AIDS, venereal disease or a 30 minute wait for a $15 “Korean BBQ bowl” which is all rice except for 2 ounces of scrap meat. To most of them contracting the Coronavirus would be no worse than waking up, un-showered, in the car camping area adjacent to the festival without anyone there who thought to stock supplies in order to prepare some avocado toast for breakfast.
My guess is there is too much money already committed to the festival and the town to cancel now, five weeks prior to its start. I’ll likely go, just because why not? I’m equally likely to run into a Coronavirus infected person anywhere I go. In a country which does not mandate paid leave for illness or provide reasonable access to health care, we all but guarantee that someone with mild case of the Coronavirus and a severe case of “I need to get paid” will be working someplace where our paths cross. What other behavior can we expect when half the country would struggle to come up with just $500 which is the current price of entry to Coachella.
And, there perhaps lies the truth of how this virus will spread. It’s the old and infirm, plus the very young who are at risk of death by Coronavirus. But, the carriers are those who won’t feel much effect beyond basic flu like symptoms. They won’t self-quarantine because it will cost them their jobs, cars or housing. The monied class won’t stay home — even during World War Two they resumed going out to the pubs and restaurants in London between German air raids.
Is the fear of the Coronavirus rational? I don’t know. I believe it will spread widely then retreat. I also believe the numbers killed will lessen as more medical attention is paid and more solutions are found. As of this morning there are 11 deaths from Coronavirus in the United States and 25 dead from tornados in Tennessee. In a startling demonstration of you never know, on Tuesday Joe Biden killed $500 million of Michael Bloomberg’s money.
Absent a government mandate, I predict Coachella/Stagecoach goes forward and is close to fully attended. And, with a little luck and perhaps a large quantity of Purell, we may show the world that no matter how this virus spreads, and spread it will, you can’t hide from the inevitable. Or, as so eloquently stated by the band Cake: “the moment you’re born you start dying, so you might as well have a good time.”
Let me know what you think.
I’m a consultant advising leading companies in the live event space. If you are an investor, artist, promoter, team, producer, venue operator, primary or secondary market of ticketed events or have comments on this article, please don’t hesitate to contact me: Eric@FullerFacts.com #FullerFacts Copyrighted 2020 by Eric Fuller