Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Coachella vs. Bonnaroo: The defining music festivals of our generation

I never got around to posting a report about Bonnaroo this year and I only managed write for one day of Coachella, for my favorite day at least. But now after just coming back from Pitchfork in Chicago, which I am going to write about, I want to at least address the two before any other recaps. In the future I will go back and list some of my favorite shows and some of the awesome new bands I found out about but for now I want to write a more general comparison of the two because I believe they are the two most influential festivals in the country currently. They have also had a great effect on me personally as well.

I started going to music festivals in 2004, and that was also my first year of Bonnaroo. While I enjoyed the festival itself I had a bad experience with a girl and I took a year off in 2005. In 2006 I went to Coachella for the first time and started back up at Bonnaroo again and have been to both every year since, so it is here where I feel I can accurately begin to compare them. As you may likely infer at this point I go to a lot of music festivals, this Bonnaroo was my 40th one. Bonnaroo and Coachella have long towered above the rest for the sheer enormity, experience, and lineup. It has been very interesting to observe and experience the transformation of the two over the years, especially Coachella's.

When I first went to Coachella in 2006 it was a 2 day festival, only tent camping and no ins and outs (once you're in the festival you're in for the day). While it was an amazing and life-changing event (Sigur Ros and especially Daft Punk made sure of that) the festival experience was lacking at this point compared to Bonnaroo's. Part of the magic of these festivals is the community experience, setting up camp and being in the same setting as nearly everyone for the whole weekend really creates a better setting. At Bonnaroo basically everyone camps with their cars and is allowed to flow freely between the festival grounds and the campground whenever they please. These are policies that Coachella would adopt in the coming years, and while it took some trial and error for them figuring out how to best make it happen it was all for the better.

If you had asked me in 2006 or 2007 which festival i thought was better I most likely would have said Bonnaroo. While Coachella's lineups were a bit more my taste (they focus way more on electronic and less on jam-band type music, plus get more rare acts) the overall experience had to go to Boannaroo. 2007 was when the tide started turning though, as this was the first year Coachella became a 3 day festival. Bonnaroo has since responded (not directly or anything) by beefing up their Thursday lineup and making it a full blown 4 day festival. But in 2007, even with an incredible 3 day lineup the festival experience itself still paled in comparison to Bonnaroo's. Campers were forced to have their bags rigorously checked for substances, including alcohol which you were not allowed to bring into camp. And this was if you were able to actually get a camping ticket (which yes you have to pay extra for, unlike Bonnaroo) because they sold out their limited space quick. But seriously no alcohol?! Now I don't drink that much at festivals but there's no denying how lame that was. At Bonnaroo the security check is a joke, they put faith in their attendees and let them camp with their car for free and bring in whatever they want as long as it's not glass and you're not a dumbass.

But even with the negatives of the camping that didn't keep me from going, it just made me want more. Coachella had Bonnaroo beat in many ways, better setting, weather, art, and music (IMO of course). All that was in the way was the lack of community, and of course that pesky midnight curfew. One thing I didn't mention that Bonnaroo will always have over Coachella is the fact that it is private property and Bonnaroo can have shows go all night long. This leads to increased fun and longer sets for every artist which is a huge plus. Coachella was forced to end at midnight although in the past two years they have finally been able to extend that to 1am. That was in 2010, and this was a huge year for Coachella and the one that led it down the path to completely overtake Bonnaroo as the best festival in American in my opinion.

2010 was an absolutely huge year for Coachella, After selling out in 2007 sales were defintely down in 2008 and and 2009. Some blame the recession, some the weak lineups (I disagree on that one) but for whatever reason Coachella wasn't doing as well as it could have been. I believe in 2008 they actually lost money. But all that changed in 2010. Coachella made the announcement that it would no longer sell single days tickets, only 3 day passes for the entire festival. There would be no more casual goers, just there for one or two bands on one or two days. The festival would now only be attended by those who wanted to be there for the whole thing, to experience it all and become part of the community for the best weekend of the year. The also (FINALLY) decided to greatly expand the camping, allowing people to camp with their cars AND to be able to come and go between the festival grounds and camp as they pleased. I was very happy with this announcement, and despite complaints from a lot of people (mostly about the lack of single day tickets) the festival completely sold out. 2010 was definitely a major experiment for Coachella, and it showed.

Because while it was a blast 2010 was the biggest clusterfuck I'd ever experienced at Coachella. Well over 15,000 people were able to sneak in with fake tickets or just by climbing/breaking fences. The ticketing system failed and volunteers were overwhelmed with hordes of people. Coachella is supposed to be capped at 80,000 attendees. Festival creator Paul Tollet estimated that attendance that year was closer to 100,000 people. You could tell, it was unbelievably crowded that year and the experience suffered because of it. And while the camping grounds were much improved and expanded they stupidly (so, so stupidly) clustered all the showers and sinks into one massive area which people waited up to 3 hours in the blistering heat to use. Despite the problems though the improvements were worth it. Being able to go back to your campsite during the day to rest or even just have a beer (which you could finally bring in now, thank god) was incredible. The community feel of the fest was greatly enhanced, we became great friends with our neighbors and setup community shade spaces for all to share. It was clear Coachella had some kinks to work out, but the festival was definetly on the right path.

Now I haven't mentioned Bonnaroo for a bit in this entry and that is because during this time the Roo just kept doing its thing. Every year was great for a different reason, and being so close to my hometown of Nashville there were always a bunch of my friends there (although we have a really solid group for Coachella that has grown every year). I think this year though was the first year where the quality of the experience had clearly swung in Coachella's favor in just about every way. While it wasn't my favorite Coachella lineup it almost had to be my favorite year of going to the festival ever. They reinvented their ticketing system, sending out wristbands to patrons in advance and discontinuing the use of volunteers which cut down on the over attendance immensely. And incredibly enough Coachella sold out within a week of going on sale. But despite the sellout the festival felt a lot less crowded than in previous years. It was Bonnaroo this year that felt super overcrowded. And dirty, oh so dirty.

Now dirtiness is something you must come to accept at a camping festival. You're going to be sweating all weekend and using port-o-johns constantly so it's basically unavoidable. What is controllable is the state of the bathroom situation, and Bonnaroo kind of dropped teh ball this year. I don't know for sure but it feels like they sold more tickets and had less bathrooms than ever before. Lines were terrible, but that wouldn't have been so bad if there were clean stalls to use. It was a mess this year, I won't go into details but it's a fact, they screwed up. Coachella on the other hand has mastered their bathroom setup. They have 3 major areas of stalls, each having tons of units which are constantly being taken care of. It was extremely easy to find an acceptably clean stall basically every time. This was nearly impossible at Bonnaroo and it's something they need to improve upon next year because it really was about the worst I had ever seen in my 7 years of attendance. There are certain things a festival can't control (i.e. humidity and dust) so at least this is something they can improve on.

There will always be drawbacks to attending a music festival but to me they are always worth the price. There are many great ones out there but I believe these two festivals have played a huge part in setting the blueprint for these great experiences since they have each been doing it for 10 years. And while music festivals aren't for everyone most anyone who goes to them has a blast and wants to go back. For me they are among the two best weekends of the year. Coachella has gotten so popular that next year they are going to do the same festival 2 weekends in a row! Same lineup, same place, unprecedented for a US festival of that magnitude. It should be an interesting experiment, and you know I've already got my ticket (first weekend FYI). Maybe someday Bonnaroo will follow suit, but it needs to stop coasting and step up its game a little to match the growing number and experiences of other festivals popping up all over the country. A field I hope to enter one day, as I believe I know what it takes to create a great festival experience. It may sound a little crazy but it is something I truly want to do at some point in my life, and hopefully I will start it sooner than later. For now though I will continue to be a spectator, enjoy myself and at the same time learn from the experience. Plus takes lots of pictures, which go a long way to capturing the experience. Shit is way better than school, that's for sure.

Coachella crowd
Coachella sunset
Bonnaroo crowd / dust
Bonnaroo sunset


  1. Yes. Completely agreed… except I wish Coachella still allowed volunteers and had just done a better job with the whole thing. The clusterfuck of 2010 still might have been my favorite festival.

  2. Coachella and Bonnaroo are the best music festivals and known in the generation. The whole blog contains the information related to the different music festivals. Thank you for sharing