4 min read

A tale of two spectacles

I cannot resist adding kindling to the moveable feast of obits for Coachella, evidenced by two straight years of failures to sell out. If my take doesn't sate you, this one is recommended.

Coachella as a lifestyle event likely has legs, but it's days as a music trend setter are long over.

Banking so much of your cache on reforming defunct acts inevitably leads you here. You eventually run out of the willing and able acts (Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Pixies, Rage Against the Machine), then transition to the ones accepting the pay days (Outkast) and the ones that, in all honestly, should not be headliners (or near headliners) in the year of our Lord 2024 (no doubt I'm talking about Sublime and No Doubt). Talking Heads, R.E.M., and The Smiths are not walking through that door.

When Vampire Weekend is spending precious stage time serving as a soundtrack for Paris Hilton to play cornhole, you know the gig is up. Indeed, the scuttlebutt from the festival is more tied to cameos and Blur's crowd antagonism than any specific act.

It certainly didn't help being smack dab in the middle of the only true concert juggernaut, Taylor Swift, who you assume would never deign to lend her incredible brand power to, frankly, a secondary venue (Coachella, virtually any festival, the Super Bowl). When the star with the greatest wattage is doing better on her own, you may struggle to create the necessary splash to make your own way.

Coachella has been coasting for some time. The only Coachella I went to, 2012, featured a headlining show from Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and a Hologram 2Pac show. The only real music memory from that event was watching The Weeknd off the strength of his House of Balloons EP and mixtapes; pre Starboy and everything else. He was playing the smaller stage mid-day, which seems laughable now. One, because a few million fans would struggle to imagine The Weeknd as a fully blown pop star. And two, a band today that has the buzz that The Weeknd had in 2012 would have jumped the queue in the lineup.

I have nothing against No Doubt, but c’mon. I’m told that “I’m Just a Girl” is now TikTok-popular, but so is a mid-song break moment in “Blue Monday.” I don’t expect a ton of Gen Zs to flock to a New Order show. That is service to an ideal, not a literal response to demand. It’s a hail mary in a game getting away from the world.

While Coachella was in Indio, pulling every trick out of its hat, a different type of maximalism was happening 280 miles south in Las Vegas.

Of couse, I speak of the inevitable Phish Sphere concert, which, we've learned has been in the works since before the massive stadium was built.

Full interview: Catching up with Phish ahead of four night residency at Las Vegas’s Sphere
Phish is famous for their otherworldly performances. They’re putting on 4 sold-out shows at Las Vegas’ Sphere, where the show can become a fully immersive experience for the audience. Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio spoke to CBS’s Kris Van Cleave about preparing for the unique shows and what the band’s unlikely path to success has looked like.

As someone who has a strong indifference to their music while respecting the hell out of everything they do and how they’ve built up on a fan base and catered to them without sacrificing their vision, you have to see the stark differences between the two.

Phish’s spectacle was well-thought-out, as evidenced by the above CBS Morning Interview. Trey Anastasio first learned of the Sphere, pre-Sphere, sitting with James Dolan (boooooo!) at Rangers games. He probably started planning immediately. The end result - four distinct shows with four distinct visual accompaniments.

I don’t begrudge U2 (okay, maybe a little), but playing virtually the same set 40 nights in a row, versus Phish staring at the potential for doing the same, but balking because they insist on each show being an original.

It’s interesting. That U2 has enough fans or recognition that they can reliably repeat themselves to infinity in that venue without having a repeat customer, but Phish could probably have the same x-thousands people show up to every show.

While we may not love the Sphere's benefactor, we champion its ability to do maximalism in the right vein.

Returning to Coachella. My critique is not to say that the musicians signing up for Coachella are in violation of some artistic mores. But, every thing feels made for a specific moment, to which the artistry is maybe a fifth consideration. It is immediately forgotten in a haze of stunts and guest appearances.

Coachella and other festivals are always at war with themselves, with the past, with the naked commerce of the affair, with the impossible attempts at something for everyone that leads to sell outs. It’s a sell out, yet not selling out. It’s hollow. It’s faltering.

Take a gander at this upcoming festival. I am sure in God's Green Earth, there are people who are jazzed about a double headlining bill of Gwen Stefani and Blink 182, but is it more than a dozen? Whose creative passions will be fulfilled by seeing Peter Yorn and Big Boi back to back? We are of extremely eclectic tastes, but festivals are going to need more expert curation to grab a core group as they reach for the largest possible audience.

Here’s hoping Golden Voice and Coachella and others read the tea leaves and set off in different directions. The world of live music is poorer without the heft of Coachella but richer if we bury what it’s become and reinvent what it could be.