A hub for millionaire L.A. kids, Insta-famous beauty gurus, and A-list celebrities alike, Coachella has become almost a pilgrimage for privilege. The neon spandex, glittery makeup styles, fringed denim, and appropriated Hindu bindis and Indigenous headdresses are fashion staples for attendees, who pay a minimum of $429 for a festival pass alone or $999 for a VIP pass – if they’re lucky enough to get them before resale prices surge. This doesn’t even include the prices of transportation, lodging, clothing, and dining, which have been projected to cost upwards of $2,347.
The main demographic is largely white, as reported by most festival-goers, although there are no official statistics reporting the exact breakdown. However, Burning Man, a festival comparable to Coachella in terms of cost, location, and popularity, reported that around 77.1% of festival attendees were white, while only 1.0% were black, 4.9% were Hispanic or Latino, 5.6% were Asian, 1.6% were from the MENA region, 0.5% were Native American, and 9.3% identified as multiple or other. These statistics could provide a parallel to Coachella’s demographics.
While the elitist and exclusivist undertones of the festival are problematic enough, Coachella has come under fire in recent years for more concrete concerns. In July 2016, co-founder Philip Anschutz (net worth $12.9 billion) was accused of donating $190,000 to anti-LGBTQ+ organizations between 2010 and 2013. Later, his tax returns proved these allegations correct, revealing that he had donated to organizations such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, the National Christian Foundation, and the Family Research Council, all of which espouse extreme conservative ideologies, condemning abortions and gay and lesbian marriage.
Anschutz is also financially linked to the Koch brothers, whose businesses are based in crude oil refinement and are linked to several climate change opposition campaigns. Additionally, he owns several media outlets such as the Weekly Standard and the Washington Examiner through Clarity Media Group. These right-wing publications have been known to resist carbon emission taxes and the Green New Deal, as well to criticize teachers’ unions and public education in support of charter schools.
Following these allegations, Anschutz faced severe backlash, with people demanding a boycott of the music festival.
Anschutz responded to these criticisms, saying “I see this as a matter of basic human rights. Our foundation supports a broad range of philanthropic causes. I regret if any money given to a charity for other purposes may have indirectly worked against these values. That was not my intention, it does not reflect my beliefs, and I am committed to making sure it does not happen again.”
Anschutz withdrew donations to the Alliance Defending Freedom, the National Christian Foundation, and the Family Research Council almost immediately. However, he continued to give to other organizations such as Young Life, which has been known to discourage LGBTQ+ members, and NumbersUSA, an immigration reduction organization.
Actress, model, and LGBTQ+ advocate Cara Delevingne called Anschutz out for donating to these communities during Coachella 2018, posting the hashtag #Nochella.
“I still refuse to go to a festival that is owned by someone who is anti LGBT and pro-gun,” she stated on Instagram.
However, it’s not that easy for artists to simply cancel their Coachella sets. Anschutz Entertainment Group subsidiary Goldenvoice operates Panorama and Hangout Fest, two major festivals that demand the types of headliners that appear at Coachella. The conglomerate also owns most of the large, high-quality performances in the United States and is the second biggest promoter in the world. Its influence makes it difficult for artists to refuse to perform, as they could potentially lose significant opportunities in the future.
Artists who do agree to perform at Coachella are locked into a radius clause, which prevents them from performing at any festivals between December 15th and May 1st or at hard-ticket concerts in Southern California. Artists are also forbidden from publicizing tour stops in California, Arizona, Oregon, or Washington until after the Coachella lineup is announced, along with several other restrictions on publications.
Of course, there are exceptions for venues owned by AEG, as shown by Jay-Z’s performance at the Staples Center in 2010. This monopolistic practice augments the exclusivity of the festival, which allows the headliners to demand millions in return. For smaller to mid-tier acts, however, therein lies a difficult decision: playing at the top music festival in the world and potentially losing future gigs or losing the promotion opportunity of a lifetime. Many choose the former.
Artists who do choose to play in AEG’s game can use their platform to make a statement. This year, headliner Ariana Grande showed her support for the LGBTQ+ community, despite agreeing to perform at the festival. Following her Weekend One set, she projected a pride flag on the surrounding screens while fireworks burst in the background.
This was seen as an acknowledgment of Anschutz’s actions and as a message of acceptance and love to the LGBTQ+ community, showing that she stands in solidarity with them. Other performers have not been as vocal. Headliners Childish Gambino and Tame Impala have not yet made statements surrounding the owner’s controversy.
Grande’s performance follows in the footsteps of Beyoncé’s in 2018, in which she espoused themes of intersectional feminism and civil rights. She made references to Nina Simone and Malcolm X, sang the Black national anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and paid tribute to the historically Black colleges' and universities’ experience. Her performance drew immense critical acclaim, with news outlets and social media nicknaming the festival #Beychella.
Of course, we should praise these artists for their talents and statements. However, Anschutz’s influence in the political world cannot be lost in this appreciation. While he is entitled to his own views, his support for anti-LGBT, pro-gun, and climate change denial groups is irreconcilable with Coachella’s themes of self-expression and community. As allies, people need to consider where their money is going and the impact that has on human rights and safety. The question still stands: is Coachella really worth it?
This article was updated on April 25, 2019. A previous version described NumbersUSA as an "anti-immigration campaign group," rather than an immigration reduction organization.