You get what you pay for.
Mitch and I agree: In the contest of the music festivals between Coachella in Southern California versus South By Southwest in Austin, Texas, Coachella wins hands down. Here’s why.
The annual South by Southwest Music, Arts & Film Festival (SXSW), held every March in Austin, Texas, for us, turned out to be a little more about people watching than hearing music we liked. We like classic rock, jazz, blues, and 80s, hits from today, etc., but we didn’t know any of the new artists performing at the Austin festival.
When we first planned our year(plus)-long trip crisscrossing the US in our motor coach, we were excited to make music festivals a part of our plans. Coachella and South by Southwest were two legendary ones that called to us in the right (warm) places at the right (spring) times.
This was our first time attending SouthBy, as the locals call it, but we had advice from Austin friends that buying tickets or passes wasn’t really necessary to enjoy the week-long event. They were right. The result is, it’s a bit like shopping at a discount store. You see a lot of stuff you’re not interested in, but if you keep looking, you’ll find a gem. However, unless you attend the conference, which addresses topics like how to grow your media presence and brand, and how to get your music or art produced, SXSW has no ticket charges for musicians at many of the venues. Mostly, the numerous bars on a lively stretch of 6th street downtown have little or no cover charge. So it’s free, but you’ll see a lot of acts you’ve never heard of.
On the other hand, the annual Coachella Music and Arts Festival, held in Indio, California, every April is very expensive and you must buy tickets to attend. We paid over $350 per person for two special chip-encoded wristband “tickets” through StubHub, not including $30/pp shuttle passes to and from the festival from our RV site at Lake Cahuilla State Park. The wristband gets you access to three days of artists at the event. I first attended Coachella in 2007, when the event was only two days, and you could buy a ticket for only one day of the festival if you wanted for about $86. So today’s minimum ticket price? Four times more. Ouch.
And like SXSW, the list of music artists performing at Coachella can be baffling, full of weird-sounding bands whose names you’ve never heard of playing (sometimes weird-sounding) music.
One of the major differences is that Coachella has headliner bands that most everyone has heard of. In our case, the headliners we knew of were AC/DC, Steely Dan, Jack White, Drake, David Guetta, and Florence and the Machine. I had never seen any of them in concert. I’m a huge AC/DC fan, I mean, huge. I came late to their music, since, let’s face it, I was a toddler when they got started. Mitch was also a fan, although not as big as me. Yet neither of us had ever seen AC/DC in concert. So I was psyched to see them. It was a bucket-list item for me. And it was totally worth it.
During their performance, the co-founder and guitarist of AC/DC, Angus Young, ran out through the security corridor in the middle of a song to play on a pedestal stage that rose up right in front of us. I have 41 seconds of amazing video of this legendary dude, playing his umpteenth concert at the age of 60 and crushing it with more energy than I’ll ever have. How can you compete with THAT!?
Another major difference is that the stages at SXSW are typically in bars or nightclubs on or around 6th Street in Austin, so the performers have to make do and were sometimes cramped by their space and equipment. The sound quality could only be as good as the venue’s acoustics would allow.
Conversely, at Coachella, bands are simultaneously performing at one of up to 9 stage venues, all huge and high and with walls of speakers and sound equipment. It’s hard to tell if it’s the stages that make the bands sound good, or if the bands are all just really good and their sound is what qualifies them to perform at this festival. I suspect the latter. We just enjoyed the bands and DJs at Coachella so much more — even the type of music we wouldn’t normally seek out.
We so enjoyed being outside day and night, experiencing band after band, each with a huge sound, Jumbotron visuals, and big dancing crowds feeling the love. The vibe felt more like the attendees knew and loved every act — maybe they did and we are in the minority of not knowing who the heck most of the performers were. Here, we fell for the fun of seeing a band called St. Lucia:
We also found the food better and easier to get at Coachella. I found plenty of vegetarian and vegan options in the food tents at Coachella. I waited in some long lines, but the baby bella mushroom and arugula woodfired pizza I had made me come back — twice. It inspired me enough to want to try to recreate it later at home (fail). I had a watermelon slice with some chili pepper salt concoction that will haunt my taste buds until next year’s Coachella. I would say about half of the tents offered quality vegetarian offerings: some I wanted to try and didn’t have a chance to include Thai noodles, falafel, smoothies, tacos with jackfruit “taco meat” — and the Craft Beer tent with innumerable regional beers — yum! Bonus that the event was focused on sustainability and recycling!
At SXSW in Austin, I struggled to find a food truck at 10 pm that had something I could eat. Few of the restaurants on 6th St. offered enticing vegetarian options, which was disappointing about SXSW, but it still is in Texas, after all, home of ranching and all kinds of BBQ. The usual vegetarian fare, such as Mexican or pizza places, were completely jam packed so you couldn’t get a table or had to wait in lines down the block. And worse, restaurants seemed to close at their usual time, long before the crowds disappeared.
We did get a table one sunny day at a patio in a Mexican joint called Chupacabra on 6th St. in Austin, and the margaritas were some of the best we found in Tex Mex country. And off of 6th St., later after the SXSW chaos ended, we got to really sample some of the amazing veg*n options Austin really does specialize in.
The last thing is the difference in the sights and people watching. Our experience at Austin and SXSW was a bit hit and miss, not knowing any of the bands — we walked around, looked and listened at doorways, and occasionally we found a seat or a spot in a venue with a musical act actually playing. The performances at SXSW were short, with only 40 minutes per act, and 20 minutes of set-up-time between acts. This meant a lot more acts over a short period of time, but it felt like we would just get into a venue and the group would be wrapping up their set.
At Coachella, the big named performers and proximity to Los Angeles brings out some celebrities, which ups the ante for fashion. Attendees make an effort to look adorable, special-occasion style. The weather is hot, like 95F and sunny. That, in combination with it being in southern California make it a mecca for style. The trend this year for women was laced up Roman sandals or “cage” sandals, and lots of metallic body art in the form of medallions, stars, armbands, etc. It was fun to see people really getting into the artsy side of fashion.
I was so impressed with how cute so many people looked, that I took pictures and posted a couple of albums of photos on our facebook account just of the style of Coachella participants. Not only were the participants at Coachella downright gorgeous in many cases, the sights and scenery was spectacular, too! Just look at this twilight scene on the last night of Coachella 2015:
The bottom line:
We loved Coachella and would plop down the money again for next year’s event! You might say now that we know better, there is no comparison.
- We found both festivals to be crowded and loud and sometimes rowdy. That’s to be expected.
- Coachella was clean and grassy and full of colorful displays of art, flowers, and palm trees that lit up at night. Austin during SXSW was crowded but trashed — literally, trash everywhere as people threw paper plates, plastic bottles, and paraphernalia on the streets.
- Coachella was very pricey but won our hearts through its sunny weather, yummy food and drink, and bucket-list-worthy performances. SouthBy in Austin had less to offer in all those categories but was much, much less expensive.
- We will return to Austin, but will skip it during SXSW.
But that’s just us! Have you been to either festival? If not, does our description make you want to go?
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