What exactly is Coachella? At its most basic level, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival is a two-weekend music festival held at Empire Polo Club in Indio, Calif. As one of the largest music festivals in the world, it features both top-tier and young, up-and-coming performers, and has launched many small acts to stardom since its inception in 1999. But it is also far more than a music festival; it’s a cultural force that empties Los Angeles and floods Instagram feeds. With tickets starting at a staggering $429, the festival has become a strange signifier of power, privilege and disposable income — a playground in the desert for rich kids and celebrities to play hippie and take MDMA before heading back to their homes Monday morning.
The problematic aspects of Coachella are myriad — the culturally appropriative fashion choices, the lack of pay for lower-rung acts, the Tupac hologram incident — but the most glaring of these is the political leanings of Coachella owner Philip Anschutz. While many go to the Indio desert in the name of music and wealth-enabled youthful freedom, it’s disheartening that many of these Los Angeles liberals fail to realize — or choose to overlook — where their admissions fees are going. Anschutz has an established pattern of using his wealth to support conservative candidates, organizations and super PACs. Many of these donations support anti-LGBTQ, anti-abortion and pro-gun causes, which seem to be at odds with the average Coachella patron’s views.
Coachella was originally started in 1999 by the Los Angeles concert promotion company Goldenvoice. It was then acquired in 2001 by Anschutz Entertainment Group, more commonly known as AEG. AEG is run by Anschutz, a 78-year-old oil tycoon who donates millions to conservative causes every year. While Anschutz makes money off Beyoncé’s headlining performance (and what a performance it was), he also follows the example of the infamous Koch brothers in tipping the political scales by funding ultra-conservative super PACs and candidates.
A brief tour of Anschutz’s donations in 2017: $33,000 given to the Republican Congressional Committee; $70,000 to the Republican Senate Committee; $5,000 to current National Security Advisor John Bolton’s super PAC; and donations to the campaigns of Republican lawmakers Paul Ryan, Scott Tipton and Cory Gardner. Between 2010 and 2013, he also donated a total of $190,000 to anti-LGBTQ groups like Alliance for Freedom, the National Christian Foundation and the Family Research Council. After Rolling Stone reported on these donations, Anschutz said that he “supports the rights of all people without regards to orientation,” and his foundation stopped donating to these groups. But he has continued to donate to Republican and Libertarian candidates who oppose same-sex marriage.
In today’s political landscape, donations like the ones that Anschutz makes can be incredibly impactful on policy. The Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that donations toward political advertising could not be federally regulated; since then, political discourse has been dominated by political action committees and so-called “dark money” organizations. These groups spend enormous amounts of money to sway voters in key markets, and they are much better funded on the right than the left. Phillip Anschutz is a member of the upper echelons of conservative political donors — the 42nd most prolific single donor in the 2016 election — and by giving large sums of money to Goldenvoice and AEG every year, Coachella participants seem to be shooting themselves in the foot politically.
Surely, there are arguments to be made about the value of Coachella. It can be a sustaining paycheck for small artists, it’s a godsend for fans of live music and, in all honesty, it looks like fun. But the hypocrisy of thousands of young liberals (many of whom proudly attended the Women’s March only a few months ago) funneling their money to a man who seems to be their political opposite is striking. The fact that the people who have so much spending power and social capital choose to avoid the political implications of their choices by effectively choosing a fun, luxurious weekend in the desert over the causes that they seem to align themselves with is incredibly frustrating.
Although “voting with your dollar” can only get one so far, it is disappointing to see the sheer number of liberal-minded celebrities, influencers and peers go to Coachella without a second thought. The case of Coachella, along with other events (including country festival Stagecoach) should serve as a sobering reminder that the things we buy can affect the world at large, sometimes in ways that we would never expect. In a capitalist society, it is impossible, or at least exhausting, to only give money to ethical companies and causes, but hopefully the larger picture behind Coachella can give us pause about our spending habits and the inherent politics behind them.