The first weekend of Coachella's two-weekend run just ended, and it was incredible, featuring a generous mixture of hip-hop (Outkast), indie rock (Arcade Fire) and dance acts (Disclosure). Even better, I didn't have to buy a ticket or travel to Indio, California to see a minute of it. I caught the whole thing from my couch.
For the fourth straight year, Coachella organizers hosted a live webcast of the event, offering three simultaneous channels from which to choose. No risk of sunburn or dehydration—just good music for anyone with a Wi-Fi connection. It's become such a popular alternative to traveling to the festival that on Twitter the hashtag "#Couchella" is now used by people like me enjoying the show from home.
I won't deny that I've had life-changing experiences at concerts over the years. (Whether I was there to see Radiohead or Slayer.) But in recent years, as my time has become more limited, I've noticed that I don't go to a lot of shows anymore—and, to my surprise, I'm fine with that. I still love live music; I just don't love experiencing it in the same way. While a high-quality webcast can't completely recapture the experience of being there, in a few ways, it might actually be better.
1. You can see different acts at once. Especially at a festival like Coachella, which features six different stages, it can be maddening trying to negotiate the scheduling conflicts when different artists you want to see are playing at the same time. (Neko Case or the Afghan Whigs? Pet Shop Boys or Nas?) Lounging on the couch, I faced no such problem, easily able to move from one channel to the other, checking out different options to see which one I preferred, and then switching back and forth if I wanted. You can't do that at a festival. Depending on how deep you are in the crowd, you're basically stuck with whichever act you've picked. And there's nothing worse at a festival than choosing poorly and discovering afterward that some mind-blowing performance was happening in the next tent.
2. Concerts sound better at home… We've all had the experience of going to a highly anticipated show and being let down by a shitty sound mix or a cavernous room that distorted every note into a clanging din. (Or there's the unique situation I had at a 2008 R.E.M. show when people in the cheap seats were yelling for the band to turn up the volume because they were too quiet.) Over the years, Coachella's webcast has been blessedly free of those kinds of audio problems, as was LCD Soundsystem when they streamed one of their 2011 farewell shows from Madison Square Garden. At a concert, we're at the mercy of speakers, acoustics and where we're sitting, but webcasts offer pristine sound quality, apparently streaming straight from the mixing board. (Another advantage of seeing a show at home: You can control the volume, which can be a relief if you've attended an all-day festival and suffered fried eardrums by the end of it.)
3. …and they may look better, too. Admittedly, the video quality of the Coachella webcast was only so-so, lacking the audio's high-res sharpness. (To be fair, my ancient, five-year-old MacBook could be partly to blame; on my new iPhone 5c, the image was clearer.) Still, the web images are preferable to what you get at a festival when you're not near the stage and can barely make out anything. To compensate, some big-venue locations now feature video screens so that people way in the back can enjoy close-up shots of the band they've paid to see. That's thoughtful, but it's nonetheless annoying: You're there in person yet you're still stuck watching a screen.
By comparison, if you're watching a live stream, you've made the conscious choice that you don't care that you're watching the band on a screen. And in the case of Coachella, the webcast includes multiple camera angles so that you can see the different band members, the stage and even the crowd on occasion. It's like a concert film, except it's actually happening live.
4. You can sample new bands. In the past when I came across a new artist who everybody else liked but left me cold, I would try to go to his or her show: Being immersed not just in the music but also the artist's fans would sometimes help the songs "click" for me in a way they wouldn't on a CD. Coachella's three channels provided the same service. A DJ set from Martin Garrix, whom I was only slightly familiar, blew me away, while Jagwar Ma's dance-rock, which sometimes seemed slight on disc, came to life on stage.
There has been plenty of industry resistance to concert streaming, with economic factors like union costs, publishing rights and diminished ticket sales all cited as potential obstacles. But put it this way: I'm now much more likely to buy a Jagwar Ma album because I loved their Coachella set. And that's because I had the opportunity to give them a try thanks to the live stream, whereas I might not have bothered going to one of their shows. That's good for me as a consumer, good for the band and good for the industry.
5. It's better on your body and spirit. Nobody in their 20s wants to admit this lest they be mocked for being "old," but I'll come out and say it: As much fun as attending festivals is, they can be utter hell. Overpriced drinks, terrible toilet facilities and sometimes brutal weather conditions—it was in the 90s most of the weekend in Indio—are just some of the factors facing anyone who goes to Coachella or any other outdoor, all-day festivals. But also, let's not forget the agony of dealing with obnoxious fellow concertgoers, who may bloviate through your favorite Broken Bells song or block your view during Beck's set because they just have to record the whole thing on their goddamn smartphone. (And may you never be accosted by some drunk or tripping-balls dude who suddenly almost throws up all over you. That, I can tell you from personal experience, is no fun.)
People make a big deal about the annoyance of going to movie theaters where patrons are texting or talking, which is an understandable complaint because that's supposed to be a quiet experience. There's less aggravation about people who act like jackasses at big, loud festival shows, but there should be. Even if it's not quiet like a movie theater, a concert is better when the people around you aren't impeding your enjoyment with their "clever" comments and selfish behavior. (I get it, man: You want Neil Young to play "Cinnamon Girl" next. STOP YELLING YOUR REQUEST AFTER EACH SONG ENDS.) I've got no problem with dancing around or singing along, but it's nicer to do that at home with your friends without being surrounded by assholes.
6. You can see shows you can't get to otherwise. We live in a world where we can DVR our favorite shows or order a movie online so that we can watch them on our schedule. (Even plays and musicals run for weeks, allowing people multiple viewing opportunities.) In stark defiance to the changing tides, concerts force you to abide by their schedule. But that wasn't the case with Coachella's webcast: I was able to come home Friday night and watch some of Outkast's late-night set, and then catch up with it on a re-broadcast early the following morning.
7. You don't have to feel like a second-class citizen anymore. Let's say you're a Nine Inch Nails fan who was super-excited to see the reunited band play at the Staples Center in November of last year. How much would you have to pay to get seats good enough to sit in front of all the rich or well-connected L.A. tools who don't even like NIN? This is a constant frustration of mine when I'd go to big-venue shows: I know that the best seats are always reserved for high-profile, blasé VIPs. Thankfully, the online video service Vevo sidestepped this problem for the 99-percent, filming one of NIN's L.A. shows and putting it up on YouTube, which gave fans a chance to be as close to Trent Reznor as the Hollywood big shots who were impatiently waiting for him to play the two songs of his they knew from the radio.
Yes, the intangibles of a great concert—the atmosphere, electricity and camaraderie—can't be translated via webcast. (And after checking out the amazing visuals that accompanied Pet Shop Boys' Coachella set, I kinda wish I could have seen it in person.) But if I'm guilty of minimizing the pleasure of the live experience, then I think too many people are guilty of romanticizing its questionable merits. Too many big shows are expensive and inconvenient, attracting a madhouse environment that raises expectations that can be hard for a band to satisfy. In comparison, my Couchella weekend wasn't just enormously entertaining but also wonderfully stress-free. I'm looking forward to doing the whole thing again starting on Friday.
Tim Grierson is Playboy for iPhone's critic-at-large. He is the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the author of "FilmCraft: Screenwriting." Follow him on Twitter @timgrierson
Photo by Aurora Photos/Alamy