Local Wire

Why Aren't Phoenix Bands Playing Coachella 2017?

Browsing the Coachella 2017 lineup when it was released last week, two names stood out.

Namely, Tennis and Big Gigantic.

Both these bands are from Colorado, from scenes I became very familiar with when I covered them as a Colorado-based entertainment journalist from 2009 to 2014. Big Gigantic rose from the state's understated electronica scene to become a festival mainstay and high-powered headliner, while Tennis is a critically respected indie-pop darling.

Two other Denver bands, the Lumineers and Nathaniel Rateliff & The Nightsweats, had big enough years to justify a lineup slot.

The Denver metro area has a population of about 2.7 million people, while metro Phoenix has about 3.25 million people. Big Gigantic is from Boulder and is not part of the Denver metro area; the college town has a population of 97,000. Compare that to Tempe, with a population of 162,000.

With so many more people in the urban and college areas of Arizona, this begs the question: Why aren't there any Copper State bands at Coachella?

I scoured Coachella lineups going back to 2010 for any sign of the Valley, and I came up empty-handed. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think any band that formed in Phoenix has played Coachella for a very long time — at least seven years.

Update: Since this piece published, I've been informed that I missed Jimmy Eat World, which played the fest in 2011, and Z-Trip in 2010.And had I gone back to 2009, I would have spotted Phoenix band Dear and the Headlights. Tucson band Calexico also played in 2009. Mea culpa.

The closest thing to a Phoenix band to appear at Coachella in recent years is the band Phoenix, and they're from France. In 2016, Pinetop native Zella Day, who took guitar lessons in Phoenix as a teenager, played the festival, and Puscifer, which you could say is based out of Maynard James Keenan's house in Jerome, played in 2013.

That's it.

It might seem foolhardy and futile for Phoenix bands to chase national attention. Why not build up what we have in the hopes that if we build a vibrant enough scene, the rest of the country will notice? But Coachella is the biggest and most important music festival in the United States, and as such serves as a barometer for the visibility of the local scene. And by that metric, we're not doing well.

I can think of at a few reasons as to why this might be the case. These are just educated guesses.

Phoenix's lack of density really harms the music scene. It's the really dense cities that tend to produce bands that make a splash nationally. Take a look of this population density map and look at the darkest (most dense) cities: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, even Boston, New Orleans, Miami, and San Francisco all are known to some degree for their music scenes. Then take a look at the light blue dots in the Phoenix area. We're a city of endless suburbs, with hardly any density to be found.

Phoenix lacks the infrastructure to send bands to major festivals like Coachella. If bands stay local, then they don't have a chance to develop contacts with people in Los Angeles, which seems to be a must for anyone looking to make a splash nationally. But I'll admit this argument has flaws — why go to LA when bands can upload a YouTube video and build a national audience via the internet? Still, perhaps there's some truth to the Bible quote being thrown around the local hip-hop scene with anti-local venom: "no prophet is accepted in his hometown."

Phoenix hasn't produced a successful enough band to play Coachella. If the internet has eliminated the need to move to the coasts to make it big, then the only remaining answer is that Phoenix bands just haven't reached the level of popularity necessary to get noticed by Coachella organizers. It's not for lack of talent — a listen to some of the best albums produced by Phoenix bands in 2016 will dissuade anyone from that notion. But still, few of those bands made much of a splash outside the desert, and some are downright obscure here.

Phoenix bands don't sound  like Coachella bands. Perhaps there's a certain mainstream-appealing sound that Coachella organizers are looking for, something that will attract people from all over the country. And maybe Phoenix bands just aren't making it.

Hate it or love it, the fact that so few bands ever make it big while staying local to Phoenix creates a disincentive. If talented musicians look around them and see none of their peers making a comfortable living playing music in Phoenix, why should they stay? That's why promising young artists like Wolvves and Futuristic and Sincerely Collins and Luna Aura and Bogan Via and countless others move to LA or New York. And until some of the great local bands here start scoring slots on national festivals, why should they stay?

No one with ambition is content to make a career playing farm ball.