My day at Coalchella, the music festival inside Minecraft

“Y’all, Coalchella is about to be the craziest thing ever tomorrow.”

This tweet by former The Walking Dead star Chandler Riggs was the first mention I saw of the crazy event that took up most of my Sunday. “Stacked lineup, free admission, sick music,” his tweet continued. Wow, a music fest with free admission? This sounds pretty cool.

“And it’s literally in Minecraft so you don’t have an excuse to not be there.”

Wait, what?

Rocky start

I like EDM and love Minecraft, so I had to see what the hell Coalchella was going to be. The lineup featured a bunch of independent artists I had never heard of before, most of which come from a tight-knit Soundcloud community, as well as some more recognizable names. Chiptune band Anamanaguchi, known for its original music and the Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game soundtrack, was set to close the show.

A few hours before the show was set to kick off, the official Coalchella Discord was abuzz with over 600 excited fans. But after a big push on Twitter by event host Max “SLEEPYCATT” Schramp to get the word out, a few thousand had flooded in. After all, it’s a free show with the only barrier to entry being owning one of the most popular games in the world. The hosts showed some surprise about how many people were showing up for the show launch, but the server still opened as planned 15 minutes before the first set was supposed to start.

It was immediately clear that the Coalchella server wasn’t set up to support 2,000 people trying to join it all at once. I struggled to join in for ten minutes, and the server crashed shortly after I connected. After a few rinse-and-repeats of this process, the organizers began limiting the number of people who could join at a time so the server wouldn’t completely blow up. Eventually, it was stable enough to reliably walk around the festival and take in the sights.

You can watch the above video here on YouTube as well.

The Coalchella server was a community project built over the last month, and the results were breathtaking. A meticulously designed central hub guided attendees between the two stages, REDBLOCKS and BEDROCKS. Giant community creations like a colorful Ferris wheel, to-scale IKEA blimp, giant vodka bottle, and IHOB restaurant flanked the skyline from every angle.

Because of the issues with the Coalchella server and website, the music was all delayed by an hour, but eventually the festival got started with everyone loading up the Mixlr page streaming the sets live while positioning themselves at the right stage, where the current DJ would stand at the turntables in their blocky avatar form. The server was still laggy enough that other attendees appeared to be standing still until the server updated their location, but when everything was working correctly, the experience totally clicked.

In those moments, where everyone was crowded at the front of the stage jumping to the music and expressing their love for the song in chat, I felt the exhilaration of a real concert. I might not have been high, but the frequent rubberbanding and sporadic bouncing around of cartoon block people while heavy bass throbbed in my ears was pretty trippy.

Video on YouTube.

Each stage simulated lighting effects with shifting backdrops and fireworks that lit up the sky when a song reached its drop. DJs would troll the crowd by periodically opening a pit that would plummet attendees to their death, myself included. The mixes for each song were all made specifically for the event, which lead to some fun moments of DJs asking the crowd mid-song to crouch all at once or type a message in chat.

A few hours into the show, the organizers restarted the server once more to relaunch it on a more sophisticated setup. Under this new system, Coalchella was running on 30 mirrored servers at once that each had a player capacity of a few hundred. This alleviated what was left of the connection issues, but it wasn’t a perfect solution. Splitting the crowds up meant that your server might be empty in places compared to others or the current DJ might be on a different server.

The loss of big crowds for a while kind of broke the experience for me, but I was eventually able to join one of the more populated mirrors and get back to that packed-but-imperfect experience from earlier in the day. And it was just in time for my most anticipated performance, Anamanaguchi. The set was great as expected, but the true highlight was watching the show in the (virtual) presence of the DJs on the stage. It really added that special sense of place you get at a concert knowing you’re 20 feet from the creator of stuff you love.

Video on YouTube.

By the end of the night, Coalchella had seen over 2,600 attendees in the server and over 27,000 people listen in on Mixlr. The entire festival was never devoid of some sort of technical issue, but there were some real moments of magic where it felt like a real concert. It was no longer just me playing Minecraft with a music stream in the background, but a crowd of people experiencing the same cool thing together.

Schramp and his collaborators already have plans for future Minecraft events that will hopefully avoid the pitfalls of Coalchella. All of the sets featured at the festival were later uploaded in full on Soundcloud, so give a listen if you’re interested.