What started as a meager online music blog twenty years ago has grown up to be a successful multimedia publication, with a wide millennial readership and two successful festivals to call its own. Though Pitchfork’s day-to-day-happenings aren’t exactly privy to the public eye, sometimes Pitchfork president Chris Kaskie takes time out of his schedule to answer a lot of questions regarding the organization.
In a Q&A with the The Daily, Kaskie covers issues concerning his publication, the music industry as a whole and even the man himself.
Pitchfork started as a simple music blog in 1996, having since come a long way. It has music festivals bearing its name, multiple awards and is arguably considered a bonafide member of today’s music media. Considering that, how do you personally define Pitchfork’s role in music today?
Hm. Yeah, I don’t know; ultimately, our goal is is to be both a resource and a place to celebrate discovery. (Pitchfork) has a history of, you know, having an opinion — which inherently then means a history of trust and working hard to do what we do. Whether it’s filling in the gaps or exposing and covering music as it gets noisier and noisier year by year, our prerogatives don’t change.
On a similar note, speaking about the Pitchfork Festival itself, historically the lineups are fairly different than other festivals — they’re kind of counterculture, relatively speaking. What motivates you guys to deviate from this norm as far as other festivals and the way they operate?
I don’t think festivals are something to be homogenized, right? I think live music is as important as ever, I think you can argue that discovering is as important as ever — and as hard as ever — and I think when you create an event that is a carbon copy of about, you know, an innumerable amount of other (festivals), it’s not very inspiring to us. We’re coming from a place where we’re a publication first and that’s what we do at our core. (The festival) is a secondary piece of our business versus our primary, so we can be indulgent in ultimately trying to build a music festival that’s reflective of (what) we feel is interesting, whether it be new music, or old music or the combination thereof, and then build the event itself into something that kind of deviates from the usual festival monotony from a production standpoint. So, we’re inspired by being different, I think, and being different is what we offer, and it really comes down to, you know, the prioritization of the music over the party and not the other way around. We want people to walk in and know what Pitchfork Festival is regardless of whether or not they’re aware of any of the bands there. It has a point-of-view and a trustworthiness to it that should, you know, become a rewarding experience for (the audience).
Talking about that, what kind of factors does Pitchfork consider when it schedules some of the artists they have?
I mean, we go from the gut and we go from instinct. Obviously there are logistics in play that you can’t control, but at the end of the day, I think when we look at what’s become the immediate trend of what big names are gonna get back together, or what big acts are gonna be touring this summer, (people) are interested in bands like that and we enjoy them. It has no bearing on any of our opinions on the music itself. But, for us, we try to build a program that is reflective of Pitchfork readers specifically, and, more broadly, what we feel music looks like, so it’s a smattering across the board and it’s not too much, you know. I think when you have too much for people to try to check out: A, It’s not possible because of logistics, and B, It’s just overwhelming. Being concise is important, so having something that’s reflective of that and without a specific agenda in mind is important because it’s the open-mindedness that we approach it with that we think our audience and readers think about it in the same way. But yeah, it’s a good result for us because we don’t know who’s playing what (festivals) sometimes, and you really don’t want to be just like them. So, ultimately, how it works out is that people view some really great things at Pitchfork Festival, and good things usually happen every festival, so I guess we’re no different in that sense.
Considering those motivations, Pitchfork usually has a pretty eclectic group of artists that are in a comparatively denser environment, you know, compared to some of the bigger ticket festivals. How do you guys try to maintain a sense of cohesion when you have so much diversity and different, sort of, tastes all over the festival in this confined space?
I think that’s the beauty of it. You know, you don’t — obviously, you want to be mindful of the fact that, like, ‘Hey, I’ll, uh, I don’t wanna schedule Ty Segall and Thee Oh Sees the exact same time because the fans that love both of those artists are gonna wanna see both.’ You gotta be a good steward to make sure people aren’t being forced to miss things. But, beyond that, shifting from the Chicago festival, an example I always like to use is from the festival we do in Paris when we put Robyn on right after Fuck Buttons. That’s like, there might be a 179 degree difference in what they do, but that’s kind of the way that I think everyone uses their iPods or whatever the hell they’re listening to music off of. And, you know, if they don’t see it that way, we’re just going to try to force it just to show them that, ‘Hey, on your phone, you could be listening to jazz, then a rapper, then a bunch of kids doing indie rock. Same thing here.’ It’s indicative of the way music works now. Genres are breaking down. People are just thinking about music as a singular platform.
Speaking on Pitchfork Paris, what made you guys consider expanding globally with the Festival? Any reasons for Paris specifically?
I think Paris for us is the combination of the romantic — in which we feel a kindred spirit to that city in relation to both our relationships with Chicago, where we’re based and headquartered, and New York City, where we have other offices — so it’s a nice blend there from an ideological standpoint. Being there, it just feels like we’re always at home. Everyone there is at home. You know, we have good friends there that help us produce the festival, which obviously plays a huge part, and beyond that, like, it’s a city that’s historically profound with art and culture, and there’s a lot of historic art there. At the same time, the open-mindedness and the excitement about music specifically that exists there is something that we wanted to be a part of. It’s reflected in who reads our website, but it’s also just reflected in spending time (in Paris) and getting to the environment. We wanted to make something to fit into the landscape instead of being a bunch of Americans that come in and plant a flag and be annoying. It’s something that felt very much like it added another piece to the quilt of culture of Paris, if you will. At the end of the day, this is just the longer way of saying that we have an instinct that we felt that there’s an opportunity there, there’s an interest there and that our work doesn’t have to negatively impact other areas to add to that landscape. It’s something we like to do as good stewards, both to the people there as well as other entities that exist there as well.
With the lineup for Paris, how different is it to pick artists for Paris versus Chicago?
It’s exactly the same. Different production partners, really. The hours of our Paris festival is different, though — there’s a lot more late night stuff happening whereas the festival in Chicago ends at ten p.m. So, we have the ability to get more crazy with dance music and trying to create — you don’t wanna create a party, but you wanna create something that, at two in the morning, doesn’t make you want to fall asleep.
I just think there’s just a mindfulness, and it’s indoors and the lighting is different, so we really get to play and be indulgent with things we can’t do in Chicago because just of the logistics of running an event that happens primarily during the day. You know, we can bring in, like, amazing lighting systems in Paris, and that’s a huge excitement in itself (and something we spend far too much money on, but whatever).
When we’re talking about the artists involved, what kind of thinking goes behind picking certain artists at specific times and stages at Chicago and Paris?
It’s a combination between the availability the artists have, which is first and foremost — it’s up to them right?
Then you have to deal with what we think would flow — Like how we think the day will flow and, again, being mindful of crossover and making sure we’re not making our audience make impossible decisions. But, sometimes, that’s inevitable anyways. But, you know, thinking about the day’s flow, and challenging people and making sure it’s logical. At the same time, it’s challenging, so if you have to walk a bit to another stage, so be it.
Now to move toward some more content and music-centric questions. With the kind of in-depth, long-form pieces that Pitchfork does — artist profiles and the like — those presumably require quite a bit of time and resources.
Considering that, what makes undertaking those kinds of pieces so worth it?
Resources are relative, of course. I think that, for us, our entire challenge and our goal and desire is to be a comprehensive music magazine, so to speak, that exists digitally. So, when we do that, we want it to be as impactful as possible and have the lifespan and longevity of anything you would put into print. So, it’s really thinking about how we’re presenting these things and challenging how we present it and how we help the audience navigate (music). At the end of the day, long-form features and showing artists, regardless if they’re big or small, is an opportunity to think through their art and talk about their art — whether it’s through an interview or otherwise — is important discourse for music and something that’s unfortunately happening less and less just because people’s attention is so diverted elsewhere. For us, it’s a combination of responsibility, nostalgia and, beyond that, drives us to get it done.
On the note of music consumption and ownership, we’ve seen consumption move from physical goods to MP3s to streaming, and now we’re seeing streaming services almost control the accessibility that some listeners might have when it comes to artists and music at their disposal. How do you feel about this direction we’re seeing consumption go into?
Today’s availability of music is amazing, objectively speaking. And obviously it’s now about who does what and who does it the best as far as delivery goes. But for us, as long as the artists feel as if they can make a sufficient living from it, we want that to continue. Without that, there’s nothing. Being supportive of it and making sure we’re agnostic to what might perhaps be in the best interest to Pitchfork relative to the artist is important. It’s like a political race, or something. You have to think of things across all perspectives, even if you have strong opinions. Streaming music is a good thing, and I think the distribution and discovery of it all is where (Pitchfork) plays into anyway. For us, it’s about helping cut through the noise as people are figuring out what they want to do and listen to — it’s like going to a restaurant with a menu that’s far too big — you’d rather go to a restaurant that has eight items that you know that are all good.
How we do that, and how we do that in the face of these streaming platforms is our challenge. How people listen to music is continually evolving and is a fascinating thing, because even in our office I’d imagine everyone does things slightly differently.
Sure. Just to gauge your taste for our curious readers — what’re some artists that have been on your rotation lately?
Sure. I think, I really like the record by the kid Car Seat Headrest. I’ve been following his work on the internet for quite a while, but I think his new record is pretty special. I really enjoyed the William Tyler record, which is a guitarist who plays with a lot of bands that I also like a lot, but it’s a really, really amazing solo record. I think the Chance, the Rapper record is pretty incredible. Being from Chicago, there’s obviously an inherent bias on top of everything else. Oh — DJ Koze put out a label compilation, which I think is pretty amazing. Yeah, those are some things off of the top of my mind right now.
What was the first album you ever purchased, out of curiosity?
There were two things — uh, I think I stole my parents’ information for a Grateful Dead record, so I didn’t buy that myself, technically. But I think that was the Grateful Dead’s Europe ’72.
Beyond that, the first record I bought in a store with full autonomy was Dinosaur Jr.’s Where You Been.
Gotcha. One last question, because, as another Chicago native, I have to ask: in your experience, what’s come to be your favorite venue in the city?
In Chicago? Oh, I’d say — this seems like a cliché, playing-nice answer — between the Schubas, Empty Bottle, Metro and even Lincoln Hall now, they all have different things.
I think I love the Empty Bottle because of the history I have with that place — just the amount of shows I’ve seen and the amount of things I’ve done there. But I love going to Schubas/Lincoln Hall because of the way it sounds and the shows that I’ve seen there as well. Lincoln Hall has done a great job transitioning big bands that were playing in venues too big into a place that you can finally see them and enjoy them with a lot of T.L.C going into the production. And then the Metro, much like the Bottle, is the other side of that, where bands on the rise often get the last chance to play something small. I remember seeing MIA and LCD Soundsystem do just that, and that’s the last time they’ve played something so intimate. There’s no specific favorite, I guess, because they’ve all just offered a lot of different things to me, and there’s more than that, even. But those four, I’d say, were the most of my musical life in the city.