Not many music festivals can tout that their three-day passes sold out within 24 hours of the initial sales date. But of 2011, Pitchfork Music Festival can. In the realm of indie hipster fandom, Pitchfork is incontestably the “it” music festival.
Just look at the lineup — no other US festival of comparable notoriety would ever have the audacity to flaunt Animal Collective, Fleet Foxes and TV On The Radio as its three premier headliners. While Pitchfork’s marquee bands may possess tremendous clout in terms of critical acclaim and devout cult followings, they lack the powerhouse mass appeal of, say, Eminem, Foo Fighters, Coldplay and Muse (the chief headliners of this year’s Lollapalooza, also held in Chicago).
But according to Mike Reed, director of Pitchfork Music Festival, the event’s palpable “smallness” is anything but a compromise. In fact, the festival was originally slated as a juice-up incarnation of the sorts of homely summer street festivals that are immensely popular in Chicago.
“You have these street festivals, there’s a bunch of them all over the place,” Reed said in an interview with The Michigan Daily. “But they’re just basically a beer bash, more or less. There’s a stage and there’s people selling crap. Most of (the festivals) would have, like, bad cover bands or maybe a blues band, you know, maybe a tribute band … and my thought was, ‘wouldn’t it be great if you had something like this but it was actually good music?’ ”
Little did Reed know, the festival would blow up into somewhat of an enigma — the most monolithically mod festival in America, despite its relative lack of star power, real estate and financial resources.
“Once you get compared to some of those larger festivals … they actually are four or five times larger than you, with that much more means on every level,” Reed said. “We put up the event in three days and tear it down in ten hours. We don’t have weeks to build it outside in Manchester, Tennessee.”
While there’s an undeniable charm to the dirt-caked, shower-less experience that the hardcore campout festivals promise, Pitchfork offers a far more comfortable alternative.
“Usually, I’m not a huge fan of festivals,” said Johan Duncanson, frontman and guitarist of Pitchfork 2011 band The Radio Dept., in a Skype interview from Sweden. “I used to go to a lot of festivals when I was a kid, and I always came home like extremely dirty and hung over. And I’ve heard that this festival is cleaner.”
Pitchfork’s heavily discounted price tag is a selling point as well: It’s $110 for a weekend pass, which is favorably compared to an upper limit of $249.50 or $215.00 for Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza, respectively.
“If you wanted to see TV On The Radio, it might cost you 30 bucks, with an opener,” Reed said. “(At Pitchfork), you get to see TV On The Radio with like 10 openers. And it’s 45 bucks.”
Moreover, Pitchfork’s scaled-down size allows for optimal absorption of its artists’ sets. Rather than pitting five star-studded stages against each other all at once, the festival features two main stages directly next to each other (when a show on one stage stops, another show begins almost immediately on the opposite stage), with a third stage thrown in for some variety.
“At a lot of (festivals), you pay for things that you would never even have a chance to see,” Reed said. “And here, you get to see 70 percent of what you’re paying for.”
If one truly wants to, he or she can catch a significant portion of literally every single set at the festival. Reed describes Pitchfork as a “boutique” — a triumphant display of the hottest up-and-coming bands on the underground music circuit. Rather than focusing on booking more established indie acts, Pitchfork’s primary intent is to “break” bands with unrecognized talent.
“We were the only festival (Fleet Foxes) played back in 2007,” Reed said. “I mean, they were completely unknown … that fall they were on Saturday Night Live.”
John Famiglietti, member of 2011 Pitchfork band HEALTH, offers a first-hand account: “When we got asked to play Pitchfork (in 2009), we came from total DIY. Like, right before that we were touring fucking basements in America and living rooms and stuff.”
Inextricably linked with the online music publication of the same name, Pitchfork Music Festival represents the upper echelon of the industry’s underdogs.
“We never got to do the festivals in our day,” said Eric Axelson, bassist of recently reunited Dismemberment Plan, a Pitchfork 2011 band that was somewhat of a cult sensation in the late ’90s. “We never got to play, like, the Lollas or the ACLs.”
The Pitchfork afternoons were fairly chilled-out displays of sonic iconoclasts peppered in with some particularly memorable sets (tUnE-YarDs and Kurt Vile took the cake this year), but the evenings were absolutely breathtaking. Animal Collective’s set design alone, featuring an onslaught of orange-and-white paper bats and a giant, monitor-laden face fashioned from kaleidoscopic shards of glass, was a cause for unbridled jubilation.
“I think Pitchfork is associated with a certain kind of cool factor,” said Dimitri Coats, guitarist of 2011 Pitchfork band OFF!. “And I think people that are going to the festival are probably expecting to be exposed to somewhat of a cutting edge.”