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Cover Story: Pitchfork Music Festival

| July 1, 2010 | 0 Comments

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

There’s a professional protocol that implores journalists to leave themselves out of the story. Once during a Civil Rights rally, Dr. Martin Luther King scolded a news photographer for coming to the aid of a beaten marcher instead of doing his job objectively. That’s probably an overzealous comparison, but a lot of people get annoyed because Pitchfork has become part of the tale.

Appearing: July 16th through 18th at Union Park in Chicago.

The Chicago-based webzine didn’t do it on purpose, mind you. But in the past 15 years, the site — formerly — just got knitted into the digital-music fabric and instinctively began to guide the stylus. Rival publications and scorned fans/musicians biliously scoff at its influence and ability to break new bands, tacitly encouraging the chorus crying “snobs!” while striving to play tastemaker themselves.

“People call us ‘elitist,’ or whatever,” responds publisher/chief operating officer Chris Kaskie. “We happen to have an opinion, so that comes with the territory. Human nature is you don’t call me up to tell me how great I am, but you would definitely call me up to tell me if you’re angry with me. You pay attention and it’s fun to fuel that dialogue, [but] it doesn’t affect us in the way we do coverage. That’s not the way it happens. But we’re definitely aware. If you do something, there’s a limitless way of finding feedback.”

What’s remarkable is how self-made its success is. Founded by Ryan Schreiber, who moved himself and ostensibly the site to Chicago in the late-’90s, Pitchfork has not benefitted the way more traditional Internet start-ups have from infusions of cash investment, etc. The business model borders on the mundane (create music reviews and stories; collect advertising revenue), and it’s actually an anachronism in rock criticism — countering the popular capsule review with a style that recalls ’70s magazines like Creem. Its only marketing has been the annual Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park, a relatively parochial venture in light of online marketing’s infinite techniques.

“We’ve never placed an ad, never done — aside from the festival — any offline anything,” Kaskie says. “There’s a lot of things we haven’t done — Internet radio, e-mail newsletter — stuff we’re not inspired by. The fact that our traffic continues to grow is pretty cool. PitchforkTV was a great add. In the same way we created a music festival we’d want to be a part of and go to, we created a [Web-based] music channel that could do what we wanted.”

As it stands, Pitchfork modestly claims 20 full-time employees, with offices in Chicago and Brooklyn (where Schreiber currently resides). Kaskie and Editor-In-Chief Scott Plagenhoef oversee the local branch, which concentrates on posting breaking news and proofreading stories and reviews provided by staff writers. Kaskie was the first “employee,” “I came in here and started with ad sales but [started] to create and firm-up the business operations of this thing.”

Never does his job description delineate time for slacking, however. “Oh, God,” he laughs. “I spend the better part of my day trying to think of ways to make the magazine better. We need to make sure we can have our content where everyone is looking to read it. And right now we’re just online; we don’t have applications, no mobile version. There’s enhancing the technological aspects of the site. We’re finding and rethinking new ways of presenting our content, whether we’re under- or overutilizing. We spend our days trying to make it better. It never ends. It’s been a long, long time since I feel like I’ve had any good rest. We take our changes seriously so that’s why we don’t do a lot of them. But that doesn’t mean we’re not discussing them.”

Like most things, the real struggle isn’t getting to the top but staying there. The Internet can introduce you to some real fickle friends, the likes of whom have consigned Friendster and Myspace to the trashbin, while putting the owners of Facebook on edge.

“It’s hard to say [what the biggest challenge is].” Kaskie continues, “We’re doing things on our own terms, walking away from a lot of money, and there’s things we don’t want to do — and I’m talking more from a sponsorship and advertising standpoint. Then there’s a lot of smaller aspects. I think a lot of shifts in technology like apps and the iPad that people are beginning to focus on, it’s gonna be both a challenge for us to keep up because of our limited resources and people with larger resources and larger pockets are going to be able to do great things that we’re gonna look at and want to be at the forefront as well. It’s a harder game to play. The good news is we started as an online magazine and we’re going to continue to be that, but a lot of paper magazines are going to become online. Some of these platforms are enabling additional ways to do it. We work really hard to have a voice and discuss music, and that’s never going to change. As long as people are interested in what we’re saying — there’ll be shifts and cycles — we fully expect to be part of the lexicon.”

For those unfamiliar, the “lexicon” is relative. Pitchfork isn’t entertaining an “American Idol”-sized audience and, despite the occasional two cents on Coldplay, U2, Springsteen, T.I., and other mainstream artists, the typical subject sells albums in the low five figures, if that many. The site received a lot of credit for fanning the flames of The Arcade Fire’s success, while LCD Soundsystem, Animal Collective, and M.I.A. found it to be an early champion of their sounds. Its cumulative effect weighs probably more on recording contracts and concert-ticket sales for nascent bands (Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Voxtrot). Pitchfork is the loudest voice in the rise of what used to be known as “independent rock,” whose fanbase is disproportionately filled by would-be critics.

That’s not to dismiss it, however. The aforementioned rise of independent rock didn’t happen in a vacuum and, like when Chris Pronger was booed in the Stanley Cup Final, the dismissal of so-called “Pitchfork bands” only highlights its impact.

When asked about the site’s biggest successes, Kaskie doesn’t hesitate: “Gaining the respect of our readers. Whether they agree is not the point, it’s more that they trust that we are saying something we believe in. I’m more proud of us for sticking to our guns while a lot of shit was falling apart or not working, and doing exactly what we wanted at every turn and having it work out. Our community just exists across the Internet where people are talking about music.”

And that’s the guiding principle for the fifth-annual Pitchfork Music Festival. A collaboration with local promoter Mike Reed, its m.o. is to provide a real-world example of the music Pitchfork touts online.

“The festival has its own team that’s employed by Mike and Mike’s company [At Pluto],” Kaskie says. “Mike and I are primarily the people who are talking all the time and there are folks handling the day-to-day because there’s a lot going on and we have none of the resources to handle all that in-house.” In the past, Pitchfork Fest has borrowed ideas from England’s All Tomorrow’s Party festival, wherein classic bands (Public Enemy, Sonic Youth) recreated classic albums in their entirety. Last year, the opening day was dedicated to “Write The Night,” which allowed fans to vote on the setlists. This year there are no novelty events, just a longer Friday.

“Like our magazine,” he says, “the largest portion of our interest is the off-the-beaten-path, emerging music we’re excited about. When we think about the festival, there’s always going to be large acts who we want to play, but it’s generally we view the entire festival to be a curated grouping of bands. We spend a lot of time picking and carefully selecting a program. I think what you get is a real-world example of the things we talk about and do, and the artists we’re into on the Web site. I think even though we’re in Chicago, Pitchfork is kind of an international music publication and kind of a different vibe. There’s a lot of great festivals in Chicago; Lollapalooza is kind of the largest and most ambitious and hugest thing, but we’re comfortable in our little zone and have every intention of keeping it at a pace we’re comfortable with. Though every year we sell out and have opportunities to grow, we kind of like it the way it is. Lolla can give you a comprehensive experience, but with us you get exactly what you expect.”

It’s their story, so why not let them tell it?

— Steve Forstneger

For the full Pitchfork Music Festival preview, including interviews with Pavement, Big Boi, St. Vincent, Broken Social Scene, Wolf Parade, and more, grab the July issue of Illinois Entertainer, available free throughout Chicagoland.

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Category: Featured, Features, Monthly

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