Pitchfork Music Festival 2012 in Review

Videos by American Songwriter

Curating an Experience—Live and Online

The three-day, seventh annual Pitchfork Music Festival is over. Here’s what we learned.

Pitchfork is a website and a festival. While other music websites and media companies have launched (or become involved with) major events—A.V. Fest, Hopscotch, SoundLand, that thing Rolling Stone always does with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—perhaps none has achieved the level of success as Pitchfork, if success is to be measured in originality, influence, and (we presume) profitability.

Though, in fact, Pitchfork’s Chicago event (they now have a Paris festival too) may not be a huge cash cow. President Chris Kaskie recently told Biz Bash: “We base our ticket prices on what we need to create a sustainable and rewarding festival. Think of it as a ‘need vs. want’ thing. What we charge is what we need to charge.”

Ticket prices are relatively cheap and food on the grounds is not exorbitantly expensive either. Those things seem important at an event that celebrates independent music.

One of my friends, who has the advantage of an outside perspective on the music industry, recently said that Pitchfork seemed more like a record label to him.

It’s true—we now use signifiers like “they’re a Pitchfork band” in the same way people might say, “they have a 4AD sound.” Not to detract from independent record labels, who continue to work hard and stay true to the music (to use a tried but, um, true phrase) in an insanely challenging time for the recording industry, but Pitchfork does a very good job curating a unique musical experience—both live and online.

View a photo gallery from Pitchfork Music Festival.

Within the musical ecosystem that Pitchfork has created, there are a few major players.

You’ll find plenty of electronic musicians, hip-hop producers, and rappers. Electronic acts like Flying Lotus and AraabMuzik played this year’s festival.

In a DJ’s set where little or no acoustic sounds are being performed live, the audience takes on a special role. (You can witness one example of this from the photo pit. With only one guy on stage banging on a laptop, there’s not much to shoot, so photographers often turn around and just start shooting in the crowd.)

The Los Angeles producer Flying Lotus wears beautiful exotic-looking silver bracelets with stone inlays and plays a mesmerizing blend of techno and hip-hop with soul, funk, and jazz samples (he is the great nephew of Alice Coltrane) to a sometimes dizzying, sometimes entrancing, effect.

Rivaling the intensity of the up-tempo DJ shows are the performances by a group of fast-rising garage rock bands, typified by two San Francisco-based acts: Ty Segall and Thee Oh Sees.

Both artists played Sunday at the festival. These bands seem to take what they want from punk rock while adding a heavily melodic pop appeal with an overwhelmingly positive result.

Then there’s good ol’ indie rock, that increasingly difficult-to-classify genre.

“We like the rain. We wrote our whole record in the rain,” Wild Flag’s Carrie Brownstein told the crowd on Saturday. Brownstein, a veteran of ‘90s Washington-area band Sleater-Kinney who has also written for NPR, was probably better known to most of the festival’s young fans for her role on the IFC show Portlandia. While Wild Flag played a solid set that surely appealed to veteran rock fans, their performance couldn’t match the ferocity of Thee Oh Sees and their fans.

Sunday night headliners, Vampire Weekend, also seemed a little flat compared to bands that have been touring relentlessly. I can usually find something to love in a performance if I stick around a set for long enough (and I consider myself a fan of Vampire Weekend), but it took almost until the very end of the show, when they launched into “Oxford Comma” and “Giving Up The Gun,” for the band to reach the level of production—big, circular, ringing, expansive—that makes their records so irresistible.

In the end, you can say a lot of things about Pitchfork—the brand, the festival (and there are entire websites devoted solely to this)—but maybe one thing that’s not said enough is that they really and truly love the music they support. Something feels uniquely original and uncompromising about the festival’s programming (which is done in conjunction with the Chicago presenter Mike Reed and his production company, At Pluto).

Pitchfork’s founder and CEO Ryan Schreiber can often be seen at the side of the stage. He does not appear to carry a walkie-talkie or resemble a stressed-out festival producer (take that for what it’s worth—his partners may do more of the heavy lifting on-site).

In an old rock concert tee and black Chucks, he sways his grayish mid-length hair and takes deep inhales from his cigarette. He looks more like a fan than an impartial journalist as he sings along to his favorite bands.

That’s kind of inspiring in its own way.

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