Less is more for the Pitchfork faithful

Categories: Chicago Sun-Times

THE FANS | It’s a major fest, but not so huge that you’re left ‘exhausted’

Kim Schifino of the synth-pop duo Matt and Kim announced she was taking her Beyonce moment at the Pitchfork Music Festival Saturday when she left her drumkit and proceeded to get low, pushing pelvis to pavement.

That Beyonce herself pulled off the same move steps away from where Schifino was standing — Friday at the United Center — is not just kismet but is also representative that the two worlds are today, not so far apart on the spectrum of music commerce as it might otherwise seem.

Pitchfork Media, the music website once responsible for breaking bands like the Arcade Fire, is today one of multiple platforms on a cluttered media landscape promising reviews, features and insider access to a consumer base that sales data shows is shrinking by the day.

By not purchasing the same music in mega-numbers as they did in the past, consumers have sharply fragmented thanks to midwifery of sites like Pitchfork. With independent artists allowed the same level of exposure as corporate hitmakers, a new generation of music fans has been given the green light to indulge their curiosities, which means Matt and Kim can now play to a similar audience ratio as Beyonce.

The festival Pitchfork launched in 2006 was originally positioned to serve those niche tastes, with a scaled-down live event that gave audiences many choices in greater numbers. But with the cultural mainstream devolving at a faster rate, the festival’s identity as an outsider is starting to strain.

Last Thursday Pitchfork organizers released 300 additional tickets each for Saturday and Sunday to directly compete with scalpers flooding eBay and Craigslist with prices that elevated the $35 ticket value to over $500. But even with those tickets selling out in a day, scalpers crowded the streets surrounding Union Park, outside the West Loop, offering tickets at three times their original cost.

“It’s demand and definitely the acts,” said Mike Reed, the festival’s director. “But it’s also the reputation and notoriety of the festival that’s getting out there. We try to keep it the same size but there’s more people who know about it, which means more people want to go.”

With the Flaming Lips, Built to Spill and the Jesus Lizard among the headliners, Pitchfork is by default raising its profile to directly compete with other destination festivals across the country, including Lollapalooza, which takes place Aug. 7-9 in Grant Park. (Total attendance at Pitchfork this year was 4,900, said Reed.) Judging from the amount of ticket queries posted online, a higher percentage of Pitchfork ticket-holders this year came from outside the Chicago market than in previous years.

Friends Lauren Bloomguist, 18, from Portland and Sarah Smith, 19, from San Diego, said Pitchfork’s limited size and cheaper price prompted them to travel to Chicago. Their previous festival experience was attending west coast festivals Coachella outside Los Angeles, Street Scene in San Diego and Sasquatch in Northern Oregon.

“I like it a lot better than other festivals,” said Bloomguist. “I don’t feel like I’m exhausted. Coachella is exhausting, you almost don’t want to go back by the second day.”

Lollapalooza is more expensive, but the added cost translates to what it offers: more bands, stages, activities, acreage and marquee names, all of which Pitchfork lacks. However, as Pitchfork expands its target market and grows its line-up to become more of a national contender, what it does not have — an obligatory stadium headliner — may ultimately become its signature.

Backstage before his set at Pitchfork Saturday, Black Lips guitarist Cole Alexander said the festival was different for just that reason. “It seems like I haven’t heard of many other bands,” he said. “It’s not like it has to have black chip headliners like Lollapalooza has, like Tool or Pearl Jam. Here, you get to find out about a lot of new bands and that’s cool.”

Mark Guarino is a Chicago-based journalist. Visit mark-guarino.com.

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