Pitchfork Music Festival: Fans as important as musicians

Mark Guarino reviews this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival, as well as Pitchfork Music’s unique business model.

By MARK GUARINO | Staff Writer Christian Science Monitor

posted July 20, 2011 at 12:26 pm EDT

Chicago – At the Pitchfork Music Festival, which closed its third and final day Sunday in Union Park in Chicago‘s far West Loop neighborhood, concertgoers were not necessarily sampling new favorites and familiar standbys, they were part of the attraction too.

That’s because Pitchfork is unlike most destination festivals in the US in that it was created to directly reflect its flagship, a successful online music site where music criticism is of equal value to the lifestyle branding to which the organization’s ongoing commercial ambitions are staked.

For young bands that can no longer depend on earning revenue through music sales, which have been on a steady decline for a decade, a Pitchfork nod is considered a big win. Whereas in the past bands might have worked hard to carve out a distinctive sound or unique perspective in their songs, these days the art is to simply get Pitchfork to notice you, resulting in one of the site’s signature exhaustive blog reviews that are routinely lampooned, most notably by comedian David Cross.

Through Pitchfork’s draconian 1-10 numbering system, bands are evaluated like microdots in a chemical lab; ranking assesses a band’s worthiness to fit into the Pitchfork mold. Which ultimately means participation in many of the organization’s emerging ventures, which, besides the festival, includes an online television channel, a second festival in Paris, and video game licensing.

The difficulty is that Pitchfork doesn’t really seem interested in engaging readers into a dialogue about music more than it wants to curate trends that, in turn, help the company become more valuable.

Which is good for its multi-platform business model but less so for musical integrity. Despite a handful of headliners that give the festival its heft, the majority of bands at Pitchfork become, in less than a year, the equivalent of old milk. Each year many arrive and exit unceremoniously; the constant is that, for one moment, they were Pitchfork-ready.

Add to the list this year is Odd Future, a shock-and-not-really-awe hip-hop collective- turned-internet-phenomenon. The L.A. group uses hate speech to get attention, although their performance Sunday was riddled with clich├ęs and comic aggression that aimed for paper targets.

The same half-baked sensibility plagued many artists this year. Twin Shadow played dance music that resurrected the same glam-romance of the Manchester era of the 1980s. Similarly, Zola Jesus, a bleached-topped pixie from Madison, Wis. adorned in a ruffle dress, mimicked the movements and sheer operatic vocal strength of Bjork, yet without the compelling songs.

Even long-time veterans struggled to make an impression. DJ Shadow introduced psychedelic projections during his Saturday set that failed to make an impact, mainly due to the fact that the sun had yet to go down. One day earlier, Thurston Moore, the guitarist who leads Sonic Youth, played a hush instrumental set accompanied by a harpist, violinist, and drummer, yet most of his set felt adrift on the large outdoor stage.

The most egregious Pitchfork noodler was headliner Animal Collective. During the band’s day-ending set Friday, the band delivered a canvas of instrumental bleeps and burps, which were presumably designed to accompany the melting images on the festival’s video screen. With vocals tweaked to sound subterranean, the band did not provide anything to dance to nor think about. Instead, the nearly 90-minute set was a self-indulgent fraud.

Pitchfork’s high tolerance for style over substance meant that many of the new bands looked good but had nothing significant to offer. The more radical offerings came from more seasoned artists, such as Neko Case, the country soul singer who sang songs of despair and woodland creatures. The beauty of the songs was complimented by a band of players who provided nuanced harmonies and instrumental color.

Another band that seemed to better by time was the Dismemberment Plan. The Washington, D.C. band retired in 2003 but reunited only recently, finding they were playing to larger audiences with renewed vigor. The jittery punk and rock anthems were perfectly tailored for the outdoor audience, which was held in rapt attention the entire set.

Similarly, Fleet Foxes ended Saturday with a majestic set that highlighted songs from it pair of albums. Lead singer Robin Pecknold, who has vocal similarity to Graham Nash, added to the dazzling a cappella harmonies. Through folk ballads and expansive prog-rock, the Seattle band’s set was a feat of musicianship and songwriting smarts, ingredients that made the band a standout, not just for the weekend, but across the Pitchfork universe.

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