If we’re being honest, the thought alone of attending a festival wears us down. After an explosion in the early 2010s, the festival circuit has become oversaturated, a section of the entertainment world that births new events and weekend-long parties without an audience even asking for them. It’s a sea of endless energy drinks samples, high-fructose corn syrup granola bars, and random corporations slapped on already-filled phone charging booths. In the last two years alone, music festivals, particularly those in America, have lost their individuality. The appeal isn’t who’s on the lineup, but rather which lineup is closer to you while still being Instagram-able. Why fly out to California for Coachella or to Chicago for Lollapalooza when three-quarters of the acts listed on their bills will perform at Panorama, Governors Ball, or Boston Calling—all a quick drive away?
But sometimes, if you look close enough, there are festivals that never deviated from the spirit of what festivals should be about. Or, in the rare case, there are festivals that have grown from great to fantastic, raising the bar not just for themselves, but for other festivals. Pitchfork Music Festival occupies this space. In a seemingly obvious calculation, the festival, held by music website Pitchfork, managed to turn their 2017 edition of the festival into one that prioritizes creativity, local roots, and change across every aspect of the event, from its musical acts all the way down to sponsored booths and food options. The mid-to-large-scale music festival field seems like it’s dead. All it takes is one trip to Pitchfork Music Festival to realize that scene is not—or at least not festivals actually worth your money.
From the get-go, Pitchfork Music Festival highlighted a clear pathway towards improving attendee’s experience. The lineup—one that runs the gamut in genre: indie rock, dance, lyric-less Americana, R&B, rap, punk, experimental pop, and beyond—tackled the biggest complaint facing festivals: How do you diversify while still drawing crowds? It’s a question inherently biased, one that assumes non-rock festival staples aren’t chosen because no one wants to see them live, at least not at a festival. Pitchfork Music Festival’s lineup was dominated by acts that feature women, people of color, and openly LGBTQA members. Not only did it work, drawing huge crowds each day, especially early on (a feat most festivals struggle with), but diverse crowds that reflected the performers. To be honest, Pitchfork Music Festival often draws predominantly white, male attendees—a stat which reflects their readership, or at least those who fill out their polls. This time around, that demographic didn’t feel suffocating.
While there’s no public numbers yet, eyeballing the crowds made it safe to say there was a huge turnout for this year’s festival to see these artists. Headliners LCD Soundsystem took the stage shortly after member Gavin Russom came out as transgender, A Tribe Called Quest led a sold-out Saturday with flawless old-school rap, and Solange closed out the weekend with a jaw-dropping musical and dance performance. Kilo Kish and Vagabon, though entirely different in sound, got festivalgoers out of bed on the weekend to see them perform, a good chunk of whom sang along cheerily. Priests took the main stage by storm with relentless and increasingly-topical political punk. The low-key delivery of Isaiah Rashad’s raps won over devoted fans and casual listeners alike. Even at 1 PM on a Friday, attendees turned up at the gates to see Madame Gandhi, a multi-instrumentalist who’s moved on from her days drumming for M.I.A. to spoken-word experimental pop where she read feminist passages to an audience audibly hungry for more, including those who listened from afar while caught in bag-check lines.
To be fair, plenty of other festivals have tried to cater to numerous needs the way Pitchfork did this past weekend. The difference is how they utilize their stages. Festivals tend to treat stages like playlists, dumping all the rappers on one, all the rock on another, and so on. Instead, acts like Weyes Blood played before George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic only to be followed by Angel Olsen. Then there was the Cherry Glazerr, Mitski, Francis and the Lights, Madlib, and S U R V I V E back-to-back schedule. It allowed those who sit static at one stage to get a healthy helping of everything. Other times, it made for smooth programming, like when The Avalanches cancelled last minute due to a family emergency, placing Jamila Woods on the main stage, a near-perfect preface to Solange’s empowering show.
It’s tempting to point out that the acts with strictly white males represented drew medium-to-small crowds (NE-HI, Thurston Moore Group, The Feelies), but that undermines why they were chosen, or how sturdy their sets were. It wasn’t in poor taste. While Vince Staples drew a massive crowd on the heels of this year’s Big Fish Theory, William Tyler and his backing band wheeled their way through gorgeous, instrumental, southern-tinged Americana—the type of finger-picking solos and groove-rooted jams that felt just out-of-place enough to warrant praise at a festival that easily could have booted that out—to a crowd of maybe 60 people, tops.
Above all else, that, the emphasis on performance over setlist, is what Pitchfork Music Festival capitalizes on to separate itself from other equally-sized festivals. From the very first set of the festival (Madame Ghandi) to the last (Solange), artists arrived ready to deliver an immersive experience all on their own. It’s not just that they rose to the occasion for Pitchfork specifically, too, but rather that this is how they perform. Jeff Rosenstock, the odd-man-out on the festival’s bill and frontman of now-defunct ska-punk band Bomb! The Music Industry, rushed through a set of hits that energized a swelling crowd. He encouraged viewers to do the wave, blurted the band’s guarantee, wrote “listen to Laura Stevenson” in tape on his guitar, and kicked a Trump piñata into the crowd, encouraging them to rip it to shreds. But it was the hurried words before their last song that made Rosenstock’s set standout: a genuine, lengthy call for attendees to support their local all ages venues, non-profits, and organizations if they believe those places best represent them and their interests. It was one spectacle after another, meant to empower those in the audience should they want to be.
Solange took a similar route, but through entirely different ways. The singer, composer, and choreographer staged a flawless show that felt surreal in the moment and even moreso following its end. In just under an hour, Solange performed the majority of A Seat at the Table with cuts from albums like True dispersed throughout, her live band bellowing out each horn part and backing vocal section with precision accented by their moves. Every person onstage moved in time to the song, be it hurling their hair forward to the drum beat, one at a time, or lining up, hips facing the crowd, like a conga line. It felt like the middle ground of a spiritual soul session, Stop Making Sense, and a highly-regarded MoMA performance. Whatever questions floated about her ability to headline a festival were squashed immediately.
That doesn’t mean performances are all about props, either. A Tribe Called Quest noted their lack of decoration early on (“We don’t have a disco ball,” Q-Tip said, a nod to LCD Soundsystem’s set the night before) and instead focused on the biggest piece no one could see: Phife Dawg. The rapper passed away in March of 2016 while the rest of the group were working on their comeback LP, We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service. Their headlining set included plenty of space, physically and verbally, for Phife to take up post-mortem, and they let him. It was a seamless performance of hits, the majority of which ran together with smooth DJ work, which maintained the largest crowd there. A Tribe Called Quest cleared the area for old-school hip-hop that never sounded dated, a performance that rightfully deserved to be slotted as a headlining act, and one that the group and crowd alike appreciated.
But music is only one part of a festival. Though it’s the biggest, it’s the rest of the atmosphere that shapes a festival, and Pitchfork Music Festival commits to that. Though a handful of bands reminded listeners not to give into corporations whole-heartedly, so as to not compromise your values, the truth is that many of the booths there focus on Chicago’s local arts community. Even if Wendy’s handing out free salads and HBO’s Insecure phone-charing booth lured people in, the places that surrounded it created an atmosphere of creativity and innovation. From the independent book store housing publishing groups and chapbooks to Solange’s Saint Heron organization to the Chicago-based apparel companies with booths to the CTA bus with pamphlets on applying for jobs, it felt like a sampling of the city with the heart at its forefront. Even the food options, which provided plenty of satisfactory options regardless of dietary restrictions, came from nearby restaurants and establishments.
Then came the emphasis on local music. Whereas most music festivals nod to the city hosting them by including an opener or two that hail from the city, Pitchfork prioritizes them. It’s true that this year saw fewer Chicago acts than the 2016 edition. And yet, those who did perform—American Football, Joey Purp, Jamila Woods, etc.—took the stage later in the day, to sizable crowds, with hometown appeal that warrants national acclaim, many of whom already have both. That extended to their record fair, where independent record stores as well as small music labels got the chance to sell their merch to onlookers, placing a store like Reckless Records beside Drag City or a petite cassette company. Pitchfork Music Festival doesn’t just take over a city. They do their best to represent it authentically, too.
Which brings us back to why this festival is so notable in the first place. We wouldn’t fly out from Boston if it wasn’t worth the airfair or the time. Pitchfork Music Festival is proving the festival math to be wrong, leading the way for festivals looking to improve, and still very much aware of the work that still needs to be done. It’s immersive without overwhelming, diverse without tokenizing, and intent on strengthening its community. It’s a festival intentionally working to fix the festival experience. The process takes work. As Solange said towards the end of her set, change of that level is about being grateful for how you’ve grown, the people who’ve stuck through it with you, and those who are willing to change themselves, too. Then she quite literally nodded to the festival for doing the same. “I thank you, Pitchfork for evolving and changing, too,” said Solange. “There’s a lot of fucking work to do.” Thankfully, they’re already several steps in the right direction while other festivals seem absurdly far behind.
Pitchfork Music Festival takes place every July in Chicago’s Union Park. Find out more information at their website.