"I didn't expect so much hipster bullshit."
Really? This particular sentiment, which I overheard on the first day of the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, typifies the response expressed by skeptics of Pitchfork, the website that organizes the festival. Now in its eighth year, the event skews heavily toward the sort of indie fare pushed by the site.
But aside from the scale of the spectacle, there's not all that much separating the Pitchfork Festival from "mainstream" destination events like Coachella or San Francisco's Outside Lands. All three Pitchfork headliners (Bjork, Belle & Sebastian, and R. Kelly) have played the main stage at Coachella -- although Belle & Sebastian have never headlined and R. Kelly made only a brief appearance as a guest of Phoenix. Indie darlings such as Arcade Fire and Vampire Weekend rode the festival circuit all the way to mainstream stardom. And I defy you to find a music festival (Coachella, Outside Lands, Treasure Island, Pitchfork) that doesn't feature at least a little "hipster bullshit." If you haven't been paying attention, neon shades and fixie bikes are everywhere.
For its part, the Pitchfork Festival is a well-run boutique event featuring a variety of music- and arts-related attractions. While it doesn't always feature the star power or 80-artist roster of some other festivals, Pitchfork offers a low-key alternative to Midwest mainstream festivals such as Lollapalooza. Running roughly 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. each day, it's also a relatively manageable weekend experience compared to other traditionally "hipster" events like Austin's South By Southwest, a conference that brings together literally hundreds of mismatched bands.
Pitchfork and Outside Lands also share a similar lineage, in that both came about last decade: Pitchfork held its first proper festival in 2006 after successfully curating the one-off Intonation Festival the year before, while Outside Lands kicked off in 2008. The events both formed in the wake of Internet-aided ticket-moving machines like Coachella and Tennessee's Bonnaroo, and along with those festivals actually grew in popularity through the consumable-income vacuum of the late-2000s recession. As the post-internet music industry increasingly relies on alternative means of income to stay afloat, destination festivals have emerged as a means to drive dollars and eyeballs from a generation disinclined to pony up $16 for CDs.
Granted, it's tough to compare a Midwestern festival run by a boutique website to a mainstream event with four times the attendance (Pitchfork attendance runs about 50,000 over its three days, while this year's Outside Lands will exceed that mark on each single day). However, with Outside Lands coming up this August 9-11, I've noticed a few differences between the two festivals that make me glad to decamp in Golden Gate Park each year, as well as a few items I'm now putting on my Outside Lands wish list:
Climate: Why do big music festivals and extreme weather seem to go hand-in-hand? Temperatures at destinations such as Coachella and Bonnaroo frequently climb north of 100 degrees, with regular, often overpriced, hydration a necessity and the weather sometimes playing havoc with equipment and show schedule.
Last weekend's Chicago weather typified the mercurial Midwest climate, with Friday seesawing from an afternoon high of 96 to evening thunderstorms and tornado warnings. Friday headliner Bjork saw her set cut short about 20 minutes early due to the inclement weather. In reaction, the singer publicly chastised organizers: "I tell you what, this wouldn't be much in Iceland." By comparison, the weather at Outside Lands gets out of the festival-goer's way, hovering around 70 until the fog rolls in, and then it's time to put on a conveniently stashed extra layer. Call me cranky, but I'll take the cool coastal environs of Golden Gate Park, and a sweater, any day.
Transportation: Despite favorable attitudes toward the public transportation infrastructures in the two host cities, getting to and from Outside Lands is an entirely different animal compared to the Pitchfork Festival. It's not difficult to trickle into Golden Gate Park during the day, but when headliners finish up each day, getting home becomes a logistical nightmare. Muni provides expanded service, but nearby lines inevitably clog beyond all utility, forcing thousands of exhausted festival-goers to hoof it from the vicinity of 40th Avenue all the way to the Panhandle.
By comparison, fans seem to simply waltz out of Union Park after Pitchfork finishes up, with ample public transportation available (though the Green Line elevated train does cramp up a bit after the festival). Sure, some of this is due to the aforementioned differences in scale, but let's take a couple other points of comparison: First, Chicago's Lollapalooza is located in downtown Chicago, and its central location affords multiple public transit outs. Second is our own Treasure Island Music Festival, which, well, riddle me this: if Treasure Island can manage to shuttle thousands of people on and off the island via the notorious bottleneck of the Bay Bridge, you'd think Outside Lands or Muni could make a better effort to move fans a mile or so from the perennial cattle-crawl out of Golden Gate Park.
Food and Drink: Pitchfork's refreshment booths proffered wares from a few selected local vendors, including Chicago's Goose Island Brewery, and sponsors like Big Star tacos and Tito's Vodka serviced VIP pass-holders, but the overall fare could be described as fairly standard. By comparison, Outside Lands routinely leverages the Bay Area's extensive epicurean delights in service of its festival goers' palates. For its Taste Of The Bay Area, this year's organizers have nabbed more than 50 local luminaries such as Andalu, Homeroom, Rosamunde, and mobile establishments like the Chairman, Senor Sisig, and Kung Fu Tacos. General admission ticketholders at Pitchfork would love to see a Big Star installation, possibly alongside other Chicago-area institutions such as Hot Doug's.
For many ardent festival-goers, band-watching and day-drinking serve as indispensable weekend colleagues. Outside Lands organizers realized this early on, and in 2013, its Wine Lands will serve thousands of eager drinkers with offerings from Robert Sinskey, Ridge, Kermit Lynch, and many other operations from our local wine-producing eras. As an event, Beer Lands is a little younger than its oenological cousin, but it already features a strong local slate of brewers like Sierra Nevada, 21st Amendment, and Linden Street Brewery. While Pitchfork's longstanding relationship with Goose Island breaks the normal festival tedium of watered-down Heineken, Outside Lands offers a diversified selection of alcoholic selections unmatched by other big music events. I'm sure my Chicago beer-drinking friends would almost assuredly appreciate a comparable selection of Midwestern craft breweries.
Memorabilia: Every year, Pitchfork's grounds include a variety of independent arts, music, and memorabilia vendors that offer a diversity of unfettered music consumerism. The long-running Flatstock fair, hosted by the American Poster Institute, features a variety of handcrafted music posters. At the CHIRP Record Fair, festival goers can peruse large inventories of CDs and vinyl records from labels, area record stores, and other vendors. The resultant experience gives Pitchfork the feel of a capital-M Music festival, giving fans the ability to fill lulls in the performance schedule with record shopping and poster-gazing. Memorabilia isn't just limited to artists playing at the festival that year. It'd be great to see more of a flea-market atmosphere to the merch booths at Outside Lands. I wouldn't mind perusing a dusty Amoeba record bin while awaiting Paul McCartney's headlining set next month.
Musical highlights from the Pitchfork Music Festival:
Chairlift - Technical problems forced the band to start a few minutes late, and thus shave a few songs off their setlist. The Brooklyn act persevered, with lead singer Caroline Polachek rattling off cherubic high notes on standouts like "Bruises" and "I Belong In Your Arms" and test-driving a bevy of new R&B-tinged cuts. Chairlift's tight performance and beat-driven new material point to an exciting future for this band on the heels of its 2012 sophomore effort, Something.
Belle & Sebastian - Stuart Murdoch, once a willowy Glasgow shut-in, is by now an old hand at staring down audiences from the main stage. Murdoch and his Glasgow band reeled through their nearly 20-year catalog, giving soaring renditions of "I'm A Cuckoo," "The Stars Of Track & Field," and "Get Me Away From Here, I'm Dying." On record, the band's oeuvre conveys a diffident air that has become the indie-pop group's signature, but even in Saturday rain the band's set was one of confident, bracing anthems.
Autre Ne Veut - Arthur Ashin's second full-length, Anxiety, contains a kaleidoscopic array of synths, nervy beats, and at times a physiological distress suggested by the album's title. I find the critically-acclaimed act to be a tough listen at times, almost nauseatingly frenetic in its production. On stage Sunday, Ashin dialed back a bit on his vocal processing and commandeered a tight touring band in service of his cybernetic blue-eyed soul.
R. Kelly - Chicago writer Jim DeRogatis has said that R. Kelly's booking last weekend was "fueled by irony," which itself reeks of irony's insidious cousin, cynicism. Sure, part of Kells's mystique builds around the moral ambiguity surrounding the schism between the man and the music; and after all, it was DeRogatis who broke the R. Kelly sextape story back in '08. Whatever you think of him, Kells delivered on the most anticipated set of the weekend, reeling through one of the most commercially successful R&B catalogs in recent memory with an energy that would tire out a hyperactive adolescent. Kelly intermingled classics like "Ignition (Remix)" and "Bump & Grind" in a medley fashion, often pausing the beats only to vamp out a bit of banter with the crowd (after asking for a face towel in dramatic and melodic fashion, the singer remarked "I can write a song about anything"). He ended his set (after two encores) with "I Believe I Can Fly," capping off the hit by releasing hundreds of dove-shaped balloons into the Chicago sky. Funny? Sorta. Ironic? Not at all. Hipster bullshit? Perish the thought.