There are a lot of things about “festival culture” I don’t care for. These include but are not limited to: crowds, weather, being outside, human beings, shitting in any space other than a luxurious indoor toilet, and music. OK, saying “music” is a joke, mostly, but by and large the local options just don’t book good enough acts to make it worthwhile to endure all the terrible things about festivals. That said, I’ve always found Pitchfork’s annual party in Union Park (which started in 2006—or 2005, if you count the year it curated Intonation) to offer the most comfortable experience and interesting bill of the summer. Naturally, when I spoke by phone last week with Pitchfork founder and editor in chief Ryan Schreiber and Pitchfork president Chris Kaskie—who announced in May that he’s leaving the company in late July—I asked about how such a massive event gets planned. We also discussed Pitchfork’s remaining ties to Chicago aside from its festival, its gatekeeper role in a streaming-music future, and much more.
J.R. Nelson: The planning and logistics for the next year’s festival must start when they’re still taking the porta-potties out of Union Park.
Ryan Schreiber: Yeah, we start thinking about the next year when we finish with the current one. It’s a long process. Fortunately, we’ve been doing it long enough so that there are certain aspects that are down to a science.
Chris Kaskie: We usually have our first offers out to bands and their agents in August. You can’t move too quickly considering the process of permitting and all that, and that goes up to a week or two before the festival. All of the work that encompasses August to November is our creative modifications and focus on programming and all that comes with it, be it design or logo overhauls like we did this year. Come November, we go on sale with our early-bird tickets. For a company like Pitchfork, the website goes on every day. Most festivals have the luxury of thinking the whole year about their next festival. For us, it’s more important to never stop working on it so it’s never something that becomes overwhelming for us.
In terms of your talent buy, do you work with outside bookers or the Pitchfork staff or a combination that comes up with the lineup?
CK: We’ve been working with the same production partner, Mike Reed, since we were kids just starting this thing out in 2004 and 2005. Since we have so few slots to actually fill, it’s obviously a very careful process in terms of submissions or thinking how every slot is as important as the next. It’s a really tight-knit group, and with that comes the expected discourse and disagreements, but the beauty is you get a bit more flexibility at the festival to not be so homed in to what’s happening today. You can kind of look at more music—take a breath and have a broader scope.
I’m sure there are people who think the website and editorial side of Pitchfork give better coverage to festival acts. I’m assuming you have something to say to that, right?
RS: I think when you look at the ratings, it disproves that theory. I mean, editorial doesn’t make any decisions, but at the beginning of the booking process we ask who’d they be excited to see. Pitchfork staff are boots-on-the-ground folks who go to see a lot of shows, and particularly where emerging artists are concerned, they tend to have a sense of which artists are great performers. Our production partners handle the booking for the most part. Production obviously follows our coverage closely, but like our editorial they’re pretty plugged in as fans, so our tastes tend to align.
CK: Part of the reason we have Mike do the outreach is to further separate the decision making. Outside of even just the scores, if we ultimately wanted to make this festival ten times more successful we would collude. We have a website that exists year-round based on something that’s trying to have integrity and based on our opinions. It’s something we started to create a tangible real-world environment for the website, so the minute you start to compromise that—we’ve gone to great measures to ensure that there is that same church-and-state barrier. When artists are playing onstage and complaining about their score or making fun of us—it happens all the time. On top of the nuts and bolts of having a review, and then having a performance—those are two separate things in and of themselves. It’s not a game. If you wanted to make it one, it’d be the death knell of the festival and the death knell of the website, and it’d be foolish to even try and think about it.
I’ve been to almost every festival since 2007—the first one I went to, I was pushing around an ice cream cart, and I remember Todd Trainer and Bob Weston from Shellac bought some and I had a funny little hat on. Embarrassing moment. Anyway, I’ve noticed, especially over the past five or six years, that the festival and the website have gotten a lot more diverse in terms of genres covered and performers. Is that broadening an ongoing project for Pitchfork?
RS: I think you’re always trying to make the most diverse, inclusive, and well-rounded lineup you can. Honestly, I think it’s something Pitchfork itself has gotten much better at over the past five to ten years, and the festival reflects that. It’s an ongoing process.
CK: The music world is becoming more diverse, and various barriers to entry are breaking down. The way that Pitchfork has evolved is reflective of that because we’re evolving in real time. We can react quickly, think about things as they’re happening—before they’re happening, in some cases. The festival, going into every year, it’s a mentality. We’re obviously inspired by discovery and most inspired by emerging music, but at the same time, as fans, as we all are—like you said, running into Bob Weston, it’s like, “Holy shit, I love Shellac and Mission of Burma”—you’re equal sided in that regard, so the festival gives you a little bit more freedom to think about things in both capacities. We’re not sitting down and putting a spreadsheet together saying, “We need X of this and Y of that.” We’re basically saying, “Let’s put acts we’re excited about, that we think are special, and as it’s going let’s just make sure we’re not making any mistakes with regards to going into a direction that feels less inclusive.” So the beauty of it is, I think we haven’t overthought it, and because of that it becomes an even more accurate representation of music right now. Cutting that down to 40-something acts is a challenge.
I’m interested in the events surrounding the festival that are involved with community outreach. How did you develop Beats Over Bullets with MASK and Everytown?
CK: Pitchfork is emotionally headquartered here in Chicago, even though we’ve been acquired by Condé Nast and our official HQ is in New York. A goal we have is to do good for the community that surrounds and supports us. Every year we come up with a charitable-giving option for our guests and artists to raise awareness and donations. Last year we were helping to support organizations that provide voter accessibility in underserved markets. MASK, we had employees that were supporting and volunteering for. At the same time, there was some outreach from Everytown. It has become an international thing to raise gun awareness and gun-violence awareness across all cities, not just Chicago. What we were able to do was take MASK, which is our local focal point, and broaden that purview into something like Everytown, and then allow Pitchfork to integrate that continued awareness beyond the three days of the festival. There is obviously a charitable-giving component to it, but it’s more important to be something that is ongoing. As a festival it’s hard to get political, but on a community-based level we want to find ways to integrate meaningfully.
Will there be a presence at the festival for Beats Over Bullets, beyond folks wearing orange?
CK: Orange will be integrated into materials and T-shirts and what the artists may or may not do onstage. There will obviously be locations onsite where people will be able to go and learn more, but at the same time I think it’s more esoteric, like a mist floating above the festival. We’re still finalizing plans on the site, but the general thesis is to have it be omnipresent, in some ways subversive—versus it being everywhere, like handing out flyers all day long.
Instead of doing the kind of typical aftershow gigs with bands, you’re working with Saint Heron to do on- and off-site events. There is a bit of mystery as to what their presence will look like at the festival.
CK: There will be some space on the grounds that will be defined by Saint Heron, in the sense that we’re giving them a canvas to play with. As far as the events are concerned, we haven’t rolled those out yet, but we will soon. As to the first part of your question, not to blow smoke up our own asses, but we’ve always wanted to be a festival that was friendly to artists as much as attendees. With that community-based, musician-based approachable comfort for the artist, the goal is collaboration. When we started talking to Solange Knowles, she brought up the idea of collaborating. We were like, “Of course”! We’ve tried to do it before, and it’s something we’ll continue to try with artists moving forward. A couple of years ago, we were talking to Chance the Rapper when he headlined about things we could do with him. Sometimes things don’t ultimately play out.
Do you expect the festival to stay in Chicago? No designs to move in the foreseeable future?
RS: Chicago is a part of Pitchfork’s DNA. I moved there from Minneapolis in 1999 and opened our office there in 2002. Pitchfork owes a lot to Chicago for all of its support. Many of us lived there and care a lot about the city. Our staff and contributors are very tight-knit—everyone that works on the festival now, people who used to work on it, they’re all part of our family.
CK: You can’t really replicate what we’ve done here and carbon copy it and take it into other cities. What we’ve built is intrinsically Chicago made. Being comfortable and happy with the size and scope of the festival in Chicago means it’ll be there forever as far as we’re concerned.
Are you working on strategies to engage with listeners involved in a streaming environment and less of an authoritarian “gatekeeper” idea? Do you see that as a direction Pitchfork moves into in the future?
RS: I think our objectivity and our reviews are really central to our editorial mission. I think because it’s an aspect of what we do, it separates us from streaming music services and algorithms. For us, we treat streaming services almost as an extension of social media. We aid music discoveries, and we find that our readers are really eager to engage with us on those platforms. Pitchfork provides context. We keep readers posted on new developments; we tell stories. For us, where the music comes from, what inspires it, who made it and why, and connecting with musicians as people matters. Our obsession with music and our readers’ obsession with music runs pretty deep. I think there are a lot of casual listeners out there who’ve always been OK with having music fed to them, but Pitchfork was really designed with more serious fans in mind. While some of those fans are finding more music through algorithms as well, our approach is still really resonating. Our traffic is growing, and a more human, personal connection is very much what people are looking for.
CK: Yeah, we’ve gotta fight the fight. It’s an easy trap to fall into—how easy and accessible music is. But the problem with that is the artist makes the record, puts time into it—it deserves an equal amount of thought that goes into talking about it, good or bad. But you’ve gotta fight that fight, because without caring for the art form and talking about it and being excited about it and thinking through it, music becomes disposable, and that’s a depressing reality if it happens. That’s a flag we’ll fly proudly.