If you recognize Jeff Rosenstock’s name, you might’ve been surprised to see him on the lineup for this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival. Rosenstock led staunchly DIY punk collective Bomb the Music Industry! from its formation in 2004 till its dissolution in 2014, operating in an ecosystem that barely overlapped at all with the festival circuit: the group distributed its music for free through its website, gave away stencils and paint so fans could make their own band T-shirts, and made a point of playing all-ages shows that cost $10 or less. In October 2016, the Long Island musician released “Festival Song” (on his third solo album, Worry.), a three-minute indictment of the corporatization of music festivals and their pernicious habit of cozying up to and co-opting DIY fans and artists. “They wouldn’t be your friend if it wasn’t worth it,” he sings in the chorus. “If you didn’t have something they could take.”
Sat 7/15, 1:45 PM, Red Stage
Rosenstock says he plans to play “Festival Song” at Pitchfork. “I feel like I’m in a really unique situation to be able to comment on what is happening literally at that moment,” he says. “We don’t play festivals very often. But in those few situations, we actually get to play a song that’s about the thing—that’s about the bad parts—instead of just doing what we usually do, like, ‘Yeah man, this is awesome, we’re having a good time!'”
In June, Rosenstock played “Festival Song” at the event that inspired it, the Northside Festival in Brooklyn. And when he plays it at Pitchfork, he’ll be intertwining his own history with DIY culture and the oddly parallel history of the institution that’s hosting him. “It’s funny,” he says. “It’s a snake eating its own tail.”
Rosenstock didn’t expect to play any summer fests to support Worry. Though he’s starting to actually sell his music, he acknowledges that the new album (out on SideOneDummy Records) is hardly a surefire commercial or critical success. Its 11 songs run together, making it more difficult to market singles. It uses the word “hashtag” in a lyric. And it includes a ska song—a genre even Rosenstock refers to in the past tense.
“It was surprising to be asked,” he says of his invitation to Pitchfork. But while Pitchfork Media can hardly claim to be DIY these days—especially since its acquisition by publishing giant Condé Nast in 2015—its music festival continues to celebrate artists with roots in that culture. The 2017 lineup includes Rosenstock and the Dirty Projectors, who both built their careers with a slow burn across several albums rather than breaking out in an explosion of hype. Also on the bill are second-wave emo favorites American Football, who found their audience after breaking up—they almost never played to more than two dozen people before reuniting in 2014.
Rosenstock still does tiny shows like that, he says. Sometimes he plays to a crowd of hundreds, sometimes to a handful. After his Pitchfork set, he has dates booked at small record stores and community arts centers, as well as at a dimly lit bar in Bloomington, Indiana, that’s actually underground.
The Pitchfork Music Festival continues to grow, in ambition if not in scope, and it has a lot of power to uproot DIY-bred artists and propel them onto bigger stages. It’s also a fair target for plenty of the criticisms Rosenstock makes in “Festival Song.” Ticket prices have risen far faster than inflation: single-day passes now cost $75, up from $15 at 2005’s Pitchfork-curated Intonation Music Festival. And this year the Pitchfork fest offers amenities such as air-conditioned bathrooms (part of the new +Plus pass) or a three-night stay at Virgin Hotel Chicago (for winners of the +Plus Summer Weekend contest). But artists have to choose to take what the festival is offering, and by booking Rosenstock, Pitchfork got a self-aware referee with a skeptical eye trained on the collision of big business and underground music—someone whose presence could help make sure the fest’s artists keep playing on a Blue Stage rather than a Bud Light Stage.
“What that song is about is just the very pervasive advertising that’s surrounded by this good thing that has all this emotional resonance for you,” Rosenstock says. “You’re watching these bands you love, and at the same time you’re seeing ads everywhere. I feel like that’s unhealthy. A lot of people just say, ‘That’s capitalism and the system we live in and just deal with it,’ but I think it certainly deserves acknowledging at the very least. Bands playing these festivals are saying counterculture shit and it’s kind of like, ‘OK, I think we should burn the prisons down, and I should get a Caleb’s Kola!’ The cognitive dissonance there is crazy to me. It’s bonkers.” v