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Thursday, Jul 14, 2011, 7:06 pm

Can Music Festivals Have a Conscience?

By Jeremy Gantz
It's a fairly ridiculous question: People don't swarm onto large open spaces every summer—sometimes for serious money—to make the world a better place; they do it to hear the music they love with friends, probably while getting drunk. For every Live Aid and Farm Aid, there are hundreds of festivals with no greater mission than a good time. Ironically, the utopian festival stereotype launched by Woodstock Music & Art Fair's "3 days of peace & music" was put out to pasture by the violent debacle of Woodstock 1999.

Yet there remains something rare and uniquely communal about all music festivals that's worth appreciating: the opportunity to be surrounded by passionate people ready to freak out with joy alongside strangers (if the band is good). When was the last time you did that for a whole day when you weren't at a religious revival meeting or a music festival? I think it's healthy (at the latter, at least), though I don't begrudge claustrophobes their lack of interest.

Of course, some festivals suck: overpriced tickets, water, beer and food, port-a-potty hell. Or they're free, but the music is lame. Or they're so vast, with so many acts playing simultaneously, that you feel more like a dazed mall rat than part of a community of music lovers. (Here's a good guide to festivals both massive and mid-sized around the country.)

It's tough to find the right balance between spectacle and intimacy, but Pitchfork Music Festival basically gets it right. I noted this last year, but it's worth repeating: The festival does a great job of not insulting its attendees with bullshit like $4 bottles of water or garish ads surrounding stages. And it does a good job of giving area nonprofits some needed visibility: This year Open Books, Dill Pickle Food Co-Op and EarthSave Chicago are three of the 17 groups tabling. (Headcount, which registered people to vote ahead of the midterm elections last year, won't be there this year.)

Pitchfork Music Festival 2011—put on, or at least curated by, the influential and highly opinionated music website—will begin tomorrow, and there's no reason to think it will be any different, save the bands playing. (Neko Case and Animal Collective Friday, DJ Shadow and Fleet Foxes Saturday, TV on the Radio closes on Sunday.) Despite its steady successes since launching in 2005, when it was called the Intonation Festival, the scale of the three-day indie extravaganza has remained the same: Only in Chicago's Union Park (a relatively small public park on Chicago's near west side), and only critically acclaimed acts, most of whom are probably proud they'll never be massively popular.

The consistent scale and scope of line-ups is in large part due to Mike Reed, the Chicago-based jazz drummer who has directed the festival since its start. (He's also been directly involved in putting on the excellent annual free jazz Umbrella Music Festival). The continuity matters, because it's entirely possible that a more mercenary impresario might have turned the whole thing into a traveling circus a la Lollapalooza in the '90s (but with more horn-rimmed glasses and vintage T-shirts). He didn't, because he knows how dangerous it is to alienate your own audience.

"Lolla is lot more blinged out, it's a little too much," Reed told me last summer. "We have our general audience, and we have our VIPs -- and we don't sell our VIP [passes], they're for partners and friends of the bands. The major difference [between Pitchfork and more typical festivals] is that we don't do any [ads on] any stages."

The relative lack of ads, Reed said, is important to keep the music front and center. "But the whole idea of sponsorship is not lost on us, and it's needed and welcomed from a very high level to a small community level." To be sure, corporations attend Pitchfork—last year Toyota sent a car, American Express sent an absurdly lit air-conditioned booth with phone chargers and Whole Foods sent some fancy groceries—but they're relegated to the back row, so to speak.

"I definitely came up during the period when corporate stuff was really frowned upon," said Reed, 37. "These kids, they're used to this, and the artists are used to the commercialization that has bled into their lives. But it's a different way." In other words, the corporate presence at the festival is discreet and understood (by organizers like Reed, at least) to be a necessary way to keep ticket costs down.

Pitchfork, which draws people from around the country, has probably become the country's flagship independent music festival. But the old indie anti-corporate creed seems to be waning into obsolescence: Now, if corporate logos and promotional displays are out of the way and keeping tickets cheap, they're no big deal.

Pavement reunited to play last year's festival, and a reunited Guided By Voices is playing this year on Friday night. Don't expect Fugazi, the old stalwart indie standard-bearers when "indie" was more of a principle than a genre, to reunite at Pitchfork anytime soon. That said, don't expect Pitchfork to become any more "sponsored" than it has to to keep its conscience intact, either. It's found the middle way, and treads it well.

Jeremy Gantz was the Web/Associate Editor of In These Times from 2008 to 2012. His January 2011 cover story for the magazine, "Terrorist by Association," was selected as a finalist for the Molly National Journalism Award 2012. He is now a contributing editor to the magazine, focusing on labor issues.

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