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Friday, Jul 16, 2010, 8:11 am

The Pitchfork Music Festival: Can Indie Music Get Festive?

By Jeremy Gantz
By Jeremy Gantz

The thousands of people who will gather at Chicago's Union Park today for the annual Pitchfork Media Festival will be there for ostensibly one reason: to hear (and see) music performed by artists they love. But there's a secondary reason thousands are flocking to the festival, as hundreds of thousands of Americans who attend music festivals each year do: community.

That reason is of course secondary, but it's a big part of what makes any festival worth attending. And although I'm a big fan of many of the bands playing over the course of the three-day event, it's the main reason I'm going. (Well OK, fine, music is the main reasons, but I'm curious what the scene will be like.) There is a particular pleasure, even joy, in being surrounded (literally) by like-minded people—in this case, people passionate about adventurous, eclectic and often experimental music. Unless you have no heart, you should be able to feel it as soon as you walk through the gates on Ashland Avenue, on the city's near west side. If you're already drunk when you arrive, well then, maybe you'll feel it even more.

But here's the thing that makes Pitchfork particularly compelling vis a vis community to me: The festival namesake, the indie music website Pitchfork.com, has cultivated a devoted readership during the last ten years (although founded in 1995, it didn't really start taking off until 2000) by taking independent (i.e., non-corporate) music very seriously. (The often overwrought seriousness and encyclopedic sensibilities of many of the site's writers have made it an easy target for satire.)

The point is that Pitchfork never set out to nurture a community (as opposed to say, the Grateful Dead), but a community is what it has built. And now that community has its own music festival, five years running. And as opposed to say, deadheads and phishheads, indie rock fans (for lack of a better phrase to encompass people who read the site regularly, and are willing to fork over $90 to see/hear a few days of music) are not known for their deep communal tendencies. To the contrary: They tend to seek the edges, to avoid large crowds, to find pleasure in the underground and the unpopular. It's unclear how that sensibility will manifest itself, or transform itself, over three hot days of live music spanning the straight-up indie rock "establishment" (Modest Mouse, Pavement, Broken Social Scene) to hip-hop legends (Raekwon, Big Boi, El-P) to noise freaks (Lightning Bolt, which, after Pavement, I'm most looking forward to).

Here's hoping any hipster hangups are promptly dropped and the festival turns everyone into a giant field of dancers. Lord knows white people can use a little motion. But if there's any U.S. city that can strip you of snobbery and help you wear your heart on your sleeve, it's Chicago.

Dispatches from the festival to follow...

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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