Now in its eighth year, the Pitchfork Music Festival has growing pains like any other festival. It's likely to sell out a capacity of 54,000 tickets across three days at Chicago's Union Park. It also has a record sponsor count that's close to 20, with Ray-Ban, Vans, H&M, Tito's Vodka and Goose Island beer, among others, joining a list of returning brands that includes Red Bull, Chipotle and Whole Foods.
But it also has the most eclectic, straight-up weird lineup of any festival of its size. Friday's programming alone is led by performers like Johnny Cash-gone-gonzo vocalist Daughn Gibson, psych-folk singer Angel Olsen, British art-punk band Wire and headlining sets from harpist Joanna Newsom and reigning queen of eccentric pop, Bjork. Saturday's more overlapping schedule presents one of the most unlikely tough choices for sophisticated indie fans: stay for Belle & Sebastian's set on the Green stage, or leave early to catch a rare U.S. set from Scottish dubtronica act Rustie? And despite sponsor activity at an all-time high, you still won't find a branded stage anywhere.
"What we really look to do is celebrate what Pitchfork does daily on the site and anything is game," says Pitchfork Media president Chris Kaskie. "A lot of festivals go pretty heavy towards the bigger acts that everyone can recognize, and we try to not just book on the name of Pitchfork but to represent what's happening and what's good in all genres. It's an opportunity to get off the internet and enjoy music in its purest and realest form."
AraabMuzik performs at Pitchfork Music Festival 2012. (Photo by Leigh Ann Hines)
As for those growing pains in Union Park, Pitchfork has experimented with bringing its music festival experience to other cities with mixed results. Pitchfork Music Festival Paris, introduced in 2011, has quickly become a go-to for top-tier indie acts and other purveyors or stylish pop. Entering its third year this October (and second year as a three-day festival), Pitchfork Paris will include The Knife, Disclosure, Hot Chip, Deerhunter, Panda Bear and Yo La Tengo among others. Forms, a planned New York film and music festival with The Bowery Presents was postponed in 2011 and ultimately canceled after a February timeframe during the often-brutal New York winter was deemed too tricky for introducing a new festival. Not that Pitchfork has abandoned film as another key interest group movie site The Dissolve just launched last week.
The festival's production has also grown by leaps and bounds since it began in 2006. "The first year, Silver Jews headlined," says Pitchfork Music Festival Director Mike Reed. "Think about that production and then about Bjork's production -- we have three video walls going up for her. It's a very massive change jumping up to something like R. Kelly [who headlines on Sunday] or Bjork. Did you see R. Kelly on the BET Awards a few weeks ago? It's a big production."
Pitchfork also boasts more female headliners than virtually any other major U.S. festival (this month's Essence a notable exception), a point noted by Salon recently after Coachella, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Outside Lands and Austin City Limits were all called out for being "dudefests". "Of our top seven, five are female-front bands: Bjork, M.I.A., Joanna Newsom, Solange and The Breeders," says Matt Frampton, Pitchfork's VP of sales. "When we're talking to sponsor and brand partners, something we're proud of and what Pitchfork's about is that this festival is not just about types of music, but being as diverse as we possibly can."
That means an equally diverse group of advertising partners. H&M will host its only summer festival sponsorship outside of Coachella, another destination known for its trend-setting fashions, with additional apparel marketing from Vans and Ray-Ban. Red Bull will bring its Sound Select program to the festival for the first time, and Tito's Vodka will host a first-time spirit lounge in the VIP area. Perhaps most notable, however, is the return of Goose Island, a Chicago craft beer that was a launch partner of the festival in 2005 but took a backseat to Heineken in recent years due to reduced marketing budgets. However, Anheuser-Busch InBev's 2012 acquisition of the brand enabled Goose Island to make an extra-splashy comeback, creating a special Pitchfork Brew on tap at local bars across the city for the past month to preview this year's festival.
In fact, festival acts El-P and Killer Mike – who, according to Reed, have something special planned for their back-to-back sets on Sunday afternoon – brewed a collaborative beer with Goose Island named "Run the Jewels" after their recently released EP of the same title.
"When you talk about festival sponsorship, the beer partner is always your most important and largest one. We're thrilled to have a three-year partnership with Goose Island again, and to celebrate Chicago as much as possible," Frampton says.
Additional reporting by Andy Gensler