Even before Death Grips announced their break up July 2, Pitchfork's ninth annual Music Festival in Chicago had already experienced a few unfortunate setbacks to its lineup.
On April 26, Chicago footwork pioneer DJ Rashad passed away from an apparent blood clot, leaving his Hyperdub cohort DJ Spinn to headline their planned Sunday-evening set. Then on May 13, The Julie Ruin's Kathleen Hanna announced a relapse with Lyme Disease that forced the group to cancel all summer tour dates, including a set at Pitchfork. And less than a week after Death Grips canceled everything, including its Saturday set at Pitchfork and a planned album for Harvest Records, Earl Sweatshirt announced that he, too, was cutting back on his festival plans to recover from exhaustion (though he's still expected in Chicago this weekend, where he's still on the bill for the 3:20 slot on Sunday).
So is this year's festival cursed? Pitchfork Media president Chris Kaskie laughs at the notion, especially on the eve of exaggerated reports that another "Polar Vortex" was set to roll through the Midwest leading up to Pitchfork weekend (read: temperatures in the high 70's instead of a more typically mid-summer low 90's.) But, he allows, "It's really a bummer, you know. You never wish for any of these things to happen obviously, you just kind of let their teams take the lead. When Rashad passed, we left it up to their management telling us how they'd like to handle it, and we wanted to make sure anyone who wanted to participate could celebrate his life. Spinn was always performing, so he's still playing, but what they have planned I have no idea. It would be nice for them to celebrate the work of Rashad."
The Death Grips cancellation was too close to the festival to allow for any lineup replacements, Kaskie adds, so there will simply be one act onstage at 1:00 on Saturday instead of two. And hiccups aside, Pitchfork has been taking this year's event in stride.
"We haven't had one complaint about anyone cancelling," Kaskie says. And with an estimated 19,000 fans set to flock to Union Park for three nights, this year's festival will be headlined by Beck, Neutral Milk Hotel and Kendrick Lamar, respectively, with rare appearances from acts like Giorgio Moroder and Neneh Cherry (in her first U.S. performance since the ‘90s.) "Hopefully the point of the festival is that you're not there to see one thing, you're there to see everything."
No major structural changes have been made to this year's festival, just a few new sponsors. Gone are last year's H&M, Red Bull and Tito's Vodka, but on board this year are VIP partners like Chipotle and Ketel One, an extensive activation with Beats Music and a renewed partnership with Goose Island, which last year produced a custom brew for El-P and Killer Mike's Run The Jewels. This year's brew is a pilsner, Recommended, based more broadly around the Pitchfork brand than any particular artist.
"The brand partnerships are designed to kind of compliment what the festival's all about, to be there in a meaningful way to the audience," Kaskie says. "Beyond that, we hope any of the changes we've made go unnoticed. You want people to leave with the fact that it just felt better, based on the fact that you're just getting better as an operation."