It’s Sunday at 8 p.m. and Solange is about to go on stage. Chicago’s Union Park nearly overflows with people. To my right is a group of drunk college students; to my left a short middle-aged woman tries to peek over the shoulders of the 6-foot-6-inch man in front of her; behind me a couple lights up a massive joint.
Union Park is no Grant Park, Chicago’s biggest and most beautiful — there’s no lake, no landscaping, just three conjoined fields sidelined with trees. Still, rigged up with three stages, two dozen food trucks and pop-up record and clothes booths, it does the job of hosting the Pitchfork Music Festival, which has been held here since 2006.
Pitchfork, “The Most Trusted Voice in Music,” is a music magazine founded in 1995 by a then-recent high school graduate as a resource for independent music. Today, it is one of the foremost voices in music criticism. Pitchfork has long had a say in what’s considered good, especially in indie and alternative music, and which up-and-coming artists stand out above the rest. In 2015, the company was bought by the media giant Condé Nast, a development that brought to light the conflict between music for art and music for money.
I noticed this tension in both the attitude of the festival-goers and the structure of the music festival. Attendees said that the diversity of musical acts along with the scale, price and atmosphere of the festival were the major factors in their decision to attend. Pitchfork is relatively small and manageable — it’s easy to jump from stage to stage and catch a lot of acts in one day. It costs pennies to attend compared to, say, Lollapalooza — a spectacular four-day affair with an array of big corporate sponsors and special upgrade packages, including the $4200 platinum experience. I attended three days of Pitchfork for $150.
But what stood out to attendees most is the festival atmosphere.
“It’s more chill,” said a 22-year-old student named David, who also attended Lollapalooza last year. “It’s just a really relaxed vibe. There aren’t people vomiting over the place. Everyone’s here for the music.”
Everyone’s here for the music. Pitchfork’s serious music journalism, combined with the attitude of the festival-goers makes it a more ‘alternative’ music festival. You’d probably find more musicians in the crowd at Pitchfork than most other festivals. You’d also likely find more people willing to engage in a lively discussion about the unique structure of the songs of LCD Soundsystem, or the social commentary in the songs of A Tribe Called Quest, both festival headliners this past year.
Several people who have attended the festival for years noted that this year’s attendance exploded, in spite of a markup in price. Festival attendee Terrence Rivers, who lives in Chicago and goes to both Pitchfork and Coachella every year, complained about Pitchfork’s long wait times this year. “They oversold [Pitchfork] this year,” he said. “I’ve never waited this long to get in before. I waited thirty minutes just to get a drink ticket.” He also disliked that Pitchfork introduced a “VIP-Pass,” which he felt detracted from the feeling of equality and camaraderie that made it a special experience in the past. “It’s good that they’re growing,” a 29-year-old woman named Michelle told me, “but it’s not the same.” This year, the festival also had a long list of corporate sponsors including Red Bull and Wendy’s, whereas in past years, Pitchfork consistently rejected large corporate sponsorships. Against the wishes of festival-goers like Terrence and Michelle, Pitchfork showed a keen eye towards profit.
Festivals need to make money in order to run, so their corporatization is not entirely unexpected. But seeing the disappointment of festival-goers at the corporatization of Pitchfork made me wonder if historically, music festivals always intended to make a profit.
The first place to look is the legendary Woodstock Music Festival which happened before a culture of music festivals existed. It was a home-grown affair, started to fund a new recording studio. But even Woodstock’s founders were businessmen, and didn’t conceive of it as “Three Days of Peace and Music.” It was a business proposal, a money-making move by entrepreneurs, including a few Yale law graduates, designed to make a profit. The “Peace and Music” part was just the marketing strategy. Nevertheless, Woodstock stands out as an essential countercultural moment in the history of the United States, intricately interwoven with the Vietnam War protests of the late 60s and early 70s, in part because so many believed in the purity of its music and peace.
In the world of pop music — record labels and billboard charts — music is inherently commercial, part of an economic system with buyers and sellers and winners and losers. Despite festivals such as Woodstock evolving to represent a hippie counterculture, music festivals also bring local artists into the world of pop, a world that includes the recording industry and its associated profits.
I don’t mean to say that either pop music or profits are bad. Without fringe artists leaping into the world of pop music, we wouldn’t have half as many incredible artists as we do. For musicians, it’s essential to sign with a label to get by, and with a big label to make it big.
There will always be tension between corporate profit and artistic expression. But occasionally, they align. In the 1980s, highly polished, heavily produced, sparkling pop music was in high-demand. As a result, we have Prince, Michael Jackson and David Bowie songs regarded by critics and the masses alike as perfection. On the other hand, many songs that are considered masterpieces today are so great precisely because of their initial commercial failures, such as Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” or Gene Clark’s “No Other.” Profitability in music demands common tropes — familiar lyrics, chord progressions, melodies, and instrumentation — that appeal to as many people as possible. Typically this produces simpler songs, songs that don’t work to innovate in a musical sense. That’s because the inherent design of the music innovates in an economic sense.
Solange herself is a fascinating part of this story. Her popularity only exploded after crafting a dense album that unrelentingly addresses issues of blackness, identity and inequality. Consumers noticed her authenticity and artistry, and bought it. So even though these things run both ways — artistry is by no means counter to profitability — it would be wise for us to consider the ideology and intent behind our music. We can then understand the difference between music written to truly resonate in our minds and hearts, and music written to keep recording giants up on their feet. There will always be a difference between the two.
So is it possible to be at Pitchfork “for the music” alone? Pitchfork answers this question with an emphatic yes by claiming that pop music, even in its profit-seeking ways, can still be enjoyed as art. For the first time a few years ago, after Condé Nast bought Pitchfork, the magazine started reviewing pop music. (Consider this: they have never reviewed a Taylor Swift album before, and Lemonade was the first Beyoncé album they reviewed). Still, Pitchfork named Lemonade the third best album of 2016, topped only by Frank Ocean and Solange, her little sister. In the last few years Carly Rae Jepsen, Lorde and a cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989 received top marks. The message is simple and important: pop music can have meaning too. The publication accepts pop music as art music, as music for the sake of music, and therefore attempts to dissolve the gap between the two. In their reviews, they search commercial productions for enjoyment as well as meaning. In a world where Pitchfork is significant, pop creations designed to make money also have the potential to be works of art.
Take last year, when Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” was named Best New Music by Pitchfork. I have utmost respect towards Beyoncé as one of the greatest performers of all time, and “Lemonade” is undoubtedly a success with its defiant attitude, relatable messaging, and enjoyable hodgepodge of musical influences. But as collaborator Josh Tillman (Father John Misty) revealed in a series of interviews, many of the album’s songs are carefully engineered for mass-popularity and profit. Was the rift between Beyoncé and Jay-Z real, or, considering that the average song on the album had seven listed writers, largely manufactured to stir up excitement?
Pitchfork Music Festival felt to me like a celebration of pop music with meaning. The artists aren’t that different from those at Lollapalooza, but at Pitchfork, we take them seriously. At Pitchfork we spend and consume, but we also parse for meaning and try to find beauty. The money and the art, the profit and the meaning, get all mixed up at a festival like Pitchfork.
And in case you were wondering, Solange was incredible.