Fall 2014—Pitchfork Festival 2014, or The Narcissism of Small Differences

This is a piece I wrote for Punk Royko, a Chicago-based print zine, in the Fall of 2014. 

I had never been to a large-scale music festival before this July, and I initially had no intention of going to Pitchfork. Though the lineup was solid – a genre-traversing mix of artists like breakout noise-punk critics' darlings Perfect Pussy, '70s disco pioneer Giorgio Moroder, electronic duo Majical Cloudz, infectious rapper Danny Brown, and headliners Beck, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Kendrick Lamar – I didn’t think it was quite worth $120 for a three-day pass. However, through my affiliation with WHPK, the University of Chicago’s community radio station, and the work I had done for the WHPK zine, I was offered a three-day promotional ticket, which I gladly accepted. As it inched closer to July 18th, the first day of the festival, and I still hadn’t received my ticket, a series of missteps on the part of Pitchfork’s publicity company ended with my landing a spot on the festival’s VIP list. So not only was Pitchfork my first ever experience at a large-scale music festival, but I was granted the privilege of experiencing it as a “Very Important Person,” laminated badge and all. The benefits didn’t end there: upon my arrival through the fairly discreet VIP entrance at the eastern edge of Union Park, one of the bouncers asked to see my ID, which clearly said, “UNDER 21,” then gave me an alcohol wristband nonetheless; this happened again on Saturday and Sunday. And thus began three days of collective effervescence.     

While not in the crowds attempting to partake in the musical festivities, I spent a lot of time in the roped-off VIP area, milling about alone, if only for the short bathroom line and brief respite that it provided from the sun- and festival-induced sensory overload. As I knew nobody else with a VIP pass, the shady grove of musicians, journalists, and those otherwise deemed “important” had something of an über-hip high school cafeteria vibe, where everyone already knew everyone else and I was back to being the quiet loner girl. But when I would leave my friends in the chaos of the main grounds to visit the relative calm of the VIP section for another free cup of hard cider, I felt a little torn; I worried that they’d judge me as an elitist for ditching them simply because I could. But even through the occasional pangs of guilt, I still felt a little special for possessing the credentials bestowed on me from above. I could hold up my head and think, Here I am, check out my badge: I’m very important. I was fortunate enough to experience my first music festival through the rose-tinted glasses and the privileges they bestowed on me that came along with my pink-and-blue badge. Although I lacked a shiny silver Press badge to cement my quasi-journalist status, my note-taking was definitely not subtle. I spent much of the three days frantically jotting down observations, with varying degrees of snark, in my little blue notebook.

Pitchfork provided many diversions, both inside and outside the VIP area, for those seeking breaks between sets, including a craft fair where local artisans sold their organic soap and leather-covered flasks, a record fair dotted with offerings from nearby record stores and labels large and small, and an alleyway lined with tables showcasing artists’ silkscreened concert posters. While Pitchfork organizers stressed their commitment to hosting booths run by independent merchants and local restaurateurs on their website, they appeared to have no qualms about accommodating large corporations, some more visibly than others. Nestled in the festival grounds between the rows of port-a-potties and park benches, there was a live screenprinting station giving away custom Pitchfork merch, courtesy of Topman clothing, and a tent where you could reserve a free Chipotle meal for you and your friends.

For a festival ostensibly dedicated to independent culture and enterprise, there seemed to be a whole lot of corporate sponsorship; three of the festival’s major partners were Whole Foods, Jim Beam, and Beats Headphones (though Dre himself did not make an appearance). But this type of sponsorship isn’t exactly passive. It’s very deliberate, and it has a name: experiential marketing. It’s a hot method of branding and advertising that writer Grayson Currin, in a recent piece for Wondering Sound, defines as “tak[ing] a brand’s logo off of festival posters and banners and put[ting] the product in front of a captive crowd.” Festival organizers seek out sponsors with deep pockets in order to subsidize the immense costs associated with booking festivals at such a large scale, but the companies who pay up won’t settle for a mere billboard. They want to associate their products with the “hip” and “edgy” crowds in attendance. Even at a supposedly “independent” festival like Pitchfork, this type of dynamic marketing was impossible to avoid. And since attendees were confined to Union Park (re-entry was prohibited), marketers had a perfect captive audience: A small stage run by Ray-Ban offered free haircuts (but no shades!) to sun-dazzled festivalgoers; Chicago-born brewery Goose Island, now owned by Anheuser-Busch, ran a real-life “Missed Connections” board where attendees could leave small paper notes, written via typewriter, for mysterious strangers who caught their eyes; twentysomethings carrying tote bags full of Hostess cupcakes and coffee cakes offered us free baked goods while we were waiting in line for the water fountain; a woman wearing a tank top printed with a Johnny Appleseed logo approached me and my friend and asked, “Do you girls like hard cider?” She then offered to take our photo with an instant camera and wrote the hashtag #LETTHESTORIESFLOW on the bottom edge of the print.

All of this raises the question: has “independent” been co-opted as the next trendy aesthetic, used to appeal to demographics less easily reached by traditional marketing, or does it still have potential as a viable creative mindset? And is independent merely a way of saying that an artist isn’t contracted to a major label, or does it imply a more politicized outlook on creative production? Just by looking at the festival's lineup, it’s easy to see that independent is less a description of an artist’s modus operandi than a description of genre. Two of the three headliners, Beck and Kendrick Lamar, are signed to major labels or subsidiaries, as are many of the festival’s stand-out acts, including guitar heroine St. Vincent, Odd Future associate Earl Sweatshirt, and reunited '90s shoegaze act Slowdive. In the age of file sharing, YouTube, Spotify, and frequent collaborations between mainstream and indie artists (see: Bon Iver’s guest vocals on Kanye West’s “Monster,” etc.), the role of major labels in ensuring commercial success has largely been diminished, thus blurring once-rigid distinctions between the realms of mainstream and independent music.

Publications that specialize in the promotion of independent music have coped with this change in drastically different ways. The long-running punk zine Maximumrocknroll, first published in 1982, explicitly states on its website that “nothing on a major label, car company label, or with exclusive distribution through the majors’ fake indies will get a review or any other coverage in MRR.” Pitchfork, on the other hand, seems to have wholeheartedly embraced the breakdown of the record-label hierarchy, granting space on its homepage both to little-known acts and to megastars like Kanye West. While Maximumrocknroll denounces blatant commercialism, Pitchfork welcomes it; a quick glance at its homepage reveals content sponsored by the likes of Converse and Jim Beam. But while Maximumrocknroll is largely print-based, produced by volunteers, and shuns corporate sponsorship, Pitchfork is a veritable multimedia empire: in addition to its eponymous website, which receives over 3.5 million unique hits per month, Pitchfork Media hosts large-scale annual festivals in Paris as well as Chicago, publishes the quarterly print publication The Pitchfork Review, runs the video site Pitchfork.tv, and has a staff of over fifty (which doesn’t even include freelance contributors). Though Maximumrocknroll and Pitchfork supposedly share the same mission - of supporting and promoting independent music - Maximumrocknroll abides by a far more orthodox, politicized, and sometimes stifling definition of what it means to be an independent artist, while Pitchfork does so by defining “independent” as a nebulous aesthetic rather than a particular means of creative production. And as such, when “independent” is used to describe a particular set of commodities, whether it’s music or artisanal bath soap, its original meaning becomes diluted and murky, and it becomes a label for people to affix to their identities.

Much of what I encountered at Pitchfork Festival brought to mind the “the narcissism of small differences,” a phrase initially coined by Freud but later used by postmodern cultural critics to describe the emphasis that individuals place on relatively minor characteristics in order to create a surface-level sense of their own individuality. But this narcissistic behavior isn’t limited strictly to taste: we tend to feel threatened by those who are similar to us, and the insecurity caused by not being suitably “different” thus drives us to differentiate ourselves even further, and take excessive pride in our own perceived uniqueness. It was easy to see how this idea played out through the festival’s meticulously curated craft- and record-fair tents, its almost exclusively “organic,” “artisanal,” or “fair trade” food offerings, and the attire of festivalgoers themselves; all of these markers of taste are (or have been) considered “different” in some respects. I passed time during set breaks by keeping tallies of the groups represented on people's band tees – an easy and obvious way to tell the world what you listen to. Some highlights were the couple wearing matching Swans “Filth” shirts (full disclosure: I wore my Filth shirt to the festival as well), three different young men near the front of the crowd at Perfect Pussy’s set wearing the exact same Perfect Pussy tee, and four people over the course of the weekend wearing shirts emblazoned with the motto of indie label Enemies List Home Recordings: “No Fun. Not Ever.”

The ubiquity of certain band shirts brought the narcissism of small differences to the point of absurdity. If so many other people here are wearing the same shirt as I am, which is in effect a representation of my tastes and values to the outside world, does it actually express anything about me as a person, or does it simply show that I’ve bought into the lifestyle and aesthetic associated with a particular group? It’s hard to say. But regardless of which visual markers of identity I and the thousands of others who attended Pitchfork choose to wear, Pitchfork and the companies that use its festival as a marketing platform will continue successfully curating a particular aesthetic, one that’s derived from the notion of independently-produced media and merchandise, in order to brand themselves as authentic purveyors of independent culture. And this large-scale cooptation of smaller (and often more radical) alternative subcultures is just one in a long line of many, which arguably began with the hippies in the late 1960s, followed in turn by the mainstreaming of the once-shocking “punk” aesthetic of studded jackets and brightly-colored hair during the early eighties and the bursting of the post-Nirvana “alternative” bubble in the early nineties. It figures that “independent” would be the next to go.

Soon after the sun had set on an unseasonably mild mid-July Saturday, once-reclusive nineties indie stalwarts Neutral Milk Hotel took the main stage for yet another festival appearance on their months-long reunion tour, their first in over fifteen years; I call it the “Oh shit, we have to retire and send our kids to college” tour. Sipping on yet another cup of hard cider (it was so watered down that even six cups over the course of an afternoon didn’t get me remotely drunk) while Jeff Mangum’s voice warbled over a single acoustic guitar, the twentysomething woman standing beside me sees the older man in front of me pull a pack of cigarettes from the back pocket of his cargo shorts and asks if she can bum one. The older man asks her how old she is; she replies, “22.” He says that he’s 42 and asks her how she knows Neutral Milk Hotel. “Neutral Milk Hotel is my life!” she gushes, telling him how important they were to her when she was in high school and how they’re still one of her favorite bands. Surrounded by thousands of festivalgoers, the man tells her about the time he saw Neutral Milk Hotel play to a crowd of 100 people in a basement back in 1995, and smiles warmly after telling her that “Two Headed Boy” was his wedding song.

Two people, two generations, and two very different meanings of independent. While one of these experiences is technically more independent, the other reflects an aestheticized expression of what “independent” music has come to mean in 2014. This isn’t to say that at this moment in time it’s impossible for any truly independently-created music to thrive without corporate bankrolling or co-optation, but that the meaning of “independent” itself has in many respects shifted from a mode of creative production to a nebulous aesthetic manufactured in part by the companies that align themselves with what the “cool” kids are doing. At the end of all our theorizing, the music remains. But who’s really profiting from it?