Pitchfork's Chris Kaskie on How to Start a Music Festival

Last weekend, 47 bands took turns storming Union Park to play Pitchfork Music Festival. Even if you're an older sort who stopped listening to music since the advent of the compact disc, you've surely heard of the online music publication, or if not, at least its annual huge fest. It's been going strong since 2005 – or 2006, if you want to be technical, since 2005 was technically part of the Intonation Festival – and this year was no exception.

To find out a little bit more about the work that goes into starting and maintaining a multiple-day music fest, I gave Pitchfork President Chris Kaskie a call. We also chatted about how vendors can get involved with these festivals and Pitchfork's relationship with them.

How do you put on a music festival?

Chris Kaskie: Ultimately, when we started it – it's kind of amazing how much hasn't changed in terms of what our visions were for the festival. We had a specific goal in mind with what we wanted the festival to be and it centered around forward-thinking and challenging programming, affordable prices and an environment where people could come and be comfortable and not be gouged from the pricing perspective and just have a good time and focus on the music. So, that has always been the core of what we've done and it's been a reason we've stayed the size we've been. There's always opportunities to grow and get bigger as something becomes successful, but we were comfortable within that.

As far as anything else, it's defining what your event or festival means and where it fits into the over-arching cultural landscape either in Chicago or in general. What it looks like it in 10 years versus what it looks like now and what you want it to become, even when we started it. Even though there's a lot of risk-taking and chances and we had no idea what that would technically play out to be. We were thinking more theoretically, like, "Okay, in 10 years what do we want this to be? The biggest festival ever?" It was kind of outlining those goals and pretty clearly internally stating what we wanted out of this. What we wanted out of it hasn't really changed.

Have you been getting what you want out of it? Or is there more you want out of it, still?

Chris Kaskie: Yeah, sure. Well, you always want to make it better but you keep doing it because you're getting what you want out of it. And what you want out of it is the enjoyment and celebration. There's all sorts of things you want out of it, but, for us, the only reason we do it is because we continue to feel fulfilled. Ultimately part of that is we feel that everyone that comes is fulfilled by the festival. That's No. 1 on our list.

What inspired you guys to pull the trigger on this and start doing it in the first place?

Chris Kaskie: For us, we were a music publication that existed only on the Internet. So, at that time, back in late 2004/2005, we were thinking about ways not only celebrate the music and showcase the music that we were talking about online that most would argue is a little off the beaten path. And at the same time how could we find a way to interact and have something that's real and tangible that involves the community of readers that we had as well the musicians we're covering and celebrate what Pitchfork does online everyday. For us, it's like, "Let's get off the Internet for a couple days and have something that's in real life." Now you could make the joke, "IRL, not URL, right?" That was the focus, to make Pitchfork real for two days at that point. Now it's three. It's a snapshot of what we do. The rest of the year is spent, every single day, publishing content for the most part. It's a chance to sit back, for us, and celebrate and enjoy everything that we're doing. Ideally it's the same kind of feeling that our readers that come to our festival are feeling, and the artists themselves. That was mostly the impetus.

Let's say you have "start a music festival" on your to-do list. How do you break that down into smaller, more manageable tasks?

Chris Kaskie: Well, you've gotta do everything the right way. You can't get away with anything, unfortunately, especially in a city like Chicago. It wouldn't even be encouraged to try. You need to get through a lot of barriers. They're not inappropriately placed barriers that the city has that you need to work with in terms of licensing and permitting and everything you can do to ensure what and where you want to do what you want to do is possible. After that, it's building an infrastructure to support all the different things, whether it be anything from beer sales and vending to just logistics running ice, security, first aid. That kind of grows as you scale as an event. Programming, there's probably eight to 10 different areas that people are focusing on at any given point. Sound, lighting, staging, clean-up, everything. It's kinda wild. You kinda have to pretend as though every single question that you would want answered if you were going to be bringing it to someone has an answer before you bring it to anybody so you can answer those questions. [Laughs.] The city is the biggest thing to work with, especially if you're going to do something like Pitchfork Festival where you're in a city park and you want to be respectful of the park and you want to be able to collaborate and work with the city and have their support and blessing and leave it in a better condition than when you got there. Getting to that point where everyone trusts what you do, it takes a while. You have to work extra hard to make sure that they know you're in it for the right reasons and that you're putting your best forward so there isn't any perceived exploitation going on. That's never been the case with us.

I don't want to fixate on negative things, but I do want to touch on missteps you guys feel you've made with the festival. For example, a few years ago you guys had a comedy stage.

Chris Kaskie: I would say that didn't work out as well as it could have. That was primarily due to the fact that we didn't really realize how much the sound would bleed from the rock 'n' roll show. So people couldn't really hear. I think the comedians ended up walking away recognizing that just didn't work. No one was bummed out by it and it was worth a shot. We've experimented on everything from programming to not having enough ATMs or food options. I remember a few years ago we had half as many ATMs as we do now and it was just a complete and utter nightmare where you make people stand in line for 45 minutes to an hour to get cash out, and that's just obnoxious. So, it's our goal to make the whole process more effective for people, and we're going to continue to explore ways to make it as seamless as possible. Especially with all the new advents in the world where there are people that are managing events that make some of this stuff surprisingly easy. I always dream there's a program that I don't think that's ready to actually to be used for us for a little while, but I've been to a few festivals that have tried it out and hadn't really worked for them really well either. I know it's gonna happen eventually where fans of the show can go and pre-purchase, like, cards and fill their drink tickets in advance. I don't know the limitations of it.

Like Disney World almost?

Chris Kaskie: Yeah, kinda. There's a lot of stuff like that where we're gonna continue to explore. Most of the frustrations for the audience come from just the everyday grind of waiting in line to get food, money and the bathroom. But misstep-wise, I'm not gonna say we're bulletproof but I think it's a constant optimization. We've had years where the sound didn't sound as good as we'd like, but even by the second or third day you fix that. Honestly, we tend to be pretty prepared for anything that's gonna be pretty prepared for anything that's gonna be thrown at us. We've been prepared for rain for eight years. This is the first year we've really had rain and I think even having seen the park after everything was done, it looks like no one was hardly there. It's pretty amazing.

Well, I don't know about you, but I enjoyed the rain, personally.

Chris Kaskie: Yeah, I think everybody did. It was a nice change of pace.

It got so hot on Saturday.

Chris Kaskie: I think there's something freeing – most of the time when it rains you just avoid it and run or go inside or something. There's something freeing about just being in the rain that you're like, "I can't do anything about this. My ticket says rain-or-shine and no re-entry. I am here, and this is what's gonna happen." And then, when it stopped and it got really nice, all your stuff dried and you're good.

What did you learn from last weekend?

Chris Kaskie: Mostly that all of our constant fixations and focus on contingency plans – a lot of that stuff was put to the test this weekend as it hasn't been in past years. We're happy to report that most of that all worked out perfectly. Ultimately, even with some of the stuff the weather threw our way, it was nice to see our team come together and how fast and efficiently we work to make sure everything is perfect, so. It was nice to see, because you think about it every year: "Is this gonna be the year it pours on us?" And it happened to be that year. We've been lucky for a long time.

The other thing I wanted to ask about was about vendors hoping to set up shop at a festival. How does that work?

Chris Kaskie: For us it's a little bit unique in that we don't have a ton of room. Most of our vendors end up being food vendors. We do have a few other vendors, and we have Coterie, which is a craft fair – that's a bad way to describe it, but it's the co-op of creativity, going on. We have Flatstock and CHIRP record fair. So, some of the space is taken up by festival-related programming, and given the amount of space we have, most of our vending is focused on food and options like that.

Was Featherproof Books being there this year a new thing?

Chris Kaskie: Yeah, the book fair was definitely new this year.

I was going to say, I didn't remember them there last year. I was surprised to walk by and see people doing readings.

Chris Kaskie: We had a bunch of our writers go and read books they had written. It was neat. That was something we had. But in terms of vending, there's only so much space. Traditionally we try to vary it up and make sure there's enough options for everybody. But it's hard, because people like to come back. We always like to have people back that work and are respectful to the land and everything. That being said, if you remove Pitchfork from the equation and just make it about vendors vending or having a booth at a festival. I think it's extremely valuable because I don't there's anyone on earth that can sit for eight-plus hours and just watch music non-stop. You need stuff to do and check out. It's a great and affordable way, frankly – we rent the space and let them run their show based on our parameters that we provide them. You have an opportunity to come in and shill your wares, get your message across, whatever you're looking to do. If you're a food vendor that's a different game. Obviously your wares are your food. We don't do much going back and saying, "How much money? Did you guys do all right?" That's not the way we structure our relationships with them.

Well, they keep coming back.

Chris Kaskie: They keep coming back, which means I'm sure it's doing fine. I think there's a good business there. I don't know how good of a business because we don't enquire because they're pretty good with what we let them do. If you're starting, I'm asked a lot about this, like, "Oh, I'm starting a bike store and I'd like to bring it out." I'm always like, "Yeah, gosh, I wish we had more room because it would be great because having more of that, having a village where people can go and there's all these different shops." I wish we had more space to do it because it could be even more great than it is now.

Any other general advice?

Chris Kaskie: Planning a music festival is hard. Don't just think about starting a music festival because other festivals have worked. I would say start something that isn't happening right now that could add value to what's happening. There's been a couple festivals that've popped up and they're doing fine and that's great, but I don't think that if I'm sitting here, like, "Oh, what we need to do is exactly what these people!" I'd be like, "How do I do something that no one else is doing?" And that's what really true entrepreneurship is about in the first place. It gets frustrating when you see copycats. You want innovation.

David Wolinsky is a freelance writer and a lifelong Chicagoan. In addition to currently serving as an interviewer-writer for Adult Swim, he's also a comedy-writing instructor for Second City. He was the Chicago city editor for The Onion A.V. Club where he provided in-depth daily coverage of this city's bustling arts/entertainment scene for half a decade. When not playing video games for work he's thinking of dashing out to Chicago Diner, Pizano's, or Yummy Yummy. His first career aspirations were to be a game-show host.

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