Josh Noel

Josh Noel is the author of "Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out: Goose Island, Anheuser-Busch and How Craft Beer Became Big Business" and writes about travel and beer for the Chicago Tribune.

Pitchfork Fest is not what it was

Pitchfork Music Festival was once an edgy and exciting affair.

When launching in 2005 as Intonation Music Festival, it was the antidote to slick and sprawling Lollapalooza: intimate and interesting, a small, varied pack of quality artists churning energy across Union Park for two sweaty days. Tickets were just $15 and the festival’s ethos seemed cemented when The Go! Team, a lively band of Brits merging rock, rap and various global influences, grabbed some neighborhood kids from the Union Park swimming pool to boogie on stage. It was fun and loose. The vibe was good. 

Lollapalooza, held in Grant Park three miles west, was purely music-as-business. It was for the tourists, for the sunburned suburban 15 year olds, for the dingbats on ecstasy. Pitchfork Music Festival, as it has been known since 2006, was about music. It was about culture. It was a celebration of Chicago, nestled into the heart of the city. It was the merging of two great Chicago-grown, Chicago-based businesses: Pitchfork Media, which sprouted amid a handful of 1990s music blogs to become an authoritative voice on “alternative” and independent music, and the company that filled the cups in everyone’s hands, Goose Island Beer Co. The festival’s beer sponsor sat less than a mile from Union Park, and it was the weekend’s ideal complement. Pitchfork was independent, Chicago-based indie rock media. Goose Island was independent, Chicago-based beer. 

The music was “alternative.” The beer was “craft.”

In the ensuing decade-plus, both those words have been bludgeoned into submission. They’ve also been coopted.

In 2011, six years after that first version of Pitchfork Fest, Goose Island was bought by the nation’s largest beer company, Anheuser-Busch, which is a subsidiary of the world’s largest beer company, Anheuser-Busch InBev. In 2015, Pitchfork Media was bought by Conde Nast, a mighty media company owned by an even mightier media company, Advance Publications.

Pitchfork Media and Goose Island are still the names plastered across Pitchfork Fest — which unfolds this weekend in Union Park — but the festival in reality has become a teaming of Conde Nast and Anheuser-Busch. Or, if you prefer, Advance Publications and Anheuser-Busch InBev.

Since 2005, both Pitchfork Media and Goose Island have become necessary pawns for billion-dollar corporations. Conde Nast and Anheuser-Busch needed what Pitchfork Media and Goose Island did, and there’s no better example than the ability to draw nearly 60,000 young people with plenty of spending decisions for the next 50 years to stand for hours in a Chicago park, bobbing their heads, smoking some weed and forging an intimate bond with Goose Island beer.

Squint and Pitchfork Music Fest’s evolution is plain. As my Chicago Tribune colleague Greg Kot wrote in his Pitchfork Fest coverage last year: “There's no doubt that Pitchfork has lost some of its original vibe, that of the neighborhood-festival-that-could … It has become more overtly commercialized with corporate signage and expanded and pricy VIP areas, which have been standard practice at Lollapalooza and its large festival cousins for a decade or more.”

It’s little wonder that such transformation happened in the care of Conde Nast and Anheuser-Busch; it’s the way things usually turn out when the moneyed interests become involved. Someone with a Pitchfork connection told me that the people who founded the festival were weighing whether to end it after the 2014 or 2015 incarnations; they had done what they’d set out to do. It was becoming paint-by-numbers fun, adrift from the initial impulse to create something fresh and new.

I don’t know the seriousness of those discussions, but it’s obvious that the sale to Conde Nast meant the festival would live on. Events and experience are prime currency with the current crop of young consumers; Pitchfork Fest is far too valuable to surrender.

That’s arguably even truer for Goose Island and Anheuser-Busch. A couple of years before its sale to Anheuser-Busch, Goose Island lost the Pitchfork beer sponsorship, outbid by deep-pocketed Heineken. Goose Island was still a local company, struggling beneath the weight of massive growth and the complex decisions that come with a small business becoming big. A Pitchfork Fest beer sponsorship was important — any beer company would want that access to that audience — but it was ultimately a luxury. It’s no surprise that among the first things Anheuser-Busch did when acquiring Goose Island was to buy back the beer-pouring rights at Pitchfork Fest. It’s a venue just as crucial for Anheuser-Busch as it is for Conde Nast.

As Pitchfork Fest beer sponsor, Goose Island (and Anheuser-Busch) get a rare opportunity to put their brand in the hands of thousands of young consumers. It’s a phenomenal marketing opportunity: nurse a can of Goose Island IPA in the rosy summer glow of Pitchfork Fest fun, then keep buying it forever based on the fond memories forged in Union Park. (Never mind that Goose Island IPA is now made by Anheuser-Busch in New York and Colorado.)

Pitchfork-Fest-as-marketing runs deep — far deeper than we’re meant to recognize. Head to the Pitchfork website to stream a bit of this year’s festival and you won’t only see an array of Goose Island ads, you’ll see a link to an article from October, an online beer magazine that is a collaborative effort between — you guessed it — Anheuser-Busch and Conde Nast. Though endlessly purporting to be fair and objective writing with a steadfast firewall between journalism and the marketing interests of its parent companies, a particularly egregious bit of shamelessness was published in the days before the festival, and it just so happens to be perched on the Pitchfork website.

”How to Drink Your Way Through Pitchfork Music Festival” is a collection nonsensical pairings between musical acts and mostly Anheuser-Busch products (Raphael Saadiq and Goose IPA! Alex Cameron and Virtue Cider’s Michigan Honey!), alongside glamor shots of Goose Island beer and Virtue cider. It’s little more than an Anheuser-Busch ad, mixed among October’s more reputable journalistic undertakings. You likely won’t be surprised to know that "How to Drink Your Way Through Pitchfork Music Festival" fails to make clear that October, Goose Island, Virtue Cider and Pitchfork Fest are all in bed together.

Pitchfork Fest was once a true alternative — to commercially-minded music fests, to Big Beer and to the marketing needs of billion-dollar companies. Now it’s all those things. Which is fine. It’s the way things go. Someone will eventually create the alternative to what was once an alternative, and the spirit that originally drove Pitchfork Fest will rise again in some new form. It's an inevitable cycle.

In the meantime, Pitchfork Fest remains a fairly good time with a diverse and interesting musical lineup. Amid the Anehuser-Busch-made mediocrity dominating the festival in recent years — IPA, 312, Four Star Pils — Goose Island continues to trot out more interesting beers made in Chicago, though in large part for halo effect; the innovative beers prop up the core portfolio. Still, those smaller-batch beers are mostly good and sometimes great, and one of these years I’ll be back out with the masses in Union Park, drinking some fresh pale ale made at the Goose Island brewery up the street and enjoying an old favorite band. I’ll also keep in mind that the Pitchfork Music Festival has evolved into something quite different from what it was 13 years ago, even if Conde Nast and Anheuser-Busch don’t want us thinking about such things.

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(Note: Freelance writer Dan Gentile wrote "How to Drink Your Way Through Pitchfork Music Festival." I'd previously written that no byline appeared on the article.)