November 8, 2012
By Jason Orlovich, First Posted on the Atlantic, November 7, 2012
The tastemaking music website’s French festival last weekend was less about drawing on the city’s artistic legacy than it was about tapping into the global music scene Pitchfork helped build.
There was a fun irony watching Justin Vernon headline the inaugural Pitchfork Music Festival in Paris last year. On paper, it made perfect sense: The Wisconsin native, whose French moniker still goes mispronounced across the US, finally played to a crowd who finally got it right.
But rest of the festival for both years I attended—including its second sold-out edition this past weekend—didn’t feel like quite as perfect a fit between location and event. It’s not the the festival was bad, just that it’s the kind of thing that gets you wondering aloud. Why Europe? Why now? Why France of all places for this highly influential media brand to launch its first international event? Those are questions I found myself asking a number of artists and colleagues, and the answer inevitably came with a raised Heineken under the sponsor’s tent: Why not?
The 15-year-old New York-based website with Midwestern roots has been in expansion mode ever since launching its first festival in Chicago six years ago. There have been the international collaborations with All Tomorrow’s Parties and Primavera, new ventures in #Offline and the recently postponed FORMS video-game festival in New York, and an entire Pitchfork.tv channel that launched in April 2011. But how an online arbiter expands is one thing. How underground culture scales is another. Is the site stretching its brand over new territory with each spin-off effort, or simply monetizing an already existing online community that’s entirely divorced from geography? Despite the gorgeous 19th century venue that’s played host for the last two years, the answer this past weekend was clear: Pitchfork Paris is a lot more Pitchfork than Paris.
Certainly, nothing about the three-day experience seemed particularly foreign to a foreigner, despite a few more European acts from the previous year. Entering the historic Grande Halle at the Parc de la Villette as the sun was setting over three crisp days was a distinctly continental experience. Yet most of the other signifiers were pure Brooklyn. There was no ignoring the number of fixies locked outside, nor the artisanal food booths that replaced the strange New York-style hot dog vendors from last year.
In the program for the first Paris festival, Pitchfork founder Ryan Schreiber noted how it was only in 2005 that the publication began to move offline and interact with the readers and artists it covers. “But we have been eager to do more,” he wrote in the palm-sized booklet. “We want to add to what the city already has to offer.” And when he says “add,” he means just that: import, rather than integrate beyond the vendors or production staff—or a passing documentary postcard from local auteur Vincent Moon—to achieve some sort of cultural synthesis. Calling any Best New Music recipient on the bill (save maybe Death Grips) an heir to Impressionism in this city would be generous. And there’s not much Gallic romanticism in the international indie complex of instantly commodified hype and promotional leverage.