How to build a successful music festival using Pitchfork fest as the model

Categories: Festivals
Photo by Erik Hess

An exceptional live music festival doesn't happen by accident. It takes months -- and often years -- of careful planning, some good fortune, and the right artists on board. Even with some rain, things ran pretty smoothly down in Chicago earlier this summer at the Pitchfork Music Festival. The event has been held in Union Park since 2006 (or '05 if you count the Intonation Festival the music website curated). Aside from a diverse 2013 lineup featuring Björk, Belle & Sebastian, R. Kelly, and dozens more, the three days proved inspiring because of how easy it was to enjoy the experience.

Festivals like Pitchfork get repeat customers and high critical marks because they're within easy access for the audience -- price-wise, schedule-wise, transportation-wise, and the length-of-the-average-line-wise. Call it the grumble factor. If you're too busy sipping a beer in the shade while METZ is banging out a noise-rock masterstroke to even consider a reason to grumble, you're at a well-run event.

Some strong mid-to-large-scale music events already exist in Minnesota -- Soundset and Rock the Garden are examples, and surely you can name more -- but we've also been to our share of back-straining, pocket-draining, head-scratching festivals where the grumbling took over when it could've been prevented. Here are a few observations from Pitchfork to pass along to make Twin Cities music events even stronger.

See Also:
15 gorgeous GIFs from Pitchfork Music Festival 2013
SoundTown and Minnesota's music festival fatigue
Pitchfork Music Festival 2013: The music

Choose an accessible location
Chicago is blessed with a wealth of suitable parkland for live concerts, but Union Park is right next to an L station. Knowing that its clientele is young and budget-conscious, picking a spot that is affordable and a quick trip to get to via public transportation -- from home, a downtown hotel, or an apartment where an out-of-towner is couch-surfing -- is essential. Pitchfork also equips the festival with a Biker Village for secure parking and repairs, and there were several nearby parking ramps/lots for those who still needed to drive in. By setting themselves up with so much easy access, Pitchfork dispels the worries of the transport-averse among us.

So, since "Minneapolis has the best parks in the nation and it isn't even close," just start following the transportation lines and see where you end up.

Photos by Erik Hess
Pay attention to layout and features
Sure, some of us would stand in a gravel pit in 120-degree heat for a chance to see Björk, but a lot of folks' knees give out and some level of comfort is necessary to get them to spend eight hours outside just to watch bands. Ample amounts of grass, shady trees, and benches make Union Park a welcoming environment whether it's rain or shine. Video screens next to the stages ensure that being in the back doesn't mean missing the action. A near-triangle polygon block of 13.46 acres with stages placed only a few hundred feet apart at most, the park is set up in a way that promotes leisurely walking past uncongested concessions, restrooms, and merch areas on the way to meet a friend at the other end of the space. No journey takes too long, nor is any an inefficient use of the attendee's time.

With its accessibility and size, the new downtown Minneapolis park that might be coming next to the new Vikings stadium has potential for many summer festival events.

Develop a staggered schedule
This is actually huge when you're dealing with a multi-stage festival with an audience geared towards seeing as many bands as possible. With only two of three stages running at any given time, and set times set apart by 15-30 minutes, it's theoretically possible to get a reasonable taste of every single act performing at the festival if the attendee wishes. No reason to grumble about glaring schedule conflicts when the aforementioned layout makes it not that hard to hop over to another stage.
Photo by Erik Hess

Although Harriet Island has much upside for music festivals, the Live Nation-run River's Edge fest last summer definitely suffered from a schedule and layout that made it damn-near impossible to catch a good percentage of the bands.   

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The very first Lolapalooza ever was most successful in St. Paul compared to every other city it played.  I think it drew something like 20,000 people to Harriett Island.  That was way more than those who saw the show in other cities.  The Twin Cities is way ahead of the rest of the country in terms of being ahead of the curve for unique music, festivals, & such.  Anyone remember Cedarfest with Babes in Toyland with the huge Sumo Wrestler in the front of the stage?  So what if we do not have Pitchfork.  It is already corporatized (if that is a word).  I agree about the Grumpy's show - fantastic.  Maybe they should expand it a bit to non Am-Rep bands, but it is already pretty cool.


I was pretty bummed when the First Avenue festival got delayed another year. They've got the brand and the expertise to put together something both awesome and durable.


While it catered to a pretty specific audience, Bash 13 at Grumpy's was a good example of something done right here in that part of the lineup you could see here in town once a year (Melvins) or was local and play a lot (Gay Witch Abortion), a good chunk of the lineup was bringing something special to town that either never plays here or hasn't in many years. Mudhoney hadn't been here in 10 years, Die Kreuzen in 20, Negative Approach never had played Minneapolis. Make the lineup have something special you're not going to see anytime soon instead of another festival of the same locals and bands that seem to be here every 6 months. Bring something new to town.

Now, someone start a festival here and get Iggy & The Stooges to town finally.

ReedFischer moderator editor

@adambubolz Great assessment. I would say that the only major downside of either Bash 13 or Pitchfork would be that they were on the same weekend. I was not pleased with having to choose one or the other.


Since when was Pitchfork representative of a perfect music festival? See that pic you have of people happily getting water? Those 10 spigots were all that the entire grounds had for 40,000 people. I could go on

ReedFischer moderator editor

@JustSomeGuy The capacity is much lower than 40k.


Pitchfork is hardly a perfectly run festival in my opinion. Lollapalooza has 6 times as many people and less of a grump factor overall.

I agree with @justsomeguy. I went to p4k last year and they had literally 10 water fountains for 15,000 people (per day). When it got hot, the line for those 10 fountains was tremendously long.

Also, the transportation to the park (which is in a high-crime area) was spotty at best for anyone wanting to go North/South without going through downtown first (via the el). Waited a long time after the show to catch a bus going North each of the three nights. Not exactly great after a long day in the sun without enough water.

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