Chicago boutique agencies help craft a stellar line-up for Pitchfork

July 12, 2011

By Althea Legaspi

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(Flickr/Josh Koonce)
Chicago's boutique agencies represent many of the bands who will be appearing at Pitchfork Music Festival this weekend.

Album sales are down, and parts of the touring industry have slumped but there’s a segment of the live music world that’s thriving. Music festival culture is growing in the states, with early sellouts at Bonnaroo and Coachella. Pitchfork Music Festival sold out of its three-day passes in a week. But what many may not know is Chicago boutique agencies represent a lot of what you see onstage. Music reporter Althea Legaspi met with those who shape the lineup at Pitchfork Music Festival to get the scoop.

From the mundane: “One of the things I feel like I see on every rider I’ve ever seen is just clean socks,” Pitchfork Media President Chris Kaskie said.

To the particular: “It seemed such a cliché but was true, is that Yoko Ono needed an exactly white couch for her dressing room. It had to be white,” Pitchfork Music Festival’s Mike Reed added.

To the outrageous: “Major Lazer has a ballerina on their rider,” explained Windish Agency booking agent Sam Hunt.

Those are just a few requests they’ve seen on artists’ riders. As for other goings on backstage?There’s free ice cream backstage,” Windish Agency President, Tom Windish said. Windish Agency’s one of a handful of influential boutique booking agencies located in Chicago.

We represent the artists and we negotiate how much they get paid to play a live show, and we negotiate where they’re going to play, which venue, how much the ticket’s are going to be, what other artists are going to be on the bill,” he explained. “And if they’re playing at a festival, we’ll sometimes negotiate which stage they’re on or what time they play.”

Windish Agency represents 500 bands, 18 of them are playing this year’s festival, including headliner Animal Collective and newer acts like Zola Jesus and Twin Shadow. Chicago-based Billions Corporation represents Neko Case and Destroyer, and Chicago’s Red Ryder Entertainment has also had artists like Sharon Van Etten play in the past.

Unlike major agencies who also represent actors and the like, boutique agencies focus solely on musicians.

There happen to be a lot of boutique agencies here, there’s like six or seven or something,” Windish said.

He relocated to Chicago 15 years ago because of the music community, the affordable rent and cost of doing business.

“And in Los Angeles, for instance, there’s only a couple agencies that are not the major agencies that are out there. It’s strange that there are so many here, but it’s pretty cool,” he explained.

Reed said it’s mutually beneficial having several boutique agencies in Pitchfork’s hometown: It’s not just a business relationship; there’s a sense of pride and a strong rapport.

“Here there’s also a really great thing for industry people where it’s like people are coming in and all also get to be hosts in a certain way and so there’s a little bit of a shared value in the festival because it’s from here, business is from here on various levels from here presented from a business from here and right in the smack dab of your home,” Reed explained. “And so I think there’s a little bit more of a community aspect and a hosting aspect that really helps, too the event,” he continued.

Flower Booking represents more than 100 artists like Baths and recently reunited The Dismemberment Plan who both perform this year. Flower agent Jay Moss said it’s essential for artists to play festivals like Pitchfork.

You start to reach a much wider audience and you get to play in front of people that there’s a good chance they haven’t heard you before, they might not have heard even of your name before. And ultimately in trying to grow a band, you try and make new fans,” Moss said. “Additionally, with playing Pitchfork, it’s grown and it has such a cool factor to it because you have Pitchfork behind it and they build such an eclectic lineup.”

Popularity might drive some music festivals. But Pitchfork prides itself on being different.

Given the fact that we have an editorial entity in Pitchfork, most every band that we have on our bill we’re proactively asking and picking to play the festival,” Kaskie said. “Versus it being in some cases a reverse scenario where there isn’t really - I mean obviously we have limitations from a numbers standpoint – but you know some fests that have larger capacity or have an interest of covering more broadly all of the music that exists in the world, aren’t necessarily as selective,” he finished.

Pitchfork Music Festival’s lineup crafting starts shortly after the last festival ends.

“In the programming of the event that makes it really unique because of the online magazine, like it’s ability to be able to know and on certain levels forecast and to know things that are developing is better than any other event,” Reed said, “because usually events like this, like a festival, they sort of program what was maybe the most popular at the end of the year, whereas what we’re doing is about what’s happening at the moment, or what the editorial folks may be thinking is going to be big for the upcoming year.”

EMA and Yuck are newer artists Pitchfork added later to this year’s bill. Hunt says the exposure for emerging acts is invaluable. Like when his artist Dan Deacon played in 2007.

“He had literally played basements and house parties at that point. And this show was part of a tour, and it was a tour where maybe a couple hundred would go . . . And at [Pitchfork] there was 7500 people there watching him . . . and candidly he got so much more money than he’d ever gotten in his life – he was used to getting maybe $100,” Hunt said. “And I think that’s probably the case for a number of bands every year where the Pitchfork people and Mike Reed choose them from relative unknown status or anonymity and give them a platform that doesn’t compare to anything they’ve had before, which is kind of the coolest part of this festival,” he concluded.

Playing live has become integral to how a band as a business makes money, and the exposure they get playing fests such as Pitchfork Music festival and having a reputable booking agent has become increasingly more important. So while the public sees a band grow, like Fleet Foxes who played a day slot at Pitchfork in 2008 and now headline the fest this year, Kaskie said this side of the behind-the-scenes industry follows suit.

“As they grow and expand, like that information and just how good our festival is expands with them,” Kaskie explained.

Pitchfork Music Festival takes place this weekend (July 15-17) in Union Park.

Music featured (in order of appearance)

Animal Collective, “My Girls,” from the release Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino)

Zola Jesus, “Sea Talk,” from the release Conatus (Sacred Bones)

Twin Shadow, “At My Heels,” from the release Forget (Terrible Records)

The Dismemberment Plan, “The City,” from the release Emergency & I (DeSoto)

Baths, “Aminals,” from the release Cerulean (Anticon)

James Blake, “Limit to Your Love,” from the release James Blake (Universal Republic)

EMA, “Milkman,” from the release Past Life Martyred Saints (Souterrain Transmissions)

Yuck, “Georgia,” from the release Yuck (Fat Possum)

Dan Deacon, "Snookered," from the release Bromst (Carpark Records)

Fleet Foxes, “Helplessness Blues,” from the release Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop Records)