Sima Cunningham’s walkie-talkie blips and blurts a steady stream of messages as she moves around a bustling construction site. Twenty-four hours later, the transformed grassy expanse will be the fully operational Pitchfork Music Festival, opening Friday in Union Park.
Even for one of Chicago’s most connected performers, making a living in the city as a musician without a day job is “certainly hard,” said Cunningham, a 33-year-old multi-instrumentalist and one half of the duo Finom. For 14 years, she has worked the crew at Pitchfork under jazz impresario Mike Reed, the creative force whose ties to the music festival go back to 2005, when he started an event by a different name.
Reed, 49, who still co-curates Pitchfork’s Chicago lineup, hires a who’s-who of local musicians to work the festival. That element, insiders say, has helped the event retain much of its valuable indie ethos, despite being acquired in 2015 by the media giant Condé Nast.
In a summer-event market considered one of the most crowded in the country, the fest is not just surviving — it’s thriving.
“Artists can tell that it’s staffed by artists,” said Margaret McCarthy, a vocalist and songwriter who is in the band Moontype and is working the fest this year in the pricier “plus” section. “I think that affects the vibe of the whole fest.”
Condé Nast, privately owned, will not disclose revenues, but the company reported last year that corporate sponsorships for the 2022 event were up 112% compared to the prior year, a win even if the event doesn’t sell out like it used to. (For festival goers, that means e-mail and promotions from the likes of White Claw.) And Chicago has spawned three other European Pitchforks that will all take place this fall: Paris, London and newcomer Berlin.
Reed doesn’t scour resumes for his production company: His 10 year-round employees swells to 170 contractors and hourly workers around Pitchfork time, plus another 100 or so concessionaires. He instead relies on recommendations, so, naturally, most are fellow musicians.
Crew work at the Pitchfork festival is reliable summer income for Chicago musicians, several said on a setup day, as they paused to chat between ferrying supplies, planning artists’ increasingly high-tech production elements, working sound and even determining locations for garbage cans (industry lingo: “toters”).
“It’s vital,” said Rob Frye, a multi-instrumentalist who has played in the Bitchin’ Bajas and CAVE, since the COVID pandemic for a while brought live music to a screeching halt.
Liam Kazar, 30, who plays bass and is about to release his second solo album, is fresh off a tour with the ambitious art-folk-rocker Kevin Morby.
Crewing Pitchfork, said Kazar, is the most consistent income he has all year as a touring musician.
“For many years, working this festival was kind of like my anchor,” said Kazar, who has traditionally worked Pitchfork’s supply crew but started off as the fest driver for headliners Bjӧrk and Belle & Sebastian.Chicago’s famously eclectic music scene is defined by its overlapping circles. Kazar also plays in the band Tweedy, with drummer Spencer Tweedy, and his well-known father, Wilco frontman Jeff. Spencer, who is 27 and has grown up in the city’s music industry, has worked the festival for several years as a site coordinator.
Of the event’s indie spirit, “there are probably subtle cues everywhere,” Tweedy said.
“One thing is probably the pace. You don’t really tend to see hurried laborers running around through this festival grounds during the festival,” he said. Handmade and somewhat improvised elements also dot the Union Park fairgrounds, he added, a matte contrast to the sheen of some of the country’s megafestivals. A companion craft fair that draws an Etsy-like array of artists and the screenprinting fair Flatstock line the perimeter.
Pitchfork also reliably nods to local bands by including a handful each year in the lineup: This year, Deeper, Ariel Zetina and Sen Morimoto have early slots, while rapper/activist Ric Wilson has a coveted evening set.
Reed, a jazz drummer and composer who himself will tour about three months this year, still helps handpick the performers alongside Seth Dodson, Pitchfork’s executive production director and a Condé Nast employee who once booked bands at the Hideout. Liz Pesnel, a Pitchfork Media employee who has played in a bluegrass band, rounds out the curatorial trio.
Deciding who’s on stage is a monthslong affair across an array of spreadsheets and Google docs, dictated in part by which bands have garnered decent reviews on the music rating website Pitchfork (from which the fest gets its name), in addition to alignment with bands’ touring schedules and how much they charge.But, Reed said, local bands are the exception to the ratings rule.
“The exception to that is for many reasons,” he added. “Obviously, because we’re based here, because the event started here, but also because there are local trends that may not have hit the website yet, or that we want to also talk about and portray in the live sense.”Cunningham herself has jumped on stage, once when Finom filled in for a band that canceled and another time as a backup singer for Chicago headliner Chance the Rapper. She performed last year alongside another well-known local jazz contributor Jeff Parker and his band the New Breed.
This year, she isn’t planning on performing at the festival. But she has a different gig once she hands in her walkie-talkie the day after Pitchfork ends. Finom will open for powerhouse Philly guitarist Kurt Vile at Millennium Park on Monday as part of the city’s summer music series.
Her drummer? That would be Spencer Tweedy. And while he won’t give details, he suggests he’ll bust out of his anonymous backstage duties and, sometime over the weekend, on some stage, make a cameo appearance.
Cassie Walker Burke is WBEZ’s external editor. Follow her @cassiechicago. Manuel Martinez is a visual journalist at WBEZ. Follow him @DenverManuel. Ysa Quiballo, WBEZ’s digital news intern, contributed visual production.
CORRECTION: Seth Dodson’s title is executive production director, not production director.