Pitchfork Day 3: Mike Reed Interview

Before I left New York for Chicago, Patrick Jarenwattananon — who writes for A Blog Supreme, NPR's jazz blog — sent me an email telling me I should track down local drummer Mike Reed while I was here. Not because he was playing a set during the festival, but because he was overseeing the entire thing. Reed is a jazz musician and the director of the Pitchfork Music Festival, in charge of everything from booking the acts to arranging contracts with vendors to meeting with the city to get streets closed off.

When I talked with Reed at 10 a.m. Sunday, he'd already been at the festival grounds for six hours, and said he probably wouldn't leave until the whole thing had been broken down some time on Monday morning. He told me about running up $1,200 phone bills, ordering more toilets at the last minute, and seeing the one group he's made sure to catch in the four years he's been running the show.

After all the planning you do, do things like the weather make you upset?

You can't let the rain freak you out. You just have to deal with it. Because if I get freaked out about it, there's a thousand things that aren't going to happen. And in order for us to deal with the rain, all those thousand things have to happen. None of the people on staff can be freaked out about it.

Tell me about a few of the thousand pieces that are going on. What are you doing during the festival?

I'm basically micromanaging and getting in people's way. Not really. The fest has gotten to the point where there are so many different departments. There's supply teams, grounds crew, the people who deal with getting ice in here, moving plywood around, toilets. If there's rain, they're the ones who are mulching. All the recycling people, all the people who manage each rake that goes out to somebody. I'm checking with all those folks. And we get in there with them. Thursday, I was out there building barricades. That goes hand-in-hand with everything. Just now, you pulled me away from rebuilding a VIP stage. My job is basically giving people what they need, and if there's an emergency, I can get over there and make something happen really fast.

Before the festival happens, what do you do to get ready?

It takes about 11 months to make it happen, and about six weeks after to wrap everything up. Paying all our bills for things like ordering extra toilets. Last night, we were slammed with people who needed toilets, so we ordered more for today. And then, after that, we start working on it again. We meet with the city, the Park District, give them proposed dates for the next year. Then we start trying to figure out issues we had from this year. Say we had an issue with the golf carts; we start talking to other companies and contractors to see what options are out there. Trying to see what problems are out there and how we can solve them.

Pretty soon after that, I start making investigations about artists. To be honest with you, I'm starting to talk to people this weekend.

Can you walk me through the process of booking a particular band?

With a band like The National or Built to Spill, there are a lot of agents that I work with that represent a lot of the bands we're looking for. Last year, we had Dinosaur Jr. They have the same agent as Built to Spill, so that makes it easy for me to call them up; we have a friendly relationship. And some of them are actually really good friends of mine. The folks at the Windish Agency and Billions, two really good Chicago agencies; I'll talk to them about anything.

With certain bands, when we come out of the blue and they didn't know we were interested, like with Jesus Lizard, I've worked with Boche at Billions quite a bit, but I think he was surprised that we were inquiring. So at that point, we have to start working out the details, as we refer to it.

By "details," do you mean money?

Money, but also conditions and making sure the slot's right and the sound's right, and making sure we can provide a good environment. But a lot of it is just forming relationships. Speaking for the festival in general, we want to work with the agent, the manager and the band to put on a good show. I think sometimes there's this idea that you're in an antagonistic situation. Our feeling is that we're in this together, on the same team to make this really work. There's this Christian saying that God is first, others are second and I'm third. I always tell the staff that the artists are first, the attendees are second and we as the staff are third.

You're a jazz musician, too. Do your relationships with the folks in the Chicago jazz scene mesh with the job that you do here?

Well, I'm kind of always dealing with the festival. Even in April and May, when I was touring, I was working. My cell-phone bill for a week when I was playing in Croatia was $1,200. So I'm basically working the whole time, whether I'm working on my own projects or touring with other people's groups. I have to plan for certain parts of the year to be in Chicago to make meetings with the Park District and the city. Usually in the spring, from March to May, that's a good touring opportunity, and then again after the summer through the fall. But during that time period, I'm also connected to booking about 200 jazz sets a year. I'm on the Chicago Jazz Festival committee. And there's a gazillion other things; being the vice-chair for the AACM with its own series that I'm a little behind on. Everything intertwines. Pitchfork is one of them, but there's a whole other world out there that has no idea what Pitchfork is. They just think I'm a drummer because they came to see my band in Poland.

The festival is remarkably affordable. You're going to see 30 bands for not very much money. How do you guys make that work?

We're not looking for a return. We're just looking to make enough to cover what it costs to make it happen. You have to understand one thing: I'm a jazz musician, which means I'm used to not having money. I'm 35 now, and I think up until a year and a half ago, I was living like I was 22. So when it started out, success for us was that everybody was going to get paid. Our contractors and the bands were going to get their money. And that was our level of success, because we wanted to create this great environment. And now it's turned into a business, but how it works is basically we look at our budget for the previous year and say, "Increase all that. How do we figure out how to make this work?" We can't really jack up the ticket price because that's the core of what we're trying to do. Then we have to figure out where to cut. Were we overstaffed? We set a budget, work with sponsors, and figure out a conservative projected budget and look at our almost guaranteed numbers and figure out how to meet that. We just want to make sure we get over that black line. And everything after that is cool.

Do you get a chance to see any bands while you're here?

Almost never. I get to see about one song from like five bands per weekend, except for one year where I saw De La Soul's entire set. I skipped my senior prom to sneak in to see them at the Avalon, a club here in Chicago that doesn't exist anymore. When I was a teenager, they were the biggest heroes to me, so to have them headline a festival was a huge deal. I was like, "I'm off radio; don't bother me. I'm going to watch this set." But other than that, I catch snippets of stuff. Last year, with Extra Golden and A Hawk and a Hacksaw, they're really good friends of mine, and I saw five minutes before somebody's calling me on the radio and I'm running.

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