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North Coast Music Festival co-founder Michael Harrison Berg talks 2013 lineup, Chicago, and EDM

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    Thanks to Lollapalooza’s reinvention as a three-day festival and the emergence of the Pitchfork Music Festival, Chicago has staked a solid claim as a festival mecca of sorts here in the States. But while both parties have grabbed more than their fair share of ink over the past eight years, the North Coast Music Festival is nipping not-so-subtly at their heels. Heading into its fourth year at Union Park this Labor Day weekend, the electronic and hip-hop heavy fest managed to grab one of the biggest acts of the 2013 festival season in the Wu-Tang Clan, who will play their 1993 landmark debut Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) in full. Yesterday, Consequence of Sound caught up with Michael Harrison Berg, a founding partner and talent buyer for North Coast, to discuss this year’s lineup, the festival’s origins, and why Chicago was born to host an electronic music festival.

    How did you first get into electronic music? What are your earliest memories associated with getting involved with the genre?

    My first experience with electronic music was going to raves in Chicago during the early to mid ’90s. The culture was very similar back then, it’s just mainstream and in a significantly brighter spotlight now. For my involvement as a buyer, I’ve focused on more of the indie rock and jam band acts, but with acts like Big Gigantic finding success between both of those worlds it’s all kind of blending together as non-genre specific. We try to lean toward acts that will have appeal to fans of different acts and generally look for higher energy artists, regardless of their musical style.

    North Coast has become a Labor Day staple in Chicago. Can you discuss how the festival came to be and what the plans are moving forward?

    Five years ago, another founding partner (Lucas King) and I were at Pitchfork, which is held in the same park earlier in the summer every year. We were talking about how there was crossover between the fanbases of electronic, jam band, and hip-hop and had started curating events together with this concept in mind. Like a Venn diagram, there would be enough acts of each genre for any particular fan, but something in the middle that would appeal to everyone.

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    The conversation moved toward how Chicago didn’t have a festival like that, and one thing lead to another. We built the team and launched it. With the addition of some indie rock into the mix, the plan for the future is to be able to musically offer something for everybody and focus on the experience for people through art installations, activity options, and décor.

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    The festival first came together with an upward of 10 founders and countless other contributors/organizers. What was it like with so much creative input? It seems like the whole thing would be a delicate process with so many people involved. 

    We utilize a very democratic process with most decision-making, and especially with talent bookings. There are times when it feels like too many chefs in the kitchen, but with the respect we have for each other we more often than not agree on things. When there’s a difference of opinion, we take it to a vote with the majority winning every time. Like any other creative group process, each person has to choose their battles wisely. We’re all reasonable people who can be persuaded with simple logic. In most instances when something makes sense it presents itself clearly to the group.

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    The final wave of artists was just announced. Who are some of the bands you’re excited to be adding to the lineup?

    We were already excited about all of the acts already announced, but I’m personally really looking forward to Wu-Tang Clan, Big Gigantic, Purity Ring, Gary Clark Jr, NAS, Rebelution, Capital Cities, Seven Lions and Aluna George. In the newest wave, I’m really pumped about Passion Pit, Gramatik, and A-Trak. We’re sincerely proud of the entire lineup and really look forward to Labor Day Weekend.

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    Folks at CoS are really excited to see Wu-Tang Clan run through 36 Chambers. How’d you pull that off? 

    One of our founding partners reached out to Wu’s agent and pitched them on the idea knowing that it was the 20th anniversary, and we liked the idea of an iconic album being performed. They showed interest and the rest is history.

    How did you guys go about choosing acts and curating the festival? 

    We generally look for acts that are either touring on a new release, in an album cycle, or someone/something iconic like our year-one headliner, The Chemical Brothers, or Wu-Tang from this year. Like I said earlier, all four of our main buyers reach out to all of our contacts and collect submissions, then we all go through them together as a group and vote on who is relevant and worthy for the forthcoming year. Many acts we book go on to play the main stage at Lollapalooza the following year or have become staple acts in the industry. We try to offer something for everyone in the urban environment, so electronic, hip-hop, indie rock, and jam bands. I’m positive the process is similar to traditional rock festivals because we curate and organize some of those as well.

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    It’s interesting because North Coast has done a lot to differentiate itself from other Chicago festivals, but at the same time it sort of has the tag as the city’s electronic festival. Is there a balance you guys seek, to try and offer something different without pigeon holing or typecasting the festival?

    The “something for everyone” theme keeps popping up here, but that’s truly the goal. With the creation of other copy cat EDM events in this flooded festival market, we took a step away from a heavy electronic theme and diversified a bit this year. That being said, we’ll always get to hold that [electronic] title as we were the first people to bring an electronic-themed festival to Chicago and the Midwest. We also make sure to book enough acts in that genre to appeal to our core fan base while trying to bring in new people/fans as well.

    This year, we have heavy hitters Afrojack and Big Gigantic headlining stages. EDM artists Madeon, Paper Diamond, Claude Von Stroke, Skream, and Seven Lions all grace the festival this year as well. Even some of the indie or rock stuff we have on the bill leans toward electronic or has grooves, bass, and beats backing up their singing, like Passion Pit, Capital Cities, Future Rock, and Bondax. We don’t care if people pigeon-hole us as one thing or another as long as they’re paying attention to what we’re doing. It’s our number one concern to please the community we’re blessed to have surrounding us. We spend hours upon hours every week analyzing all of our decisions, especially talent.

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    Spring Awakening was just held and the concert was a great success. Why do you think Chicago is such a good city for electronic music?

    Plain and simple, house music was invented in Chicago and the Midwest (Detroit). The music fans in Chicago are also the best in the entire nation. I know that first-hand as a performer and as an event organizer/promoter. Although rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay, electronic music is the hottest genre right now, has been for years and doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. The combination of the buzz around EDM and the thriving live music scene in this city make this market a hotbed for electronic music and festivals. Spring Awakening is definitely more of the staple Chicago electronic event at this point with NCMF’s diversification of late, but this is clearly one of the global epicenters of electronic music and culture.

    What are some of your favorite memories from past NCMF shows?

    Wow, off the top of my head? I really personally loved Chemical Brothers, Moby, and Nas & Damian “Jr Gong” Marley in year one. Of Montreal, Fatboy Slim, and Bassnectar in year two. Umphrey’s McGee, Atmosphere, and the Rapture from year three, and I already spoke previously about the things I’m most excited for this year in some other answers. I’ve really enjoyed the evolution of our stretch sheet art installations by Funktion Forms and other performing artists like the Stilt Walkers as well as the other experiential activations from sponsors like Dos Equis.

    What has been the most surprising aspect of North Coast’s evolution for you as an organizer?

    The most shocking thing was the initial embracing of our brand by the live music scene in the Midwest. Many festivals take three to six years to really pop off and become something that people want to be at year in and year out. We consider ourselves beyond blessed to have had that happen in year one, and we still consider ourselves a generally young event. We plan on doing this festival for as long as possible, so we are excited to improve upon it every year then grow with the community over time. We all started as music/festival fans ourselves and stay committed to pleasing the fans and artists first and foremost as a rule of thumb. The rest of the “surprises” remain to be seen, but we’re ready for them on this end.

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