Seth Fein: On music festivals and embracing change

Comic Tig Notaro performing at Pygmalion 2018. Photo by Sam Logan.

Comic Tig Notaro performing at Pygmalion 2018. Photo by Sam Logan.


At the end of summer, Chicago’s festival season begins to slowly wrap up. But a three hour drive south will land you in Champaign-Urbana (C-U), where things start to come back to life with the return of the cities’ student population. Home to University of Illinois’ flagship campus, C-U proudly hosts a variety of events and experiences, including Pygmalion Festival – a highly curated collection of shows featuring musicians, comedians, authors, podcasts, and other thinkers.

In the time of festival fraud and short attention spans, a huge reason for Pygmalion’s success is that its founder, Seth Fein, pays attention. When Pygmalion was introduced to the C-U community in 2005, it was an indie rock festival featuring a line-up of bands that, for the most part, matched Seth’s tastes in music. Similarly, in 2005, Lollapalooza’s lineup featured the Pixies, Weezer, the Killers, and the Arcade Fire. And Pygmalion has successfully been a reflection of the changing times and place. And because the times have changed, the festival also had to.

“The festival can’t be about the music that I like. It’s about finding ways to bring artists and comedians and podcast speakers that appeal to a wide and diverse audience. It’s less about my own tastes and more about paying attention to what young people want to hear. We don’t want Pygmalion to appeal to a 40+ crowd as its primary demographic, because that festival sucks.”

And Pygmalion doesn’t suck. What’s special about C-U’s gem is its intimacy. “The goal,” explains Seth, “isn’t to do something that you can’t find anywhere else.” Many of Pygmalion’s headliners have also performed at bigger festivals like Lollapalooza or Pitchfork. “We sit in the shadow of Chicago,” but rarely in Chicago do concert goers get to see some of these acts in such small spaces. And to many music lovers, an intimate show is an unforgettable experience.


The additions to Pygmalion’s line-up, however, did not make everyone happy. Seth recalls the disappointment that some of his peers expressed regarding the addition of hip hop and rap performers. Yet, to him, this was an indication that the festival was succeeding.

“I wanted to let go and accept that my role is to be a good fundraiser and cheerleader for the project, but then allow young people to dictate what it is that they want to see.”

He credits this transformation to Patrick Singer, the festival’s Vice President who pushed Seth to be mindful of these trends.


With such a diverse programming, another change that had to be made was the elimination of festival passes.

“An event like Pygmalion in a place like Champaign-Urbana is so rare and demands the support of the community.”

And the community supports Seth’s festival because he supports the community. A lot of what Seth does directly benefits Champaign-Urbana. The festival, for one, is in some ways a commitment to C-U. The changes that it has seen, especially over the last few years, are a testament to that. They indicate that the team behind the magic cares about the community and the student population that is in so many ways the beating heart of the two cities.

In addition to Pygmalion, Seth is the founder of Smile Politely, an online culture magazine about C-U and written by local journalists. An “amateur journalism project” the magazine has been able to grow its readership with the help of social media, while, once again, focusing on the community.

“We’re still dedicated to choosing advertising partners who are only local to Champaign-Urbana, which makes it harder to accrue ad dollars but it keeps us honest.”

Seth is also in the beginning stages of forming a foundation that will work to revitalize C-U’s performing arts scene. Because of the changes in the touring industry, the cities have seen a drop off in live music. Now, Seth aims to bring it back.

“We just want to create a place where people care enough about the performing arts. That’s going to demand a lot of time and a lot of asks, but I think it’s good for the community.”


With a schedule as packed as his, the magic of Seth is that he doesn’t lose sight of what’s important in life. He is modest, accessible, and willing to share the wisdom he gained through decades of experience in an industry that’s appealing to many young people. He is a mentor to many students, and for good reason. An endless source of inspiration, Seth is proof that hard work and dedication can make dreams a reality, and better yet, a positive impact.

Seth Fein with his son Ira.

Seth Fein with his son Ira.

“You only get one life. And you should always be seeking space for yourself to enjoy it.”

At the time of our interview, Seth and his wife Justine were in Mexico City with their two sons, Ellis and Ira. They go there every year for months, not for vacation, but to enroll the boys in school there.

“We want to make sure that there is an opportunity for them to learn from a different culture and see that the center of the universe isn’t the middle of fucking Illinois, though the middle of Illinois is wonderful.”

Pygmalion Festival tickets will go on sale in late summer. Part of the proceeds support the Josh Gottheil Memorial Fund for Lymphoma Research.


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Gosia Labno is a photographer and writer based in Chicago. She holds a B.S. in Media and Cinema Studies and an M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies. She is working on a collection of short stories chronicling the lives of undocumented immigrants in the United States. Follow.