The death knell for writing about music?


The death knell for writing about music?

One of the most important music publications has been moved under the editorial umbrella of GQ less than a decade after it was bought by Condé Nast, suggesting music is now simply part of a consumer lifestyle, writes FRED DE VRIES.


THE story sounds familiar: irreverent online magazine that started from nothing thrives and grows. Then major changes in the media landscape force the owners to sell to a big corporation that promises the continuation of high-quality journalism. After a couple of years, however, things change. Substantial layoffs are announced and the magazine loses its editorial independence. Readers mourn its demise and deplore the death of a certain form of journalism.

The name of the magazine is Pitchfork, an American music publication that began its life as a digital fanzine and grew over 25-plus years to become one of the world’s most important music publications, with more than 8 million unique monthly visitors, 3 million Twitter followers and 1.5 million Instagram fans. The magazine, which started in early 1996 as a one-man effort, was bought by Condé Nast in 2015, and last month Condé’s global chief content officer announced that after some serious downsizing it would fall under the editorial umbrella of GQ, a men’s magazine. This seems to suggest music is now simply part of a consumer lifestyle, no longer a distinct art form.

Understandably, the GQ move was met with shock and horror by those still involved in the business of music writing. Jon Caramanica of The New York Times said: “News was received with sadness and confusion for fate of criticism and independent music journalism." When asked, our own doyen of music journalism, Richard Haslop, replied that although he didn’t go to Pitchfork all that often, “I do think it’s a big deal that they’re going to be part of GQ, a magazine that I don’t think I have ever even considered reading, perhaps not even for a single article. Like them or not and as pretentious as they could be, Pitchfork was, probably for most English-speaking people of a certain age and with particular musical tastes, the standard. GQ, which has apparently identified a demographic that they previously missed, is unlikely to be."

British journalist Laura Snapes wrote a long piece for The Guardian, under a headline that called the absorption into GQ “a travesty for music journalism". In 2011, Snapes was still working for New Musical Express but already a huge fan of Pitchfork. After meeting one of its writers in Norway, she was asked to become the first British staff member. She was elated. “Pitchfork’s editors were extraordinarily committed to investing in new critical talent, the writers and editors who were the driving force in unearthing and chronicling the defining alternative acts of the 21st century."

She points out that the move to GQ makes it seem as if music is a male pursuit, mentioning a dozen female and non-binary writers who made Pitchfork such a diverse publication and structurally transformed the website in the 2010s. Indeed, one of my favourite music writers, Amanda Petrusich, joined Pitchfork in 2003. She is now a staff member of The New Yorker. In a tweet she lamented: “Wouldn’t have a career without Pitchfork. Probably wouldn’t know much about music, either. Feels like a death knell for the record review as a form. Absolutely gutted for my dear, dear friends & colleagues."

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Pitchfork was the brainchild of Ryan Schreiber, an early internet convert, who saw the possibilities for online publishing as early as 1994. In an interview with Mediabistro he recalled: “I was calling up labels out of the blue like, ‘Hi, I have this music magazine on the internet', and people were like, ‘On the what?’"

Those were the days when American alternative music (think Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Pixies, Sonic Youth, Soundgarden, Jane’s Addiction) had become mainstream and music papers such as Rolling Stone and Spin dedicated numerous pages to these bands. In the background there were what we used to call “zines", underground papers made as a labour of love, dedicated to obscure bands and artists. Schreiber, then 19 and working in a record store in Minnesota, envisaged something in between, a digital fanzine focusing on truly independent music, written for and by music nerds like himself, irreverent but essential. “Goof off, make each other laugh and centre on independent music. I wanted to create something outspoken and tough from critical standpoint," he recently told Caramanica in a The New York Times Popcast. He didn’t want endless praise and five-star reviews, no hagiographies or sycophants. He wanted a more critical approach and articles and reviews that would point the way forward: this is where music should be going.

It worked, for years. But then it became too big. Pitchfork needed money to fund its ever-increasing staff and army of contributors. In early 2004, Schreiber met then 21-year old Chris Kaskie, a fellow midwesterner who as a CEO would deal with marketing and money. Kaskie was shocked when he found a Pitchfork that “was people keeping things together with popsicle sticks". He transformed it into a proper business. The content was still free but he found enough advertisers — mainly independent music stores and independent record labels (CD sales were still huge then) — to make sure staff and contributors got paid.

It worked. Between 2005 and 2009 Pitchfork grew quickly and developed into one of the most important sources of music journalism. The writers were knowledgeable, aloof, engaging and irritating. Musicians loved to hate Pitchfork — it could make or break careers. That power was to a large extent due to its record review section, which formed the main body of the writing. Schreiber wanted to create a huge archive for future generations of music fans. Pitchfork published several reviews every day, dropping into your mailbox to distract you from whatever you were doing. Sometimes they were silly and stupid but often they were long, several thousand words, diving deep into the music and giving you context so you had an idea where these sounds came from and how they fitted into the long and complex history of pop. They espoused bands most of us had never heard of and probably never will. Dismemberment Plan, anyone? “We needed a new crop of artists for the future," explained Schreiber. “We wanted to champion artists that would otherwise not be listened to."

Pitchfork’s biggest trump card was the rating system. Where most magazines use stars (five stars is a must buy) or the ten scale (6/10 is just above average), Pitchfork started with percentages (84% meant 84% of the album was good) then switched to the ten scale with decimals (for example, Ty Segal’s new album, Three Bells, gets 7.8). It drove some people insane: how on earth can you tell the difference between a 7.4 and a 7.6? Gimmick? Pretentious? Whatever, it certainly worked. People want nuance, explained Schreiber: “Is this a light 7 or close to 8?"

The power Pitchfork wielded could be scary. Shops wouldn’t stock a record that had been given a bad review in the magazine. Tours were cancelled because of a Pitchfork dissing. And, something that had never been done in music journalism: the reviewers didn’t mind dishing out the occasional 0.0. “There is a sense of drama around 0.0," said Schreiber. Which is true. Who wouldn’t want to read a well-written, perfectly argued 0.0 review?

Some of the victims included experimental rockers Sonic Youth (Sonic Ghosts & Flowers), hard rockers Kiss (Music From The Elder), female alt-rocker Liz Phair (Liz Phair) and classic rockers Bachman-Turner Overdrive, BTO (Remastered Hits — Best Of). Samir Kahn ends his BTO review with a cheap and nasty stab at rock fans who appreciate a bit of mindless boogie, hoping to piss off baby-boomers: “Those who still cling to BTO — and you know who you are — are usually dorky minivan types who think rock and roll is about having your friends over for beer and barbecue. Let me say on behalf of the world’s young people that all you people truly suck. Even in your retro phase there's nothing remotely charming or rocking about you. Here’s hoping that next T-Bone you eat leaves you choking on your own excess. Die! Die! Die!"

Some of these reviews have rightfully been removed or adjusted (I found a copy of the deleted Bachman-Turner Overdrive piece on a different site). But then, Pitchfork also happily hands out 10.0s. Lucky bands include Radiohead (Kid A and OK Computer), Fiona Apple (Fetch The Bolt Cutters) and Pavement (Quarantine The Past: The Best Of Pavement), but also obscure ones such as Walt Mink (El Producto) and 12 Rods (Gay?).

Reading the reviews could be excruciating but it was all done within the realm of Pitchfork ethics, which use parameters such as passion, excitement, caring, community, deep knowledge and irreverence.

The company grew. Pitchfork branded out to festivals and the music coverage extended from indie and alternative to pop, hip hop and even country. In 2015, the company was bought by Condé Nast, a global mass media company that had also acquired The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and GQ. In some quarters, the acquisition was seen as a sellout but Schreiber and Kaskie argued that it gave Pitchfork access to more advertising. “It was a decision we had to make at a time when the media went through a difficult period, especially after social media," said Schreiber. “We were seeking investment to continue operating at the scale we were at — we needed broader support. Ultimately, Condé was in a position to invest in Pitchfork and make sure it could continue its mission and grow.”

Mission completed, Kaskie left in 2017 and Schreiber followed two years later. Puja Patel became the first female editor-in-chief, signifying the diversification that Pitchfork had been striving to achieve. Meanwhile, the impact of the site had diminished due to the ever-increasing importance of social media and streaming, which meant the idea of an “album" went out of the window and made way for “tracks" and “playlists", which are much harder to review. Gone were the days when shops wouldn’t stock a record because of a bad Pitchfork review. Any record sold is a plus these days.

So here we are, dealing with a mutilated Pitchfork. Does it matter? Not really. I still get their daily mails that say things like “Camera Obscura announce their first album in ten years" or “Robyn, Fever Ray and other Swedish artists call for Israel ban at Eurovision 2024". Sometimes I click, mostly I don’t. I wasn’t a huge Pitchfork fan in the first place. The other day, I checked out an interview with Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy and it felt like I was listening to a college kid interviewing his hero and dying to show how clever he is. That’s Pitchfork for you, love it or hate it.

And although people hue and cry and proclaim that this means the end of serious music journalism, there is still a world of well-written and interesting stuff to read. Here in South Africa we no longer have local music magazines (who can remember the last one?) but you can still buy Mojo, Uncut and Classic Rock. There are plenty of informative websites such as the comprehensive Allmusic and The Quietus, which is a decent alternative to Pitchfork. Then there’s Rock’s Back Pages, which collects over 70 years of music writing. The subscription price of $220 a year is offputting, but fortunately there is plenty of free stuff.

So the changes in Pitchfork are not a major disaster. As Schreiber himself said: “It’s not the death knell for music journalism. The audience is there. The demand is there. The need is there. This is not the end of the form." And then he paid tribute to us, that rare species of music journalists. “The bottom line is that this is highly skilled and highly specialised work that warrants compensation in line with the skills set." 

Thank you, Ryan. So, as a tribute to Pitchfork, I will from now on end each column with a music tip and a rating.

This week Fred has been listening to Big Sigh by Marika Hackman, an intimate album by an English millennial who sings in a slightly dispassionate voice about the things that bother her and her generation. You know the score: sadness, anxiety, stress, problematic lust and the need to break away from it all. Great album though, a perfect 8.4.

♦ VWB ♦

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