Pitchfork lived and died by the internet

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Pitchfork lived and died by the internet


Last year, in an appearance on Rick Rubin’s podcast, Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor observed that over the course of his career, music has become more ubiquitous — and, simultaneously, less special. “I kind of miss the attention music got … not that I’m that interested in a critic’s opinion, but to send something out into the world and feel like it touched places.”

To platforms, music is just content

A little more than six months after Reznor observed that his medium’s cachet had been diminishing, half of Pitchfork’s editorial staffers, including its editor-in-chief, were laid off and the publication was folded into GQ. Pitchfork, for a time, was a kingmaker in the music industry — pushing bands on indie labels into prime discourse while older music magazines struggled to modernize.

Pitchfork came of age in the early aughts as music began to transition from analog to digital, rising to prominence as the way people listened changed from buying CDs and turning on the radio to pirating albums and downloading MP3s. It championed new artists, especially in the then-burgeoning genre of indie rock; there was even a period when Pitchfork could put bands on the charts. It also occasionally killed careers.

Now, in the streaming era, music is more available than ever — but it’s harder for bands to break through. A new artist is competing with a library of all the songs the streamer has licensed. Worse, those services — for instance, Spotify and Apple Music — plainly do not view music as art to be appreciated and savored. TikTok, the new force in music discovery, relegates music to background noise for videos; songs there aren’t treated as entities in and of themselves. To platforms, music is just content.

In theory, this should make music journalism more important than ever for new artists. Pitchfork didn’t stop doing good work. But another wave of changing tech — in music and on the broader internet — has seriously reduced its power as a tastemaker. As a result, the internet-native publication was acquired and then bungled by an old-school magazine publisher. Speaking with former Pitchfork staffers and music writers, I wanted to know: What is the purpose of a music magazine now? And more critically, without journalism, what happens to music? After conversations with eight people, I have come to believe that Condé Nast certainly doesn’t know. Does anyone else?

The New Romance

Ryan Schreiber founded Pitchfork in 1996, from his parents’ home, while working at a record store in Minnesota. At the time, US music writing was dominated by monthly magazines like Rolling Stone, Vibe, and Spin. Most album reviews at those magazines were “capsule” length, perhaps just a few paragraphs. 

Schrieber started — as most writers do — by writing stuff to amuse his friends: funny, rambly, and above all, highly critical of what he felt was bad or boring. The idea was to center independent music. “I really wanted to create something that was very outspoken that was very tough from a critical standpoint on what sort of deserves to be part of this culture, who’s making music that’s innovative and progressive,” he said during an interview on the podcast Popcast in January. He felt that most music journalists were basically just cheerleaders.

“If you live in a major market, chances are there isn’t an independent commercial radio station on your radio dial.”

When Pitchfork began, most music was purchased on CDs, and so the putative focus of magazine reviews in that era was usually advising consumers on how to spend their money, either at local stores or through mail-order publishers like Columbia House. CDs cost an average of $16.98 in 1995 — about $34.84 in today’s dollars. Buying one album meant not listening to another.

Besides magazines, radio was another way to discover music in the early ‘90s. Once upon a time, it was possible for the music director of a single radio station to launch a career; Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” charted at number six on Billboard because one obsessive David Lynch fan in Atlanta happened to really like it. But the Telecommunications Act of 1996 deregulated radio ownership, and by 1999, consolidation meant about 1,000 radio station owners had left the business. “If you live in a major market, chances are there isn’t an independent commercial radio station on your radio dial,” Lydia Polgreen wrote that year

At the same time, the rise of file-sharing services such as Napster meant there was more music to listen to than ever, and the launch of the iPod in 2001 made it easier to take a large catalog with you, in your pocket. But the iTunes store didn’t come into existence until 2003, which made blogs an important source of not only curation but discovery. That created a spectacular opportunity for a source that could pull it all together.

It was clear the brick-and-mortar businesses weren’t keeping up with the deluge of new music. “I first heard about Explosions in the Sky off Pitchfork,” Craig Jenkins, a critic at Vulture (who requested I note his indie rock cred: he saw The Dismemberment Plan pre-breakup). “And I go to the record store, which should know about this stuff. And I’m like, ‘Do you have Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die,’ the second record. And the guy hadn’t heard of it. He was like, ‘We can order that for you.’ You were at the whim of the record store.” 

There was no way a monthly publication could match the speed of file-sharing MP3s

Even before internet distribution, monthly magazines were struggling to keep up with the pace of new releases. There was no way a monthly publication could match the speed of file-sharing MP3s; in fact, many of them barely had an internet presence at all. Pitchfork moved faster, posting daily. And it embraced new formats of distribution, introducing products like a monthly MP3 sampler “to spotlight the latest music offered by our top sponsors.”

Pitchfork had one advantage over the traditional magazines: it was native to the internet. Its reviews were brash, sometimes bizarre, often typo-ridden. That’s part of what made them fun to read; a Pitchfork review could say and do things that magazines would not. The site’s tone — unpolished and, at times, unprofessional — made sense online. As a publication, it embodied the messy, speedy transition of the music industry to the internet. Much like the now middle-aged members of its audience, it was raised with music piracy, became definitively cool in the era of college indie rock, and then found, with the rise of streaming, that it was losing its edge.

 I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass

Pitchfork’s first advertiser was an online record store that paid $500. But the business didn’t really become viable until the site ran its first viral review.

Radiohead’s Kid A was a particularly online album. Its label, Capitol Records, let 1,000 websites stream it. Many of the songs had already leaked as concert bootlegs on Napster, and fans were anticipating the final product. Pitchfork’s review was posted the day of the release — unusual at the time — and was passed around Radiohead’s enormous fan base at least in part because Kid A had been awarded a rare perfect 10 on Pitchfork’s famously stringent rating system. 

“Like, can you believe people are writing like this?”

The review was also shared widely because it was deeply fucking weird. Here’s a sample sentence: “The experience and emotions tied to listening to Kid A are like witnessing the stillborn birth of a child while simultaneously having the opportunity to see her play in the afterlife on Imax.”

“Obviously, Pitchfork did not break Radiohead,” says Tom Ewing, who started blogging about music in 2000. “But it became viral — like, can you believe people are writing like this?”

By 2004, Pitchfork’s business got big enough that Schreiber hired Chris Kaskie, formerly of The Onion, as the publication’s first full-time employee. Kaskie’s job was to run the business, and he turned Pitchfork into a real media company with an actual payroll. The business began to scale quickly; the more money it made, the more resources it had for reviews and articles. Though there were other influential music blogs — Stereogum, as well as the smaller constellation of MP3 blogs — Pitchfork was the center of gravity. 

That’s also when Pitchfork anointed its first band. A glowing review of Arcade Fire’s first album, Funeral, made it “the fastest-selling title in the history of Merge Records,” according to The Washington Post. After a while, there were a bunch of Pitchfork bands: Broken Social Scene, for instance. Modest Mouse. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Arguably, The National. Pitchfork celebrated indie rock as it exploded in popularity, and the publication, as the genre’s loudest advocate, suddenly became an authority.

For some writers — and many readers — reviews are a blood sport

“A Pitchfork bump could result in some artists as high as top 20 on the [Billboard] chart,” says Maura Johnston, a music critic who also teaches journalism classes at Boston College. But it was a strange moment. Actual album sales were depressed, even though music was spreading more widely than ever before. (Obviously, piracy wasn’t factored into sales calculations.) And streaming was still nascent — in 2007, Billboard began counting streams from AOL and Yahoo, but only on the Hot 100, which tracks singles rather than albums.

Pitchfork’s dominance in reviews came from something it had that magazines like Spin didn’t: unlimited space. There was no maximum word count. Johnston told me she’d pulled Spin’s original review of Nevermind — the seminal Nirvana record — for some archival work she’d been doing. “It’s so short,” she says. “It’s like 300 words, tops.”

Not that all of Pitchfork’s reviews were serious. Famously, one was simply two pugs captioned “sorry :-/.” Reviews can be art criticism, contextualizing work within a genre (or an artist’s own oeuvre), or they can be service oriented, telling a reader whether an album is worth their money. But they are also entertainment. For some writers — and many readers — reviews are a blood sport, and Pitchfork was not afraid of this. Its willingness to give a 0.0 was part of what made it buzzy and viral. 

In 2004, Pitchfork gave Travis Morrison, the lead singer of The Dismemberment Plan, a 0.0 review on his first solo album. “Up until the day of the review, I’d play a solo show, and people would be like, ‘That’s our boy, our eccentric boy,’” Morrison told The Washington Post in 2006. “Literally, the view changed overnight.”

So while some people mourned the diminishment of Pitchfork, Morrison wasn’t among them. “If Pitchfork being absorbed into GQ means an end to a frightening and humiliating time in my life, it will be an enormous relief,” Morrison wrote on Instagram.

Is This It

Pitchfork didn’t reign for long; the changes in technology that brought it to prominence quickly undercut it. Revenue from music sales and licensing plummeted to $6.3 billion in 2009, less than half of what the industry made a decade earlier, before Napster and the iPod. That meant a superlative Pitchfork review could make or break an artist’s career, propping up the site’s importance. But waning label revenues also meant that record labels had less money to spend on advertising — a problem for music journalism writ large.

The tech industry’s introduction of MP3 slowly felled major retailers. Behemoth music stores went belly-up in the 2000s: Tower Records, Virgin Megastores, and Sam Goody. FYE bought up the rest. Ads from those retailers vanished, too.

Meanwhile, Ticketmaster, a ticketing company, had been slowly cornering the market on event tickets since 1982. It merged with Live Nation, a concert promoter, in 2009. The resulting entity, Live Nation Entertainment, calls itself “the largest producer of live music concerts in the world.” It owns, operates, leases, has exclusive booking rights for, or has an equity interest in 373 venues around the world, according to its most recent annual report. Ticketmaster “serves approximately 10,000 clients worldwide,” including for events that aren’t music. 

As some traditional sources of ad money dried up, there was also new competition for those dollars

If you want to see Taylor Swift, Ticketmaster gets paid, since Ticketmaster has relationships with most stadiums in the US. And if venues try to switch ticketing to a competitor, Live Nation withholds artists, according to a 2019 Department of Justice report. That doesn’t sound like a company that needs to do a lot of advertising.

As some traditional sources of ad money dried up, there was also new competition for those dollars: Silicon Valley giants. Music publications had audiences that were generally interested in music. But Facebook let promotion departments target people who were specifically interested in their artist, or artists who sounded similar. 

That wasn’t the only way social media changed things. Music magazines, including Pitchfork, don’t just publish reviews. They are also a major way for fans to get access to their favorite artists through features or Q&As. Before social media, this was the main way artists could speak to their fans and promote their work. But the internet — first message boards, then MySpace, then Instagram and Discord — meant that artists could make announcements directly to their fan bases. Now this kind of control is the norm. Artists can get the same reach while avoiding the questions a rigorous journalist might ask. (There were rarer risks associated with interviews, too: a Pitchfork video of Chief Keef at a gun range resulted in the artist receiving a two-month sentence for parole violation.)

Stereogum got bought out in 2007; Idolator in 2008; Spin packed in its print magazine in 2012; Vibe did the same in 2013. All four had been bought by something called BuzzNet, which later renamed itself SpinMedia.

“We made a decision that we had to make at a time that was a difficult time in media.”

Pitchfork got bought out, too, in 2015, but by one of the most prestigious media companies in the US: Condé Nast. By that time, Pitchfork had an events business, a video portfolio, and a print magazine. The headwinds were clear. “We made a decision that we had to make at a time that was a difficult time in media,” Schreiber said of the sale on Popcast. Banner ads, the way Pitchfork had originally made money, were less valuable with the rise of social media and influencer marketing, he added. 

The acquisition almost made sense. Condé Nast is known for tastemakers: Vogue, in fashion; The New Yorker, in literature; Vanity Fair, in celebrity. Plus, Pitchfork would “make it easier to sell beer and soda ads,” Bloomberg wrote of the acquisition. Infamously, and ominously, Condé trumpeted that Pitchfork would bring an audience of “millennial males” into their portfolio.

It’s Blitz!

By 2017, Spotify and YouTube had become the most important distributors of music. The streaming era had arrived, and under the duress of monthly subscriptions and preroll ads, it was getting even harder to make money as an artist or record label. 

If a music magazine’s power comes from influence, then Pitchfork was declining, too. While a review could increase Spotify streams, it wasn’t enough to “really, really change things” the way it had 10 years earlier, John Stein, a senior editor at Spotify, told Bloomberg. Odd — since, according to Schreiber, more people were reading Pitchfork than ever before. He cited Comscore data showing 4.1 million visitors in October 2016, which represented 50 percent growth in traffic over the previous October.

The concept of music criticism also did not play well with the growing influence of internet fan culture

What is a music review for? One answer, the one you might get in the 1990s, was music discovery. My former colleague, Casey Newton of Platformer, suggested that Spotify’s curated playlists obviated that role. Stein’s remarks certainly jibe with that.

Reviews are also where serious discussion of art takes place. Critics don’t always get things right — history is rife with examples of what turned out to be classics getting panned upon release, such as Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” They don’t always take artists seriously as people, either, though Pitchfork hardly pioneered that. (There is, for instance, Lester Bangs.) Still, an album review is the beginning of a culture-wide sifting that determines what art is worth preserving and passing down, and what is forgotten.

Here’s how seriously Pitchfork readers take those ratings. Jenkins reviewed a J. Cole album in 2014, which received a 6.9 rating. “I did actually have the power to make that a 7.0,” he says, “but chose a social experiment to see what people would do about a .1 difference.” It upset Cole’s manager. Jenkins’ review of D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, rated 9.4, also left the audience in an uproar. This time, it was because the review was too short — and thus, intellectually lazy. 

“I don’t think people even necessarily believe that criticism is really about telling you whether the thing is good or bad anymore,” says Jenkins. Audiences understand that criticism is about how to value art, he tells me.

If you know you love Taylor Swift, and you believe Folklore is perfect, why bother going to Pitchfork?

The concept of music criticism did not play well with the growing influence of internet fan culture — or “stans,” its most intense iteration, named for an Eminem song about a fan who kills himself and his pregnant girlfriend because the rapper won’t return his letters. Now that artists could bypass music publications and speak directly to their fans, anything that got between them — music magazines, record labels, Scooter Braun — was seen as a gatekeeper and, therefore, the enemy. (Stans don’t seem as critical of streaming platforms, despite how little they pay artists, and in fact are likely to actively drive engagement to Spotify and Apple Music as a way of showing their loyalty.)

If you know you love Taylor Swift, and you believe Folklore is perfect, why bother going to Pitchfork? But Swifties did, and they felt so strongly about Jillian Mapes’ review, an 8 (out of a potential 10), that they harassed and doxxed her online for not being glowing enough. Those Swifties want to make certain the entire culture acknowledged her album as perfect.

“It sucks, because I think it does short-circuit honest conversations,” Johnston says. Even bands with relatively small fan bases can deluge critics — and sometimes artists get involved, too. For instance, in 2020, Halsey was upset enough with a 6.5 rating on her album Manic to tweet “can the basement that they run p*tchfork out of just collapse already,” deleting it after she realized she was calling for One World Trade, where Condé’s offices are located, to collapse.

Just because reviews are important doesn’t mean they’re good business. Pitchfork’s traffic has been declining. It had an average of 3 million unique visitors a month in 2023, about the same as the year before, according to data from Comscore. Both years were down from 2021 by about 36 percent.

Condé has long seemed confused about the difference between traffic and a loyal audience

I have seen some discussion about whether Pitchfork lost its focus under Condé. I asked people, in interviews for this story, if they agreed. Some did. The site began writing about mainstream pop artists, the kind of undifferentiated commodity news you might find on any culture website. But to others, the evolution made sense, as indie rock had effectively merged with pop over the past decade. After all, members of The National helped write two Taylor Swift records. The culture had changed, and so naturally Pitchfork changed with it.

Traffic was part of why Condé bought Pitchfork; it was part of a broader play from Fred Santarpia, Condé’s head of digital until 2018, and Robert Sauerberg Jr., CEO of Condé from 2015 to 2019. Their “traffic-at-all-costs machinery” didn’t really work, according to Puck. Worse, in the process, Condé chipped away at Pitchfork’s identity. Its video and award-winning design teams were either absorbed into broader business units or laid off.

Roger Lynch, Condé’s current CEO, joined in 2019. You’d expect, as the former head of radio streamer Pandora, he would prioritize music. Instead, his mandate has been consolidation, and the company turned its first profit in years in 2021, according to The Wall Street Journal. (It’s not clear how long Condé had been unprofitable, since it’s a private company.) Condé’s revenue grew in 2022, but missed targets, The New York Times reported. That may be because of Lynch’s rigid paywall strategy — decreasing traffic at some brands and flattening subscriptions, according to Puck.

So we have a cost-cutting CEO who didn’t acquire Pitchfork, whose focus is now on e-commerce and subscriptions. Pitchfork doesn’t require a subscription, even though staffers proposed a premium product to their Condé bosses, two sources told me. The affiliate revenue model doesn’t work as well for music, which is widely available to stream. 

Pitchfork is not gone, but many felt compelled to eulogize it anyway — much to the surprise of Condé’s executives

What’s more, Condé has long seemed confused about the difference between traffic and a loyal audience. Pitchfork’s homepage attracts far more visitors than those of GQ or Vogue, three people familiar with Condé’s traffic told me. As referrals from social media and Google decline, a loyal audience is more important than ever — but only if you’re smart enough to cultivate one. Anna Wintour, global chief content officer of Condé Nast, doesn’t care about music and doesn’t understand the internet, two former Pitchfork staffers told me. She didn’t even take her sunglasses off when she fired Pitchfork’s employees.

Pitchfork is not gone, but many felt compelled to eulogize it anyway — much to the surprise of Condé’s executives. Loyal readers often follow critics whose tastes align with their own; the staff is known to the audience by name. When those people are fired, the audience feels the loss. And the drastic reduction in staff suggested a bleak future: you can cut your way to profitability, but you can’t cut your way to growth.

Though confusing to many when it was announced last January, the decision to place Pitchfork under GQ, a men’s fashion magazine, makes more sense in this context. GQ’s subscription business — Lynch’s focus — is flagging; it lost 65,271 print subscriptions over the last five years, according to Puck. Its online audience is also shrinking to an average of 9.5 million visitors a month in 2023 and 2022, down 16 percent from 2021, according to Comscore. 

Pitchfork didn’t fit with Lynch’s business focus, which made it ripe for his efforts at cost-cutting. Pitching GQ and Pitchfork together could potentially be more attractive to advertisers, since GQ’s online audience is 71 percent male, according to Comscore. Pitchfork’s audience? Eighty percent male.

Liquor, tech brands, and shoes are the bread and butter of music publications

“This is not a terrible thing for us — GQ and P4K were getting in each other’s lanes and this makes it easier for us to use them in a complementary fashion,” wrote Melissa Consorte, a Condé Nast vice president, in Slack. (The Associated Press managed to get ahold of a screenshot.) It’s an odd thing to say about a music publication and a fashion publication, unless you are the kind of person who refers to editorial work as “content,” which exists only for one thing: to go next to the ads.

Spending from the recording industry has plummeted. That means Pitchfork is more reliant on lifestyle brands. Arguably, Red Bull subsidized the entire indie rock bubble, along with a few other brands, Johnston says. Liquor, tech brands, and shoes are the bread and butter of music publications. 

Condé seems confused about how to sell ads against Pitchfork. Scrolling through reviews for this story, I saw ads for Peloton, Paxlovid, Taltz (a psoriasis medicine), H&R Block, Squarespace, Audible, Volvo, a resort in the Bahamas, and Verizon. I saw two music-related ads: for Soundcloud and a Mitski concert at Stanford. I did not see any ads for high-end stereo systems, headphones, or other gear that might appeal to a music enthusiast, male or otherwise.

Hospice

As I have been writing about Pitchfork, I have been thinking about how we evaluate art. I enjoy a lot of criticism, even when I disagree with it — sometimes especially when I disagree with it, because I have to think about why. But really listening to music, then seeking out criticism and reading it, then thinking about it… That takes time. 

Trent Reznor, in his interview with Rick Rubin, talked about buying albums he didn’t like and listening to them anyway because he’d paid so much money for them. Scarcity meant that taking time with music was the default. And when Reznor was listening, he was only listening. “I wasn’t doing it in the background while I was doing five other things, and I wasn’t treating it kind of like a disposable commodity,” he said. “I don’t go to the cinema and do my taxes while a movie’s playing.”

Reznor sounded at times sheepish, as though he was worried he sounded like an old man yelling at a cloud. (Reznor is 57.) But in order to remember the changes that the music industry has been through in the last 30 years, you do actually need to be older than 30. For young audiences, streaming and ubiquity have been the norm. 

The original point of Pitchfork was to tell people about bands they hadn’t already heard of

“With Columbia House, the idea was you would get one album a month,” says Johnston. “And when I say that to my students, they are gobsmacked.”

In the 1990s, there used to be big marketing pushes around promising albums; Nirvana’s Nevermind, for instance. Now musicians have to do more of that work themselves. Bethany Cosentino, who released a debut solo album after pausing her band Best Coast, put it this way: “The industry now — it’s just, like, the amount of fucking selling yourself that you have to do, the amount of videos you have to make, the amount of promotion that you have to do,” she said on TikTok. That time she’s spending on promotion is time she isn’t making music.

The original point of Pitchfork was to tell people about bands they hadn’t already heard of. That function seems even more important for a functioning artistic community than ever. New music appears to be vanishing in the streaming era. About 73 percent of songs played on streaming services in 2023 were catalog music — that is, songs that were released more than 18 months ago, according to Luminate. That number has been steadily creeping up for a while now; catalog music was only 65 percent of streams in 2020.

Twelve full-time staffers remain at Pitchfork, and the publication retains its standalone website. Its music festival has just announced its 2024 lineup. It was even nominated for a National Magazine Award, in the category of General Excellence, for work done before it was gutted. The pleasure of Pitchfork was that it was a place to go where music mattered; its best reviews had real intellectual heft. Whether that tradition will continue under GQ is an open question, especially to anyone who remembers the titties-oriented music magazine Blender.

“I used to steal stuff from the torrent site, because I wanted to hear it … Now I often don’t know it even came out.”

Condé Nast spokesperson Rachel Janc declined to comment on what the future of Pitchfork might be under GQ, why Pitchfork belongs with GQ rather than other cultural arbiters such as The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, or what role GQ editor Will Welch sees Pitchfork playing in the current cultural landscape.

Pitchfork’s reduced size echoes a hollowing out across music publications. Since being sold to Billboard’s parent company, Spin and Stereogum were resold in 2020 — Stereogum to its founder, and Spin to a private equity group. I have to believe that there are people out there who still care about music and take it seriously as art. But maybe taking art seriously is not a viable business model. At minimum, it requires more time and effort than the current music industry seems willing to allow.

“I find myself in a place now where I don’t have a good place to discover new music,” Reznor said. “I used to know when the release dates of all the things were. I used to steal stuff from the torrent site, because I wanted to hear it … Now I often don’t know it even came out.” I don’t think he’s alone.





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