Pitchfork (website)

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Pitchfork
Three black arrows pointing 45° up and to the right, arrows twice in black circles. The Pitchfork wordmark which displays the name Pitchfork in a black serif font.
The Pitchfork homepage in 2016
Type of site
Online music magazine
Available inEnglish
Founded1996; 28 years ago (1996)
Country of originUnited States
OwnerCondé Nast
Created byRyan Schreiber
ParentCondé Nast
URLpitchfork.com
CommercialYes
RegistrationNo
Launched1996; 28 years ago (1996)
Current statusActive

Pitchfork (formerly Pitchfork Media) is an American online music publication founded in 1996 by Ryan Schreiber in Minneapolis. It originally covered alternative and independent music, and expanded to cover genres including pop, hip hop, jazz and metal. Pitchfork is one of the most influential music publications to have emerged in the internet age.

In the 2000s, Pitchfork distinguished itself from print media through its unusual reviews, coverage of emerging acts and ability to publish multiple reviews a day. It was praised as passionate, authentic and unique, but criticized as pretentious, mean-spirited and elitist, playing into stereotypes of the cynical hipster. Artists whose careers grew from positive Pitchfork reviews include the Dismemberment Plan, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Modest Mouse, Broken Social Scene, Bon Iver and Sufjan Stevens.

Pitchfork relocated to Chicago in 1999 and Brooklyn, New York, in 2011. It expanded operations in the 2010s, launching the annual Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, the video site Pitchfork.tv and a print publication, The Pitchfork Review, among other projects. It also began covering more mainstream music and issues of gender, race and identity. As of 2014, Pitchfork was receiving around 6.2 million unique visitors every month.

The influence of Pitchfork declined in the 2010s with the growth of streaming and social media. In 2015, it was acquired by the mass media company Condé Nast and moved to One World Trade Center. Schreiber left in 2019. In 2024, Condé Nast announced plans to merge Pitchfork into the men's magazine GQ, resulting in layoffs. The merge drew criticism and triggered concern about the implications for music journalism.

History[edit]

1996–2005: Early years[edit]

Pitchfork was created in February 1996 by Ryan Schreiber, a high school graduate living in his parents' home in Minneapolis.[1] Schreiber grew up listening to indie rock acts such as Fugazi, Jawbox and Guided by Voices.[2] He was influenced by fanzine culture and had no previous writing experience.[3]

Schreiber initially named the website Turntable, but changed it after another website claimed the rights.[4] The name Pitchfork was inspired by the tattoo on the assassin Tony Montana in the film Scarface. Schreiber chose it as it was concise and had "evilish overtones".[2] Schreiber wrote the first review, of Pacer (1995) by the Amps.[5] The record store Insound was Pitchfork's first advertiser.[4]

In the late 1990s, the American music press was dominated by monthly magazines such as Rolling Stone, creating a gap in the market for faster-moving publication that emphasized new acts.[6] Early Pitchfork reviews focused on indie rock and were often critical. The Washington Post described them as "brutal" and "merciless", writing: "The site's stable of critics often seemed capricious, uninvested, sometimes spiteful, assigning low scores on a signature 10-point scale with punitive zeal."[7] Schreiber said the site's early period "was about really laying into people who really deserved it", and defended the importance of honesty in arts criticism.[8] In 1999, Schreiber relocated Pitchfork to Chicago.[9]

In 2000, Pitchfork's 10.0/10.0 review of the new Radiohead album, Kid A, written by Brent DiCrescenzo, generated a surge in readership and was one of the first signs of Pitchfork becoming a major publication.[3][4] It attracted attention for its unusual style and the speed of its publication following the album review.[10] Billboard described it as "extremely long-winded and brazenly unhinged from the journalistic form and temperament of the time".[10] While it was widely mocked, it boosted Pitchfork's profile.[10] Schreiber said he understood the review would make Pitchfork subject to ridicule, but "wanted Pitchfork to be daring and to surprise people".[10]

In 2001, Pitchfork had 30,000 daily readers.[2] In 2004, Pitchfork hired its first full-time employee, Chris Kaskie, formerly of the satirical website The Onion, to run business operations.[9] The editor Scott Plagenhoef was hired shortly afterwards.[9] Kaskie later became the company president.[11] By 2005, Pitchfork's annual revenue had reached around $5 million.[4]

2006–2010: Expansion, Pitchfork Festival and growing influence[edit]

Slint at Pitchfork Music Festival 2007

By 2006, traditional music media, such as print magazines, music video channels and radio stations, had declined or changed focus. Music listeners still sought a reliable source of recommendations, creating opportunity for Pitchfork.[2] Without the limitations of print media, Pitchfork was able to champion emerging independent acts that magazines such as Spin, which had to sell millions of copies every year, could not.[2] Schreiber said he felt music magazines were "not even trying to discover new music ... Publications used to take more chances on artists, putting bands on the cover that they thought deserved to be there."[1] He said Pitchfork was able to take risks as it was not interested in appeasing bands, record labels or advertisers.[1]

Before 2006, Pitchfork's writers were unpaid.[1] That year, Pitchfork had 170,000 daily readers and was publishing five album reviews a day, with six full-time employees.[1][2] Schreiber said that Pitchfork was able to sustain paid freelancers and eight employees, though they were "always cutting it close".[8] He said he had attracted interest from investors, but wanted to retain control and that journalistic integrity was his priority.[2][8] In August 2006, an internal Pitchfork server containing promotional copies of hundreds of albums was hacked, including the upcoming Joanna Newsom album Ys.[12]

In the mid-2000s, Pitchfork expanded its operations. In 2006, it launched the annual Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago.[7] In April 2008, after acquiring the live music show Juan's Basement, Pitchfork launched Pitchfork.tv, a website displaying interviews, music videos and feature-length films.[13] In November, it published a book, The Pitchfork 500, covering the preceding 30 years of music.[14]

By the end of the 2000s, Pitchfork had become influential in the music industry, credited for launching acts such as Arcade Fire and Bon Iver.[7] Employees at record labels and record stores would use it to anticipate interest in acts.[8] It was also attracting large sponsors such as American Express and Apple.[4]

2010–2015: Diversification, declining influence and sister publications[edit]

The influence of Pitchfork on music careers declined around the turn of the decade, as streaming and social media fractured audiences and reduced the need for gatekeepers.[15][16] Streaming services began to fulfil Pitchfork's function of helping new artists find audiences, and independent music criticism moved to podcasts and YouTube.[15] The Los Angeles Times wrote that "the internet era that birthed Pitchfork's blend of saucy writing, outre tastes and massive popularity [was] by and large over".[15]

Over the following decade, Pitchfork shifted its editorial range and style.[17] It began running features and news alongside reviews, coming to resemble a more conventional music publication.[17] It also diversified from indie rock to cover mainstream music including pop, rap and metal, and began covering issues of gender, race and identity in music, influenced by movements such as MeToo and Black Lives Matter.[15][18] Schreiber said that "our tastes broadened with age and experience", and that Pitchfork could make a difference to social causes.[15]

In July 2010, Pitchfork launched Altered Zones, a blog aggregator devoted to underground and DIY music.[19] In 2011, Pitchfork relocated to Brooklyn, New York.[20] On May 21, Pitchfork announced a partnership with the website Kill Screen, in which Pitchfork would publish some of their articles.[21] Altered Zones closed on November 30.[19] On December 26, 2012, Pitchfork launched Nothing Major, a website that covered visual arts,[22] which closed in October 2013.[23] Pitchfork launched a film website, The Dissolve, in 2013. It closed in 2015, citing "financial challenges".[24] Kaskie later said he remained proud of The Dissolve and that it was "a huge success from the creative and editorial, design and everything else".[11]

In December 2013, Pitchfork launched The Pitchfork Review, a quarterly print journal focused on long-form music writing and design-focused content. Pitchfork planned a limited-edition quarterly publication of about 10,000 copies of each issue, printed on glossy, high-quality paper.[25] It was expected that about two thirds of the content would be original, with the remaining reused from the Pitchfork website.[25] The International Business Times likened the literary aspirations to the The New Yorker and the Paris Review.[26]

In 2013, Pitchfork won the National Magazine Award for general excellence in digital media.[4] As of 2014, Pitchfork was receiving around 6.2 million unique visitors and 40 million pageviews every month, with an expected annual revenue growth of 25 to 40 percent. Its primary revenue came from advertising.[27] That August, Pitchfork had 2.47 million unique visitors, more than the websites for Spin or Vibe but fewer than Rolling Stone's 11 million.[27]

2015–2016: Purchase by Condé Nast[edit]

One World Trade Center, Manhattan, the site of Pitchfork's offices since 2015

On October 13, 2015, the American mass media company Condé Nast announced that it had acquired Pitchfork.[28] At this point, Pitchfork had about 50 employees, with advertising, sales and development staff in Chicago and editorial and video production staff in Brooklyn.[3] Kaskie said "our needs and wants were converging", and that Pitchfork needed capital and expertise to expand its publication and festivals.[11] The sale boosted Pitchfork's value to advertisers.[4]

The Condé Nast CEO, Bob Sauerberg, described Pitchfork as a "distinguished digital property that brings a strong editorial voice, an enthusiastic and young audience, a growing video platform and a thriving events business".[6] Previously, Pitchfork's independence had been a key aspect of its image.[3][18] Schreiber said it would continue to have "creative independence".[3] Pitchfork relocated to the Condé Nast offices in One World Trade Center, Manhattan.[4]

The acquisition triggered concern; the New York Observer wrote that was a "death knell for indie rock".[4] The Condé Nast chief digital officer, Fred Santarpia, was criticized when he said the acquisition would bring "a very passionate audience of millennial males into our roster".[7] Schreiber responded on Twitter that women were "a huge part of Pitchfork's staff and readership" and that Pitchfork aimed to reach "all music fans everywhere".[7]

On March 13, 2016, Pitchfork launched its first new design since 2011.[29] That October, Pitchfork had 4.1 million visitors, up from 2.7 million the previous October.[4] With Schreiber aiming to make Pitchfork the world's best repository for music content, Pitchfork began creating videos and retrospective articles about classic albums released before its founding.[4] The Pitchfork Review ended after 11 issues in November 2016.[30]

2017–2023: Departures of Kaskie and Schreiber[edit]

Anna Wintour, the Condé Nast chief content officer, in 2010

Kaskie announced his departure from Pitchfork in May 2017.[31] He had been frustrated by his diminished role under Condé Nast and Pitchfork's reduced autonomy.[32] On September 18, 2018, Schreiber stepped down as the top editor. He was replaced by Puja Patel, who had worked at Spin and Gawker Media, as editor-in-chief on October 15. Schreiber remained as a strategic advisor.[33]

Patel came under pressure to cut costs amid declining traffic from social media, and competition from streaming platforms, which offered a new means for listeners to discover music.[32] Pitchfork staff conflicted with Condé Nast over its attempts to monetize Pitchfork Festival by making it into a "luxury" experience.[32] Santarpia left Condé Nast in 2018, leaving Pitchfork under the purview of Anna Wintour, the chief content officer.[32]

Schreiber announced his departure on January 8, 2019, saying he wanted to "keep pushing boundaries and exploring new things".[34] The Los Angeles Times said the departure came at a time of "existential change" for the media industries, citing the rise of streaming services and social media and the downsizing of many major music publications.[34] That month, Condé Nast announced it would put all its publications, including Pitchfork, behind a paywall by the end of the year.[35] Condé Nast abandoned experiments with Pitchfork paywalls following criticism from readers.[32] In 2020, Condé Nast laid off the executive editor Matthew Schnipper and the features editor and union chair Stacey Anderson.[9]

2024: Merge into GQ and layoffs[edit]

On January 17, 2024, Wintour announced that Pitchfork would merge with the men's magazine GQ.[36] Staff including Patel were laid off, leaving around a dozen editorial staff, including some working on multiple Condé Nast publications.[32] Max Tani of Semafor reported that remaining staff at Pitchfork and GQ were "depressed and embarrassed" by the merge.[32]

Several music industry figures and publications reacted with sadness and concern for the future of music journalism.[37] Tani and The Washington Post's Chris Richards expressed disgust that Pitchfork, once independent and provocative, would be absorbed into an establishment men's magazine.[7][32] The American critic Ann Powers wrote that the merge felt "like a highly conservative move at a time when music has proven to be one of our culture's most beautifully progressive spaces".[17] In The Guardian, Laura Snapes wrote that Pitchfork had provided a vital "leading example" and doubted that specialist music journalism could survive without it. She lamented the job losses, saying that Pitchfork had been one of the last stable employers of freelance music writers.[38]

Style[edit]

Pitchfork attracted attention for its unusual, passionate and stylized reviews, which differentiated it from the more scholarly and formal style of magazines such as Rolling Stone.[4][2] The critic Steve Hyden said Pitchfork felt like a "true alternative" to music magazines at the end of the 20th century, which were publishing content about Star Wars, nu metal and pop punk.[10] He characterized the Pitchfork voice as that of the outsider mocking the mainstream.[10]

In the Washington Post, J. Freedom du Lac described Pitchfork as entertaining, "hilariously snarky" and "occasionally even enlightening".[39] The Los Angeles Times writer August Brown described it as "raucous, passionate, sometimes blinkered but always evolving".[15] In Slate, Matthew Shaer wrote that its best reviews were "cagey, fierce, witty and graceful".[40] The journalist Dave Itzkoff described Pitchfork reviews as "defiantly passionate and frustratingly capricious" with an "aura of integrity and authenticity that made such pronouncements credible, even definitive, to fans ... insinuating themselves into the grand tradition of rock criticism, joining the ranks of imperious and opinionated writers".[2] Schreiber described the reviews of one early Pitchfork writer, Brent DiCrescenzo, as dense with dialogue and pop culture references, "exploring outlandish scenarios".[10]

Pitchfork's style changed in the 2010s as it broadened its scope and audience.[4] Snapes described this as a shift towards poptimism, and said that some had lamented the change, suggesting that it made Pitchfork "a less specific proposition".[38] However, she felt the change reflected modern music consumption and found it heartening that Pitchfork was reviewing a variety of genres and artists.[38] Under Puja Patel, who became the editor in 2018, Pitchfork covered more female, non-binary, queer and non-white artists.[41]

In 2014, the contributor Nate Patrin said Pitchfork had become "what publications like the Village Voice used to be in terms of letting writers go deep without feeling pressured to talk down to readers", with long-form articles and documentaries.[27] By 2017, according to Bloomberg, its reviews had become "as erudite as those of the music magazines that Pitchfork had all but eclipsed in influence".[4] The music critic Ann Powers wrote in 2024 that "in the past decade Pitchfork had nurtured many of the best and most influential writers working today".[17] She felt that "great music writing messes with productivity by creating a space to slow down and really immerse in someone else's creative work ... The best writing at Pitchfork or anywhere reflects that process and is as variegated as the human experience itself."[17]

In 2012, a Pitchfork poll asking readers to vote for their favorite music found that 88% of respondents were male. Statistics recorded by Quantcast found that men comprised 82% of Pitchfork readers and that most were aged 18–34.[18] In 2015, The Guardian credited Pitchfork for pioneering design techniques that combined print design and technical innovation to create the impression of a "forward-facing, vibrant title".[42]

Review system[edit]

Unlike other music publications, which typically assign scores out of five or ten, Pitchfork rates albums on a decimal scale of 0.0 to 10.0.[39][42] The system has drawn mockery as arbitrary and overprecise,[42] though DiCrescenzo described it as "knowingly silly".[43] In 2021, Pitchfork wrote that its scoring system was "admittedly absurd and subjective" and functioned as its calling card.[5] Pitchfork reviews do not represent an editorial consensus but the opinion of the individual reviewer.[40] By 2021, Pitchfork had published more than 28,000 reviews.[5]

Criticism[edit]

Prose[edit]

Pitchfork reviews have been criticized as pretentious, verbose and inaccurate.[39][40] Itzkoff wrote that Pitchfork was overwrought and sometimes hard to understand, with an abundance of adjectives, adverbs and misused words.[2] Shaer identified examples of "verbose and unreadable writing ... dense without being insightful, personal without being interesting".[40] In City Pages, Thomas Lindsay wrote that its prose was florid and sometimes impenetrable, and contained factual errors.[44] Similar criticisms came from Rob Harvilla of the East Bay Express and Claire Suddath of Time.[39][14] Responding to criticism in 2006, Schreiber said he trusted his writers' style and opinions.[44]

Elitism[edit]

Pitchfork has been criticized as mean-spirited and elitist, and for publishing reviews that do not meaningfully discuss the music, playing into stereotypes of the cynical hipster.[39] In 2018, the music journalist Robert Christgau described the early years of Pitchfork as "a snotty boys' club open to many 'critics' ... Too many amateur wise-asses and self-appointed aesthetes throwing their weight around."[45]

Many scathing early reviews were by Brent DiCrescenzo, who wrote lengthy reviews that rarely addressed the music.[46] For example, his review of the 2001 Tool album Lateralus consisted mostly of a list of the equipment used by the drummer.[46] Some reviews consist only of single images or videos, implying the record is beneath critical analysis.[46] Schaer wrote in 2006 that Pitchfork typically triumphed acts it had "discovered" and attacked beloved legacy acts and bands popular on music blogs.[40] Some believed that Pitchfork deliberately waited for excitement to build around an act before dismissing it with a critical review.[40]

Itzkoff argued that the confrontational and obtuse style was part of the Pitchfork business model, and were more memorable than traditional reviews.[2] He suggested that the writers' lack of training or experience, and the fact that they were willing to work for low or no pay, earned Pitchfork authenticity and undermined the authority of traditional media.[2] Schreiber conceded that Pitchfork had a reputation for snobbery, but said its writers were "really just honest, opinionated music fans".[39]

Race and gender[edit]

In the 2000s, Pitchfork was criticized for focusing on music made by white men.[15] In 2007, the female rapper M.I.A. criticized Pitchfork for assuming that her album Kala had been produced entirely by the male producer Diplo. Another Pitchfork writer described the error as "perpetuating the male-led ingenue myth".[47] M.I.A. and the singer Björk argued that this was part of a wider problem of journalists assuming that female artists do not write or produce their own music.[48][49]

Parodies[edit]

Pitchfork has attracted multiple parodies.[40] In 2005, Pitchfork invited the comedian David Cross to write a list of his favorite albums. Cross wrote that he was surprised by the invitation, citing several insulting Pitchfork reviews of his comedy albums, and instead wrote a "withering and absurdist" article titled "Albums to listen to while reading overwrought Pitchfork reviews".[46][50] In 2007, the satirical website The Onion published a piece in which Pitchfork reviewed music as a whole and gave it a score of 6.8.[42] The music blog Idolator ran a feature asking readers to guess which lines came from real Pitchfork reviews and which were fabricated.[14] In 2010, the writer David Shapiro started a Tumblr blog, "Pitchfork Reviews Reviews", which reviewed Pitchfork reviews and assessed their arguments. It attracted more than 100,000 followers and a profile in the New York Times.[51]

Influence[edit]

Pitchfork is credited for launching the careers of indie rock bands such as Arcade Fire (pictured in 2005).

Spencer Kornhaber of the Atlantic described Pitchfork as the most influential music publication to emerge in the internet age.[18] Alex Young, the founder of Consequence of Sound, wrote that "the earliest iterations of Consequence of Sound emulated much of what Pitchfork did — especially as it came to creating an editorial voice, developing a consistent content strategy, and packaging a love of music in a compelling way".[52] Itzkoff, a former editor for Spin, described the Spin staff checking Pitchfork regularly: "If it was lavishing attention on a new band, we at least had to ask ourselves why we weren't doing the same: by then, our value as a trustworthy and consistent filter had waned."[2]

In the 2000s, Pitchfork was credited with "making or breaking" musical careers, a phenomenon known as the "Pitchfork effect".[39][2] In 2006, the Washington Post described Schreiber as an "indie-rock kingmaker" and wrote that "an endorsement from Pitchfork ... is very valuable, indeed".[39] The managing editor, Scott Plagenhoef, downplayed Pitchfork's influence, saying it merely "accelerated the process".[2] After Pitchfork awarded 9.7 to the debut album by Arcade Fire, Funeral (2004), it became the fastest-selling record in the history of Merge Records.[39] Other acts whose careers were boosted by Pitchfork in the 2000s include the Dismemberment Plan, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Modest Mouse, Broken Social Scene, Bon Iver and Sufjan Stevens.[15][39][2]

After Pitchfork awarded 0.0 to Travistan (2004), the debut solo album by the Dismemberment Plan singer Travis Morrison, his solo career effectively ended.[16] Years later, Morrison described the experience as "frightening and awful".[16] Schreiber said he felt bad for him, but that it was important for Pitchfork writers to be honest.[2] Other albums to receive 0.0 ratings include Zaireeka (1995) by the Flaming Lips, NYC Ghosts & Flowers (2000) by Sonic Youth, Liz Phair (2003) by Liz Phair and Shine On (2006) by Jet.[39][42] The Jet review consisted entirely of a video of a monkey urinating into its own mouth and was widely shared.[42] The authors of the Phair and Sonic Youth reviews later changed their opinions and apologized to the artists.[16][53]

In Slate, Amos Barshad cited the band Black Kids as the most infamous example of Pitchfork "at its most deleterious".[16] Pitchfork's review of the debut Black Kids EP, Wizard of Ahhhs, boosted their career; however, when Pitchfork gave their debut album, Partie Traumatic (2008), a score of 3.3, with a review consisting entirely of a photograph of two frowning dogs and a frowning emoticon, their career collapsed.[16] Plagenhoef said Pitchfork later became more cautious in publishing negative reviews, as they were no longer "little guys on the internet throwing rocks at big artists".[2]

The influence of Pitchfork on musical careers declined with the onset of streaming and social media in the 2010s.[15][16] In 2017, a senior editor for independent music at the streaming platform Spotify said that Pitchfork no longer had the same impact on artists' popularity.[4] However, according to Tani, "Even as its GenX and old millennial fans aged and tastemaking shifted to platforms and influencers, Pitchfork remained the premier publication for music criticism, its year-end lists synonymous with critical acclaim."[32]

References[edit]

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