The Pitchfork Effect

How an upstart record-review site won the animosity—and allegiance—of indie music scenesters and changed the rules for breakout bands. (Ask Tapes 'N Tapes.)

Tapes 'n Tapes manager Keri Wiese leans over to show me this recent e-mail on her Blackberry. It's the second-to-last night of the South by Southwest festival and we're both exhausted from the nonstop show slog. I shouldn't complain; Wiese and the band are the ones who have been hauling their gear all over town to perform nine times in four days. Still, we're sitting on a bench in a small, packed bar called Friends, reserving our strength for the band's only official SXSW set. (The others were afternoon barbecues, radio gigs, and private parties). And this e-mail, glowing with the unparalleled enthusiasm of a teenager who's just found her new favorite band, helps everyone soldier on. But how did an indie rock quartet with a modest following in their own hometown become the lunchroom fantasy of a high school kid over 400 miles away?

In the bathroom, I come across a girl with dark, curly hair raving about Tapes 'n Tapes to the uninitiated. She says she can't wait for their set, that the disc hasn't left her CD player since the day she got it. When I ask where she first heard about the band, she acts embarrassed. "I read about them on Pitchfork," she says. Then, without prompting, like someone who's committed a terrible faux pas, she adds, "I don't really like [the website], but I have to find out about new music, right?"

Pitchforkmedia.com has become the main arbiter of taste among independent music fans, a distinction once claimed by zines, college radio, and mainstream music mags that risked advertising dollars by taking chances on unknown bands. The news and reviews site has found its niche in catering to list makers, mp3 traders, and kids who are determined to love and leave a band before you've ever even heard of them. Pitchfork has plenty of faults—impenetrable writing, factual gaffes made by first-time critics—but they haven't kept it from turning the music industry's standard operating procedure on its head. It's the website every music-head checks and the website every music-head hates. Whenever anyone mentions a review they've read there, chances are the comment will be prefaced by a complaint about the site's esoteric references and narcissistic writer. But people keep reading.

Like some of the bands it would later cover, Pitchforkmedia.com began as the project of a self-admitted slacker from the Twin Cities suburbs. Nineteen-year-old Ryan Schreiber was living with his parents in Victoria and occasionally working behind the counter at Down in the Valley. He had no plans for the future, no ambitions for a career. The one thing he was sure of was that he was never going back to school.

"I don't want to say it was all I could do to graduate or that I barely scraped by, but I was not a high achiever by any stretch. Once I was done with high school, I was out of there," Schreiber says from his Chicago office during a phone interview. "I was never a very good worker for other people, so I always felt like if I was actually going to do something, it made sense to go some entrepreneurial route."

Any self-starting businessman needs some kind of drive, and what Schreiber had was a passion for music and an appetite for magazines that catered to his interest, particularly the locally produced Cake. A friend introduced Schreiber to the not-yet-popular internet and the record store clerk recognized the potential for an underground music website.

"I wanted there to be a resource on the web that didn't exist at the time. Back in the day, if you searched for Fugazi, you'd get virtually zero results," says Schreiber.

He launched his own site in late 1995 and soon posted his very first critique—a review of the Amps' Pacer that he now remembers with embarrassment. "When I started this, I had no previous publishing or writing experience," he says. "I was just this kid with opinions, and writing was probably not really my forte. But that was the avenue that made the most sense for me at the time. I struggled for a long time in the early years in terms of writing anything that most people would actually want to read."

Fortunately for the young critic, there weren't a lot of people online back then. It took a full year, but Schreiber eventually reached his first goal—300 page views a day. Not bad for a site that was updated infrequently and offered reviews that were only 100 words long.

The website's residence in the Twin Cities ended in 1999 when Schreiber realized that the only way he would give it his undivided attention was if he had no other choice. He sold his collection of rare records on eBay and used the $2,000 in proceeds to pack up, move to Chicago, and make the website his full-time job. In its new home, Pitchfork grew as an internet presence and a business. The site was up to 2,000 readers a day and constantly gaining new freelance writers. Content was updated daily and reviews were expanded to 500 words. With more freelancers came greater diversity, and soon the site was reviewing hip hop, dance, noise, and the occasional jazz record in addition to its nonstop coverage of indie rock. Schreiber continued reviewing new albums, while trying to raise the company funds himself—a conflict of interest he was well aware of at the time.

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