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.)

"Selling ads was just a slog. The ads were dirt-cheap. It was almost like asking for donations," he says. "And these were [labels] whose records we were already reviewing. It was kind of odd that you'd be talking to someone about ad stuff and then it would switch to editorial. It just wouldn't feel right."

Eventually he hired an ad rep and rented out an office for the two of them. In the three years since, Schreiber's brainchild has grown to employ six full-time staffers including himself, not to mention two part-time reporters and a team of 50 freelance writers. That staff is preparing for their second annual two-day summer music festival in Chicago at the end of July. They're throwing around ideas about what their first book should include. But most impressive is the site itself. Pitchforkmedia.com gets 160,000 visitors a day and 1.3 million unique readers every month.

Pitchfork's success story is marred by the kind of animosities any zine that grew into a near-mass success would engender. If a million people read Hit It Or Quit It or Punk Planet, those publications would be the subject of just as much message-board trash talk. After all, music geeks are a subset of people who will happily debate the top five Norwegian pop records or female lap steel players of all time. They're a pugnacious bunch. Even so, the site sometimes seems to invite complaints. Much like zinesters, Pitchfork's chronically under-edited writers are prone to waxing nostalgic about how a band turned the world upside down during its formative years. And while some publications have rules against writers using the first person, at times it seems as though Pitchfork imposes the opposite mandate. Aside from the occasional reigning-in of the more extravagant writers, Schreiber gives the freelancers complete creative freedom.

"I trust the writers to their opinions and to their own style and presentation. The most important thing to me is they know what they're talking about and are insightful," he says. "The last thing that I would want to do is dumb it down. It's not dumb enough is not a valid argument. More and more, criticism is not about criticism; it's about making comparisons. If you like this band, you might like this. To me, that's not what criticism ever was."

Schreiber's defense is a valiant one, particularly in an era when publications everywhere are giving critics less space and readers less credit. But overly florid writing is only one criticism Pitchfork haters frequently lob. The writers also have a way of isolating indie rock as a world unto itself. Visit the site for the first time and you may be confused by some of the references. The review of Tapes 'n Tapes's The Loon noted the band's use of "CYHSY organ." (That's Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, for those of you with better things to do than troll the internet for buzz bands.) As someone who's familiar with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, I couldn't explain what the comparison means. Also, my split-second reading of the acronym still stumbles over Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young before I reach the right band.

Even more effective than the reviews are the ratings. Although Schreiber points out that "ultimately [the site is] publishing one person's opinion," many readers regard Pitchfork as an institution, one that has the power to bless or curse a newborn band. Should an album be marked with a low score, the humiliation is something akin to slipping on Jell-O in the school cafeteria and ending up wearing a hat made of mashed potatoes. A record store in Texas initially refused to carry Travis Morrison's Travistan after Pitchfork gave it a rare 0.0. Liz Phair faced similar ridicule following a double-ought for her self-titled release.

JD Johnson, an assistant manager at the Electric Fetus, says he sees the site's impact all the time. "A lot of customers mention it. I don't think there's a better site for reviews of indie music," says Johnson. "Two of the biggest [bands affected by the site] were Arcade Fire and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Especially Clap. Those guys pressed maybe 1,000 copies before Pitchfork reviewed them and created such a stir. They weren't on a label. Because of Pitchfork, they were able to sell CDs without having to share the money with a label."

The site has other ways of interfering with the general machinery of the music industry. As part of the race to be first, it often runs reviews of unreleased albums. Tapes 'n Tapes had self-released The Loon at the time it was reviewed but had no outlet for national distribution. Being stamped with the site's prestigious "Best New Music" tag and a rating of 8.3 left the band scrambling to fill online orders. "The day the review went up we saw a big spike in sales," says frontman Josh Grier. "I took the morning off from work so I could stay home and help with all of the additional activity."

While T 'n T were happy to make more trips to the post office, premature reviews are more troubling for overseas bands, who might not have a domestic release or U.S. tour until several months later. By the time U.S. stores saw copies of the Go! Team's Thunder Lightning Strike or Art Brut's Bang, Bang, Rock & Roll, the bands were practically passé in the minds of indie-philes who read about them on Pitchfork the previous year and downloaded the album. The time lapse between import and domestic releases can wreak havoc on a band's position on radio and record sales charts. But as Schreiber points out, this problem has more to do with the industry failing to keep up with the age of the internet than with overzealous writers wanting credit for breaking a band. "It's actually pretty sad that that process hasn't sped up to keep pace," he says. "For a U.K. band or a Swedish band or a Norwegian band to get a U.S. distributor, it's still a process that takes time. And it's sort of unfortunate that it happens like that."

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