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.)

To be fair, the Tapes 'n Tapes whirlwind popularity wasn't entirely due to Pitchfork's review. In fact, all of the band's Austin shows had been booked before the review was even posted. The first whisperings that led to the band's blowout indie success came from mp3 blogs like Music for Robots, Gorilla vs. Bear, and Brooklyn Vegan. If Pitchfork critics are the tastemakers, these bloggers are lesser-known sometime-gatekeepers. The next big thing doesn't necessarily have to go through them before it reaches Schreiber's site, but it probably will.

In general, the success of music-related sites has left industry traditionalists nervous about the changes the internet has wrought in the rules of music marketing. After all the fuss over how downloadable music would destroy careers, it took people a while to realize that the newfound access could also have the opposite effect. Main case in point: Myspace.com's ability to connect musicians to an audience (and vice versa) was the major development that made community-building predecessor Friendster.com obsolete. For many young rock bands, Myspace has rendered professional publicists irrelevant. The new do-it-yourself PR requirements are simple: a few uploaded songs and the patience to spend hours at a keyboard, checking out kids' favorite bands and inviting the right demographic to the musician's circle of friends. If the strategy works, it only takes a few minutes of online listening for a stranger to become a fan. That's how Quietdrive, a Minneapolis band virtually unknown in the local scene, found almost 40,000 online supporters across the country and signed a deal with Sony BMG subsidiary Epic Records—despite a lack of radio play, press coverage, or endless touring. Musicians are now building massive fan bases before stepping foot in a new town. Even making a name among the local nightclubs is no longer necessary. Why should a group spend time and energy trying to climb from New Band Night to the First Avenue Mainroom if their fans aren't old enough to get into the bar?

The line between artist and businessman isn't the only one getting blurred. Fandom and hype machine are getting harder to separate all the time. Mention the "H word" to Schreiber and he recoils.

"I think hype is sort of disingenuous and dirty," he says. "It's marketing, publicity, payola. It's the money that a label puts behind their bands in attempts to break them to radio and press. A lot of publications are guilty of buying into that, but I think it's different from what we do. It's definitely true that we get really excited about a lot of new bands and that not all of those bands necessarily connect with all of our readers, but I don't mind that. If the alternative is to wait around and see what gets popular and only cover that, I would rather have the reputation that we have."

Enthusiasm is enthusiasm—but when backed by enough cash, it becomes hype anyway. Though Pitchfork is finally a viable business, "labor of love" seems to be a key phrase when it comes to similar ventures. Most bloggers aren't scouring the ether for new bands because it's their job; they do it because they want to. The rewards are free CDs and the occasional guest list spot for a show the writer would've gone to anyway.

Although a print publication has the potential to be more profitable, Schreiber says he has considered it but isn't up to the task. Even if he were able to tackle the project logistically, it's doubtful that readers would follow. Online media have bred a whole generation that regards amateur news sources just as highly as the ones they'd have to pay for.

"Rolling Stone is just fluff now, not much better than People," says Johnson. "With Lindsay Lohan on the cover, it's hard to take them seriously. A lot of our customers favor the British magazines—Mojo, Uncut, and Q."

Shortly before SXSW, the Plastic Constellations made it into the "Bands to Watch" issue of SPIN, a national magazine with a reported circulation of 500,000. The locals were another one of Pitchfork's "Best New Music" bands who saw a spike in popularity after the site awarded 2004's Mazatlan an 8.5. (The buzz cooled somewhat when the follow-up, Crusades, received a respectable, yet numerically damning, 7.8.)

Waiting for the Plastic Constellations to take the stage for their own SXSW set, I wonder if their SPIN citation will prove as big a draw as Tapes 'n Tapes's standing at Pitchfork. The turnout is good, although the place isn't sold out. Still, the crowd is remarkably similar to the one at the Tapes 'n Tapes gig. The audience members nod their heads appreciatively, seemingly unfamiliar with most of the music. But when the band plays the song that was a featured mp3 on Pitchfork, everyone knows the words.

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