The Pitchfork Effect
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.
"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."
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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