Pitchfork Web site makes or breaks indie music bands

Tessa Pelias

Tessa Pelias

By Fred Koschmann

It’s not a stretch to say that Pitchfork is the most influential music magazine. Independently run on the Web, it’s not well known beyond its own readers.

“The Pitchfork readership is huge,” said Kyle Gorman, a former music editor at the Buzz, “but it is largely a college kid audience. One of the dangers of Pitchfork is that there’s such thing as a Pitchfork sound – a little bit of heartbreak; some edgy, Stooges-like guitar; and bad vocals.”

Started in Minneapolis in 1995 by then 19-year-old Ryan Schreiber, Pitchfork has grown into a widely read Web site (www.pitchforkmedia.com), with traffic that exceeds one million visits per month. Now based in Chicago, the Web site is often cited as having started the careers of numerous successful indie groups, such as The Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene and Interpol.

“We don’t need a face to sell magazines on the newsstand,” said Scott Plagenhoef, Pitchfork’s managing editor. “We can skip artists we don’t care about, even if they’re big, and we can give the same placement to emerging artists as to established ones.”

Even if they write to a niche, it’s a massive niche and one that matters greatly in the music business. It’s a teeming market with engaged, techno-savvy consumers and countless musicians and groups on the verge of either success or oblivion. Bands come and go at a dizzying pace, and these days Pitchfork has a giant hand in the process.

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    “I can’t think of anything more valuable than a Pitchfork review,” Gorman said. “Somebody like Rolling Stone isn’t capable of making a band anymore. They just write about bands that have already made it.”

    Parasol Records, the operator of multiple record labels and a store in Urbana, witnesses Pitchfork’s selling power daily. Jim Kelly, a publicist for the Urbana-based record company, said the records that sell well unmistakably coincide with what has been reviewed in Pitchfork that week. It has prompted Parasol to advertise constantly on the site and rejoice the day that one of their label’s artists breaks the Pitchfork “cool factor,” as Kelly calls it.

    While Pitchfork is funded by advertisement, no relationship exists between what’s advertised and what’s reviewed.

    “(The band) Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is the best example of how powerful a great review in Pitchfork can make a band,” Hubbard said. “They took an unsigned, no-name band, gave them an amazing review, and the next thing you know, the band is selling $15,000 of their record out of their bedroom every week. It’s crazy.”

    In a New York Times review, Times pop music critic Kelefa Sanneh is also quick to note that Pitchfork can turn a “relatively unknown band” into a “brand-name.”

    According to the Chicago Tribune, Pitchfork’s Intonation Music Fest drew more than 30,000 and deemed it “one of the biggest musical success stories of last summer.” The festival was advertised only on the Web site and word spread from there. Its success was a clear and outward display of their new power.

    Seth Fein, who promotes concerts and festivals in the C-U area and runs the Urbana Booking Company, said he took particular notice to Pitchfork’s ability to spread hype, almost entirely by word-of-mouth.

    “If it’s hot, you don’t need to put up a poster, play it on the radio or take out an ad because the word is out,” he said. “As a promoter, I was incredibly impressed.”

    But The New York Times was more reluctant to offer such glowing reviews. In his review, Sanneh wrote that Pitchfork compared him to a dog that “might need to be put down.” Publicly shunning one of the Times’ main pop-music critics could easily be seen as a declaration that mainstream media is out of touch, and Sanneh, while seeming eager to fight back, kept quiet for the most part. The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and other mainstream media outlets, after all, constantly look to Pitchfork for an insider’s glance at the latest in music. When referring to a new group or concert, The New York Times often couples the name with whether Pitchfork rated them highly or not.

    “We’re part of a movement toward democratizing the music industry, decentralizing and putting buzz-making power in the hands of listeners rather than A&R; people,” said Plagenhoef.

    Pitchfork is clearly positioning itself against a good deal of the established music industry – the record companies whose interest in releasing music has only to do with profits.

    But the tension works both ways: The mainstream media might depend on Pitchfork in some ways, but Pitchfork can certainly still be ignored by parts of the greater music community, which those working at the Web site are well aware of.

    “We’re still very much on the outside of the music industry,” Plagenhoef said. “Both because we’re located in Chicago, away from NYC hype, and because we have little contact with the industry itself.”

    Sanneh knows this is his trump card. His review of Intonation shows it.

    “Let’s not get too carried away with the idea of Pitchfork as a launching pad,” he wrote. “(At Intonation), the stages were filled with bands that are already about as popular as they will ever be.”

    And if The New York Times or the Chicago Tribune feels threatened by Pitchfork, the Chicago Web site has to be experiencing a similar feeling. Independent mp3 blogs, such as Popmatters.com and Stereogum.com, are becoming increasingly well known. The mp3 blog could potentially unseat Pitchfork, and the increased name-recognition for these sites would suggest it’s possible.

    In other words, Pitchfork’s success is due in part to being less professional than other media outlets. Much has been made of the original Pitchfork staff’s lack of experience and qualification, but it ultimately may be one of the reasons it did and does so well. By getting away from that, they’re risking losing the go-to status that they enjoy now.

    Recent moves, though, hint at how Pitchfork intends to deal with the problem, and there’s no indication that the music site will let itself be outdone. Plagenhoef said Pitchforkfinally experienced significant financial success two years ago, and since then, they’ve been steadily hiring professional, full-time critics. They recently announced that the music festival will return this summer with a confident new name, Pitchfork Music Fest. The company could easily incorporate the style and content of the mp3 blogs, and by some accounts it has been. And most importantly, recent changes on the Web site indicate that it is making moves to broaden its audience, to move out of a niche market and into an “everything market,” as Gorman puts it.

    “They’re trying to be more credible,” he said. “They’re not just sticking to certain genres, and they’re also trying to transfer into humor, going from snarky reviews to humorous ones. So it’s less edgy than it used to be.”

    These changes, though subtle, would suggest that Pitchfork no longer feels as if it has to strive so hard to get anyone’s attention. A practice that has seen less and less on the Web site, for example, is giving an album a zero out of 10, which the critics always knew would turn heads.

    “Will they still be around 10 years from now?” Kelly said. “I have no idea. But I bet if you asked them five years ago, they’d be just as surprised as anyone that they have as much traffic as they do today.”