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23 January 2024

The Pitchfork years

The announcement that the music website will be folded into GQ signals the end of an era in music criticism and popular culture.

By Dorian Lynskey

The news that the music website Pitchfork will be folded into GQ by its owners Condé Nast, with the reported loss of most of its team, is a body blow to the world of music journalism. The decision, for which the reasons remain vague (the content chief at Condé Nast Anna Wintour said it came after a “careful evaluation of Pitchfork’s performance”), has ripped out the heart of online music criticism. The music-writing section of my CV is largely a cemetery of defunct magazines, but Pitchfork’s demise as an independent entity feels especially shocking – because it was supposed to be the future.

I remember when, in 2001, Q magazine first decided to take its website seriously. Print, I was told, was doomed sooner or later, and online journalism would be superior anyway. Clips! Links! Comments! For a few months I was somehow paid to review the bonus tracks on CD singles. Like later experiments, that investment did not last long because the real money was still in the print magazine. Pitchfork, however, was a digital native – the flagship of an armada of new websites and blogs that constituted a brief golden age for online music journalism.

Pitchfork was founded in 1996 by the Minneapolis teenager Ryan Schreiber and professionalised in the mid-2000s when it boosted a generation of so-called Pitchfork bands, from Arcade Fire and Bon Iver to Deerhunter and Grizzly Bear. In 2006, Pitchfork staged its first annual music festival. In 2013 it won a National Magazine Award for excellence in digital media. Two years later, the acquisition by Condé Nast gave it serious financial muscle, although the publisher’s announcement at the time that it hoped to bring Pitchfork’s “millennial males into our roster” was ominous.

While Pitchfork has also published profiles, essays and investigative reporting, its core mission has always been thoughtful long-form album reviews. Despite its reputation for snobbery and snark (an infamous 2006 “review” of the Australian rock band Jet consisted of a gif of a chimpanzee urinating in its own mouth), its real appeal lay in the sincerity and passion of its best pieces. It offered numerous young, talented writers paid work, a global platform and conscientious editing. Its Sunday Review series, reassessing older albums, boasts some of the finest music criticism of the past decade.

During the Noughties, Pitchfork was intertwined with the figure of the hipster: the internet-savvy, semi-ironic, postmodern cultural magpie who inspired considerable angst about the distinction between serious love of art and shallow clout-chasing. How long ago that seems. The efflorescence of online music journalism began to fade as far back as 2007. Late in that decade, excellent sites such as Stylus and Idolator were shut down or bastardised. Blogs waned as social media boomed. Platforms like eMusic and AOL Music invested in reviews for a while but then gave up. Often entire archives were junked. My CD single reviews are no great loss to posterity – but vast swathes of 21st-century music criticism are now literally unreadable. Every dead link on the reviews’ aggregator Metacritic tells a story of neglect.

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Legacy titles struggled, too. The digital versions of NME and Spin are pale shadows of their print predecessors. The brand of Q, once the UK’s biggest-selling music magazine, was recently sold off and relaunched as a skeletal news site. But Pitchfork sailed on. Like NME or Rolling Stone before it, it became synonymous with music journalism itself: loved and hated, resented and admired, essential.

The gutting of Pitchfork is not just a loss for writers and editors, but all music fans. Spotify’s algorithm can introduce you to new music but it can’t contextualise it or tell its stories. Replacing media “gatekeepers” with AI ones has not enriched the culture. There are new formats for music journalism – the YouTuber Anthony Fantano is perhaps the world’s most influential music critic, while Cole Cuchna’s podcast Dissect is a masterclass in analysis – but like any art form, popular music deserves a thriving critical culture in the written word. While some music websites survive, notably the defiantly left-field digital magazine, the Quietus, it is striking that the alleged dinosaurs of print, led in the UK by Mojo and Uncut, have outlasted most of their supposed successors.

Artists, too, will feel Pitchfork’s absence. Under editor Puja Patel, the site vastly expanded from its white, male indie-rock roots – in a 2010 list its favourite song of the 1990s was Pavement’s “Gold Soundz”; in the 2022 rerun it was Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy (Remix)” – but it continued to review niche albums that would be lucky to get 150 words in print. While thin-skinned stars, such as Lizzo, have summoned their fan armies to persecute the writers of less-than-glowing reviews, most artists still appreciate passionate, well-informed engagement with their work. I found Pitchfork’s decimal ratings system an absurdly precise affectation but the site’s honour of Best New Music could launch a career. Such journalism plays a vital role in building up the stars and headliners of the future by amplifying artists’ ideas and personalities and generating a wider conversation. Meanwhile, there are several one-shot magazines solely devoted to the billionaire Taylor Swift.

You could argue that music criticism, and music itself, are less culturally important in the age of streaming and social media. But Pitchfork’s problem seems to have been advertising, not readership. The puzzle of how to monetise online journalism has still not been solved. Buzzfeed and Vice, the new media stars that flourished while magazines and newspapers were decimated, have recently downsized, too. Only a handful of media behemoths, such as the New York Times, seem financially secure.

The crisis is even bigger than journalism – part of what Cory Doctorow calls the “enshittification” of the internet in pursuit of shareholder profits. Most websites are shallower and uglier than they were a decade ago; most platforms less functional. As laid-off Pitchfork veteran Marc Hogan wrote in Rolling Stone, “Perhaps Pitchfork matters today because its arc parallels that of the internet itself, from nerdy and amateurish to grown-up, worldly, and inclusive, to now gated off in a Babel of AI-age confusion.”

The promise implicit in tech’s philosophy of “move fast and break things” was that what was broken, or “disrupted”, would be replaced by something better. But like the proposition that the “long tail” would foster a more diverse culture, or social media would bring us together, or limitless free information would strengthen democracy, that turned out to be a devil’s bargain. Pitchfork’s fate is just one symptom of the failure of the glorious online future.

[See also: Stanley cups are not a feminist issue]

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