The Thinking Man's Take On: Pitchfork Media

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There has been a lot said, both positive and negative, about the influence of PitchforkMedia.com on music.Pitchfork proponents hail it as a one-stop-shop for trustworthy opinions on music that don’t pander to the masses.A brain-trust of witty, insightful writers combine to make a whole lot of music available to the masses.A favorable review from the King of Hipster Media can vault an unknown band into the spotlight (see: Broken Social Scene, Arcade Fire, Titus Andronicus), giving opportunities to bands without huge advertising budgets, savvy managers, or more than a few great tracks.Pitchfork wades through the crap so you don’t have to, finding the diamonds in the roughest of the rough.Through good writing and exhaustive coverage, Pitchfork has metamorphosed from a twinkle in Ryan Schreiber’s eye into the biggest website in indie music, getting almost a quarter of a million hits per day.

The detractors are eager to contest, however, and they have some good ground to stand on.Pitchfork relies on individual reviewers, they argue, whose opinion often carries a gargantuan weight.A dismissal from the ‘fork means months of writing and recording practically down the drain, hindering careers just as often (or more) than it helps those small-time artists.Equally, Pitchfork lives to create buzz, latching onto the newest trend in indie music to bring it to the forefront.When Justin Timberlake came out with FutureSex/Lovesounds in 2006, Pitchfork hyped it up and it was all of a sudden cool to like pop again.In 2007, Feist and Regina Spektor got good reviews and it was suddenly the Year of the Female Vocalist.Fleet Foxes and Beach House hit in 2008, and lo-fi choral groups were back in style.And Pitchfork was there through it all.Critics are quick to point out that being in Pitchfork’s buzz-genre of the moment is a definite point (literally, 1 point out of ten sometimes) in your favor.

In perhaps the best overall summary of Pitchfork, the band The Airborne Toxic Event took umbrage with the site’s review in the form of a public letter.Citing their own respect – nay, love – for Pitchfork, they also say, “We love indie rock and we know full well that Pitchfork doesn’t so much critique bands as critique a band’s ability to match a certain indie rock aesthetic.”While that is certainly a simplification, it’s a viewpoint that isn’t rare.

But I’m getting side-tracked.I didn’t come here to discuss whether Pitchfork is Good, Bad, or Indifferent – the answer to all of those is a resounding “Maybe”.Instead, I wanted to share a realization I had.

Pitchfork Media is the Google of music.

Right?Not the HypeM/elbo.ws, “search for the tracks you want to find” Google Doppelganger.But in its role, growth, structure, etc.Let’s break it down.

 

Pitchfork was started by one dude in 1995 as “TurnTable”,a monthly dispatch of review and interviews.It soon grew, bolstered by popularity, one would presume, and became “Pitchfork“ in 1996.Coincidentally, 1996 is the same year that “BackRub” was started by a couple dudes.The same “BackRub” that would grow, bolstered by popularity, one would presume, and become “Google” in 1997.

 

Over the next few years, Pitchfork and Google grew, to the extent that they became the de facto standard.They filtered through the extraneous junk to bring you the information you were interested in, and they were both damn good at it.They became the talk of the town, embracing their own subcultures – Hipsters and Nerds respectively.People started to Google things, and artists began to talk about the Pitchfork Effect.

 

Both Pitchfork and Google are obsessed with The Cool.Not the Lupe album - although, P4k did give it an 8.1 - but the idea of what is cool.At Google it’s High-Tech, and at Pitchfork it’s lo-fi.Google obsesses over the newest, most original services (blogger, orkut, jotspot, youtube), Pitchfork obsesses over the newest, most original music.Pitchfork embodies hipsters, Google embodies hip?Sure, we’ll go with that.Suffice it to say that they’re both concerned with image, sometimes to the point of valuing style over substance.

 

They both make their money almost entirely off of ads, using content to create cash.

 

Both have encountered criticism simply due to size, echoing concerns that the sites have become too big to be good.Google is too controlling, people argue, and Pitchfork too single minded.From servile to hegemonic in a decade, and they’re both still expanding.Google bought YouTube in 2006, Pitchfork quickly followed suit in 2008 with Pitchfork.tv.Google hosts loads of famous artists on their Mountain View Campus, while Pitchfork started P4k Festival in 2k6, and began co-curating ATP in 2007.What’s next?PMail?Googcast?Pitchmaps?NOTE TO PITCHFORK:Please make PCal.You have all the CD release dates, TV dates, and Tour information. Please put them together into a calendar organizable by city. Do it for the kids.

 

The Google/Pitchfork parallel is an interesting one to look at, particularly looking forward to the future.Google has continued to grow, exponentially, creeping into more and more parts of peoples’ lives – you might use its browser to load its photo application to store the pictures that a friend e-mailed you in their mail program.On their phone.Google sprawl has become a given, and it has happened seemingly seamlessly.Similarly, Pitchfork has set its sights on being more than a simple music site – creating original video content, organizing annual festivals, and publishing books.Where will Pitchfork go next?What will happen if Pitchfork is hit with an indie-backlash and it becomes the music news/reviews source for the masses, going against the very principles it was founded on?Has that already happened?

 

It’s always fascinating to watch a small idea grow while struggling to maintain its personality and core values.Google has done it perhaps better than any company ever, growing from 2 nerds to over 4,000 in 10 years, and making billions of dollars in the process.Pitchfork is Google’s musically inclined cousin, and is at a decision-point, deciding where and when to make the next leap.Publishing is one place, for sure, but what’s next?Do books become albums, with the Pitchfork Label one of the most prestigious in the industry?Does Pitchfork.tv become an actual real live cable channel to fill the void left by MTV’s lack of actual music programming?Does Pitchfork merge with another music service (HypeMachine?) to offer a more cohesive music experience? Does Pitchfork Radio launch on XM?What about Pitchfork social media (myspace without the Toms and Tilas)?

Whatever the course may be, it’s probably going to be fresh and it’s probably going to be cool.And you can pretty much guarantee that yuppies and hipsters everywhere will be talking about it at the watercooler/mom’s basement on Monday, unimpressed/over it by Tuesday, and still checking it/still checking it on Friday.Right after they check their Gmail.

Chris Barth is a guest-blogger here at Pretty Much Amazing.You can read his daily entries at his blog, The Stu Reid Experiment.

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