On the Implosion of Pitchfork

If your pastime is crashing nerdy little music websites, then you’ve probably caught wind about the bloodletting at the indie rock-centric review site Pitchfork this week, and how it’s being folded into GQ by parent company Condé Nast. Scores of highly-regarded music writers and editors have lost their jobs, and the world of music has lost one of the last pure and popular review sites in existence.

Even if Pitchfork wasn’t your thing and you thought it was staffed by a bunch of snobbish pricks reviewing snobbish indie rock, this development still doesn’t portend well for professional music journalism. All the pronouncements about how this is a catastrophe by others in music media are fair and warranted. The downfall of Pitchfork is both monumental in the near term, and foreboding for music criticism and journalism moving forward.

How this happened is a classic case of late stage American Capitalism. Pitchfork was a revered and profitable website. It just wasn’t profitable enough, and the site’s corporate overlords could make more money by downsizing it and moving on. Started in 1996 by Ryan Schreiber, the site came to be known for its daily album reviews with decimal point grades. It also conducted interviews and posted other music coverage, and ventured from indie rock into pop, hip-hop, and the occasional country album.

Then the inevitable sale to a bigger entity happened in 2015, with Condé Nast taking over amid promises that nothing would change, but having a bigger company behind the publication would just backstop and bolster the business. Ryan Schreiber stayed with the company until 2019, and the Pitchfork offices relocated to One World Trade Center in New York with the other Condé Nast media properties.

But as we have seen happen over and over again, the corporate overloads got tired of their little indie rock toy, and now have tossed it aside, and the community it created with it. It’s as achingly predictable as what happened when Bandcamp sold to Epic Games. It came with the perfunctory assurances that nothing would change. Then everything did when corporate downsizing saw the razing of 58 people specifically from Bandcamp’s editorial staff.

Also, the fact that whatever is left of Pitchfork will be folded into GQ is just about the perfect twist of irony. Where Pitchfork is for under-dressed vegans enjoying shoegaze, GQ is for the coiffed power elite.

Pitchfork was one of the final remaining places on the internet where music writers were honest about their opinions as opposed to the sycophantic “journalists” composing subservient puff pieces at the behest of powerful publicists and labels so writers with inferiority complexes and their publications could curry favor and earn clout in the industry.

Take the recent feature of Jason Isbell in GQ. “We find a corner table and order lunch,” the article starts off. “Sporting a sharp denim jacket and brand new teeth, 44-year-old Jason Isbell looks Hollywood enough for where we are—the restaurant at the Chateau Marmont…”

It’s not that there isn’t any good information or insight that can be gleaned from the GQ article. It’s that whenever you see these formulaic slice of life openings to articles, you know it’s more about feting the performer as opposed to ferreting out the truth. There isn’t any scrutiny or even objectivity in the interaction. Good journalism isn’t just unafraid of being critical, if necessary it’s compelled to be adversarial with the subjects it covers.

A puff piece for Sierra Ferrell recently in Rolling Stone is another excellent example. It starts, “Sierra Ferrell is standing in the middle of a vintage store in East Nashville, twirling a pair of leather Seventies-era shoes in one hand with a stack of jackets in the other. ‘Loafers!’ she proclaims…”

Another recent feature in Rolling Stone featuring Chris Stapleton is a straight up advertisement for his new “Traveller Whiskey,” blurring the lines even more between ads and objective content—something Rolling Stone has a dubious history with. Speaking of corporate control, both Rolling Stone and Billboard—the two biggest music media organizations—are owned by Penske Media, which also owns Variety, Deadline, The Hollywood Reporter, and half a dozen other media properties.

Now instead of those sometimes harsh but fiercely honest reviews that would turn up in Pitchfork to keep performers honest and grounded, we’re get exclusive photo shoots and soft ball questions intended to make the subjects of music features look superior to their fans and the rest of the public, if not outright ads for their brands.

Producer and composer Dan Le Sac said it best at the Pitchfork news. “Pitchfork getting gutted is a net negative for musicians everywhere. And I say that as the proud owner of (potentially) the lowest score on the site. Whether you agree with a reviewer or not, music needs more journalism, not less.”

Dan Le Sac once received a dreadful 0.2 (out of 10.0) score from Pitchfork. What a good sport. Saving Country Music regularly receives scathing rebukes from fans and artists for less than stellar, but otherwise positive reviews much better than a 0.2. But reviewing music is not a popularity contest. It’s about sharing honest opinions, which is a healthy practice in the music marketplace, however treacherous.

It’s not just the downsizing at Pitchfork and even Bandcamp that has everyone troubled in music media though. It’s all feeding into a deeper music media downsizing trend affecting the entire industry. NPR laid of music staff in 2023, as did Rolling Stone and Townsquare Media, which owns Taste of Country and The Boot. And that’s just the beginning.

As music writer Otto Van Biz Markie retweeted upon the Pitchfork news, “Future of music journalism is tiktok & YouTube accounts from glorified fans masquerading as journalists to obtain clout to sell branded merchandise to the fans of the artists they cover – while hoping that the artists share it on their own IG so they can pay their rent. Fantastic.”

But honestly, that feels like a more rosy prospectus than the reality of things at this point. Right now, the new avenue for “payola” in music is artists, labels, and their management directly paying companies and influencers on Tik-Tok to get songs trending on the platform, which ultimately results in the goosing of streams on tracks. And this is not just the domain of major label superstars. Many of your favorite independent artists are paying for these services in an unregulated and underhanded way that is fooling the public into thinking the popularity of certain tracks is organic.

Meanwhile, the only music outlets that are thriving are ones like Whiskey Riff, which include merch as a portion of their business, which run the risk of taking away merch dollars from the artists and bands these entities cover. Now, many websites and social media accounts are trying to launch lifestyle brands while using music and a media arm as the excuse for people to pay attention to them.

Whiskey Riff recently sold a stake of the company to Ryman Hospitality—the same company that owns the Grand Ole Opry and many real estate properties. According to reports, it’s only a minority stake so Ryman Hospitality probably couldn’t shutter the site suddenly, but inevitably this corporate ownership affects the future.

Whiskey Riff has also been covering more sports and pop lifestyle topics, because country music will only earn you so many clicks. Meanwhile, Sports Illustrated just laid off all of its staff as brands like Barstool Sports thrive.

The buzzy is replacing the substantive. Media organizations that started on the internet like Pitchfork are now dying, as are traditional magazines and local newspapers. Ironically, legacy media brands like the big network TV and cable affiliates (NBC, CNN, etc.) trundle on including with online portals, despite lagging viewers and dwindling credibility. But what they have to their benefit is traditional commercial advertisement models that were insulated from 2023’s “techsession” that set all of these layoffs and shut downs in motion.

When online advertisers pulled back their budgets, it exposed the thinness in the margins for some of these companies, and how a bad quarter or two is all it takes to take them down, especially when they’re owned by corporations who care about one thing and one thing only: the bottom dollar. How “cool” a website or magazine is, or how important it might be to a scene or community is irrelevant.

But where it’s easy to complain about all of this, it’s hard for many in music journalism and journalism at large to face the reality that things are changing, and it’s imperative music journalists and outlets change with these trends if they wish to survive. If social media and YouTube is where consumers are going, journalists would be smart to pay more attention to them. The telegram was replaced by the telephone, which was replaced by the smartphone. Feeling sentimental or nostalgic will get you nowhere if you allow yourself to become obsolete. And if you got into music journalism for the money, the joke’s on you.

With AI rapidly being tooled to replace writing jobs and corporations looking to bring costs under control, it’s going to be up to real journalists to double down on doing what AI and apparel-based journalism can’t do, which is digging deeper beneath the surface, getting information directly from sources as opposed to from publicity copy or other outlets, doing in-depth investigations about important topics, taking chances, engaging in nuance, sharing heterodox opinions as opposed to just pandering to constituencies, and being willing to challenge readers and the status quo.

But what is a misnomer is that music criticism just doesn’t matter anymore—that consumers can stream what they want now, and don’t need writers, journalists, and critics to help curate their musical experiences. Sure, it’s never been easier for consumers to sample music and choose for themselves if it fits their tastes. But there has also never been more choices in music, resulting in a saturated market that screams for music sherpas to help show listeners the way.

It’s also important to say in this moment that music reviews need to be supported. Some people just want to know music reviews are out there. They want to know there are websites like Pitchfork posting reviews of independent artists. They don’t want to read them, but they like the idea of them. Now they’re mad that they’ve gone away, but often did little to keep them there. Let’s not gloss over the economic realities behind this Pitchfork decision, and how it portends for the future.

Pitchfork wasn’t perfect. They were one of a host of websites that falsely claimed it was a Saving Country Music article that stimulated Lil Nas X getting kicked off the country charts. Pitchfork also falsely attacked country artist Nate Barnes solely along the lines of being white when he in fact was biracial. Like so many national publications, Pitchfork never paid someone familiar with the country and roots space to be their in-house expert, and instead put pop, rock, or hip-hop writers on country stories resulting in poor or false information.

What Pitchfork did right is they often gave opportunities to artists that weren’t on big labels, that weren’t on big Spotify playlists, or that didn’t have high priced publicists. An artist may have received no other attention for their work but a Pitchfork review. They may have even received a negative review like producer and composer Dan Le Sac’s 0.2 grade. But at least it let’s the artist know that someone is paying attention, and listening. Sometimes that’s the most valuable thing to an artist.

And if they’re a true artist, they value criticism. Because ever since there’s been art, there’s been artistic criticism. And though some will question its value in the streaming age, many find the traditional album review invaluable as the mechanism for discovering their next favorite artist. That’s why the implosion of Pitchfork hurts so many people so much. It’s not because they always agreed with whatever Pitchfork said, or scored. It’s because that’s how they found so much of the music that enriches their lives, and now it’s gone.

– – – – –

This story has been updated to reflect that Whiskey Riff did not start as a merch company.

© 2023 Saving Country Music