Last month, Condé Nast – the American media company that owns Vogue, The New Yorker and a swath of other titles – announced it would be placing the long-revered indie music criticism website Pitchfork under the banner of GQ. At the same time, most of the site’s staff, including editor-in-chief Puja Patel, were laid off.
It’s unclear what this announcement means for the site’s future: whether Pitchfork will exist within GQ itself or if the brand is simply being kept alive in order to maintain Pitchfork Music Festival, an acclaimed – and likely lucrative – enterprise that takes place in Chicago, London, Paris, Berlin and Mexico City. Either way, the site’s gutting represents a watershed moment for music criticism – and criticism in general – and the indie music industry.
In America, indie music depends on Pitchfork for news and breaking new artists. Founded in 1996, it quickly grew into one of the most influential and significant outlets for music criticism in the world, known for its 101-point rating system (0.0-10.0) and its pithy pans of otherwise-acclaimed records. Essentially an online zine in its early years – and rife with patchy, occasionally outright offensive writing amid transcendent critique – Pitchfork was an esteemed title by the mid-2000s, with its early praise for artists such as Arcade Fire and Bon Iver translating into huge success.
When the site was sold to Condé Nast in 2015 – for an undisclosed sum many in the media industry estimated to be in the tens of millions of dollars – it rankled longtime readers, who valued the site’s lack of outside investors. But it made sense culturally: Pitchfork was to its Gen X and Millennial audience what Rolling Stone and NME had been in the latter decades of the 20th century, and had forged an uncanny ability to define and shape indie music culture.
I started reading Pitchfork when I was a teenager, in the early 2010s. Its incisive, in-depth criticism and wide-ranging purview introduced me to a lot of incredible underground music that otherwise would have been totally inaccessible. The work of writers such as Lindsay Zoladz and Corban Goble – which seemed simultaneously erudite and conversational, always thoroughly researched and laden with references I didn’t understand but dutifully read up on – was fascinating and inspiring, and even when an album didn’t quite connect, the writing almost always did. It was because of this kind of writing – which existed as standalone work but also influenced and redefined culture for its readers – that I decided criticism was something I wanted to pursue.
I started writing for Pitchfork in 2017, when I was 19. That its editors were willing to take a shot on a relatively untested writer from Australia was a reflection of its commitment to writing lengthy reviews about totally new bands that didn’t simply regurgitate PR talking points, and I think the site’s editors have only become better at recruiting new talent. (I’ve written regularly for the site, as well as a handful of other Condé Nast titles, in the years since.) At that point, many of the site’s older readers were already claiming Pitchfork was past its prime. Its purview had shifted to include more hip-hop, electronic music and pop, and although it still covered many experimental and underground records each week, the decision to cover artists such as Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj scanned to some as sacrilegious.
It’s undeniable that Pitchfork’s scores seem to matter less than they did in 2009 – although artists still fume when their scores are low and a coveted Best New Music designation remains some of the best press an indie band could garner – but the site continues as a valuable entity in music culture. The perception that the site’s editors only care about covering pop music is totally false: reviews of experimental records by artists such as Not Waving, Cong Josie and Hildegard have been as enthusiastically received as most pop reviews. I still discover a lot of artists who don’t have managers, labels or publicists via Pitchfork.
Pitchfork’s inclusion of mainstream records as well as music perceived as “serious” was in fact prescient, reflecting the dissolving barriers between pop and indie music, and is in tune with a younger generation of readers who care as much about underground music as they do pop. It changed the tone of the site, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing: Pitchfork has maintained relevance for nearly 30 years largely because its staff were willing to shift the site’s purview and shed the occasionally preachy tone of its early work.
I doubt this shift in the site’s culture did much to diminish its importance in the minds of readers. Writing unfavourably about an artist for Pitchfork can still incur what feels like the ire of the entire internet. When I write negative reviews of pop records, my Instagram DMs and comments are filled with angry messages from fans. A few years ago I wrote a lukewarm review of Draw Down the Moon, an album by a post-emo band named Foxing. Within hours of the review going up, the band’s fan base was having a collective meltdown, with hundreds and hundreds of tweets posted about my and Pitchfork’s perceived biases and the “inaccuracies” of my critiques. The band chimed in with a handful of pithy tweets, and their manager angrily suggested all music criticism sites needed to be shut down.
A lot of writers feel this kind of behaviour, whether from pop stars or underground fan bases, is cruel and should be stamped out. I’ve learnt, perhaps masochistically, to enjoy it or at least to appreciate it for what it is: an angry, deeply ironic symbol of the continued relevance that many people claim the site no longer possesses.
Either way, whether or not you feel Pitchfork has lost its touch in recent years is irrelevant. It remains the last major outlet that dedicates significant space to music criticism. Its output is about 20 record reviews a week, in a time when both specialty sites and major papers have scaled their space for criticism way, way back.
The diminishment of long-form critical writing is especially apparent in Australia: major sites and publications largely publish capsule reviews across all art forms and the work that does get reviewed tends to be the most palatable or mainstream. When publicity budgets dominate critical coverage, it’s a problem.
The argument goes that, in an age of infinite choice, consumers no longer need reviews guiding them to superlative art because they can dip a finger into anything they want. Think about that for a second and you’ll realise how illogical it is: when the entirety of music history is available at a single click, it becomes too easy to return exclusively to what you already know. A wider range of informed criticism is a way to sift through the overwhelm.
Add in the fact streaming services across music, television and film have commercial imperatives – that is, they’re incentivised by shareholders to guide users towards content that will keep them using a streaming service for longer, rather than art that may be challenging or stimulating – and a lack of criticism becomes borderline catastrophic: another nail in the coffin of an artistically diverse future. A robust critical landscape alone can’t fix this problem, but it can theoretically act as a small shelter from it, open to anyone who yearns for less homogeneity and mass-produced garbage.
Pitchfork has its blind spots – I’ve always been frustrated by the lack of great Australian records in its reviews section, something I’ve actively tried to change. But I still think it’s valuable to have an online publication that’s willing to cover the blockbuster new album by The Smile, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood, and an ambient album inspired by vintage gay pornography and a shitty new rap compilation and an album of pop-leaning compositions by the Danish viola player Astrid Sonne – as Pitchfork has done in the past few days alone. I’m hoping the site won’t go dark, though it may, given how quickly shuttered outlets seem to get wiped off the face of the earth. But until it does, I’ll keep relishing its heaving archives – discovering decades’ worth of brilliant, weird, uncategorisable music as I do.
FESTIVAL Perth Festival
Venues throughout Whadjuk-Noongar Country, February 9–March 3
INSTALLATION Marungka Tjalatjunu (Dipped in Black)
Footscray Arts Centre, Naarm/Melbourne, until May 26
OPERA The Magic Flute
Sydney Opera House, Gadigal Country, until March 16
MULTIMEDIA All the best, from Martin Edge
Pine Rivers Art Gallery, Kabi Kabi, Jinibara and Turrbal Country/Strathpine, until March 16
Art Gallery of South Australia, Kaurna Yarta/Adelaide, ongoing
VISUAL ART Rauschenberg & Johns: Significant Others
Museum of Art and Culture yapang, Lake Macquarie, until February 4
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 3, 2024 as "Critical hit".
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