In late summer 2011, I was in Norway covering a music festival for NME. One night at a party in another writer’s hotel room, I got talking to an American guy called Zach Kelly. Zach, it turned out, wrote for Pitchfork. As a 22-year-old music journalism freak, I could only imagine this was how it must feel to meet a member of your favourite football team. He kindly let me pin him into a corner to probe him about life there – he had started as an intern at their Chicago office – and the kind of work he did. That would have been thrill enough, meeting someone from a publication I perceived as so untouchable it was hardly worth aspiring to. Shortly after I got back to the UK, I got an email from an editor there, Mark Richardson: Zach had recommended me, and would I like to review albums for them? NME said no. But Mark persisted, and a year later, Pitchfork asked me to become their first UK member of staff, an associate editor. I said yes.
I tell this story as it is one of hundreds like it: Pitchfork’s editors were extraordinarily committed to investing in new critical talent, the writers and editors who were the driving force in unearthing and chronicling the defining alternative acts of the 21st century, as the website that midwestern record-store employee Ryan Schreiber founded in 1996 evolved into an authoritative, professional outlet. Arguably not since the inky heyday of NME itself had a music publication developed such a distinct reputation, thanks in part to its famous decimal-point scoring system and early take-no-prisoners reviews. “Pitchfork” even became a byword for a certain kind of music and music fan: artisan before artisan culture took over everything; a little forbidding, cloistered; maybe you loved to hate it, but still clicked through half a dozen times a day.
The multimedia giant Condé Nast recognised that value when it bought the company in 2015, a moment that gave many pause. What were the ramifications of an independent publication that highlighted some pretty niche music being sold to a company of this scale? And why, given the site’s massive diversification of critics and music genres covered that decade – moving from its bread-and-butter indie rock to include pop and rap – was Condé’s chief digital officer Fred Santarpia proudly telling the New York Times that the acquisition brought “a very passionate audience of millennial males into our roster”?
Eight years later, Pitchfork has reached the inevitable fate of seemingly every new media company. On 17 January, Anna Wintour (global chief content officer for Condé, as well as editor of US Vogue) emailed staff to say that they were “evolving our Pitchfork team structure by bringing the team into the GQ organisation”, though as long-term employees tweeted their redundancies – including executive editor Amy Phillips after more than 18 years – it wasn’t entirely clear what “team” would be left to run a presumably strip-mined vertical on the GQ website. It is bleak on so many levels, first and foremost the job losses during a straitened time for media. Pitchfork was one of the last stable music outlets going – where else are the former staff, and the site’s hundreds of freelancers, meant to work now?
Incorporating Pitchfork into a men’s magazine also cements perceptions that music is a male leisure pursuit, and undermines the fact that it was women and non-binary writers – Lindsay Zoladz, Jenn Pelly, Carrie Battan, Amanda Petrusich, Sasha Geffen, Jill Mapes, Doreen St Félix, Hazel Cills; the fearless editing of Jessica Hopper and then the most recent editor-in-chief Puja Patel, to name but a handful – who transformed the website in the 2010s. It also suggests that music is just another facet of a consumer lifestyle, not a distinct art form that connects niche communities worthy of close reading, documentation and, when warranted, investigation. It was Pitchfork’s Marc Hogan who reported that Win Butler of Arcade Fire – a band entwined with the site’s rise to relevance – had been accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women (extramarital relationships that Butler says were consensual); Pitchfork that published writer Amy Zimmerman’s report into 10 women accusing Sun Kil Moon songwriter Mark Kozelek of sexual misconduct (Kozelek denies the allegations). I wonder whether GQ will invest resources into reports like this, to sit alongside e-commerce pieces on how “The Best Cordless Stick Vacuum Will Turn You Into a Clean Freak”, to take one current example from their culture news feed.
Pitchfork has many flaws – the dodgy reviews in the archives, more recent overweening and ahistorical coverage, a strong sense of its own gatekeeping – and it has many great competitors in the likes of Stereogum, Consequence of Sound, the Quietus, NPR Music, plus the recent blogging and newsletter resurgence. But as the biggest fish, its looming dissolution is comparable to HMV disappearing from the high street: without a leading example to coalesce around, define yourself against, fight about, the notion that specialist music journalism can viably exist at all starts to fade into the margins. (A plight we’ve already faced in the UK with the disappearance from shelves of NME and Q magazine, a brand that appears to have been recently sold and revived as a pitiable blog.)
Some have lamented Pitchfork’s poptimist shift over the past decade – where it once only reviewed Ryan Adams’ cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989, not the original, now pop is a key fixture – and you could argue that it is a less specific proposition than it was in its late-2000s heyday when it became synonymous with the likes of Arcade Fire and Grizzly Bear. But that shift represents the voracious reality of modern music consumption, and Pitchfork was the only music outlet dedicated to publishing two to four long-form reviews of new records every day, highlighting everything from the latest indie and rap records to fiercely niche work, and always introducing new writers to the fold. I can’t tell you whether “Hanoi conceptualist” Aprxel’s Tapetumlucidum<3 is worthy of the 7.0 it got last week, but it heartens me that it’s up there alongside reviews of Lou Reed’s reissued final, ambient album, Kali Uchis’ Orquídeas and Bob Dylan’s Desire, from their great Sunday Review series on classic albums missing from their archives.
I know from having written dozens of these reviews how much work goes into them: two editors, fact-checking, final reads – a meticulousness that can be the making of young writers, each edit imparting a lesson you carry with you. (Features editor Ryan Dombal’s careful assistance on my first long piece for the site, in 2012, pretty much taught me how to write profiles.) And much as musicians love to hate Pitchfork, a robust music media is pivotal for them, too: exposing their work to a wider audience, mythologising and storytelling in a way that leaves more of a lasting impression on listeners than marketing has ever managed – “bridging the gap between ‘this is good music’ and ‘this is a good artist’”, as Peter Robinson of Popjustice put it – and paying them the respect of a close and fair critical read, even if that assessment is negative. A fulsome Pitchfork review can suddenly vault an act to a larger audience – take Mike Powell’s review of Courtney Barnett’s 2013 single Avant Gardener, or Sasha Geffen’s review of MJ Lenderman’s Boat Songs in 2022, or anything by deep-in-the-weeds rap critic Alphonse Pierre – or shift the terms by which you’re seen, as with Jessica Hopper’s masterful review of Lana Del Rey’s 2015 album Honeymoon.
You might say: why do I need Pitchfork when I’m reading several thousand words on this in the Guardian? But specialist music publications can do much that the music sections of generalist title and newspapers cannot – just recently, Pitchfork surprised me by accepting a Sunday Review pitch on an astonishingly obscure album (it’s yet to run, but who knows if it will now), the kind of piece we couldn’t justify here as it has little cultural currency or news relevance. But in writing it, I got to contact the national library of the artist’s home country to ask them to dig out newspaper clippings from the 80s, and their original record label for any contemporaneous artefacts; to ferret around on obscure forums, excavating information tucked into dusty archives for a wider audience. There is value in this that doesn’t register with parent media companies fixated on the bottom line, which instead – as with Bandcamp’s recent woes – condemn platforms that don’t meet their shifting goalposts (remember “pivot to video”?) to the enshittification that is coming for the last good parts of the internet. Sure, we don’t know what Pitchfork x GQ will look like yet, but there’s a clear clash in values between an outlet that prioritises criticism and one that revolves around access to celebrities.
Even trying to assess the issue through Condé’s corporate lens strains logic. Pitchfork was one of its most agile, fast-moving brands; one Condé audience development editor tweeted that “by volume, Pitchfork has the highest daily site visitors of any of our titles … despite scant resourcing, esp from corporate.” Nimble publications like this can be canaries in the coalmine for parent companies to try out new ideas to receptive, youthful audiences that might then be transported to more sclerotic titles. Maybe it moved too fast for such stodgy leadership, embracing a far greater spread of representation that alienated Pitchfork’s perceived formative male audience, who over the site’s existence have moved from their 20s to their 40s perhaps without bringing in sufficient replenishers, thus eroding an easily defined marketing demographic. If that is what they think – about what, and who, music criticism is for – perhaps Condé should try being as adventurous with staking out new readerships and revenues as its misunderstood acquisition was at finding new voices, both behind the mic and the keyboard.