As the argument over the Pitchforkanization of music journalist's tastes trundles on in the Village Voice Pazz & Jop comment section, we spill some more Schlitz onto the floor of this debate (this actually helps).
It's no wonder music journalists and web entrepreneurs hate Pitchfork. In an era of woe-is-me music writers, record labels and publications, Pitchfork has not only survived, they've exploded. But don't kill the messenger. They didn't knock that many heads on their decade-and-a-half long ride to legitimacy, they just used strategies of old media to gain a foothold in the mainstream music industry.
As Editor-in-Chief Scott Plagenhoef says, Pitchfork is not the same site they were at the start of the decade. No shit. But if the road was long, it wasn't that windy.
At the beginning of indie v2.0, let's say 1995, at the height of terrible grunge, and Pitchfork's founding, Pitchfork was the new vanguard of unbridled criticism – both democratic in its nonchalance and anti-establishment in the very fact that it was web-only.
That reputation stuck for years. Perhaps you caught the youtube video of a monkey pissing in its own mouth as a review (or a personal favorite). This was always the site that seemed to represent the new rise of “indie” in the true sense of its growth outside of the corporate structures. Oh well.
Not to naively assert that Pitchfork is the next Rolling Stone, as people like to say. There was no coup. Rolling Stone didn't keel over and die. Their website is estimated to receive more than twice that of Pitchfork's. The idea that the internet “changed everything” forgets that the past five or ten years have been an unprecedented pocket of free exchange, and that the window's closing as fast as old media figures out how to adapt. And the more old media's enterprise adapts, the more it resembles Pitchfork's.
The monkey no longer pisses in the mouth of crappy music. With legitimacy (see: ABC's ongoing relationship with Pitchfork) comes increasing obligation to the task of tastemaking. With six best new music icons on the homepage, it takes at least a handful of “bests” every week to keep the regular visitor clicking. The trend-maker heaves the wheel of capital, and keeps the industry motors running. As Plagenhoef himself points out, they're “better A&R people than journalists.”
Some good ways to make that switch-over:
1) Pitchfork has reverted to mostly* covering music being worked by more expensive publicists and labels with more funds. The front page, big ticket items are routinely worked by the same publicists and labels. Five or ten years ago, many of these companies were upstarts in the same “indie” boat as Pitchfork. The relationship remains symbiotic.
2) When the news that Fader's marketing team would be selling ads for Pitchfork was made public, few outside the music industry noticed or cared. It doesn't take a conspiracy plot between the two rising companies for them to end up covering similar shit. This isn't because Fader has folded to Pitchfork's whim, or vice-versa, so much as they both have their fingers on the same cash-flow veins. Similarly, it's often the same artists that litter the top of Insound's sales charts.
3) What is there to the rumors (affirmed by P4K review writers) that they often raise the review numbers to “best new” levels to please certain people, be they big advertisers, publicists who get them big exclusives or friends? Rolling Stone used to have a credo for this, it was “Three stars means never having to say you're sorry.”
Can you blame them? After all, Impose has been around for most of this decade, covering–as the Village Voice so eloquently put it–“the Schlitz-sticky floors of local DIY-show culture,” and we can attest to its limits. They're only bringing you the information that sustains them. Just don't expect them to focus too closely on truly independent musicians. The last time they did, it nearly drove a young Nathan Williams to the brink of insanity.
Scarier is the notion that we're on the downswing of the indie-cycle that made Pitchfork famous. Zoom back to the death toll of indie v1.0, when Nirvana became an “overnight” success in the wake of a decade of that first wave of DIY bands toiling in obscurity while hair-metal ruled major airwaves.
Three words. Limp Bizkit reunion. Coincidence? Let's just hope so.
But really. Have we reached the end of indie v2.0?
Plagenhoef continues to defend his site as a source of “indie” music, but if these musicians (and Pitchfork itself) support major corporations via ads, festivals and the occasional plug for free shwag, is anything about them independent? As Adam Shore of the Daily Swarm pointed out, with fewer indie artists putting free music on the Web, 2010 might be the year musicians turn on the fans. Increasing major label and corporate control of the way digital music is shared has helped bring to a halt the creative freedoms we've enjoyed for the last five years–ending what might be one of the most important musical eras of any generation.
The real irony is that while the music journalism on today's most influential “indie” website declines, it's needed more than ever. It's time for music journalists and critics to stop crying foul and go back to uncovering all that is great and unheralded. We can't expect Pitchfork to fight the good fight anymore, and as Mr. Plagenhoef has pointed out, that's no longer their role.
*Mostly. Any given day yields relative obscurities. Tuesday, February 2 saw a mild review of Boston improv group Nmperign. If you go back to a web archive of their pages from seven years ago, you might feel like you haven't gone anywhere at all: the same bands seem to dot the homepage: Flaming Lips, Liars, The Thermals, Okkervil River. But seven years ago, these were the bands that formed the foundation of what we like to call “mainstream indie” music, the acts that “indie” media cultivated in the early 00s.