The Pitchfork Effect

Pitchforkmedia.com has become the main arbiter of taste among independent music fans, a distinction once claimed by zines, college radio and mainstream music mags that risked advertising dollars by taking chances on unknown bands. The news-and-reviews site has found its niche in catering to listmakers, MP3 traders and kids who are determined to love and leave a band before you've ever even heard of it. Pitchfork has plenty of faults — impenetrable writing, factual gaffes made by first-time critics — but they haven't kept it from turning the music industry's standard operating procedure on its head.

Like some of the bands it would later cover, Pitchfork began as the project of a self-admitted slacker from the Twin Cities suburbs. Nineteen-year-old Ryan Schreiber was living with his parents and occasionally working behind the counter at a local record store. He had no plans for the future, no ambitions for a career.

But what Schreiber had was a passion for music and an appetite for magazines that catered to his interests. A friend introduced him to the not-yet-popular Internet, and the record-store clerk recognized the potential for an underground music Web site.

"I wanted there to be a resource on the Web that didn't exist at the time. Back in the day, if you searched for Fugazi, you'd get virtually zero results," says Schreiber by phone from his Chicago office.

He launched his own site in late 1995 and soon posted his very first critique: a review of the Amps' Pacer, which he now remembers with embarrassment. "When I started this, I had no previous publishing or writing experience," he says. "I was just this kid with opinions, and writing was probably not really my forte. But that was the avenue that made the most sense for me at the time. I struggled for a long time in the early years in terms of writing anything that most people would actually want to read."

Schreiber eventually sold his collection of rare records on eBay and used the $2,000 in proceeds to pack up, move to Chicago and make the site his full-time job in 1999. In its new home, Pitchfork grew as an Internet presence and a business. The site was up to 2,000 readers a day and constantly gaining new freelance writers. Content was updated daily and reviews were expanded to 500 words. With more freelancers came greater diversity; soon the site was reviewing hip-hop, dance, noise and the occasional jazz record in addition to its nonstop coverage of indie rock.

Schreiber's brainchild has grown to employ six full-time staffers including himself, not to mention two part-time reporters and a team of fifty freelance writers. That staff is preparing for their second annual two-day summer music festival in Chicago at the end of July. They're throwing around ideas about what their first book should include. But most impressive is the site itself: Pitchforkmedia.com gets 160,000 visitors a day and 1.3 million unique readers every month.

Pitchfork's success story is marred by the kind of animosities any zine that grew into a near-mass success would engender. And much like zinesters, Pitchfork's chronically under-edited writers are prone to waxing nostalgic about how a band turned the world upside down during its formative years. While some publications have rules against writers using the first person, at times it seems as though Pitchfork imposes the opposite mandate. Aside from the occasional reigning-in of the more extravagant writers, Schreiber gives the freelancers complete creative freedom.

"I trust the writers to their opinions and to their own style and presentation. The most important thing to me is they know what they're talking about and are insightful," he says. "The last thing that I would want to do is dumb it down. It's not dumb enough is not a valid argument. More and more, criticism is not about criticism; it's about making comparisons. If you like this band, you might like this. To me, that's not what criticism ever was."

Schreiber's defense is a valiant one, particularly in an era when publications everywhere are giving critics less space and readers less credit. But overly florid writing is only one criticism Pitchfork haters frequently lob. The writers also have a way of isolating indie rock as a world unto itself. Visit the site for the first time and you may be confused by some of the references. The review of Tapes 'n Tapes' The Loon noted the band's use of "CYHSY organ." (That's Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, for those of you with better things to do than troll the Internet for buzz bands.)

Yet although Schreiber points out that "ultimately [the site is] publishing one person's opinion," many readers regard Pitchfork as an institution, one that has the power to bless or curse a newborn band. Should an album be marked with a low rating, the humiliation is something akin to slipping on Jell-O in the school cafeteria and ending up wearing a hat made of mashed potatoes. A record store in Texas initially refused to carry Travis Morrison's Travistan after Pitchfork gave it a rare 0.0. Liz Phair faced similar ridicule following a double-ought for her self-titled release.

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