Pitchfork Editor Takes to Public Forum to Defend Its Greatness... 'I Think You Underestimate How Much Bigger We Are'...
The I Love Music message board has always been a lively place for music fans to gather, dish, flame, and occasionally have reasonable discussions about music. But last week, since the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop Poll came out, a legendary thread was born.
Music critics Chuck Eddy, Christopher Weingarten, Maura Johnson, Scott Seward, Ned Raggett and others offered their assessments of the poll, and especially the unprecedented similarities between this year’s Pazz & Jop Poll and Pitchfork’s year-end polls. Has there been a mass indie-fication of music criticism? Has a myopic indie hive-mind mentality, fostered by Pitchfork, infected music writers? And what does “indie” mean nowadays anyway?
Soon Pitchfork’s Editor-in-Chief Scott Plagenhoef entered the conversation, and fired off some fantastic proclamations of Pitchfork’s cultural hegemony. Alternately lucid and aggressive, thoughtful and condescending, sometimes “confrontational”, “defensive” and “triumphant” (his words), the Pitchfork editor publicly reveals a consideration of the influential publication that it rarely projects on its own site.
Head over to ILX to read the entire conversation of over 1,100 posts here as we recount some of Scott’s highlights from his almost 50 posts(!) below:
(One thing to note: When Plagenhoef is referring to “Chris” for “Whiney,” that’s Chris Weingarten, or Whiney G)
On the Pazz & Jop poll and Pitchfork’s year-end list being so similar
in general, I don’t see why it’s weird to anyone that nominally indie rock is at the top of this. Rock music made by 20s and 30somethings presumably always was pretty well at the center of this stuff. Today almost any of that stuff that gets any critical traction is under the pointless tent of ‘indie’, whether its yyys or lcd or spoon or hold steady or some tiny band in williamsburg – or hell even electronic (v acoustic/electric) artists like mia or hot chip or anco. The change is with rock music more than it is with critics. This is what rock music made by and for adults looks and sounds like now.
No I don’t think our year-end lists specifically do shit for P&J. Any effect, which is totally impossible to quantify (so no there is no credit involved!), would come from our reviews throughout the year and the rather easy way we present our bnm. It’s quite simple to drop in and see what we’ve been most enthusiastic about. It’s not simple to do that with nearly any other pub of any size.
But it’s impossible to determine how much effect this or that thing has on the larger critical culture. Even w/AnCo, despite getting our best review in five years, I’m sure we had zero effect. We def had no effect on Uncut, since Stevie T, who wrote that review, heard the LP before I did and filed his review before ours. That’s the one real-world example I can give either way.
On why Pitchfork is more than just indie
Which is another way of me saying for the 100th time: we cover a lot more than the indie stuff, and I think we can direct people to more than that too. If anything, with our readers, it’s safer to say they’d have found Phoenix regardless and what we do more than anything is expand their POV, which I’ve said previously as well: For all the shit we get, I think our coverage of pop over the past seven years arguably did as much for “poptimism” as anything else. certainly more than the one time the NYT published an article on it, or whatever gets credit for that. (e.g. I assume joy o and shine blockas weird placements are more due to us than, say, phoenix or yyys)
In the internet-era, when there is way less guesswork about what readers want from critics, I don’t see much evidence from consumers or whomever that people want to read analytical or intelligent writing about, say, R&B or modern country, or even most metal. Maybe I’m wrong and there is some sort of place for discussion of this stuff, but I’ve seen us and RA and Stereogum and some other places thrive and/or get a foothold while the old VV, Blender, the thing CNET tried to start, Maura’s Idolator, Stylus (which was about 5% less indie than p4k anyway) drift away and I feel like by now everyone complaining about that or missing them are people, say, posting in this thread. Don’t get me wrong: And I say that regrettably, it’s an awful state for music criticism to be in, but after watching this happen for five years I have a pretty realistic and less romantic view about it than I used to. This is the way it is and unless you turn the people who do want to discuss and read about music online (i.e. who many of you would call “indie fans”) into R&B fans too, I don’t see where the audience for this stuff comes from….
And, so, it’s possible, just possible, that it was always like that—and a lot of outlets were publishing a lot of words about a lot of things their readers cared zero about, and now that we have fairly direct metrics to sort out what readers do like, that is being exposed.
don’t mean to sound either confrontational or triumphant, just feel a little defensive in the face of some of the finger-pointing and I think a lot of it is a matter of scapegoating us for the things one doesn’t like but never giving any credit for things that you all do like about these results.
On why Pitchfork does it better, and is bigger, than everybody else
re: Girls. Hellhole Ratrace was in our 2008 year-end list and we booked them for Primavera and SXSW this time last year. This is a meaningless argument over flag-planting but at the very least I will defend the false accusation that we’re following people. Just because we don’t have the luxury to post whateverthefuck, say nothing about it, have everyone forget you posted it, and then point to it months later and say “see, see, I posted it early!” if it’s advantageous to do so doesn’t mean we are hanging around looking over other people’s shoulders. People remember what we say and we give things due diligence, and as a consequence we sacrifice speed at times.
But, still, having the belief the that some blog is more responsible for spreading news about a band than us probably means you like in Brooklyn or somewhere else where you’re surrounded by this sort of inside baseball shit all the time. Even a “big” blog like gvsb, well we’ll have more readers from midnight to the time I clock in for work tomorrow than he’ll have all month. I think you underestimate how much bigger we are than these sites.
All I said to Chris was that it’s possible the publication with by far the second-biggest readership in the country had more effect on people than the kid down his block who runs a blog.
On why Pitchfork is so important to readers and bands
I def agree that people [editors] should not just follow the readers though, and I’ve think we’ve done that better than about anyone the second half of this decade. We’ve taken a staunchly indie audience and opened up a lot of doors for them, at risk to our reputation and therefore business. Not as many ppl choose to walk through those doors as I’d like but we keep trying.
But like I said upthread if you want people to read about R&B in any large numbers, I think your best bet is to turn music crit readers into R&B fans, not R&B fans into music crit readers. And if you disagree, plz circle back to the question above and let me know the names of the successful pop and R&B outlets doing what you’d like them to do, and how many readers they get. Considering you actually think our site, with its 2.5mm monthly readers and 1.5mm twitter followers, is merely “a niche website with a very specific demographic” I don’t think you’ll be able to locate an answer.
Pitchfork has thrived as a music magazine the past five years in a v difficult climate first for media and music, then for internet advertising, then for everybody. And I would guess being pretty ok at sniffing out what people who want to write, read, and think about music in this country tend to like is part of the reason.
On Pitchfork’s role in developing artists, aka “signing off” on bands
It is impossible for one thing to take a seedling of something totally in a vacuum and throw it onto the world these days. Someone was always there first, which is why, as I said above, it’s a fool’s errand to claim being there first as your badge of honor. So, no, [when Pitchfork gets behind something] the world doesn’t change course; but I think the world accelerates course to some degree. The jump in audience that these “slow builds anyone can see coming” gets from us is a fast track that you are underestimating. There used to be a hell of a lot of more steps between “punk shows” and some of the places these bands have gone lately.
Again, I’m not saying “We did it” but we helped way more than you think. Unless there was some other platform as large as ours in which to broadcast all of this “creaming” people were doing (radio; no; tv: maybe one late-night appearance; RS: no). Or you think the rest of the world is in tune to all these small indie outlets (they are not). The odd sort of third-tier death cab-y stuff that gets into gossip girl and satellite radio does well w/o us, but it’s the established channels of radio and tv selling those records, not the internet/bklyn types that you think would get AnCo09 all this attention w/o us.
If your theory holds, we haven’t mattered since 2004 or whatever you said, then all this shit would presumably exist the same w/o us then it would follow that there would be popular indie bands from the past 5–6 years that Pitchfork doesn’t like: So who do you think those are? Which indie bands are making the top 40 of p&j or doing very well in indie circles based solely on the “creaming” of the masses and w/o our signing off on them? I want to see some names.
On the Pitchfork-ification of music journalism
Isn’t it possible that, like I said before, a lot of people used to get paid a lot of money to write a lot of words about things that in actual fact nobody wanted to read? And now that we have direct metrics to measure online what is read, and less utilitarian need for critics (from a reader not a cultural POV), that has been found out to a degree?
I’m far far from celebrating that. It’s depressing as hell. But I’d guess that music crit is being kept alive by (and therefore populated by), as one of my colleagues said, the exact same people keeping record stores alive. Those are the diehards and the specialists and the people who care enough to buy product. And to read and reviews. And they listen to indie. And AnCo is #1 in pazz and Jop. And VW can sell 125K records on an indie label.
For whatever reason I just find it odd that we get swept under the rug so completely. I’ve generally stopped taking it personally years ago, but we take pride in what we do, we work very hard, we don’t rush judgments…I dunno, I got into this conversation talking about some of the marco reasons that rock = indie, or that the internet is homogenizing opinions (not a good thing mind you), but I can’t help find it weird that the one pub that has succeeded the past five years in this music, media, and economic environment was considered meaningless by 2003. in 2003, it was a one-man show, now it’s a real pub. This is just tunnelvision to me.
On the meaning of Pitchfork
we can basically 1. expose a lot of people to something, often something that would take years of touring and work to generate the exposure we can potentially provide, 2. expose nominally indie/guitar rock kids to non-indie music, 3. provide a large platform for opinions/artists that aren’t related in some ways to the machinations of the music industry (i.e. we don’t need a “cover star” or only have 12 “lead reviews” a month, or to run features only on newsstand-ready artists), which is something we share with the whole of the internet granted. Though we have a much bigger soapbox.
we are, at most accurate, I think something that accelerates a process that is or would already happen….
nobody likes some thing just because we do, and we aren’t telling people what to think…. If anything you could argue we’re better A&R people than journalists, but it’s possible that’s all readers want from a pub these days anyway.
On people “underestimating” Pitchfork
man, Pitchfork circa 2000 and 2001 vs now is night and day. The size of the site now utterly dwarfs the site then, and certainly the way it’s run and decisions are made are different (then: one guy in his apartment trying to juggle it all by calling a few labels and emailing people for reviews turned around asap; today: 17 f/t employees in two offices planning all aspects of a small biz/publication) is drastically different as well. It is amazing that people think the one is relevant to the other.
but I guess since many of you all live on the internet, and have an idea of “what pitchfork is” that extends back a decade, I don’t think you recognize the ways “what Pitchfork is” has changed. We reach more people right now that Spin or Vibe ever did, even if you use the bs print mag idea that “every copy is read by 2.5 people.” I get that we’re free, and that not everyone looks at everything, and that someone clicking on the site by accident or for a second counts as a “reader.” But not everyone looked at every individual piece of content in print pubs and the # of bs clicks we get is certainly not close to the number that were built into mag circ numbers/ad rates. e.g. it’s hard as hell to fudge our metrics once you get away the frontpage; I know how many people have read, say, our Contra review or our The Fame Monster review. I would not be surprised if in a month those are the most-read reviews of either album in the U.S.
But a lot of people are happy to just ignore our readership because they personally knew some blog or dude who knew about dan deacon before we published a track review. You know who didn’t? Most of our readers. (And Chris, if we’re talking about the effects on Pazz and Jop: We matched 11 of the top 13 LPs, the top four metal LPs, five of the six top h-h LPs, and 31 of the top 34 songs were on our top 100. Again, we didn’t do that through some sort of puppetmaster shit, but we are by any metric plugged in to what other critics and listeners want from music right now. We’ve succeeded at a time when nobody else has. I don’t beg for credit or claim to be responsible for things, but to dismiss us outright as if we don’t matter at all, which you’ve done, feels odd.)
hell, I should stop caring, get back to work, and let people keep underestimating us.
Extra credit: The great popular (and semi-popular) albums of the past 5 years that Pitchfork didn’t review thread in ILX.