Music

Honesty and Cruelty by the Numbers: Pitchfork and the Art of Tastemaking

Christine Werthman

It's because of timely reporting on fresh-faced bands that Pitchfork has managed to turn itself into an independent music tastemaker, setting the tone for the critical reception of new music.

I was typing up a concert review one night at 2:35AM when a friend who works on the business side of the music industry messaged me online with a timid “You there?” Considering the hour, I braced myself for bad news: a breakup, a death or perhaps a runaway pet. Instead, my friend informed me that the debut album of a band named Princeton, managed by a mutual acquaintance of ours, had just received a 5.9 out of 10 on Pitchfork, the online music criticism site. Though Princeton had recently completed a successful tour, the band’s members were crushed by the review. As my industry friend later lamented, “I wish Pitchfork never would’ve reviewed it.”

Ryan Schreiber created the website Pitchfork after he graduated from high school back in 1995. Now, almost 15 years later, Pitchfork has established itself as a go-to source of commentary on contemporary indie and popular music, reaching 1.9 million unique viewers each month. The numbers may not stack up quite yet to the 4.5 million unique monthly viewers reported by RollingStone.com. But for the site to be reaching nearly half of the readership of a mainstream outlet like Rolling Stone—whose print edition was founded in 1967 and is considered one of the first publications to report on music in a serious, journalistic way—Pitchfork has proven that it is no slouch.

So, how did Pitchfork—this little site started by a teenager—manage to become such a competitor in the field? Well, it all began with the changing of the music scene in the late-'90s. This was the era in which music fans began to become accustomed to freebies. Instead of buying CDs, they could download music for free on Napster, and instead of spending cash on a magazine, they could head to a music blog. But when they wanted more than just snippets of music news, they turned to Pitchfork, a free site that offered more in-depth coverage of new bands than blogs were providing. It also did something the established publications were afraid to do: Pitchfork provided refreshingly blunt critiques on new music.

Today, the site maintains its unabashedly honest album reviews, which range from celebratory statements accompanied by the Pitchfork stamp of “Best New Music” to brutal, knife-twisting evaluations. These have made the site’s critiques stand out from the short, wishy-washy ones typical in the music media. But this is not the only reason Pitchfork’s reviews have gained attention. As an online-only medium, Pitchfork offers some of the timeliest music reporting out there. The immediacy of its publishing capabilities has allowed Pitchfork to get its opinions heard first, scoring yet another point for the Internet in its crushing defeat of print media. The site also has not wavered in focusing a majority of its content on the coverage of brand-new groups. It's because of this timely reporting on fresh-faced bands that Pitchfork has managed to turn itself into an independent music tastemaker, setting the tone for the critical reception of new music.

The strategy of predominantly writing about new bands is nothing new. Rolling Stone began this way, covering the emerging rock ’n’ roll element of the '60s youth subculture movement in the States. But the magazine largely strayed from the niche market in 1977. This was the year that Jann Wenner uprooted the San Francisco magazine to New York City and began to reach for larger subscription and readership numbers. To appeal to more mainstream readers, Wenner’s coverage broadened and, feeling disenchanted with the new direction, all of the original San Francisco editors and writers of the magazine quit the New York offices by 1981. On the other hand, while Pitchfork might throw in the occasional review of a Top 40 queen like Beyoncé, its focus is still tightly trained on music that qualifies as indie rock, maintaining its influence on the scene by not straying far from it.

Album reviews are at the heart of Pitchfork’s content. The critical section of the site not only shows off its publishing speed, posting the reviews on or close to an album’s release date. It's also where Pitchfork establishes its voice, one that often aims for the jugular. A recent example of this is a review of M.I.A.’s new album. “The record is a shambling mess,” says the writer, cutting to the chase in the second paragraph. It lacks “compelling tunes”, making the performer’s “obnoxious public antics, dubious political messages, and thin voice... impossible for even dedicated fans to ignore.” Though the site does at times fall victim to genre buzzwords and other pitfalls common to music critics, it still manages to deliver its thoughts with clarity. After reading a Pitchfork review, you tend to know exactly how a writer felt about an album. But sometimes, numbers speak louder than words.

Anyone who has ever read a Pitchfork review knows that the number rating, situated at the top of the review page, is the first thing you see and often the main thing you remember. Critics of the site are keenly aware of this fact and have taken to poking fun at the perceived importance of the number rating. In 2007, the satirical newspaper The Onion published an article titled “Pitchfork Gives Music a 6.8". According to the Pitchfork review, allegedly written by Schreiber, music, “the popular medium that predates the written word,” the article said, “shows promise but nonetheless ‘leaves the listener wanting more.’” Lowell Radler, a music fan and Pitchfork reader, is quoted in agreement with Schreiber, though Radler “admitted that he just looked at the rating rather than reading the whole review". Like any good satire, there is truth in The Onion’s take on Pitchfork.

If readers really are ignoring everything in a review other than the number rating, then it's no wonder that bands and music industry members place such a high premium on these ratings. It also explains why a positive textual analysis of an album, paired with a misleadingly low number, can be so devastating. This mismatching was particularly blatant in Pitchfork’s review of Ra Ra Riot’s debut LP, The Rhumb Line, released in August 2008. A number rating of 7.5 suggested that Pitchfork must have had some problems with the album. But the subsequent Pitchfork review called the album “pop savvy", filled with “mournful cellos and haunting violins” that contrasted well with the songs’ “triumphant rhythms and exultant melodies.” Aside from calling one song the “flattest of the bunch", the review said nothing even remotely negative about the album. Yet, The Rhumb Line still received a rating of only 7.5, a weak 'B' by any schoolroom standards.

The Rhumb Line went on to receive four out of five stars in Rolling Stone and three-and-a-half out of five stars from Spin. But sources close to the band say that the Pitchfork rating was most important to the group. This is because Pitchfork has a reputation as a tastemaker in today’s music world, a title it acquired through a strong track record for spotting the next big thing in music before the mainstream discovers it. Such was the story with the band Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.

Claps Your Hands Say Yeah, a five-piece band whose members hail from Brooklyn and Philadelphia, self-released its debut LP through the online music retailer Insound in 2005. On 21 June of that year, Pitchfork called the self-titled album “consistently, remarkably strong,” gave it a rating of 9.0 and listed it under the site’s “Best New Music” section. By the end of July 2005, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s album had already sold 4,000 copies and entered Billboard’s Top Heatseekers chart at no. 34. Billboard’s Geoff Mayfield later reported that the band’s album had also entered the Top Internet Albums and Top Independent Albums charts by the start of August 2005. As Mayfield wrote, an album from an unsigned band appearing in three Billboard charts was “something you don’t see every day".

In the months following the initial review, Pitchfork featured an interview with Clap Your Hands and a concert review, and also included Clap Your Hands Say Yeah on the site’s Top 50 Albums of 2005 list. No empirical evidence exists on how many people purchased the album strictly because of Pitchfork’s praise. But the fact that the publication of the positive review coincided with the increase in both show attendance and album sales for the band suggests that Pitchfork had a hand in stirring the Clap Your Hands popularity pot.

Not every band that scores big on Pitchfork is going to make a killing in album and ticket sales. But with even the slightest chance of results like these, it makes sense that many in the music industry read Pitchfork avidly with a mix of anticipation and dread. The anxious sentiments in industry professionals though are not unique to the Pitchfork experience, as arts criticism in any venue can impact the public reception of a work, be it an album or an art show. Or even, perhaps, a book.

As the editor of The New York Times Book Review, Sam Tanenhaus views a literary review as less of an opinion-molder and more as something that gives readers a context for approaching a book. “Different book reviews have different purposes,” he writes in an e-mail. “A review of a poetry book seeks to convey its atmosphere, tone and mood. A review of a policy book emphasizes its arguments.” The type of review might vary, but the potential for the review to influence an author’s popularity or book sales, especially if the author is new to the scene, is constant. “This happened, recently, with The Imperfectionists, a first novel that has sold surprisingly well,” Tanenhaus says. “Our review -- by Christopher Buckley -- seems to have helped, as did the review in the daily Times by Janet Maslin.”

In looking at a music criticism site like Pitchfork and a literary review space like The New York Times, it seems that the secret to an outlet establishing itself as influential tastemaker is to follow one particular mantra: Get ’em while they’re young. But if being the first to put a critical stamp on a new creative work, whether by a musician or an author, can elevate a medium to the level of tastemaker, then the Internet has made it harder to maintain the title. In an era of Twitter, Facebook, blogs, where everyone has an opinion to share and an outlet in which to share it, has the authority of a professional critic or a site like Pitchfork increased or decreased?

“Decreased, I hope,” says Tanenhaus. “Stravinsky once said, ‘There are two kinds of music: good and bad.’ The same is true of criticism. Authority emanates, or doesn’t, from a particular piece of writing.”

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