For two decades, Pitchfork Media set the tone for music journalism in the internet era.
Raucous, passionate, sometimes blinkered but always evolving, the site helped break acts like the Arcade Fire into global stardom and changed how music, criticism and internet culture intersected. Its 2015 sale to publishing titan Condé Nast placed it alongside Vogue and the New Yorker as arbiters of culture.
Now the site’s founder Ryan Schreiber has announced that he is leaving the company he created in 1995.
“It’s an interesting sensation,” Schreiber said, reached by phone the day of the announcement. “I feel at peace with it. As much as it’s been part of my entire adult life and as much fun as I’ve had, I feel like I want to keep pushing boundaries and exploring new things.”
Schreiber, who stepped down as editor in chief last year, is leaving during a period of existential change for the music and media industries. Streaming services have replaced record sales. Music-focused titles like Spin, NME, Fader and the Village Voice have shuttered, shrunk or re-focused. Social media upended how fans engage with musical culture, to the detriment of ad-supported media.
The site, which Schreiber founded as a teenager in Minneapolis and continued when he moved to Chicago in 1999, was once feared for its mercurial album reviews, which could make or shatter careers in just a few hundred words. Its writing could be alternately brilliant and indulgent, but its influence over two decades’ worth of music and journalism is hard to overstate. Major acts like Bon Iver and Sufjan Stevens all earned crucial boosts from the site’s raves.
During its early ascent in the 2000’s, the site was criticized for its indie-dude tastes, which left out a lot of subcultures and pop acts that the site’s diverse array of writers now covers much more thoroughly.
“We were punky weirdos expressing what we felt really mattered around a subcultural movement we identified with,” Schreiber said. ”As we progressed, our tastes broadened with age and experience.”
Pitchfork was able to grow by staying one step ahead of media industry trends. It founded a popular music festival series in Chicago and Paris and was an early adopter of short-form video. It quietly shifted from mainly championing niche acts to include more coverage of mainstream pop, hip-hop, metal and global music, and was quick to report stories of sexual assault in the music industry that would cohere into the #MeToo movement.
Navigating these stories will be major priorities for Pitchfork’s new editor Puja Patel. In an interview with Schreiber published Tuesday about the albums that defined his life, Patel wrote of Schreiber, “He’s still a romantic about the underground—passionately insistent that if people are doing what they love in earnest and without restriction, the end result will be worth hearing. It’s the spirit that Pitchfork was built upon and an essential reason it still thrives today.”
“There are so many cultural movements that are long overdue. #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, there are all kinds of these movements moving us in a fairer, kinder and more civilized direction,” Schreiber said. “We put lots of resources towards that work, which felt crucial and necessary. We knew we had a platform, where we could make that kind of difference and tell those stories.”
Keeping up with those fast shifts in media, tech and culture was a source of pride for Schreiber, even as prestige projects like the print Pitchfork Review proved short-lived. Doing that at a major media conglomerate — with its own expectations about growth and strategy — sometimes complicated his passion for championing acts and explaining cultural shifts.
The sale to Condé Nast was “definitely a learning curve for me,” he said. “I had always run Pitchfork as an indie organization and never had to make a case for why I wanted to do something. Some of that was a challenge, but I adapted quickly. There was never anyone saying, ‘Cover more of this or that.’ Condé sees us on a level of any flagship publication and treated us the same.
“It’s a very challenging time in publishing, but it has been for a long time. Exploring different routes — festivals, radio, the Pitchfork Review — kept it exciting for us and unpredictable for readers,” he added.
Schreiber wouldn’t elaborate on future projects. While more music and media than ever are being consumed, Pitchfork stands almost alone as a thriving general-interest music publication.
Many of the site’s writers have migrated to Apple Music and Spotify, though neither service would welcome the ferocious criticism — not to mention investigative reporting — for which Pitchfork earned its reputation. One option might be the burgeoning music and film industry crossover driven by services like Netflix and HBO.
“A streaming service is definitely possibility [for Schreiber], but there’s more and more demand for longer form content as well,” said Cherie Hu, a writer and analyst for the Columbia Journalism Review and other industry publications. She recently published a long feature on the future of music criticism in an algorithm-driven consumption environment.
“Live Nation has a successful film business now, they did production for ‘A Star is Born’ and the Imagine Dragons documentary for HBO. ‘Gaga: Five Foot Two’ isn’t just a positive documentary,” she added. “There is demand for deep dive content that isn’t just sugar and gets deep. Journalists being able to tell stories is an asset, and there is still demand for that.”
For now, streaming services fulfill much of Pitchfork’s core function of breaking new artists (with smaller services like Bandcamp championing the weird stuff that Pitchfork first built its name on). Outlets that still cover music now mostly do so in short news items or share-able coverage of popular acts, with barbed cultural criticism moving to independent podcasts and YouTube. The internet era that birthed Pitchfork’s blend of saucy writing, outre tastes and massive popularity is by and large over.
But for Schreiber, who saw Pitchfork through two decades of such changes, there’s plenty of ground to cover yet.
“Our aesthetic was always about the progressive, challenging and different,” he said. “If I’m really truly committed to covering music as it evolves, I’ve got to keep up with it and be inspired and motivated by it.”
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