A Tribute to Pitchfork, and Perhaps Indie Music Journalism’s Final Chapter

Why the site's downsizing feels like the end

January 23, 2024 6:40 am
It's the end of an era for a generation of music fans.
Danica Killelea

It was only a matter of time, wasn’t it? Last week, media giant Condé Nast announced that storied music and cultural site Pitchfork, which the company bought in 2015, was going to be folded into GQ, one of Condé’s flagship outlets. 

As the margins become thinner and thinner in this business, music journalism has to be a few notches down the pecking order. However, the layoffs and massive downsizing of a site like Pitchfork signals something much larger for this essential prose form, perhaps more telling than recent layoffs across the entertainment and media business.

I get why Condé Nast took this step — I’ve been a freelance journalist for the better part of a decade. It’s no secret that the business continues to shrink. Operating cutbacks made up high often direct the very work I can put out, narrowing the available channels of journalism to whatever Google decides is most popular that day. 

While we won’t know the exact business decisions behind Pitchfork’s reductions, it’s somewhat easy to assume that music journalism simply isn’t as popular as it once was, and that the site hasn’t kept up with the blazing changes of social media, SEO and everything else that guides clicks these days. (Though, from the outside at least, Pitchfork seemed to be the one music publication best set up to survive those changes, thanks to a devoted audience that made a habit of visiting its homepage on a daily basis.) However, that doesn’t dilute the overall cultural importance of the site then-record store employee Ryan Schreiber started out of his basement in 1996.

A Quick Pitchfork Primer

Social media was barely a trickle when Pitchfork was on the rise, which is partially why it was able to ascend to such great heights. 

The site essentially ushered in the original era of online music journalism, establishing a base in indie rock coverage and quickly growing to highlight other genres during indie’s golden era from the late 1990s through the early 2010s.

As an early and definitive music criticism site, Pitchfork built an undeniable reputation. At its apex, a high rating from a Pitchfork review was like a coveted stamp of approval. A 9 or above (out of 10) could instantly launch a new artist into indie stardom. A bad rating could send even the most established band down at least a couple of notches. 

As influential music publicist Judy Miller Silverman put it in a public statement on X, Pitchfork moved the needle on hundreds of artists. The litany of bands influenced, introduced and grown by Pitchfork coverage reads like a millennial pop culture digest. We can directly attribute the rise of bands like Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Vampire Weekend, Animal Collective and so many more to the site. 

This doesn’t even take into account the early coverage Pitchfork gave to pioneering electronic acts like Junior Boys, Simian Mobile Disco, and of course, Daft Punk, which welcomed in most of the modern EDM movement as we know it. The site was the taste-making channel for independent music, and it used that reach to catapult events like its own Pitchfork Festival into make-or-break shows for emerging artists. 

Pitchfork wasn’t necessarily operating at its peak when Condé bought the company in 2015, but the site never relented in its pursuit of quality music journalism, even as it enters this new unknown. 

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Losing an Outlet for the Outliers

As a music nerd who thrived on the fringes of everything alternative during my most formative years, I found the daily review of Pitchfork was often like reading gospel. The site devoted itself to thoughtful, researched (and, yes, sometimes crass) reviews of whatever was current and important.

I booked shows in college, with a whole group of friends lighting up the airwaves at our university’s radio station, and PItchfork was always our first online stop to best understand what was the latest and what we needed to hear that day. Pitchfork also opened the door for the entire “blogosphere” era, which offered crucial support and validation for many of the bands that were on their way to a shining “P4K” front page feature. 

The 18-year-old me would hate what I’m writing now, but Pitchfork held massive influence in what I downloaded then, and what I stream on Spotify now. Pitchfork also guided my earliest forays into music journalism, showing me there was interest in covering bands and artists who didn’t top the charts. I took low-paying, sometimes-free writing gigs in the hopes that I could either find my way to a site like Pitchfork or build a career in some other corner of the music business. 

While the site often seemed to prioritize coverage of white, male-dominant indie rock bands in its early days, Pitchfork’s staff also gave space to smaller artists in off-center genres like jazz, soul and world music, and during the tenure of editor-in-chief Puja Patel, the site made a conscious shift toward what she recently described as a “more expansive, rigorous, inclusive, progressive and thoughtful era of music journalism.” At its worst, the site felt like an echo chamber of whatever the hippest coffee shops in America had on repeat. At its best, it was a home for balanced music and cultural criticism, using its unparalleled reach to highlight those varied opinions. 

Tellingly, there seems to be a lot of trepidation about what comes next for Pitchfork with major question marks for an industry that once thrived on its coverage. 

Where the Space Remains

The optics alone on the consolidation of Pitchfork into GQ are terrible: The latter is a mainstream, luxury-leaning, definitely male-focused outlet that instantly cuts the reach and output of a publication that specifically existed for an alternative group of readers who are likely not in the GQ demographic. GQ is an important outlet in its own right, but is important for a different set of reasons than Pitchfork. Keep in mind, this is all happening even as Pitchfork has the most unique views of any Condé title

For a whole generation that grew up with a very nascent Internet connected to their music discovery experience, something will feel deeply personal about the expected loss of Pitchfork. I know it feels that way for me. Sure, there are perhaps more music discovery channels and opportunities than ever these days, but nothing feels quite as influential and important as Pitchfork once did. 

Perhaps most painfully, there won’t be a physical paper trail of the site’s legacy, just an endless feed of ones and zeroes siphoned into the Internet. For those who Pitchfork was most important to, the strongest historical record will remain within their own memories and links to an important era of modern music.

When an outlet like Pitchfork shrinks, all corners of music feel it. Smaller bands lose an important channel of exposure, industry accountability loses another champion and music fans lose another spiritual connection to the culture. 

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