Pitchforkmedia.com Music Dudes Dictate Culture From Chicago

“Who are these people?” asks Michael Klausman, 29, a manager and buyer at Other Music, the tiny East Village record store frequented by music obsessives of the hipster order. “These unknown writers have more legitimacy in terms of making or breaking a record than writers from The Village Voice, Spin or Rolling Stone.”

Mr. Klausman is talking about the kids behind Pitchforkmedia.com, the online music magazine, and he’s not alone in his curiosity. The site is read, debated, demonized and lionized by dutiful hipsters from East Fourth Street to Bedford Avenue, but no one in New York seems to know who’s running the show. Pitchfork reads like it comes straight out of Williamsburg, with its snarky attitude and unabiding devotion to indie rock. But-surprise!-Pitchfork comes to us via a basement in Chicago.

Despite its far-flung location, a glowing Pitchfork review sells CD’s at the Virgin Megastore in Union Square and fills up shows at the Bowery Ballroom. A negative review can stall sales and, since Pitchfork is nearly always the first to review a record, inspire other critics to gang up on a new album. Indie labels from Matador to Misra, and a handful of majors including Interscope and Capitol, are piping money into Pitchfork as they buy up the site’s ad space to market to its coveted readership. Capitalizing on the momentum generated this year, Pitchfork will relaunch in early 2005, replete with a new design as well as fresh features.

As Dan Hougland, 29, a floor manager at Other Music, puts it: “Pitchfork is totally defining a cottage industry.” In the pre-Internet era, music zealots (who typically turn their noses up at mainstream music mags) had to comb through mail-order record catalogs and handmade zines to find out about the next big thing. But Pitchfork, with its trove of reviews and guides to the best records, has made it possible for band-dudes- cum-young-professionals to stay connected to music in their post-collegiate life. Other online review sites exist, of course, but Pitchfork seems to have captivated New Yorkers more than any other.

And though the site is still too small to have much influence on major labels, the fact that it publishes daily has given it a huge edge in the world of music media. (Chances are that the hoodie-wearing tech guy in your office scans the site during his morning Internet-reading rituals.) Pitchfork is a popular blogosphere reference point. The media gossip site Gawker name-checks it frequently, and Time Out New York references Pitchfork in its listings.

Pitchfork is still largely associated with indie rock, but the site has given an increasing amount of coverage to pop, dance, hip-hop, rap and Britpop in the last year or so. The willingness of its young and largely unknown writers to slay the sacred cows of the indie scene, or to call out a bad idea in the mainstream-recently, the song “Collison Course,” a mash-up of Linkin Park and Jay-Z, was named as a contender for “Worst Cash-In Hybrid of 2004″-has conferred upon it a credibility that no one seems to assign anymore to print music magazines.

Jonathan Galkin, 32, of Manhattan-based DFA records (home to the likes of downtown favorites Black Dice and the Rapture), explains the site’s popularity among purists this way: “A Lester Bangs–type critic doesn’t exist anymore in America, because magazines don’t really trash records anymore-they’re way too dependent on that label’s advertising dollars. Everything out there in print is sugar-coated, where I find that Pitchfork is just way more honest.” In addition to its five daily reviews, Pitchfork’s news items are a big draw for the site. Plenty of readers skip the criticism but find it hard to resist the gossip-about the latest indie band to jump to a major label, newly announced tour dates, the breakup of a favorite group or, in a recent example, the revelation that a member of the Vines has autism.

One might wonder: If a major music tastemaker is coming out of Chicago, is New York losing its grip on hip? Of course, nothing seems different. In fact, the ubiquity of the “hipster” has never been quite this intense. You know the one: He’s riding the L train, wearing a snug striped sweater, plugged into his iPod, with some band you’ve never heard of-Animal Collective, the Books, Death from Above 1979-piping into his ears. His girlfriend dons a mixture of textured fabrics, has multi-tinted hair (though in natural shades-no pinks) and is listening to the Futureheads. (Make no mistake: This reporter, minus the hair style, might on certain days be mistaken for half of this pair.) These kids used to be the arbiters of edgy taste, their CD collections a guide to what must be purchased, owned and fetishized in order to be part of the vanguard of culture.

But with the increasing respectability of Web journalism, a tastemaker can come from anywhere. All a person really needs is a sprinkling of ambition, a computer, a rudimentary knowledge of HTML and an Internet connection. At least that’s all 28-year-old Ryan Schreiber had when he started Pitchfork back in 1995. In nine years, the site has gone from a fan page largely written by Mr. Schreiber with a few hundred readers to a full-fledged magazine drawing 115,000 visitors on an average weekday. Mr. Schreiber is only beginning to realize the power that comes with such a loyal following.

Tipping the Scales

“Pitchfork is certainly a place that other writers and people in the industry look to as one of the barometers of what people are thinking is cool,” says Tracks magazine former editor in chief and co-founder Alan Light, who has also stood at the helm of Vibe and Spin. “It’s a different kind of writing than print-it’s kind of shoot-from-the-hip, for better or for worse.”

Mr. Hougland of Other Music explained: “The writer for Spin makes more money, but the Pitchfork dude has way more power. If you look at the media and the blogs, it’s the music version of that.”

Nothing illustrates the point better than two recent records: Funeral, by the new Canadian band the Arcade Fire, and Travistan, by indie darling Travis Morrison. About two months ago, Pitchfork reviewed Funeral and gave it a rave. Writer David Moore emoted, with the personal intensity and creative hyperbole that’s a hallmark of PF scribes: “Their search for salvation in the midst of real chaos is ours; their eventual catharsis is part of our continual enlightenment.” Funeral earned the high mark of 9.7 on the site’s numerical rating system, where 10.0 is the top and 0.0 the bottom. Almost immediately, it became impossible to find Funeral in a New York City record store.

“Without Pitchfork, I can’t imagine that all the hype around the Arcade Fire would have happened,” says Mr. Hougland. “It’s totally Pitchfork; it’s not even worth speculating about. It’s possible that they would have gotten that popular, but it would have taken a lot longer.” Merge Records, the North Carolina–based indie label that put out Funeral, sold out their initial printing of the record and now have pressed an additional 60,000 to fill demand. Tickets for the band’s November show at the Bowery Ballroom sold out weeks before the event, a rare occurrence for a group with one hard-to-find record on its first headlining tour.

On the flip side is the dreaded 0.0, most recently awarded to Travis Morrison’s Travistan. Mr. Morrison had formerly found favor with Pitchfork as frontman of the D.C. art-rock quartet the Dismemberment Plan; in 1999, the D-Plan’s Emergency and I was voted Pitchfork’s No. 1 record of the year. The review of Travistan was so spiteful, it was almost as if Mr. Morrison had been trashed simply for going solo. Chris Dahlen wrote: “I’ve never heard a record more angry, frustrated, and even defensive about its own weaknesses, or more determined to slug those flaws right down your throat.” In the wake of the piece, a skepticism about Travistan took hold, with some college-radio programmers-who normally would have been pushing a much-anticipated solo record from someone like Mr. Morrison-making excuses for why it wasn’t in heavy rotation. At least one record-store owner initially declined to stock the record (he later changed his mind). Other critics followed Pitchfork’s suit; a number of pieces about the record discussed the 0.0 before even engaging with it.

Josh Rosenfeld of Seattle-based Barsuk Records, which put out Travistan, says that although the Pitchfork pan may have stalled interest in the record, he doesn’t think the damage will be permanent. “But what is interesting is what the difference is between the situation we’re in now and the situation we would be in now if Pitchfork had said, ‘9.8! Travis has pushed the boundaries again!’ A ‘boy, we love art in pop music!’ type of review. We can only speculate about things like that: would his record be enjoying the reception that people are now giving to the Arcade Fire record?”

When asked about his magazine’s ability to make or break a record, Mr. Schreiber (officially Pitchfork’s editor in chief and publisher) is a bit tongue-tied. “It’s unbelievably cool to have any kind of influence,” he says. “But I’m totally taken aback by it, and I’m torn by it. You want to be careful, because you know that if you have a really positive response, you are going to do this great thing for bands. And it’s the greatest thing in the world to see that band going around playing for 50 people and the next night, because of a good review, it’s sold out.” Mr. Schreiber paused. “But you have to keep it honest,” he continued. “And that’s why we have any impact, because people know that they’re going to get a straight answer from us. We would never trash a band that’s putting out its first record, just to kill it. Though, with something like the Travis Morrison record, I know that I would give it the same ranking no matter what.”

A 0.0? This reporter thinks that rating is grossly unfair (and, for the record, is a big fan of Travistan). Mr. Schreiber feels otherwise. “I think that a record can be so unlistenable and so terrible that it deserves that rating,” he said. “It’s totally subjective. So is it devoid of worth to me personally? Yes.”

The Nice Guys?

“Obviously, I never foresaw that it would get quite this big,” said Mr. Schreiber, who waxes rhapsodic about record shopping the way only a kid who came of age before the Internet could. “I was sort of ambitious about it, but it’s obviously gone so far beyond my expectations that it’s hard for me to believe that this is my job.”

Mr. Schreiber had the foresight to start Pitchfork in the pre-dawn of the Internet era. He was just 19 years old, living with his parents outside the Twin Cities in Minnesota, collecting records like every other kid with not much else to do. He didn’t go to college, and instead focused on Pitchfork while working various part-time jobs, honing his tech skills and cranking out review after review of his favorite bands. He moved the site to Chicago in 1999 and today has the whiff of the ex-nerd about him-one who has grown into himself a little later in life. His creamy, lightly freckled skin, glinting brown eyes and quick, affable smile brand him immediately as a Midwesterner, and his surprise at Pitchfork’s good fortune is genuine and disarming.

“We never did any advertising or anything-it was all just word of mouth,” Mr. Schreiber explained, leaning back in his desk chair and taking long swigs of Diet Dr. Pepper between remarks. His is a story of a music fan with a good idea-one that any number of young wannabe music/writer geeks could have conceived and pursued, if only they hadn’t been busy with college, keg parties, skateboarding competitions or whatever else we were doing in the mid-90’s.

When Mr. Schreiber started Pitchfork, all he really wanted to do was tell other people about his favorite bands. “I wanted to meet bands-I thought that would be really cool. So I thought it would be kind of fun to start a magazine on the Web and write about my favorite bands and get to meet them,” he explains. “And once I heard about the promos, I was like, ‘Oh my God, unbelievable! Unbelievable!'”

Mr. Schreiber is no longer just a kid enamored of free CD’s. Presently, Pitchfork’s office consists of two cramped but tidy cement-floored rooms in the basement of Mr. Schreiber’s three-floor flat at the edge of Wicker Park, where he lives with his wife, Elizabeth, and two cats. Plastic mail bins of CD’s are stacked everywhere; Pitchfork receives about 300 CD’s a week for consideration. Mr. Schreiber leaves the door to his office open while being interviewed, either because he is unself-conscious or very nervous-it’s impossible to tell which.

Although he supervises a geographically scattered staff of about 50 via instant-messaging, e-mail, an online message board and the telephone, only the three guys on payroll (plus a few interns) work in the actual office. In addition to Mr. Schreiber, there’s managing editor Scott Plagenhoef, 31, who comes off like the wise and patient big brother; where Mr. Schreiber is quick to answer or throw out an idea, Mr. Plagenhoef is pensive and sarcastic, shaking his head at his corner computer in silent disagreement with words flying between others. Chris Kaskie, 24, is Pitchfork’s new advertising director, as well as the threesome’s resident cutie.

These guys aren’t your typical indie kids-they are all well-groomed, two of the three are married, and they don’t smoke. When Mr. Schreiber talks of his first trip to New York City this past October, it’s with the wonderment of an 8-year-old in F.A.O. Schwarz. (Nick Sylvester, 22, a regular Pitchfork writer who also interns at The Village Voice, hung out with Mr. Schreiber on that visit. “Ryan spent a whole day in Times Square, and he was so happy,” Mr. Sylvester recalled, in a tone that betrayed how bizarre that notion was.) That’s the irony of the Pitchfork enterprise: The site has a reputation as a haven for snotty, brutish-and frequently solid and original-writing, but its creator is a sweet, optimistic guy unprepared for and unnerved by his own success.

Growing Pains

While ever-increasing advertising revenue is clearly a boon to the site, it has also created tensions among struggling freelancers and added to Pitchfork’s growing pains. To be sure, a sense of power is the true payoff for any Pitchfork contributor. Says Mr. Sylvester: “You know if you drop an 8.0 on a record, 1,000 people will buy it or download it.” For the last few years, writers brought on staff would abide by a grueling schedule, filing twice a week for six months with no pay at all; after that initiation, they would earn what is truly a pittance-$10 or $20 for a review, and $40 for a feature. These days, writers are promised pay as soon as they start writing for the site, and slightly more money per piece. In the new year, with the redesign, Mr. Schreiber is planning to pay writers “a more competitive rate,” and hopes to woo back some of those who have left out of frustration or for more lucrative ventures.

Writers complaining about low or lack of pay is nothing new, even for critics working in print journalism. And just as it is at smaller independent publications, it’s the sense of toiling together, broke, in the service of a project people believe in that keeps Pitchfork’s staff glued together. But tension over money reached a fever pitch among Pitchforkers when the site’s billing schedule-which charted paid advertising revenue for the site-was swiped and posted last month on hipinion.com, a message board frequented by Pitchfork detractors. It became clear that Mr. Schreiber was bringing in far more money from advertising than most, if not all, of the staff suspected. Rumors about where the money was going-into Mr. Schreiber’s pocket, or his apartment-began to fly.

However, Mr. Schreiber’s frugality in terms of writers’ pay seems less malicious than a case of bad management-one that he’s trying to get a handle on. There’s great hope among staffers that managing editor Plagenhoef, who has experience in the print media, will help professionalize the whole operation and keep writers happier. He is obviously widely respected-everyone this reporter talked to spoke highly of him as a writer, editor and music fan-and Mr. Schreiber acts as if he were sent from the heavens above.

Pitchfork’s relaunch early next year will be a big moment for the site, which appears to be at a crossroads: Will it risk its hipster credibility and keep growing and growing? Will it topple on itself? Or will it be snatched up by some conglomerate and morphed into yet another extension of a multimedia venture?

At this point, Mr. Schreiber scoffs at the idea that he could be bought out. “People come back to us again and again because they know we’re not corrupted,” he said. “If someone offered us tons of money to commercialize the site, it would change into the antithesis of the reason I started it. This is something I am so in love with-this is my entire adult life’s work.” He pauses, concluding with a statement that he may have to re-evaluate if Pitchfork continues its rise: “There aren’t any circumstances under which I would give it up.”