The Pitchfork Frankenstein Effect: Indie Powerhouse Now Spawns Bands in its Own Image

beach fossils credit victoria jacob The Pitchfork Frankenstein Effect: Indie Powerhouse Now Spawns Bands in its Own ImageRyan Schreiber, the founder of Pitchfork, thinks indie rock is getting younger. The 34-year-old, who launched his highly influential Web site from his parents’ basement 15 years ago, was sitting on the steps outside of the Pitchfork office in Greenpoint last Thursday night. He was wearing an unbuttoned plaid shirt and smoking a cigarette while an assortment of staffers, friends and musicians were inside, chatting in the afterglow of a brief live set by the Brooklyn band Beach Fossils.

“There’s definitely a subculture of blogger music that’s, like, super youthful,” Mr. Schreiber said, sounding more like a surfer from Southern California than the Midwesterner he is. “It just seems like almost everybody who’s starting a band now and coming out and sort of establishing themselves—it definitely seems like a whole bunch of, like, really young kids.” 

The four young men of Beach Fossils, a delicate indie pop group who sound like Joy Division covering early R.E.M., are all either 24 or 25. Here’s how young they are: During their set on Thursday, one of them wore a Zwan shirt, which if you don’t remember was Billy Corgan’s band for about five minutes after the Smashing Pumpkins broke up. They’re so young that the night before the Pitchfork show, when they played at Death by Audio in Williamsburg, the boyish bass player John Pena finished the set by smashing his instrument through the floor tom, for fun, and breaking all of his tuning pegs. They are so young that Mr. Pena has been reading Pitchfork and listening to the records Mr. Schreiber and his cohort have been recommending since he was just 15. 

That’s true of many of the youngsters whose music Pitchfork is championing lately. And while Beach Fossils frontman Dustin Payseur says he never read the site until they started writing about him, and Mr. Pena insists he just likes what he likes, it would seem that much of the music getting written about on the site today—Beach Fossils included—has Pitchfork built into its DNA.

Drinks on Thursday night were provided by Tito’s, the vodka manufacturer sponsoring the show at the high-ceilinged, windowless space near the BQE that serves as Pitchfork HQ. The arrangement, brokered by the site’s advertising department, was that the Beach Fossils set would be taped for Pitchfork.TV, and then promoted on the site’s front page alongside ads for Tito’s.

The ad guy spearheading the campaign—way more of a bro, personality-wise, than the nerds in editorial, according to one Pitchfork contributor—asked the editors to find a band to play the show. They chose Beach Fossils because they were “available,” Mr. Schreiber said, and because their music had been praised on the site. The band wasn’t paid for the performance, but they didn’t mind. After the set Mr. Pena hung out by the keg and at one point cartoonishly licked a girl’s face.

“We’re happy to do this,” said Mr. Payseur. “This is good.”

 

BEACH FOSSILS HAVE been playing together for a little over a year. Pitchfork first wrote about them last December, when one of the MP3s the band had posted on MySpace caught the critics’ attention. At that point, Mr. Payseur didn’t even have a full band together, let alone a record out. He doesn’t know how Pitchfork heard about him, but one day there was an email in his inbox saying the site wanted to review one of his songs.

“It kind of made me nervous,” Mr. Payseur said. “I feel like a lot of people are impressionable, and a lot of people don’t know how to make up their own minds so they look to somebody who, you know, has a lot of power.” He went on: “A lot of blogs will say a lot of good things about a band and then the band might get a bad review on Pitchfork and all the blogs start saying bad things about the band.” 

He offered an example of Pitchfork’s power in Wild Nothing, the band Beach Fossils shared a bill with the night before at Death by Audio.

“That’s a guy out of Virginia that nobody knew a few months ago—he just got ‘Best New Music,’ and now everybody’s listening to him. I think that’s awesome.” 

Mr. Payseur was referring to a coveted designation that Pitchfork bestows upon albums beloved not just by one writer at the site but by a whole bunch of them. Getting “BNM” can launch a band from zero, generating interest not just among music fans and retailers but assigning editors at other publications who use Pitchfork as a guide for what to cover. Whether or not an album gets “BNM” depends on whether a critic who’s really behind it can rally enough support on the internal Pitchfork staff board, the password-protected forum where most of the interaction between the site’s writers—including those who live in New York—takes place.

Pitchfork has famously brought a number of previously unknown bands to prominence, such as Broken Social Scene and the Arcade Fire, whose success in 2003 and 2004, respectively, served as two of the earliest unqualified demonstrations of the site’s muscle. That mechanism is still very much at work, as one look at the lineup for this week’s Northside Festival — full of bands championed early by Pitchfork — would tell you.