Is Pitchfork Still the Center of the Indie Music Universe?

Dawes at SXSW 2013

In a slightly disconcerting 51-second video uploaded in 2006, dissonant piano music plays. Then; a man—no, not a man, a dummy dressed in red, with the name Sound Team taped to it’s chest, swerves into view of the shaky-cam footage. The dummy is swiftly impaled on a pitchfork a number of times; it’s then hurled from a cliff and set alight. Watching this video, it’s hard to imagine what this might be in aid of—a cross between a low-budget silent movie and a grotesquely comic recruitment video—but a little research shows that it’s more like a virtual middle finger. The clip is a reaction to Pitchfork, who gave Sound Team a mere 3.7/10 review and criticized their lack of “like, songs”.

For those who don’t know, Pitchfork is a music site that covers the independent music scene through reviews and an active online community. It’s known for providing scathing—and some would say outright elitist—looks at all kinds of independent musicians. Around since 1999, they are a presence that has constantly divided the indie community. They’ve sometimes writen off albums that have since been hailed as classics, and other times gotten it spectacularly wrong as a band is met with a mediocre reception after a sparkling review from Pitchfork. At their prime, they were heralded as a new horizon for music journalism—putting reviewing music and making bands back in the hands of the listener. Now more than ever, there’s a backlash against Pitchfork that’s beginning to threaten the stability of the once thought untouchable paragon of musical opinion.

Okay, so what exactly is wrong with Pitchfork? In theory, it sounds like a great idea—spreading the word of indie gospel throughout the land and beyond. But, where once it was willing to go out on a limb for a band and really throw something totally into the pot, they’ve now got profitability to think of. Fewer and fewer people will come on to Pitchfork just to browse; they’ll usually be looking for a specific review: is this new album worth listening to or not? Their area of reviews has narrowed, and with that, it’s compromised it’s position as bastion of the indie community.

And, as I mentioned earlier: Christ, have they got it wrong in the past. Of course, everything comes down to what that particular reviewer makes of an album, but some opinions are just a little bit wrong. And even Pitchfork have realized this later. For instance, they slated the hell out of Belle & Sebastian’s The Boy With the Arab Strap; a few years later, in light of the band’s later comeback album, this review was quietly removed from the website.

And that’s not the only time they’ve retroactively decided they were wrong about something; take UNKLE’s first album, Psyence Fiction, which they believed merited a practically perfect 9.8 upon it’s release. When the band released their second album, which received a mere 5.0, the site took down their first review, and declared the debut record lacking “on little things like, oh, vitality, restraint, emotional resonance, and tunes”. I’m not sure how the rest of the world feels about stuff like this, but as somebody who has made a living solely off reviewing music for several months of my life, it seems like cheating to decry your original opinion of an album, song, or band—whatever you think of them now, that was your immediate reaction and you don’t get a second chance at (re-writing) a first impression. Anyone not willing to stand by their opinion—when giving out their opinion is their damn job—makes me question the validity of their reviews in the first place.

Consider too that they’ve had a sterling record leaking music. In 2006, a blunder in the tech department meant that they left a bunch of unreleased albums up for grabs to a user smart enough to get hold of them. Over 300 albums were included in the download, and, while most of them had previously been leaked through peer-to-peer sharing sites, a few hadn’t. Amongst these was Joanna Newsom’s Ys album, which wound up on pretty much every single end-of-year list and a substantial number of end-of-decade and all-time album list too. You can’t argue that they’re ahead of the curve—although maybe not in the way that they’d want.

To finish, consider this: when David Cross, comedian, was asked to compile his list of favorite albums, he submitted an article called “10 Albums to Listen to While Reading Overwrought Pitchfork Reviews”. In it, he pretty made rated everything on a scale of one to Radiohead. And that is probably the best critique of the site anyone could ever begin to offer you.

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