The end of Pitchfork is an ugly omen for music journalism’s future

The end of Pitchfork is an ugly omen for music journalism’s future

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Pitchfork’s wild 28-year mutation — from loudmouth upstart to bully tastemaker to critical agenda-setter to Condé Nast portfolio piece and self-anointed “most trusted voice in music” — took a dismal twist Wednesday afternoon when none other than Anna Wintour issued a memo announcing that this century’s most influential music publication would be merging with GQ. Wintour’s memo came sprinkled with some happy talk about “new possibilities,” but the layoffs that were handed down at Pitchfork in the hours that followed — including the ouster of editor in chief Puja Patel — made it clear that an era was ending.

I’ve hated and loved Pitchfork for more than half of my life, but my grief is uncomplicated. I’m furious to see it go out like this. A once-provocative, once-independent music outlet being folded into a legacy men’s magazine feels, at worst, thoughtless, and at best, a foul omen for the entirety of music journalism. If music criticism has become an endangered practice at publications with massive influence, deep history and wide readership, where can it ever hope to survive?

And I’m talking about music criticism here, something that Pitchfork has churned out consistently across its many shifts in tone and form over the past decade, continuously populating its landing page with the work of writers who aren’t afraid to tell us how mediocre the new 21 Savage album is. Reviews like that certainly don’t drive heaps of digital traffic in 2024, but they do perform the essential work of music criticism: listening, witnessing, telling the truth. How could this practice possibly continue at GQ, a publication that works so hard to avoid insulting its subjects? Wild guess: It won’t. Which means that the world of music journalism will continue melting into the ambiguous shape of publicity, perpetuating the flattery death-spiral that results from big publications needing access to big stars more than the other way around. A brutal scene.

Early in Pitchfork’s trajectory, the site seemed drawn to an entirely different kind of brutality. Focusing on indie rock bands, Pitchfork reviewed many of them mercilessly — and if you lived through those years, you might be lacing up your dancing shoes en route to the gravesite. The site’s stable of critics often seemed capricious, uninvested, sometimes spiteful, assigning low scores on a signature 10-point scale with punitive zeal. As Pitchfork grew in readership and clout, the site seemed to relish the antagonistic relationship it was cultivating with the underground community it was covering, and for some the bad blood still flows.

But by the end of the aughties, it was Pitchfork’s rave reviews that made it into a tastemaking powerhouse, helping turn Arcade Fire and Bon Iver into the kinds of bands that get nominated for Grammys. Pitchfork launched its own annual music festival in Chicago in 2006, and by 2015 the brand had gone so boffo that founder Ryan Schreiber and co-owner Chris Kaskie sold Pitchfork to Condé Nast — the new parent company’s chief digital officer Fred Santarpia praising its acquisition for bringing “a very passionate audience of Millennial males into our roster.” From there, Pitchfork admirably continued to expand its coverage beyond the White, dude-centric indie bands that it was founded on, and, strangely, ended up showing more grace to the 21st century’s wealthiest pop stars than they did to the unknowns they had made their name trampling.

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Of course, that “they” is always changing. We tend to perceive music publications as these singular, monolithic hive-minds, but they’re always made up of individual listeners, writers and thinkers. And while I still resent Pitchfork for its scorched-earth aughties, it’s impossible to deny the style, intelligence and critical heft of its more recent star writers — Cat Zhang, Philip Sherburne, Alphonse Pierre and others. Writers are not the companies they work for. And if today’s mediascape continues on its present course, we won’t need any reminding of that — there won’t be any publications for music writers to work at. Capitalism remains stupid and zombielike, a self-cannibalizing game of acquisitions and corpse-dumping when profits aren’t up to some ludicrous standard. What happens next at Pitchfork under GQ concerns me, for sure. But not as much as what happens to the rest of music criticism in a post-Pitchfork world.

It feels too easy to be prescriptive and rah-rah here, but do we have any other choice? It’s time for music writers to come together and start their own magazines, their own fanzines, their own websites. Listeners will always want to share their musical experiences, and hopefully those who believe in criticism as a craft will find ways to monetize their ideas so they can continue the work. They’ll have to. The towers — the one I’m writing from currently seems stable for now — are being knocked down. It’s hard to see a future in the rubble. As in any kind of cultural criticism, imagination will be necessary.

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