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The Harmonic Dissonance: Reflecting on Pitchfork's Assimilation into GQ – A Lament for Music Media and Musicians

Saturday, 20 January 2024 03:19 Culture

The recent dismantling of Pitchfork and its dedicated team by Condé Nast marks a disheartening chapter in the relentless march of media conglomerates putting capital above culture. My personal connection with Pitchfork dates back to a chance encounter with Zach Kelly, a Pitchfork writer, at a music festival in Norway in 2011. As a fervent 22-year-old music journalism enthusiast, meeting a Pitchfork representative felt akin to encountering a sports hero. This chance meeting led to a remarkable opportunity, as Pitchfork's commitment to nurturing new critical voices eventually resulted in an invitation to join as their first UK staff member.

This narrative, however, is not unique; it echoes countless stories of Pitchfork's editors actively investing in emerging talent. These editors and writers played a pivotal role in discovering and documenting the defining alternative acts of the 21st century. From its humble origins in 1996 as a brainchild of midwestern record-store employee Ryan Schreiber, Pitchfork evolved into a respected, authoritative outlet. Its influential decimal-point scoring system and unapologetically candid reviews contributed to a reputation that rivaled even the heyday of NME.

Pithfork" became synonymous with a particular music culture and its dedicated enthusiasts—an embodiment of an era before artisan culture dominated. Although perhaps viewed as aloof or insular, Pitchfork commanded attention, with readers returning daily, drawn in by its unique allure. However, the recent absorption of Pitchfork into the Condé Nast fold threatens to compromise this distinct identity and signals a broader trend of media conglomerates sacrificing authenticity for financial gain.

As we mourn the dilution of yet another independent voice in music journalism, we must reflect on the larger implications of media conglomerates prioritizing profit over preserving the cultural richness and diversity that independent outlets like Pitchfork once championed.

Condé Nast's acquisition of Pitchfork in 2015 was a watershed moment, leaving many questioning the fate of an independent publication known for spotlighting niche music within the vast expanse of a media giant. The move raised eyebrows: what would happen to a platform that had diversified its critics and music genres over the years, expanding beyond its indie rock roots to embrace pop and rap? The perplexity deepened when Fred Santarpia, Condé's chief digital officer, proudly touted the acquisition's ability to bring a "passionate audience of millennial males" into their fold.

Fast forward eight years, and Pitchfork has succumbed to a fate that seems almost inevitable for new media companies. On January 17, Anna Wintour, the global chief content officer for Condé and editor of US Vogue, sent an email to staff announcing the integration of Pitchfork into the GQ organization. Yet, as veteran employees shared their layoffs on social media, including the departure of executive editor Amy Phillips after more than 18 years, the details of what would remain of the once-independent "team" within the GQ framework remained murky.

The repercussions are disheartening on multiple fronts, with the foremost being the significant job losses during an already challenging period for the media industry. In an era where stability in music journalism is a rarity, Pitchfork stood as one of the last bastions. The question now lingers: where will the displaced former staff and the multitude of freelancers find a home for their creative contributions in the aftermath of Pitchfork's assimilation into the GQ behemoth? The landscape appears bleak, echoing the broader narrative of media consolidation sacrificing unique voices for corporate synergy.

The assimilation of Pitchfork into a men's magazine not only raises eyebrows but solidifies troubling perceptions about music as a male-centric pastime. It undermines the pivotal role played by women and non-binary writers—Lindsay Zoladz, Jenn Pelly, Carrie Battan, Amanda Petrusich, Sasha Geffen, Jill Mapes, Doreen St Félix, Hazel Cills, and the fearless editorial leadership of Jessica Hopper and Puja Patel, among others—who, during the 2010s, transformed Pitchfork into a cultural force. This move suggests that music is being reduced to a mere aspect of consumer lifestyle, diluting its essence as a distinct art form that fosters connections within niche communities, deserving of meticulous analysis, documentation, and, when necessary, investigative reporting.

The editorial prowess of Pitchfork came to the forefront when it tackled sensitive issues, such as Marc Hogan reporting on allegations of sexual misconduct against Win Butler of Arcade Fire and Amy Zimmerman's investigative piece into accusations against Sun Kil Moon songwriter Mark Kozelek. The question looms: will GQ channel resources into such hard-hitting reports or prioritize them alongside lifestyle pieces like "The Best Cordless Stick Vacuum Will Turn You Into a Clean Freak," as seen in their current culture news feed?

While Pitchfork is not without its flaws—questionable reviews, recent overbearing and ahistorical coverage, and a palpable sense of gatekeeping—it has formidable competitors like Stereogum, Consequence of Sound, the Quietus, NPR Music, and a resurgence of blogging and newsletters. However, as the largest player in the field, its potential dissolution mirrors the void left when HMV vanished from the high street. Without a leading example to rally around, to define oneself against, and to engage in passionate discourse, the very idea that specialized music journalism can thrive becomes perilously marginalized—a fate that resonates with the disappearance of NME and Q magazine in the UK, the latter seemingly reborn as a modest blog after changing hands.

The bittersweet symphony of Pitchfork's evolution over the past decade has stirred mixed emotions, with some lamenting its poptimist turn. Once known for eschewing the mainstream and reviewing Ryan Adams' cover of Taylor Swift's 1989 over the original, Pitchfork has now embraced pop as a central fixture. Critics argue that this shift has made the publication less distinct than in its late-2000s heyday when it became synonymous with acts like Arcade Fire and Grizzly Bear. However, this transformation mirrors the voracious reality of modern music consumption.

In an era where attention spans waver, Pitchfork stood as a unique bastion, committed to publishing two to four long-form reviews of new records daily. It went beyond mainstream trends, offering insights into indie, rap, and fiercely niche genres. Moreover, Pitchfork served as a launchpad for new writers, introducing them to an expansive audience. Whether scrutinizing the avant-garde intricacies of "Hanoi conceptualist" Aprxel’s Tapetumlucidum<3 or revisiting classics like Lou Reed's ambient masterpiece or Bob Dylan's Desire in their Sunday Review series, Pitchfork maintained a commitment to meticulousness.

Having contributed numerous reviews myself, I understand the laborious process—two editors, fact-checking, final reads—an apprenticeship for young writers. The impact of such rigor extends beyond the bylines, shaping the craft and skills of emerging voices. Musicians, despite their love-hate relationship with Pitchfork, recognize the pivotal role music media plays in their careers. It exposes their work to a wider audience, crafts narratives that outlast marketing efforts, and offers a critical examination that, even when negative, commands respect.

A Pitchfork review holds the power to catapult an artist into the limelight, shaping perceptions and bridging the gap between good music and a good artist. Noteworthy examples abound, from Mike Powell's review propelling Courtney Barnett's Avant Gardener to Sasha Geffen's insight into MJ Lenderman's Boat Songs in 2022. Deep-diving rap critic Alphonse Pierre has similarly influenced trajectories. Even negative assessments, like Jessica Hopper's masterful review of Lana Del Rey's Honeymoon in 2015, redefine artists' standing.

In a landscape where traditional music publications face extinction, Pitchfork's fate raises broader questions about the future of nuanced music journalism. As the industry continues to shift, the impact of Pitchfork's dissolution reverberates, leaving musicians, writers, and audiences alike contemplating the void left by its absence.

The question may arise: with lengthy articles on the same subject in publications like The Guardian, why the need for Pitchfork? Specialist music publications offer a unique dimension that generalist titles and newspapers often lack. Recently, Pitchfork surprised me by greenlighting a Sunday Review pitch on an exceedingly obscure album—a piece that might not find a place in broader cultural discourse. Writing it, I delved into the national library of the artist's home country, unearthing newspaper clippings from the '80s, and reached out to the original record label for contemporaneous artifacts. Navigating obscure forums, I excavated information tucked away in dusty archives, transforming it for a broader audience. This process carries a value often overlooked by parent media companies fixated solely on the bottom line, condemning platforms that don't align with their shifting priorities.

As witnessed in Bandcamp's recent challenges, these corporate shifts, reminiscent of the infamous "pivot to video," jeopardize the last remaining gems of the internet. The impending transformation of Pitchfork under GQ's banner is shrouded in uncertainty, but a clash of values is evident. Pitchfork, an outlet prioritizing criticism, finds itself at odds with a publication revolving around celebrity access. Evaluating the situation through Condé's corporate lens defies logic. Pitchfork, one of its most dynamic brands, boasts the highest daily site visitors, even with minimal corporate resources. The nimbleness of such publications acts as a litmus test for parent companies, experimenting with new ideas for receptive, youthful audiences before potentially implementing them across more established titles.

Perhaps Pitchfork's rapid evolution outpaced the conservatism of its leadership, embracing a broader representation that may have alienated its original male audience. Over the site's existence, these early supporters may have aged without sufficient replacement, eroding a once-easily defined marketing demographic. If Condé Nast believes this to be the issue—questioning what and who music criticism is for—perhaps they should exhibit the same adventurous spirit in staking out new readerships and revenue streams as their misunderstood acquisition did in discovering new voices, both behind the mic and the keyboard.

In conclusion, the impending transformation of Pitchfork within the realms of GQ reflects more than just a shift in corporate ownership—it signals a clash of values and a potential loss of a unique voice in music journalism. Specialist music publications like Pitchfork serve a crucial role, going beyond the limitations of generalist titles and newspapers. They offer a space for in-depth exploration of obscure albums and unearth hidden cultural artifacts, a realm that often falls outside the scope of mainstream media.

The value of Pitchfork's editorial agility, demonstrated by its ability to navigate niche territories and engage an audience despite limited corporate support, is an essential consideration. The clash between Pitchfork's emphasis on critical analysis and GQ's focus on celebrity access raises questions about the future direction of the platform. As the uncertainties surrounding the Pitchfork x GQ merger unfold, the potential loss of this dynamic, fast-moving brand raises concerns about the fate of adventurous and youth-oriented media within larger corporate structures.

The situation prompts reflection on the evolving landscape of music journalism and the potential consequences of sacrificing unique voices for corporate synergy. As Pitchfork faces this transformation, there's a plea for media conglomerates, such as Condé Nast, to be as daring in staking out new readerships and revenue streams as Pitchfork was in discovering fresh voices—a commitment that transcends demographics and ensures the continued vitality of nuanced music journalism in the ever-evolving digital age.

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