Long Live Pitchfork (and what's in my CD case)

You may have heard that the inflential music blog Pitchfork (https://pitchfork.com/) recently became a subdivision of GQ magazine.  As of now, Pitchfork is still posting music reviews and news just like before.  Nevertheless, some articles have sounded the death knell for Pitchfork and for music criticism more generally, such as this interesting piece from The Verge by Elizabeth Lopatto: 


Lopatto traces Pitchfork's history, noting that its favorable reviews “broke” many important indie bands during its heyday in the 2000s, such as Arcade Fire and The National.  She discusses several structural reasons for Pitchfork's recent decline in revenues and viewership.  First, the music business is less lucrative now that streaming has replaced CDs as the dominant medium, so record label advertising budgets have shrunk.  Second, those smaller budgets are increasingly devoted to targetted ads on Facebook and other social media, where labels can target people who already like a particular artist or genre.   Third, artists are able to communicate news about upcoming tours or releases directly to fans through social media, so blogs are no longer as important as sources of music news.  Finally, Spotify and other playlist curators are increasingly replacing blogs as gatekeepers.  Two decades ago, you might have read Pitchfork or Spin to learn about new music; now, you hear it on your favorite playlist, and there are thousands of playlists that are tailored to whatever genres and niches that you like.  

If Lopatto is correct and Pitchfork and other blogs are doomed, I believe this is a sad and ominous development for the future of music.  I think independent-minded, opinionated and thoughtful blogs like Pitchfork still have an important role in introducing new music to the public, one that will not be filled by social media and streaming services.  

I am an old man who sometimes yells at clouds, but I don't subscribe to the stereotypical view that “music was better in the old days”.  I don't like much of contemporary Top 40, but there are plenty of great indie rock bands to come along in the last decade whose music I follow (and buy) avidly.  And the way I learned about Alvvays, Weyes Blood, Black Midi, Mitski and so many other artists was by reading about them on Pitchfork, Obscure Sounds and other blogs, especially their year-end and decade-end “Best of” lists.   

It has never been easier to record and distribute music, and as a result there is a flood of new music released every day on Spotify.   Frankly, most of it is not good, but some of it is great.  We need gatekeepers to filter out the good from the bad and to let the world know who is worth listening, especially new artists who need attention and nurturing, lest their music sink into obscurity or, worse, never be created in the first place.  

But why do we need blogs?  Why can't playlist curators fulfill the same function?  To some extent, they do--new artists can submit their tracks directly to Spotify for consideration on their own “editorial” playlists, which have a high volume of listeners, and websites like SubmitHub allow you to submit tracks to both blogs and other playlists for consideration.  But there are important differences between blogs and playlists.  First, playlists only feature singles, while blogs also review albums.  I've wrtten before about why I think albums are still an essential medium for music.  

Second, and more important, blogs are more likely to recognize and promote original, quirky, groundbreaking music than playlists, because they face different incentives.  Playlists make money by fostering continued engagement.  The worst thing that can happen on a playlist is that someone hears a song they don't like and switches to another channel.  Curators are thus incentivized to play it safe, to play songs that are already familiar or that fit safely into the playlist's established vibe.  Playlists would rather add a song that fades into the background than a song that stands out and sounds different.  An edgy track might really appeal to some listeners, but it will drive others away, and avoiding the latter outcome is more important to curators than achieving the former outcome.  So playlists tend to be conservative.  They encourage new artists to sound like bands that are already popular, and to fit comfortably into a particular niche and vibe.  

Blogs, meanwhile, have an incentive to be provocative, to draw attention to things that are truly new.  They thrive on passionate fans who come back to find new things.   Pitchfork gained notoreity by doing outrageous, attention-getting things, such as giving Radiohead's Kid A a perfect 10/10 score while giving other records 0/10.  Blogs want to be known for breaking new bands, especially bands that are weird or quirky, bands that don't fit comfortably into one genre or create a new genre unto themselves.  Bands that are really just 59-year old economics professors ranting about things that they think are stupid.  (Ok, maybe the last example is idiosyncratic).  

Put it this way--if you want new music that sounds just like existing music, then go ahead and listen to whatever playlists give you.  If you want new music that actually is challenging and original and exciting, go read Pitchfork and other blogs while you still can.

Or maybe I can be your gatekeeper.  Here is what I've been listening to lately, old and new.  

Alex G, House of Sugar

The Band, Stage Fright

Black Midi, Cavalcade

The Breeders, Last Splash

Feeble Little Horse, Girl With a Fish

Game Theory, Big Shot Chronicles

S.G. Goodman, Teeth Marks

Mitski, This Land Is Inhospitabe and So Are We

Steeleye Span, Parcel of Rogues

Weyes Blood, Titanic Rising

Ron Wood. Boulders 



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