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The Pitchfork lay-offs spell danger for the alternative music press

St Vincent plays Pitchfork Music Festival (Getty Images)
St Vincent plays Pitchfork Music Festival (Getty Images)

Pitchfork, one of music journalism’s most influential online outlets, has become the latest casualty in a string of music industry lay-offs, mergers, and closures.

Originally founded by Ryan Schreiber in 1996, Pitchfork took on a new level of cultural currency in the 2010s, as blogs and emerging digital outlets started to find their feet. Often the snarkiest of the bunch, it worked hard to earn its devilish moniker; mercilessly reviewing albums according to a secretive, decimal-points based scoring system, devoted stans be damned.

Love or loathe Pitchfork’s knack for withering one-liners, it was impossible to deny that it was exciting to take it all in. Success could be career-transforming: after Arcade Fire’s debut album Funeral received a rare, near-perfect 9.7 write-up on the site, the record went out of print for an entire week as their label Merge struggled to keep up with demand.

Now, it feels like one of the last surviving outlets with the power to single handedly break new acts is gone.

When I started out in music journalism just over a decade ago, some cracks were certainly starting to show. Spotify had just launched in the US that year, and a combination of streaming and illegal downloads were already beginning to displace physical music sales. Belts were tightening, advertising revenue was down, and budgets were slashed.

Though we still had a lot of fun, and did a lot of very silly things ‒ I have fond memories of DIY Magazine nearly getting evicted from an office building after we covered a debut-era Wolf Alice with gold glitter from top to toe; turns out that stuff ends up everywhere ‒ the more hedonistic, often ridiculously expensive music biz exploits that my older colleagues loved to wang on about (regaling their tales of glugging from champagne waterfalls; flying all the way to Japan to see a single show on a record label’s dime) largely felt like a thing of the past. By the time I turned up, things felt much more precarious.

Still, it didn’t feel completely hopeless. Though chunks of the traditional music press were struggling to evolve, there was still optimism that the internet would carve out other spaces for fascinating niches and new music discovery to live; that business models would surely adapt.

Change can be a great thing, especially where cultural criticism is concerned; huge legacy institutions should not be able to rest on their laurels, and need to keep up with an ever-shifting landscape. Without change, we would see far less thoughtful coverage of diverse artists from all around the world, for instance. But I never thought that, just a decade after entering the industry, virtually every underground or remotely alternative publication would be gutted, dismantled or left fighting for its life. Yet, here we are.

Pitchfork, which was bought up by Condé Nast in 2015, is now set for a merger with the men’s lifestyle magazine GQ. Dozens of staffers have been laid off, including editor-in-chief, Puja Patel. Even if the brand itself survives, what will survive of that original essence and ethos?

The news comes just months after around 50 per cent of staff at audio distribution site and editorial platform Bandcamp were laid off, leaving the site’s editorial arm Bandcamp Daily in the lurch. Once a place that paid close attention to underrepresented or overlooked music scenes, the entire industry will suffer from its absence.

And it’s far from the only place in trouble. Crack, a London and Bristol-based music publication with an ear for all things experimental, has plainly stated that without reader support, they will be forced to fold.

It’s a similar story for other independent publications such as Loud and Quiet, DIY Magazine, and Dork, while the free independent magazine London In Stereo was forced to close entirely in 2022 following a pandemic-related printing hiatus, and “other mitigating factors too numerous to mention”.

Places like these all play a vital role in the music industry, spotlighting rising stars, taking risks, and focusing on art over celebrity status. Now that the cost of entry for listening to new music is so incredibly low, it’s less commitment than ever to give an album a whirl. Album reviews perhaps hold less power than they used to. But still, I’d argue that the appetite for in-depth, considered analysis is even greater, as our rate of consumption becomes faster, and faster.

If others follow Pitchfork, music will become an infinitely less interesting place. “To the music business I would say, you’re going to miss the music press. Why? Because it did one thing you failed to value,” wrote the former Smash Hits editor David Hepworth, following the closure of Q magazine’s original iteration in 2020. “Through its lens it made your acts seem exciting and larger than life, even when they weren’t.”

It’s true that artists and the music press have always had a slightly tense, sparring relationship between the scathing reviews and difficult interviews; but they need each other. If readers value reading longform journalism about niche music genres and undersung artists, the likelihood is that they will need to start paying for it again. Record labels, promoters and brands with cash to spare can also play their part in preserving an important part of an ecosystem that gives them so much cultural clout in the first place.

The danger and worry is that these outlets will never be replaced, not just leaving music enthusiasts in the lurch but the next generation of artists too. Beyond the chart-topping heavyweights, the major label priority acts, and the established indie darlings, there are thousands of artists with far less financial backing, just trying to be noticed and tell their stories. Without writers to capture it, where do they even begin?