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A recent New York Times profile of Brooklyn resident David, creator of the Pitchfork Reviews Reviews blog, gives an interesting insight into the online sub-culture that has sprung up in opposition to the influence of the internet’s most far-reaching music reviews site.

Early each weekday morning, the indie music Web site Pitchfork posts five new album reviews. Hours later a 22-year-old reader named David downloads them onto his BlackBerry, reads them on his way to work and muscles out a rambling but surprisingly fluid response using his phone’s MemoPad function: no links, no capital letters at the start of sentences, just adrenalized response.

In essence, what David does is turn the tables on Pitchfork: each weekday, he reads every new review on the site, comments upon it and assigns it a score on a scale of 0.0 to 10.0. Instead of “Best New Music,” he gives an award for “Worst New Review.” As far as satire goes, it’s only marginally more subtle than the Scary Movie series, but it is effective nonetheless. Furthermore, it’s the ideal subject matter for a shockingly impersonal medium like tumblr, where small communities choose to blog about each other’s posts rather than having actual upfront discussions.

It’s not so much ironic as it was inevitable that Pitchfork would reach this position. It was originally created as a counterweight to the hegemonic power of traditional media (your Rolling Stones and, yes, your New York Timeses), and any fule no that almost every form of mainstream media began life in opposition to the prevailing discourse, only to become a more refined imitation of the monster it sought to slay.

As a concept, picking apart Pitchfork reviews is neither new nor original, and the runaway success of Pitchfork Reviews Reviews (only online since March) may not have as much to do with the quality of his criticism as it does his almost pathological devotion to his craft. As a blogger, he’s interesting in the way that the characters from High Fidelity are interesting: he clearly has a deep love of music, but it seems to have been consumed by the trivia that surrounds it, and so he elevates pop criticism to a status that it probably hasn’t earned. In short, he’s fascinated by the boring aspects of music.

It’s a shame, because his occasional musings on music are actually far more interesting, if still overtly geeky.

Surprisingly, for me at least, the most interesting thing about the piece isn’t just the fact that David has been profiled at all. A little tidbit tucked away in the middle of the article reveals that, while scrutinising a website is still the most useless pursuit since incessantly making lists about things nobody gives a shit about, he might actually have a point. Witness:

The ratings are not assigned lightly. “Over and over we revisit decisions before they’re on the site,” said Scott Plagenhoef, the editor in chief. Albums are discussed via e-mail and on a staff message board. The review is then assigned to a writer trusted to deliver the group’s opinion. Reviews have individual bylines, but they represent the Pitchfork hive-mind.

So Pitchfork reviews do, perhaps uniquely, represent the views of the collective rather than one individual writer. There is a certain amount of predictability to any review source – for instance, we all know what Rolling Stone is going to give the new Bob Dylan/Bruce Springsteen/Hold Steady album – but people rarely think about the mechanics behind the situation.

Having worked at quite a few different publications, I’ve never known anything like this to happen. In general, at a professional publication, an editor or editors will assign albums for review based on how likely the review is to attract readers – in other words, what’s popular. Often the editor will keep the glamour reviews to himself and assign the middle-tier stuff to his underlings. At amateur or informal publications, the process tends to be a little more democratic out of sheer necessity, and the editors will take on more of the grunt work themselves.

At Sputnik, we do use the staff message board to discuss albums before they’re reviewed, and often these discussions do bring about consensus opinions. In cases where two staff members have reviewed the same album (such as the new Arcade Fire), we will push forward the review that is most representative of the collective opinion. In some rare cases, a staff member will cede review rights to a person with a more representative opinion, but there is no system in place to enforce this outcome. If you’re given an album to review, you can basically say what you want.

Obviously there are positive and negative consequences to all of these approaches. In Pitchfork’s case, the collective bargaining system makes perfect sense – it has allowed them to build a reputation as a solid and reliable review source, as seemingly no matter who writes the review, the result will be consistent with every other review written that day, week, month or year. This is important because, above all else, Pitchfork is a business like any other professional publication and its primary function is to sustain its own existence. Reliability is vital when building a brand, and Pitchfork is a very successful brand.

Reliability begets predictability, though, and then things like this happen. That’s fine when Pitchfork reviews underground/unknown music (which is still its remit), but it also presents an oxymoron in that once Pitchfork has “broken” an artist (e.g. Arcade Fire, Modest Mouse), their subsequent criticism of the same artist becomes, in effect, culturally useless. With such strict and defined parameters, it becomes almost impossible to say anything that hasn’t already been said – or, worse, predicted with an algorithm.

More worryingly, the Pitchfork approach has, in theory at least, the effect of stifling dissenting opinion. Think about it: if my opinion doesn’t match the consensus, then I won’t get any assignments, and if I don’t get any assignments I won’t make any money. Journalists – music journalists in particular – are poorly paid, and it’s not hard to envision a scenario whereby a writer would adopt an opinion contrary to his own just to get some work. Granted, Pitchfork pays better than most – perhaps to avoid this scenario – but the fact remains that, at Pitchfork, it pays to be average.

Pointedly, this system appears to be ultimate handbrake on any real kind of diversity. Certainly, Pitchfork does appear to be biased against certain types of musician, but that’s not unusual in itself, as every publication has its own audience and its own niche. What it does seem to suggest is that those genres that Pitchfork neglects today – most forms of hip hop, dance and metal – have little hope of being represented in future. And as for those flavour of the month genres – stoner rock and crack-dealer rap being the most memorable – well, they’re probably just anomalies.

Certainly, it’s hard to envision a place at the Pitchfork trough for somebody like Nick Greer or Nick Butler. Their loss, I guess.





SwagChef
07.30.10
An enjoyable read, Dave.


Ire
07.30.10
Got halfway through. Will finish in a bit. Great write up!

Willie
07.30.10
Haha. Very nice. If I had to consult with other staff about my review ratings I would never get above a 2.5

Obfuscation24
07.30.10
I personally can't stand Pitchfork, so I thoroughly enjoyed this hahah

FlawedPerfection
07.30.10
Really great blog, Dave. This extends so far into the indie culture that has risen in popularity in the last decade.

Electric City
07.30.10
awesome

qwe3
07.30.10
niiice. great read dave

LegendofPittman
07.30.10
I really liked this, and I found the middle-aged women bias very interesting.

TheCasterKid
07.30.10
Writing anything about Pitchfork seems totally irrelevant at this point as all possible battle lines have been drawn and manned, but well written. Worth a read.

Nikkolae
07.30.10
"I personally can't stand Pitchfork"

me either, fucking hipsters get their fix at pitchfork with albums that get ridiculously high ratings, this kind of stuff makes me love sputnik so much, great write up dave

bailar12
07.30.10
enrique approves tenfold

Eclectic
07.30.10
Great article.
I find it funny that Indie music, a genre originally known for not being part of the hive, is now a hive of it's own.

Urinetrouble
07.30.10
^ exactly. indie is degenerating itself and soon we shall see the new wave of the future: drone metal meets rap music. think about it

ShadowAmI
07.30.10
the only thing i really don't like about pitchfork is the fact that they don't have reviews for a ton of great albums. like they dont have a review for slow riot for new zero kanada.

feav233
07.30.10
This was quite enjoyable

Zizzer
07.30.10
Maybe Pitchfork does have a thing about older women making music. Regina Spektor's new album Far received a 4.8 and was ripped for being immature.

"Despite being closer to her 40th birthday than her Sweet 16, Spektor continues to romp wide-eyed through her compositions like Sally Hawkins' perennially cheery Poppy character from the Mike Leigh film Happy-Go-Lucky"

She was only 29 when Far was released!

Zizzer
07.30.10
Not to mention all the subdued songs on Far (Blue Lips, Eet, Wallet, Laughing With, and Human of the Year).

thediamondcanopy
07.30.10
Eye opening.

Fluorine
07.30.10
Thank you for this. I'm strangely/unhealthily fascinated by Pitchfork.

Zizzer
07.30.10
I thought the part about integer scores being much more common than .9 scores to be pretty interesting.

liledman
07.30.10
wonder what pitchfork would say about sputnik

"bunch of individuals with their opinions, multiple genres, trolls everywhere - it's just too much!"

DaveyBoy
07.30.10
Dave, I personally rated your blog a 10 out of 10... But I discussed it with the remainder of the Pitchfork staff & this is the final product.

Mr. DeSylvia has written an incredible blog; full of wry observations, balanced opinion & relevant examples. Enjoyable & entertaining, it is quite simply the best blog I have ever had the privilege of reading. 2 out of 10.

GulliKyro
07.30.10
Interesting read this. The hive mind aspect of pitchfork has probably come about due to its success creating a burden of expection from the readers on how pitchfork itself should react and judge. In essence its become a victim of its own success and the amusing irony is a website which prides itself on independent thought has become beholden to the beast its created.

I find it useful for the rather narrow sections of music it covers, if you want to find some interesting indie its a decent source, but outside that I wouldn't put any truck into it. For abit of amusement I put together my top 10 favourite albums of the year tis far and found pitchfork had reviewed only 2 of them and neither had gotten above a 7.0, so maybe even trusting it on the narrow indie criteria is risky, but anyway im thinking aloud here. Again interesting read thanks to the writer for this.

ChucklesSupreme
07.30.10
There should be more blogs like this

bloc
07.30.10
Proof that Sputnik is better than Pitchfork

bailar12
07.30.10
^ pos

killrobotmusic
07.30.10
Cool read, I think that Internet culture in general has really shaped the the way that we as listeners explore music. Like anything else that gains popularity, Pitchfork has become the target of satire, statistical analysis, and even dissent. I feel that its connection to the current "indie" movement has been one that has not wavered, but it is also at the mercy to whatever change that movement takes in its duration.

Whether it's Pitchfork or Sputnik or anything else... I think this shows that the bottom line is you have to do your own research on a band/album/genre while using established criticism either to guide your research or to serve as a counterpoint to it.

DFelon204409
07.30.10
i really enjoyed this. as you know from those secret staff forums where we do all of our rating fixings, i have some strong opinions about the effect the hive mind has on general opinion and how certain transcending artists are separating themselves from their imitators.


Zizzer
07.30.10
Any specific examples Nick?

Jash
07.30.10
Awesome write up brah.

pneumoniahawk93
07.30.10
Yeah, you really hit the nail on the head. I use Pitchfork as an alternative, so that I can get a different perspective, but yeah, I had a feeling about this. Especially reading their Thrice reviews. Ugh.

731
07.30.10
Their Thrice reviews are excellent, what's the problem. Just because they don't fap all over a band that isn't particularly good doesn't prove anything. Good article

Skimaskcheck
07.30.10
Great write-up, the statistical look at ratings link was interesting

STOP SHOUTING!
07.30.10
great article and bit of a damning indictment of pitchfork.

Jim
07.30.10
sick blog

731
07.30.10
"Certainly, it’s hard to envision a place at the Pitchfork trough for somebody like Nick Greer or Nick Butler. Their loss, I guess."

this made me lol. And as far as actual writing goes pitchfork is streets ahead of sputnik

sniper
07.30.10
I really enjoyed reading this.

Kiran
07.30.10
pitchfork is obviously of a higher writing quality than sputnik seeing as its their profession

Kiran
07.30.10
awesome blog

2muchket!
07.30.10
nice blog dave

I fucking detest pitchfork and all they stand for however

cunts need to leave dubstep alone as well, the growing number of hipsters flocking to the genre makes me mad

alachlahol
07.30.10
it's a shame pitchfork doesn't have more of a spread when it comes to genres. i'd probably be using that site a lot more if it did

NOTINTHEFACE
07.30.10
Great article. Anyone complaining about the so-called lack of diversity here at Sputnik should try hanging out there for a bit. I know that wasn't the point you were trying to make, but amongst all the frivolity that takes place on this website, good writing and often good opinion and advice can be found, most of it a result of Sputnik's independence. I can't imagine having found out about Sarah Fimm, Nujabes, or Year of No Light on any other website.

illmitch
07.30.10
this was good, but you really missed an important opportunity: taking a look at the same phenomenon that happens at sputnik. everybody knows about the "sputnik albums" and "sputnik bands" and the near-universal acclaim they receive.

pitchfork is wonderful, has quality reviews, and is a great source of new music. i find as much new stuff there as i do here.

fr33convict
07.30.10
I give this article a 4/10. It was good at first but I skipped the last 5 paragraphs.

greg84
07.30.10
Sick write-up! Illmitch is right though. Some aspects are very akin to Sputnik to be honest. You hit the jackpot with the occasional love for stoner rock. Neither this site nor Pitchfork is a reliable source for this kind of music, as well as many subgenres of rock/metal.

thebhoy
07.30.10
this kind of thing naturally happens. I think it was a really interesting blog, Dave, so good job. As for the graph part about P4k rating distribution, it shouldn't come as a surprise. Just look at our rating distributions for reviews, they follow similar trends I'm sure. Also, P4k is good as another music website so I don't get why everyone seems to detest them so much. In fact, a lot of their writers don't even take the site THAT seriously (just look at their Jet review), so if you don't buy into the whole hipster thing and just use it as another means of finding music, then what's the problem? And so what if hipsters use it as a guide to taste making?

731
07.30.10
Yeah, the Pitchfork bashing on this site makes me laugh (not referring to this blog). They cover a lot of great music. It seems like people just routinely hate on them because of the whole hipster connotations the site has, but look beyond that and they still produce a lot of great reviews and it's still a good place to find new stuff.

Zizzer
07.30.10
731, they do have some great reviews, but they also have terrible ones. Start reading the negative ones and count how many times they call the music "pretentious." Music is rarely pretentious because it's different, and usually when someone claims it to be so, they are in fact the ones being pretentious.

illmitch hit on an interesting topic too. There are "sputnik" bands to an extent, but never to an extent that people feel afraid to criticize them of call them overrated. It's not as bad of a problem here because staff don't have to worry about being fired over having different opinions and all.

BrahTheSunGod
07.30.10
"If you are a metal fan, you’ve gotten royally screwed over and overlooked by p4k. Only two albums were selected for BNM within the past year: Sunn O))))’s Monoliths & Dimensions and Isis’s Wavering Radiant (both with scores of 8.5). Adding insult to injury was that out of the 15 albums that scored an 8.5, 11 of them made BNM. Two of the four that didn’t make the cut were metal-related records (Baroness’s Blue Record and Converge’s Axe to Fall) — both occurring on days when no other record made BNM."

aka why Sputnik hates Pitchfork. We're their polar opposite (at least on metal).

rthomps6
07.31.10
Really liked the statistical analysis link. Pretty interesting way to look at pitchfork

kingsoby1
07.31.10
i dont even read p4k

Zizzer
07.31.10
Why?

AlexTM510
07.31.10
pitchfork doesnt suck really just their ridiculous bias is lol worthy sometimes

great article b/w Dave i enjoyed reading it

kingsoby1
07.31.10
I think it's weird that people think this site sucks but still use it?

pneumoniahawk93
07.31.10
731, my point was that they did not really focus on giving the music a balanced, objective review. It seemed as if the writer had a host of pre-conceptions about the album before he actually listened to it, and he wasn't really going to shift them, and you get the sense that they do that with a lot of albums. For a professional writer, that's just not up to scratch. I understand the same happens fairly frequently here, but this is an amateur site where anyone can post a review.

IsItLuck?
07.31.10
this was an excellent read, thank you Dave

StreetlightRock
07.31.10
i love Pitchfork

731
07.31.10
no you're just mad because they gave Thrice a negative review

731
07.31.10
above comment is @pneumoniahawk

acorncheese
07.31.10
Pitchfork is kinda hilarious.

Zizzer
07.31.10
Actually pnuemoniahawk has a pretty good point. That does happen a lot.

crazyblinddude
07.31.10
Great article.

fromtheinside
07.31.10
joanna newsoms have one on me got voted best new music and was rated a 9.2
of course this could be their token female.

Electric City
07.31.10
she's not middle aged

fromtheinside
07.31.10
i was adding to the regina spektor convo.

JesusV4
07.31.10
The hive-mind mentality (eg, Animal Collective, Opeth) is a problem on Sputnik as well, though not as big. Don't get me wrong - Blackwater Park is a good album, and I'd never have heard Animal Collective if not for Sputnik - But this blog is just a good reminder to us all to hold onto our minds!

Geist
08.02.10
Another point that I think is important to bring up is the attachment of importance to albums simply because Pitchfork (or another critic of any sort- take your pick) support it, where the critical adoration leads to the 'reading-in' to an album or artist that wouldn't necessarily be given the time of day otherwise.

Examples for Pitchfork, in my opinion: Wavves, Polvo, Radiohead (to a degree- I think the albums are superb, just the ridiculous pedestals they're put on serve no purpose but to give the writers a workout with their adverbs), that excellent example of Kylesa, etc.

Music journalism in the age of the internet is taking some turns towards a pretty scary future.


Iai
08.04.10
The point with comparing Sputnik bands with Pitchfork bands, though, is that the staffers here aren't silenced or ostracised for speaking out, sometimes violently and passionately, against those bands. Me with Converge and Jared with Tool (back when they were HUGE here) are probably the most blatant examples, but I don't like Animal Collective, Hanson isn't fond of Opeth, and so on. And Willie and Davey are just such crazy outliers in all this - clearly neither were hired because their tastes match the general consensus!

breesuschrist
08.05.10
read p4k's Kid A review, it's hilariously over the top

731
08.05.10
'Examples for Pitchfork, in my opinion: Wavves, Polvo, Radiohead'

Polvo rule and don't get enough recognition. I never see anybody on sputnik talk about them

JesusV4
08.08.10
Gotta say, the staffers here are allowed to be independently minded (I've always theorized, hired BECAUSE they are independently minded).

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