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.