Jonathan Garrett on Pitchfork's Early Days, the End of an Era, and the Perils of Professionalism

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I briefly considered writing something about the beginning of the end of Pitchfork. (I know people are saying it's "the end," and while I get the impulse to do so, I think emotion is clouding the simple fact that media properties don't straight-up disappear—they slowly bleed out and decompose in open air, stubbornly sticking around long after people start complaining about the smell.) It's terrible, a lot of my close friends worked there and lost their jobs, I deeply feel for them and more than understand the hurt and uncertainty surrounding all of it. The future, as ever, seems concerning.

I've done a fair share of writing about my experience working at Pitchfork, as well as my views on how the publication has and has not evolved, over the last four years that this newsletter has existed. (If you want to read my past thoughts, I highly recommend perusing the archives of this publication; at this very moment I'm allergic to the solipsism of revisiting my past work, although don't take that as an admission of a lack of ego, "lmao.") I have nothing new to say really, plenty have waxed eloquently and otherwise on this topic in the last week—although I will make three notes of personal opinion here just to close my own book on things:

  1. However bad you think this is for music writers present and future, it's worse for the music industry, whose myriad publicists, managers, and even musicians are likely holding their heads in frustration trying to figure out what a promotional plan will even look like moving forward. Of course, this is partially due to lack of imagination across the board—what isn't, these days?—and truthfully, the consistent press insistence of "We're waiting to hear back from Pitchfork before we move forward with other asks" has been a fool's errand for years now, as coverage on the site itself has increasingly narrowed beyond the reviews section (just take a look at what happened to the Tracks section from 2014 on). Still! If you were a left-of-center indie act looking for a P4k look before, good luck trying to get into whatever GQ has in store features-wise (my prediction: BNM as something that applies to things beyond reviews, e.g. a social sell like "Playboi Carti's new album is named Best New Music—read our exclusive interview and check out this fashion spread with the rapper now"). The music industry is totally reality-averse, and I suspect it will take a few years, longer maybe, for people to realize that the promo machine needs different gears and an oil change; they'll likely realize it when it's too late, if they realize it at all. That's just how things go.
  2. For anyone asking "How did this happen?": I think it would be worth looking far back into what necessitated the sale to Condé to begin with. Or, as actual journalists commonly invoke—follow the money!
  3. For every writer and editor that an institution like Pitchfork lifts up, there are many more people it leaves behind or, much worse, actively harms. Such things take place due to basic apathy or neglect, as well as the fostering of professional environments that encourage the presence of harassment, bigotry, substance abuse, sexual assault, and exclusion based on race/gender/sexuality/not being a white guy/et-fucking-cetera. The people who suffer in these instances are rarely, if ever, white men, and those responsible rarely, if ever, experience consequences for their actions. Amidst all the retroactive hosannas and nostalgia, I think it's easy to forget (I also think that people often want and try very hard to forget) that these marginalized voices rarely, if ever, get a chance to share their experiences in a manner that guarantees their safety, professional or otherwise. I wonder if the more visible voices in music writing currently entertaining notions of "publications post-Pitchfork" are thinking about these people and their experiences, and how to prevent the toxic power structures that were previously in place from simply being reconstructed with a fresh coat of paint applied. I hope they are, but I'm a realist, too, so I'm keeping my expectations low.

One thing that's interesting about when an institution like Pitchfork starts doing the "Sonic the Hedgehog 2 drowning-underwater music" sound is how history gets reconsidered, retold, and rewritten. The publication's been around a long time, so starting points and dead ends tend to look different depending on the lens of experience through which such concepts are viewed.

Jonathan Garrett is someone I've been in touch with for a long time, since my days starting at Pitchfork in the early 2010s; he's also a true Pitchfork O.G. in that he started contributing to the site in earnest way, way back in 1999. Jonathan has since written for the site on-and-off and has continued to write about music in a variety of ways while also working within the music industry.

We've emailed on and off for years now, largely about (surprise, surprise) Pitchfork; when the news started breaking last week, we were of course ping-ponging huge chunks of text, and eventually Jonathan sent me the following essay and asked me if I'd like to publish it on the newsletter. I told him I'd be proud to, and I am; I think the ideas he puts forth here are well worth considering and thought-provoking in their own right.

A few days ago, news came down that Pitchfork would be folded into GQ—and with that news also came word that a significant chunk of the staff would be let go. This is, of course, horrible news for those affected, and my thoughts, first and foremost, are with them. A layoff is always hard and doubly so when it’s in a field where the jobs seem to be dwindling by the day. I hope they all find great landing spots soon. They deserve it.

There is also the bigger picture, about the media landscape and music criticism in general. I debated saying anything at all. I’ve read many thoughts from various staffers, contributors, and former contributors—from critics on the outside looking in, from artists, from other readers. There’s been a lot of great commentary. I’ve also had a bunch of conversations over text and DM with people who have been a part of the Pitchfork universe. It’s been nice to reconnect with people that I haven’t talked to in years, in some cases.

Ultimately, I decided to share because I do think I have a somewhat unique perspective. I was never in the Pitchfork inner circle, but I suppose I would say I was always in the outer orbit. And as someone who began reading in 1995-1996 when it was still called Live Wire, and as someone who started contributing in 1999 when I was a college freshman in Chicago, I’ve got a longer view than most save for Ryan Schreiber, Mark Richardson, Brent DiCrescenzo, and a handful of others.

My involvement could best be described as a series of stints—first, as an extremely green album reviewer with my dormmate Pete Beatty (my lone claim to fame in this era was making an unnamed cameo in the intro to Ryan’s review of Grandaddy's The Sophtware Slump), then as a somewhat more experienced writer mainly focused on track reviews (2008-2010), and then finally as a long-form specialist on and off until 2018. (If you’re at all interested in checking out those pieces while the archives are still accessible, you’re welcome to click here, here, here, and here.)

There are a handful of moments you remember in life with absolute clarity—no matter how far removed you are from them—and getting that initial reply email from Ryan is one I’ll never forget. He had posted an open call for writers, as he often did in those early days, and Pete and I apparently drank enough one night to convince ourselves that it wouldn’t be a totally insane idea to submit a review. Our time at Pitchfork under the shared byline was mercifully short. It turns out that spending your free time knocking out album reviews at 19 years old when you’re trying to adjust to college and figure your life out is indeed an insane idea.

It would be a decade until my next Pitchfork stint, and the contrast was striking. I honestly can’t recall how I came aboard again; it was probably through then-editor-in-chief Scott Plagenhoef. We had both been on the Sound Opinions message board in the early 2000s, where we often found ourselves commenting in the same threads. By 2008, I had contributed to a variety of alt-weeklies (RIP) and other online pubs.

I do remember almost immediately being taken aback by how much the inner workings had changed. Back when I started with Pitchfork in ‘99, it was essentially a one-man operation, if you could even call it an operation. Contributors were paid in free promo CDs and bylines. Scores were submitted with the review copy and then were discussed over AOL instant messenger if Ryan disagreed. (Sometimes he had good reason to object to a proposed score!)

When I rejoined, it had moved to more of a committee model. There was an internal site where staff and contributors could submit songs for potential review. Everyone would rate and comment. and then editors would choose which ones would get the green light for review. In one sense, I understood the need for the processes. At that point, Pitchfork had become recognized as a site that could vault a band into the public consciousness. It had real commercial power. (I don’t think I need to retell this part of the story.)

But the increased bureaucracy was also indicative of a broader change in both style and tone to position the publication as a professional entity. At this point, the brand had started to expand its coverage yet the writers were still overwhelmingly white and male. (The site also made a point of assiduously avoiding coverage of certain mainstream records.) But the big shift was abandoning the absurdist reviews, the ones that sometimes felt like creative writing class exercises featuring comically long setups that often had nothing to do with the music. The site made no secret of wanting to be taken seriously, and to my surprise, I started receiving actual checks in the mail from a web site featuring album reviews.

The subsequent regimes, especially post-Condé sale, saw the publication take another step in diversifying both its coverage and its contributor pool. I can’t comment on the inner workings during this era, but through various conversations with others who were on the inside during this time, it sounds like processes and oversight only increased, which makes sense given the sheer number of people on the payroll.

I think the one piece that’s been somewhat lost in all the dialogue I’ve seen so far is that middle step. Most of the more casual observers break Pitchfork into two eras: the misogynistic, immature, narrow-minded early years. and the enlightened, professional, inclusive present day. But it’s that missing middle stretch in the retelling that most fascinates me. Because what we just witnessed isn’t, in my opinion, a failure of inclusivity, expanded coverage, or really any of the changes implemented during the Conde era—but rather of the “professionalization” era that preceded it.

We all accept the idea, in the abstract, that not everything functions best as a business. We rightly denigrate “for profit” colleges, which gladly prey on students and saddle them with debt. The for-profit model has been ruinous for healthcare, too. Maybe it’s time to consider the possibility that music criticism and writing functions best when it’s not subject to the demands of a business model—that, in order for it to work its magic, it needs to be freed of the commercial burdens of constant growth and of the kind of corporatized groupthink that almost always sets in as the maniacal focus on growth overtakes all other considerations.

In all my reading about Pitchfork over the past couple of days, one small section of an article really stood out. Laura Snapes, a longtime Pitchfork contributor and the current deputy music editor at The Guardian, wrote: “I know from having written dozens of these reviews how much work goes into them: two editors, fact-checking, final reads—a meticulousness that can be the making of young writers, each edit imparting a lesson you carry with you.”

I would never dispute that editors can teach important lessons and make someone a better writer. Lord knows I’ve benefitted from plenty of excellent editors. But it’s funny to think about this comment in the context of the different Pitchfork eras. I wonder what a young Ryan Schreiber who started what was essentially an online zine from his parents’ laundry room would make of the approach that Snapes describes. There is no question that a late-period Pitchfork review is technically better, but is it more meaningful to the people who read it? Is that what people respond to? I’m not so sure. It feels like something vital to Pitchfork’s appeal has been lost along the way.

Recently, I’ve been much more optimistic about the state of music criticism, if not necessarily the business of it. During the pandemic, a bunch of kids from my college banded together to start a student-run music publication and, shockingly, students are lining up to contribute their random musings. Around the same time, I also decided to forego a commission to contribute to a small, zine-y site called Melted Magazine that reminded me a bit of Pitchfork in its infancy. I think I was the oldest contributor by a couple decades.

It was nice to able to write about something without having to provide a lengthy upfront justification and still feel like I was a part of something bigger than myself. I’ve seen a number of similar sites pop up, and this time feels different from the late '00s and early '10s era, where everyone was busy trying to game the hype machine for blog supremacy. These people seem mostly uninterested in scaling. They seem content. And it’s a joy to read them.

Unlike the New Yorker critic and former Pitchfork scribe Amanda Petrusich, I don’t believe we’ve seen the “death knell for the record review as a form.” But I do think the end of this Pitchfork era might well bring to a close the idea of the record review as a revenue generator. I am sad for the people who have watched their paychecks vanish overnight and they have my deepest sympathies. But I am simultaneously hopeful that the end of this era may serve as a cautionary tale for the next generation. We may never again reach the heights of Pitchfork at its peak, and that might be the best possible outcome.

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Jamie Larson