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Today let’s examine the latest case of platform dynamics reshaping the digital media landscape, claiming as a victim one of the most culturally influential publications of the past two decades: Pitchfork, the venerable news and reviews site that for a time was among the most powerful tastemakers in music.
On Wednesday, Semafor’s Maxwell Tani shared an internal memo from Condè Nast, which had acquired the formerly independent publication in 2015. Pitchfork is being merged into GQ, chief content officer Anna Wintour announced; as part of the move, Pitchfork editor in chief Puja Patel is leaving the company. No further staff reductions were announced, though they seem inevitable.
"This decision was made after a careful evaluation of Pitchfork's performance and what we believe is the best path forward for the brand so that our coverage of music can continue to thrive within the company," Wintour wrote.
For a certain kind of millennial, the news hit like a death in the family.
“I can’t imagine my relationship to music without Pitchfork,” wrote Jamieson Cox, a former writer for the site (and former Verge colleague), on his blog. “I can’t imagine my relationship to myself without Pitchfork. It was the dominant voice in music criticism when my taste was an untouched ball of clay and it molded me accordingly.”
As a longtime and once diehard reader of the site, my feelings tracked exactly with Cox’s. Created by Ryan Schreiber in 1996 while he worked at a record store outside of Minneapolis, Pitchfork came to prominence in the early 2000s on the back of its obsessive, audacious, and (yes) often obnoxious reviews.
I was an early college graduate in those days, and considered good taste in music a pillar of my identity, and so in hindsight it was inevitable that I would come to read the site religiously. Each day, I would read the site’s daily reviews during my lunch break, waiting for the moments when the staff would hand out one of their relatively rare “best new music” designations.
In the early days I remember laughing out loud at Pitchfork’s reviews, which often ran into the thousands of words and at times seemed to have little to do with the music itself. Over time, though, I came to appreciate the vast musical knowledge possessed by even the most occasional freelancer for the site. Open a review of a band you had never heard of and you could be certain the piece would place their new record in the context of everything else they had ever recorded, the genre in which they operated, and possibly the entire history of recorded music.
And beyond being knowledgeable, Pitchfork was deeply opinionated. At a time when Rolling Stone and other music magazines were rubber-stamping nearly every review with a milquetoast three-star rating, Pitchfork went out of its way to pick fights, famously slagging Liz Phair, the Dismemberment Plan's Travis Morrison, and others during its early reign of terror.
People hated them for it, of course, and roughly half of the anti-hipster discourse that dominated Tumblr in the late 2000s seemed focused on the pretension and snobbery that, to some people, Pitchfork had come to represent. What that criticism missed was how often Pitchfork got it right: in its famous (and appropriate) veneration of Radiohead, of course, but also in the way it championed Wilco, Arcade Fire, Cat Power, Bloc Party, and dozens of other great artists long before they achieved wider success.
Crucially, Pitchfork also served as a bridge between boomer and Gen X music critics and millennials. While it was best known for its daily reviews, Pitchfork also took a stab at curating a canon, with occasional lists of the best songs of previous decades putting contemporary indie rock, pop, and hip-hop into conversation with the past.
It had its blind spots, of course: the site was particularly slow to pay significant attention to pop and hip-hop. But it eventually broadened its focus, and by the time it got acquired it was the standard bearer for sharp, literate music criticism.
By then I had stopped reading the daily reviews. The publication had mellowed with age, and I found that I missed the rough edges and unhinged prose that had once defined it. It could still start a cultural conversation, as it did in 2020 when it awarded a rare 10.0 rating to Fiona Apple’s (sublime) Fetch the Bolt Cutters. (In a world where every Uber trip and DoorDash delivery gets five stars, it’s a sign of real editorial integrity that in 28 years Pitchfork only handed out a 10.0 to a new album 11 times.)
Ultimately, though, it wasn’t any decline in editorial quality that led me to read Pitchfork less frequently. It’s that the site had been caught up in a series of technological shifts that weakened its business and created an existential crisis for music critics.
Pitchfork’s power declined for many reasons. One of them is a story we have heard many times before.
While I haven’t reviewed the site’s financials, Wintour’s note suggests that it may have been losing money. Lots of free, ad-supported publications like Pitchfork are. In a world where the vast majority of digital advertising profits go to three companies — Google, Meta, and Amazon — smaller publications are struggling to survive. Publishers have been slow to diversify their revenue streams and have all but abandoned efforts to compete against the tech giants to build better ad products.
As a result, the past few years have seen us lose countless mid-size publications that once made the web vital. Last year we lost BuzzFeed News, Protocol, the new Gawker, and the old Jezebel. Pitchfork is the first site to fall in 2024, but it will not be the last.
As difficult as the ad puzzle has been for publishers so far, it’s only getting more difficult — particularly for those that rely on Google to drive traffic and therefore ad impressions. Which is most of them.
The first problem is that pablum created with generative AI is now rising up through Google News results, depriving websites written by actual people of revenue. The second is that Google is answering more queries over time through its search generative experience product, which gives users fewer reasons to click and in particular seems likely to decrease publishers’ affiliate-link revenue. (Why would Google send you to 10 websites when you search for “best laptop 2024” when it can just recommend the consensus pick at the top of search results and keep the commission for itself?)
The web is all but certain to get less vibrant as a result. I find Ben Thompson’s theory about the closing of AI news aggregator Artifact depressingly plausible: no matter how good Artifact’s predictive algorithms got, in the end there just wasn’t that much good content to surface.
The economic explanation for Pitchfork’s decline is well understood. But the publication also had an editorial problem, brought about by other technological shifts that are just as important.
Like most great publications, Pitchfork became popular by doing a job for its readers: in this case, scouring the vast landscape of recorded music to identify what was worth listening to. When it was founded in 1996, there were two primary ways of listening to new music: one was listening to the radio. The other was driving to a store and paying $18 for a compact disc.
For the most part, and particularly in the early days, Pitchfork focused on music that you would almost never hear on the radio. And to the young people it served, for whom $18 was a lot of money, the publication provided a valuable service. By highlighting music that was actually worth spending money on — and calling out music that was not — it helped its audience expand their musical horizons and save money at the same time. It was the Wirecutter for music, long before the Wirecutter was even born.
But this state of affairs did not last long. Napster arrived in 1999, and brought with it the appealing proposition to consumers that music ought to be free. Apple launched the iTunes store in 2003, kicking off a trend that saw people shift away from listening to the albums that Pitchfork specialized in reviewing and toward singles.
The most important change arrived in 2006, when Spotify was born. (It arrived in the United States five years later.) Spotify was Napster, but legal: a celestial jukebox that let you listen to almost anything you could imagine, on demand and for pennies a day.
Before Spotify, when presented with a new album, we would ask: why listen to this? After Spotify, we asked: why not?
It’s hard to overstate what a challenge this posed to music criticism. As consumers of music, we came to Pitchfork to ask one question — is this worth listening to? — and got an entire education in return. But with the arrival of streaming music that question lost its meaning, and suddenly we had fewer and fewer reasons to seek out criticism.
In response, Pitchfork leaned into its role as a historian and a curator. Its excellent Sunday Reviews series offered thoughtful retrospective reviews of classic albums, illuminating the way that good criticism can contextualize, reframe, and challenge conventional wisdom.
But then something unexpected happened: Spotify, in its own way, leaned into the role of historian and curator as well.
At first, Spotify leaned on human beings to curate playlists. Because the music could all be consumed at the point of curation — something Pitchfork could never compete with — Spotify’s playlists became huge tastemakers in their own right. In 2017 Vulture called Spotify’s RapCaviar “the most influential playlist in music.” Among other things, it’s credited for launching the career of Cardi B.
But as Ashley Carman reported at Bloomberg this month, even RapCaviar’s influence is now on the wane. The reason, of course, is artificial intelligence.
As Carman notes, in 2020 Spotify CEO Daniel Ek announced the company would be placing more emphasis on personalized, machine-learning-driven recommendations to drive listening. All across Spotify, you’ll find personalized playlists powered by AI. And increasingly, AI plays the role that Pitchfork once did.
Most of the story can be told through two personalized playlists that Spotify makes for every user. On Fridays you get Release Radar, which points you to new music from artists that Spotify already knows that you like. And on Mondays you get Discover Weekly, which attempts to point you toward music that Spotify’s math suggests that you might like. Sometimes that means an older song from an artist you recently discovered; other times it’s a lesser-known gem from a genre you like.
Like a lot of AI, these recommendations started out mediocre but have gotten significantly better over time. By this point, Spotify clearly understands how old I am, what music I listened to in high school, what genres I love the most, and what gaps exist in my musical knowledge. Each week it works gently but relentlessly to fill in what's missing.
I have plenty of criticisms of Spotify’s AI. But the product is good and improving, and in some very real sense it is impossible for Pitchfork to compete with.
As a diehard music fan, in many ways Spotify is my dream product. The ability to listen to anything I want to, ad-free and on demand, has improved my life significantly. (It has also introduced me to dozens of bands that I have bought tickets to see live, spending much more than I ever would have on their CDs, to answer one common criticism of streaming generally.) I’m grateful for what Spotify has given me, even as it lacks so much of the music that I loved in the 2000s: legally gray mash-ups, most live performances, and the Joni Mitchell catalog.
At the same time, it seems obvious that my understanding of music in our culture today is immeasurably poorer than it once was. In its heyday, Pitchfork was a clearinghouse for discourse about trends in music — a knowing, smirking party host overseeing never-ending debates about pop, rock, and hip-hop. Those conversations are no doubt still taking place somewhere, diffused across a thousand different forums and social media platforms. But contemporary music culture is much more invested in fandoms than it is in criticism.
Music is a young person’s game, and most publications don’t last half as long as Pitchfork did. That it endures today, even as a vestige of its former self, is a testament to the power and quality of what its writers and editors built.
On one level it’s impressive that Spotify can perfectly capture my musical taste in a series of data points, and regurgitate it to me in a series of weekly playlists. But as good as it has gotten, I can’t remember the last time it pointed me to something I never expected I would like, but ultimately fell totally in love with.
For that you needed someone who could go beyond the data to tell you the story: of the artist, of the genre, of the music they made. For that you needed criticism.
For that, in other words, you needed Pitchfork. And while it may have dimmed in its power over the years, it will always loom large in my mind — as a publication that met its moment with actual, discernible taste, and shared its tastes with the world, right up until the moment that the algorithms flattening our culture washed Pitchfork away, too.
For more on algorithms flattening culture: Kyle Chayka has a new book out on the subject; I enjoyed his recent appearance on The Ezra Klein Show.
On the podcast this week: Kevin and I talk through OpenAI's election plans. Then, David Yaffe-Bellany stops by to explain how Bitcoin ETFs came to Wall Street. And finally, New York's John Herrman joins to discuss what he learned selling a used mechanical pencil on TikTok.
Bay Area readers: Come join us for Zoë's book launch event on February 13 at Manny's in San Francisco! We'd love to meet you in person.
- Apple updated its App Store Guidelines to let developers link alternate payment options in their apps following a lawsuit brought by Epic Games. (Chance Miller / 9to5Mac)
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- Apple is asking Epic for $73.4 million to cover legal fees based on Epic’s original violation of the tech giant’s developer agreements. (Tim Hardwick / MacRumors)
- Sales of the Apple Watch Series 9 and Ultra 2 with blood oxygen features will be banned, an appeals court ruled. (Chance Miller / 9to5Mac)
- OpenAI funded 10 teams with the goal of using democratic methods to decide the rules that govern how AI should behave. In this piece, the company discusses its findings so far. (Tyna Eloundou and Teddy Lee / OpenAI)
- Social media companies that rely on AI for content moderation, including Meta, often generate CSAM reports that can't be acted upon, stymying enforcement efforts. (Katie McQue / The Guardian)
- Children on Instagram and Facebook are regularly targets of sexual harassment, a New Mexico lawsuit says. (Katherine Blunt and Jeff Horwitz / The Wall Street Journal) (Alex Hern / The Guardian)
- Congress is proposing new legislation aimed at stopping AI deepfakes, including fake celebrity endorsements and non-consensual nudes. (Janus Rose / Vice)
- The Biden Administration reportedly established a secret court, the Data Protection Review Court, to address the flow of consumer data between Europe and the US. (Alfred Ng and John Sakellariadis / POLITICO)
- The Oversight Board overturned Meta’s original decision to leave up a post that targeted transgender people, saying it violated community standards related to hate speech. (Oversight Board)
- Iowa is suing TikTok, alleging that its App Store age rating, 12+, is too low given that there is inappropriate content for children on the app. (Emma Roth / The Verge)
- TikTok’s approach to combat misinformation ahead of the elections this year will include an in-app election guide that will be introduced earlier in the year. Not much else is different. (Karissa Bell / Engadget)
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- Sheryl Sandberg is leaving Meta’s board of directors after stepping down as COO in 2022. (Sara Fischer / Axios)
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- Google is updating its Chrome Incognito mode disclaimer with its data collection practices, after agreeing to pay $5 billion in a lawsuit settlement over user privacy. (Venkat Eswarlu / MSPowerUser)
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