In August last year, critic Jaime Brooks posed a hypothetical to her Twitter followers. If Pitchfork, the most influential music website of the last twenty-five years, ceased publication, “that would probably be the end of the album review as we know it, right?” For anyone attuned to online media organizations and their trajectories over the past decade, suppositions like these are never far-fetched; if always carries with it the stench of when.

Not six months after that tweet, Condé Nast, the parent company of Pitchfork, laid off a significant portion of its full-time staff and announced that publication would be “folded” into another Condé Nast product, the men’s magazine GQ. In a companywide memo, Global Chief Content Officer Anna Wintour gave no specific explanation of what this new iteration will look like. Who knows: “Pitchfork” could become the name of GQ’s music section, or it could be divorced from journalism and criticism altogether to operate as a music festival. Mass layoffs in January, which impacted over a dozen writers and editors, including some who have been involved with the magazine since the early 2000s, indicate that the publication’s editorial essence has been snuffed.

By corporate media standards, Pitchfork was an unusually valuable asset. “By volume, Pitchfork has the highest daily site visitors of any of our titles; their higher consuming segments generate more unique page views by volume than any title,” Claire Willett, Global Executive Director of Analytics at Condé Nast, wrote in a since-deleted tweet. Presumably, key performance indicators were being met—so what was the issue? Some have suspected union-busting, while others have pointed to Condé Nast’s original motive behind acquiring the website in 2015: to tap into “a very passionate audience of Millennial males.” Subsuming Pitchfork into GQ could be the culmination of the media company’s attempt to cater to more dudes.

This isn’t the end of the album review completely, just the end of it as we know it.

This moment represents a new low for music journalism as a whole. But it’s in times like these that prefigurative visions come more clearly into focus. Cat Zhang, a former Pitchfork editor, tweeted a plea for a “worker-owned music publication.” With over 1,900 likes and many quote-tweets of agreement from fellow writers and editors, her call for cooperativism had immediate resonance, and Pitchfork’s former staff is well positioned to pull it off. Many readers know their names and admire their work. Defector Media, the worker-owned publication of former staffers at the sports blog Deadspin, pulled the same thing off almost four years ago, and their success has been clearly growing: Defector generated $3.8 million in revenue in 2022, followed by $4.5 million in 2023. In the brief span of time since Defector, numerous other writer-owned outlets have emerged, including Hell Gate, which covers New York City culture and politics; 404 Media, a tech publication and media company; and the online science magazine Sequencer, founded by journalists who are all former scientists.

Cooperative ownership is fair and resilient. Seldom do the right conditions arise that allow a worker-owned enterprise to be not only profitable but competitive; Pitchfork’s erstwhile staffers have a rare opportunity to change the music industry for the better. A collectively owned and operated music publication can wield power against the streaming platforms and major labels that have devalued the industry. Key to that action will be treating music criticism—specifically album reviews, Pitchfork’s signature offering—as a thoughtful and patient literary mode, liberating the form from its dependence on the cycle of hype and PR promotion. I agree with Brooks: this isn’t the end of the album review completely, just the end of it as we know it.

What comes next? Something even better than the Pitchfork model, we can hope. While the magazine was instrumental to breaking under-recognized artists, it was also responsible for suffocating the album review. Most eulogies have minimized its flaws; they bear an Although Pitchfork wasn’t perfect . . . quality. We should probe these imperfections rather than brush them aside. A Defector for music could be more of the same, or it could develop an original approach to music criticism imbued with cooperative values.

A great album is rewarding to listen to, and a great review articulates the experience of feeling rewarded—or if the record sucks, punished—as a listener. As with any kind of review, it also taps into something much bigger than the cultural object in question. You can probably count on one hand the number of album reviews you’ve read in your life that fit this description, if you’ve read any at all.

For me, numerous Pitchfork pieces come to mind. Jeremy Larson’s and Sophie Kemp’s respective takedowns of Greta Van Fleet and The Dare raise larger questions around the platform economy and the kinds of cultural nostalgia it incentivizes. Their vivisections are hilarious, though they use humor and vitriol to justify why it’s worth the reader’s time to engage, rather than ignore, the cultural objects in question. They each express in more eloquent terms: “You gotta check out how much this album blows.” As an example of more positive criticism, contributor Mike Powell has always been a sharp close reader while directing attention back to his own subjectivity. Here he is on Bill Callahan’s song “Riding For the Feeling”, from his review of Callahan’s Apocalypse: “I don’t have a clear idea of what ‘riding for the feeling’ is, but I wonder if that’s the point: it’s a journey toward something vague and variable. It’s about the distance between how simple things feel when you experience them and how cluttered and gummed-up they come out sounding in song or verse.” Part of why these three reviewers are memorable is contextual; their work was so refreshing compared to the rest of what Pitchfork had to offer.

A couple factors explain why quality criticism is hard to come by. Most obviously, music is tough to capture in words. “I could spend paragraphs describing a sound and it wouldn’t compare to even a few moments listening to the track itself,” a former music editor at LA Weekly once said. For another, writers are hampered by unnecessary schedules. The idea that reviews need to come out around the same time as the record in order to drum up hype is an outdated PR strategy that has been depleted, if not entirely obsolesced, by streaming platforms and social media. Pitchfork popularized this approach and has continued to abide by it. Between 1998 and 2017, they published five reviews every weekday, with almost all of them pegged to the day each album under review was released. Founded in 1996 in the bedroom of a Minnesota teenager named Ryan Schreiber, the site primarily championed its founder’s and his friends’ favorite indie rock, such as the bands 12 Rods and Walt Mink. For a long time, the basic business model was ad revenue–based, with the site approaching labels like Thrill Jockey to spend on display ads. The masthead was almost all white guys; knowing that, you might say that the absorption into GQ gets back to Pitchfork’s roots in a deranged way.

In the late ’90s and early 2000s, the same-day approach gave Pitchfork a competitive edge over established print music magazines. Unlike its competitors, it also paid more attention to artists you wouldn’t hear on mainstream radio. If you wanted to find out whether the latest Radiohead record was worth your time, you didn’t have to wait for the next issue of Spin to hit the shelves. Brent DiCrescenzo’s review of Kid A, published on the day of the album’s release (October 2, 2000), was pivotal to the site’s early success. By this point, contributors had become infamous for their provocative, freewheeling, though often confusing prose, but DiCrescenzo’s write-up took it to the max. His assessment went viral—at least by pre–social media standards—and has since been credited as a defining moment for music criticism. Or rather, it was an example of what you could get away with under the loose constraints around music criticism in the blogging era, with complete disregard to cogency. “Comparing this to other albums is like comparing an aquarium to blue construction paper,” DiCrescenzo wrote. As that hyperbole suggests, he didn’t really have an argument. But his rating felt like enough of a justification in itself—not five stars, but a perfect 10.0.

Reviews became less unhinged and more formulaic.

Ratings were another crucial way Pitchfork distinguished itself from legacy music magazines. Initially reviewers themselves rated albums, picking a score from 0 to 10 right down to the tenth place. The specificity was purely subjective, but thanks to a rating system that Schreiber once described as “scientific without any actual science to it,” it made their opinions seem intensively calculated. Eventually Pitchfork’s editors stopped letting reviewers choose their own scores and decided that every number needed to be put up for internal deliberation. (Only in the last few years has the staff gotten less cagey about discussing these inner machinations.) This change sometimes had the effect of making critics, and by extension the website, look incoherent. To give a recent example: on his personal Twitter account, contributor Patrick Lyons claimed that the band Empty Country’s sophomore release, Empty Country II, “contains some of the most vivid songwriting of the 21st century,” though his review is stamped with a 7.7.

By the end of the 2000s, Pitchfork’s critical sway over indie music was at its peak—the site’s adulatory coverage of up-and-coming acts like Broken Social Scene, Fleet Foxes, and LCD Soundsystem had energized these groups’ careers—and competitors began to invest more resources into digital, same-day-of-release reviews. Legacy mags also tried to channel blogosphere buzz into their physical print issues, as when Spin featured SoCal slackers Wavves and Best Coast on its summer 2012 cover. Faced with more serious competition from institutions like Spin and Rolling Stone as well as copycat blogs like Stereogum and Consequence of Sound, an editorial reckoning was in order for Pitchfork. The site could remain an oracle of the underground, but it had to take greater pains to safeguard credibility. Common writerly flourishes, including a penchant for long, bizarre tangents, came to be seen as liabilities that were prone to confuse and deter prospective readers. Reviews became less unhinged and more formulaic.

If Pitchfork writers used to bewilder readers, it was because they more or less intended to—their goal wasn’t to explain a given album but to evoke the feelings it aroused. Going into the 2010s, there was a stark pivot: reviewers began to act as if they were being informative, yet readers remained confused. During this period, the fantastic blog Ripfork acted as a music criticism watchdog. Its founder, Matt Wendus, took many Pitchfork regulars to task, diagnosing their pieces with diseases like “infectious punctuation,” “ambiguity sickness,” and “jargon palsy.” His takedowns were blunt, hilariously spiteful, and demonstrated the lengths his targets would go to avoid answering in simple terms why they thought an album was good, bad, or just okay. “It’s not just that people prefer bypassing long reviews in favor of musical catering services like Spotify because of time constraints, ease of use, or short attention spans,” he wrote in one post. “It’s that most people don’t want to wade through farty, claustrophobic writing.”

Wendus clearly isn’t an empathetic reader. I don’t blame him for that; there’s no arguing taste. But there is something to argue about here: Wendus’s aesthetic objections miss the conditions that gave rise to Pitchfork’s “pre-established formula of dolling-up cloudy prose to look like piercing insight,” as he put it. Because the site got almost all of its revenue from ads, it was essential to drive traffic. Authors had to reconcile their passion for writing about music with their lack of enthusiasm for albums they were assigned. This tradeoff helped standardize a peculiar style of commentary that subsequent waves of critics internalized as the norm, especially if they wanted to get their bylines in Pitchfork.

The style was most apparent around the concluding paragraphs of reviews, where writers attempted to suggest some tenuous connection between the music and what it said about the world we live in: burnout, late-stage capitalism, life under Trump, whatever got the word count over five hundred. In each instance, it’s as if the writer is saying, “I don’t want to do this review. This vaguely profound theme feels more interesting, so I will try to relate it to this album.” Of course, these half-baked formulas didn’t drive view counts. Instead, letting writers briefly muse on abstract topics only vaguely connected to the album itself was a way to afford this engagement bait a modicum of critical shrewdness. This was emblematic of the delusion the site had locked itself into: that careful, considered insight could be cranked out at the rate of, well, GQ. In the bid to get traffic, Pitchfork’s editors couldn’t afford to put the editorial calendar on hold and face the fact that shrewdness does not grow on a content farm; the conditions are inhospitable for that kind of crop.

Comparing this phase of reviews to the DiCrescenzo era, it’s a sign of maturity to outgrow shock value, but it’s not a bad business move either. Brands are less wary about purchasing ad space in media outlets with inoffensive content, and music publications discovered they could drive more traffic when they featured artists who more readers knew and enjoyed. The annual Pitchfork Music Festival launched in 2006, but the site couldn’t rely on that flagship event for year-round revenue. In retrospect, we can see that Pitchfork’s increased coverage of Top 40 artists coincided with the enhanced competition they faced from other music blogs for ad dollars. The critical lens known as “poptimism,” which treats Top 40 hits as middlebrow art, certainly didn’t repel luxury fashion and lifestyle brands from taking out homepage banners. Pitchfork was an online music magazine as much as it was a growth-hungry startup.

But that’s only the easiest thing to say about poptimism—that it’s just selling out. In fact, this kind of selling out was a survival mechanism that ensured Pitchfork could remain a source for exceptional music journalism and criticism beyond reviews of megastars’ albums: through its longform essays, in-depth reportage, and profiles of less well-known, up-and-coming artists.

Pitchfork was at its most thoughtful and enthralling on the weekends. Every Sunday, a different writer would publish a retrospective essay on “a significant album from the past” that had yet to be covered by the publication. These weren’t about recent reissues nor were they anniversary pieces—the standard editorial justifications these days for acknowledging music that isn’t new. The Sunday Reviews didn’t have pegs; they sidestepped the hype cycle entirely.

In no other major arts and culture outlet could you find deep dives into an influential Bollywood soundtrack, ’90s Christian alt-rock, or Frank Sinatra’s forgotten concept album, each written about for its own sake. From what I could tell, the Sunday Reviews themselves reignited buzz around certain records. I had never heard of The Blue Nile until Sam Sodomsky’s 2018 essay on their album Hats, and I got the sense more people were paying attention to the band in the months after that piece went live. (It helped readers, myself included, come to the realization that the Blue Nile is who The 1975 struggles to rip off.) The Sunday Reviews series launched less than a year after the Condé Nast acquisition, when Pitchfork had added weekends to its editorial calendar and needed space to fill. Given its emergence under these narrow circumstances, I worry that writers and editors believe retrospective writing can only be one-off.

It’s not just the acts up onstage—almost everyone is gigging.

In a remembrance for the Guardian, Laura Snapes recounted a recent experience: “Pitchfork surprised me by accepting a Sunday Review pitch on an astonishingly obscure album . . . the kind of piece we couldn’t justify here [in the Guardian] as it has little cultural currency or news relevance.” Clicks may be pivotal to revenue, but we should resist the logic that says traffic, much less relevance, can only follow preexisting virality. Great criticism can establish the premise for a cultural object’s relevance—whether positive or negative—independent of a press hook. In practice, music media allows the noteworthiness of previously released music to be contrived whenever a label decides to reissue an album from its back catalog, or it’s instead determined by round numbers, as if art only finds readers when it turns twenty and not when it turns nineteen or twenty-one. To believe that a retrospective essay on an older, lesser-known cultural artifact (and not just anyone’s essay, but your own!) by its nature “has little cultural currency or news relevance” is ultimately the fault of Pitchfork and the breakneck editorial model it popularized, and it speaks to how deeply news-peg brain has embedded itself into the minds of people who think about art for a living.

How could we do things differently? What else could music criticism look like? Finding ways to treat album reviews more like long-form book reviews—and to give critics more time to sit with albums—would be a good place to start. If Pitchfork’s Sunday Reviews were any indication, the passage of time is conducive to richer analysis and commentary for music just as it is for a lot of literature and nonfiction, where that’s already the norm. In addition to review essays on single albums, critics might be signed up to review multiple albums, whether from the same artist or different artists from the same local scenes or subgenres. More space could be devoted to in-depth artist profiles and Q&As. And ratings should be dispensed with entirely.

My hunch is that readers will be more eager to pay for subscriptions if they know they’re getting quality work in return. The patient approach might also make it possible to commission more first-time contributors on a regular basis. As with most big-name arts publications, Pitchfork’s editors typically defaulted to assigning records to insiders and freelancer buddies because they didn’t have time to sift through pitches from writers they didn’t know. It was always a surprise to see an unfamiliar byline on the website. When there’s more time to write about new music, there’s more time to field well-rounded pitches from a diversity of perspectives, and less of an excuse to be cliquey out of convenience.

It is equally unsustainable to write about music as it is to write and perform music for a living. For an artist or critic to secure a smidge of income, they face top-down pressure to be formulaic at the expense of originality, experimentation, and slow craft. Musicians optimize themselves for streaming platforms, basing their creative choices on what will boost monthly listeners and land their tracks on mood-based playlists. These metrics now factor into whether an artist deserves to get a record deal or booked to play live (the shows, of course, being at venues that take a majority cut from the evening’s revenue). Meanwhile, as Spotify has monopolized music discovery, Pitchfork, along with Spin, Consequence of Sound, and other corporate-owned music sites, continues to pump out content in a futile race against the algorithms, resulting in half-baked, largely short-form reviews that parrot press releases. Writers are afforded precious little time, money, and space—conditions ill-suited to doing better than a slapdash job.

The debasement of these professions has been gradual and systemic, though it can sometimes be traced back to a clear-cut source. In the summer of 2023, United Musicians and Allied Workers protested against the meager rates that SXSW pays performers ($250 for bands, $100 for soloists) outside the Manhattan office building of the Austin festival’s owner, Penske Media. Penske also owns Rolling Stone, the website of which just begs not to be read, congested as it is with paywalls and targeted ads. Prospective contributors who fail to get hold of any editors on the masthead have the option to join Rolling Stone’s “Culture Council” initiative, a pay-to-publish initiative available for a $2,000 annual buy-in. Conglomerates like Penske have shrunk the gap between culture’s commentators and its producers through diminishing professional opportunities and compensation. It’s not just the acts up onstage—almost everyone is gigging.

There’s a looming risk of repeating what the writer Alex Balk called his Third Law of The Internet: “If you think The Internet is terrible now, just wait a while.” At least in this industry, that duration can vary. After a video game company purchased the once-independent, it took less than two years to sell it to a different parent company, which slashed Bandcamp’s staff size in half upon the buyout. Pitchfork’s fate was more drawn-out, with closer to a decade in between its acquisition and eventual downsizing by Condé Nast.

The common thread is that independent, centralized ownership guarantees nothing. Critics are now flocking to Substack and Ghost to monetize what clout they’ve managed to accrue. As the climate for serious criticism collapses, they’ve taken the only recourse available, burrowing into distinct digital dens—all hosted on self-publishing platforms where they will never have a collective stake or any decision-making power—to survive while they wait for the next phase of online music criticism to arrive.

But waiting around isn’t the only path. Zhang’s original call for a worker-owned publication shouldn’t be forgotten. It’s a rich starting point for rethinking the incentives around how culture is valued—and who will be at the forefront of creating that value. To go a step further, a worker-owned publication devoted to patient, long-form criticism could build solidarity between music workers who have otherwise never regarded themselves as part of the same underclass—a kind of aesthetic mutualism, or in other words, a new culture that prioritizes depth and analysis above hype and momentary engagement. Good criticism, as with good music, should be lasting. We can build the conditions for that kind of longevity ourselves.

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