14 min read

Someone Hit The Big Score

Pitchfork is dead. In its absence, music writer Nate Stevens wonders what's left of music journalism.
Someone Hit The Big Score

Welcome to Heat Death, the newsletter that never minded working hard – it's who you're working for.

It's been a wonderfully wet week here in Austin, the soil soaking up much needed rain in preparation for the scorching and awful months ahead. The same can be said of your faithful correspondents. Asher has been hard at work on pieces for a number of science desks, including at Quanta, The New York Times, and Scientific American, while Saul remains a steady hand on the tiller of science and environmental news at The Hill.

We're doing fine, in other words – in our respective lanes, moisturized, and if not thriving than at least chugging along. The same, regrettably, cannot be said for many of our colleagues. The last few months have seen a bloodbath at multiple publications, as the traditional twice-yearly layoffs at publications have spread – like drought – to encompass much of the year. Just a few days ago, the LA Times laid off around 10% of its workforce, including people they'd actively poached, in part because their billionaire owner seems to be getting rather bored of owning a newspaper. (Sic semper opulentos, you might say.) This caused – as it always does – people from other publications, like Business Insider, to advocate for hiring the refugees. Except many of those publications, like Business Insider, are being hit with rounds of layoffs as well.

From inside, this feels less like a contraction than an extinction event. But a couple of these events have been particularly shocking, particularly the abrupt and senseless demise of Pitchfork as a distinct entity. Musician, critic, soon-to-be-ex-journalist and former contributor Nathan Stevens has some opinions about that. He's here to write an obituary for Pitchfork, one that takes stock of the broader culture writing landscape. And folks? It's not looking at all great.

This is Heat Death. Stay with us.

Howdy. It’s Nathan.

The fade out was the ending of choice for classic rock. You know how it goes: instead of a hard cut, the song lingers on, the fader slowly closing the sound. 

The fade out doesn’t just allow musicians to avoid writing an ending: it creates the illusion of infinity. Don’t worry, it assures us. The musicians are still playing just out of earshot — even if the song is over. 

Journalistic institutions have spent the 21st century fading out. Some outlets — like Gawker’s apocalyptic fight with a vengeful Peter Thiel — met their ends violently. Others suffered parades of public setbacks: A disastrous pivot to video here; a bruising anti-union battle there. Mostly, those who own and “operate” our favorite media companies have simply allowed them to rust and rot, occasionally carving off parts to meet a quarterly report. Since the media apocalypse began at the end of the last century, newspapers, radio stations and magazines are mostly killed by inches, suffocating as their owners squeeze ever tighter. An editor gets let go here and is never replaced. A new hire takes on two jobs instead of one. A never-ending stream of interns hold ever more responsibility with ever fewer mentors. 

There’s a certain elegance to this sort of strip-mining operation. For one thing, it’s deniable. By the end, the death of the outlet looks more like a sad inevitability — even, perhaps, a mercy killing — rather than an execution. Layoffs in the name of efficiency and juiced Wall Street numbers? Media companies perform them with tedious regularity. But the mass firing of most employees is pretty rare. For one thing, there are certain technical realities that can’t be ignored when a wide swath of employees are let go. Basic things like passwords, posting times, internal editing standards—that shared knowledge evaporates when a chunk of the workforce is gone. Another problem, it looks bad. A company that indulges in such a spree loudly signals that it doesn’t care about workers, readers, or indeed the press itself.

And yet. In November 2023, the venture capital types that bought the 151-year old Popular Science magazine unceremoniously killed it, firing all hands. This month, the venerable Sports Illustrated likewise saw the majority of its staff fired over a failed licensing deal. And Conde Nast — publisher of The New Yorker, Vogue and GQ — announced that its music site Pitchfork would be folded into GQ. 

Within hours, heads were rolling. Editor in chief Puja Patel? Gone. Marc Hogan, who had worked there for 20 years? Out.  Jenn Pelly, one of the 21st century's best culture writers? Canned. So were the vast majority of staff writers and editors. The amount of collective knowledge lost in a day is stunning. More stunning still was how unceremoniously the ax fell — a lack of ceremony that’s a message in itself.

For those less familiar, Pitchfork introduced itself in 1996 as the internet age’s Rolling Stone. While its predecessor drew on the disillusionment of the 1960s, Pitchfork was a Revenge of the Nerds style outfit, fueled by the dork-tastic early days of the internet, riding pretension, hipster cred and posters’ snark to the top. Most famously, they reviewed the truly putrid Jet album “Shine On” by linking to a video of a chimp pissing in its mouth. Like Rolling Stone, Pitchfork embodied the glories and faults of its era. On the one hand, irreverent, witty, discerning; on the other, white as a polar bear in a snowstorm and deeply misogynistic. 

In the early days of file sharing, Pitchfork — and especially founder Ryan Schreiber — found itself able to make or break artists. Musicians with small or no record label could suddenly be (internet) massive due to a single positive review. For a solid decade, Pitchfork’s rapturous praise of bands like Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, Sufjan Stevens and more served as massive boosts in those artists’ careers. Merge Records, who carried Arcade Fire’s first album Funeral, remarked that after Pitchfork’s review, “[Funeral] went out of print for about a week because we got so many orders for the record." This was no small feat considering that the music industry had just received the first in a series of haymakers that would fundamentally change how people bought (or didn’t buy) music. Metallica was still in their eternal battle with Napster over file sharing; record labels were just entering a decade long hangover from the wild spending of the ‘90s and Apple would soon assert itself as a major player in music consumption, laying the foundation for Spotify’s streaming wars. 

As Schreiber seemed to mellow, Pitchfork grew beyond its indie whiteboy roots to become one of the best places for outside-the-box artists to get a modicum of necessary publicity. Triumphant metal band Deafheaven was championed by Pitchfork in the early 2010s alongside a diverse group of auteurs like rap wizards Shabazz Palaces, jazz pioneer Matana Roberts and electronic outsider Jlin. At its height, “Pitchfork-core” could mean anything from rap to metal to indie-rock to folk.

That sort of coverage didn’t end when Conde Nast bought Pitchfork in 2015. If anything, it initially intensified. On paper, the acquisition made sense — Conde Nast owned The New Yorker, and Pitchfork seemingly presented a similar cultural opportunity and readership. The revamped Pitchfork diversified, welcoming in more people of color — and many more women — into the fold. The site’s writers did their level best to balance mainstream pop coverage and true weirdo shit. 

The staff of Pitchfork genuinely wanted to break away from the old white boys’ club of the early 2000s. But Conde Nast was interested in something different: Pitchfork as the profitable tastemaker of a multicultural Gen Z.  As the excellent Eric Harvey put it, Conde Nast’s model was “To appeal to every single person who had a single thought about music ever, and give them something to Google.” This wasn’t entirely out of the question: As many cultural mags have discovered, pages dedicated to Taylor Swift and Harry Styles can pay the piper for coverage of the no-names, who still deserve listenership and thoughtful review. This is, in fact, how you make a marginally profitable — or at least, sustainable — publication, and has been throughout the history of the field. 

But Conde Nast — like the owners of Popular Science, Sports Illustrated, and seemingly every other owner of a media company these days — is not interested in marginally profitable, and even less interested in sustainable. It’s interested in maximizing profit in the short term, come what may. This, when viewed on its own merits, is a pipe dream: few have ever become truly rich off the journalism business. The best case is to create something that chugs along under more or less its own steam, allowing its owner to collect a modest rent. But that model represents a rare bird, these days: far more common are the “disruptors,” people who arrive to squeeze out as much value as they can, as quickly as they can, and leave the carcass in the street for people to trip over. 

The sad death of both Deadspin — the sports and culture blog — and The Escapist gaming site embody this. Megan Greenwell’s ‘The Adults in the Room’ remains the ur-text of media in the venture capital age: a portrait of excellent writers and editors who ran a decently profitable operation and were ready and willing to work with know-nothing venture capitalists who took over, only for their new owners to treat the reality of the existing operation with unfiltered disgust.

The question I hear the most about the owners of this company is “Why did they buy a bunch of publications they seem to hate?” I and my colleagues have asked [our new boss] only slightly more diplomatic variants of that question on several occasions. The answer he has given is that the publications didn’t cost him much and that he liked their high traffic numbers. The unstated, fuller version seems to be that he believed he could simply turn up the traffic (and thus turn a profit), as if adjusting a faucet, not by investing in quality journalism but by tricking people into clicking on more pages. While pageviews are no longer seen as a key performance indicator at most digital publications—time spent on the site is increasingly thought to be a more valuable metric—Spanfeller has focused on pageviews above all else. In his first meeting with editorial leaders, he said he expected us to double pageviews. Several weeks later, without acknowledging a change, he mentioned that the expectation is in fact to quadruple them. Four months in, the vision for getting there seems less clear than ever.
The numbers apparently do not matter to my ostensibly numbers-obsessed bosses, for reasons I can’t quite understand. When I have told them that the data show that non-sports content brings more traffic and more revenue opportunities, I have been ignored. When I have told them that the data show that readers prefer publications with a distinctive point of view, that Deadspin succeeds precisely because it doesn’t try to be all things to all people, I have been told that being all things to all people is in fact exactly the way to grow pageviews...The adults in the room know that we’re wrong, despite all evidence, because they just know.

The Escapist, once an excellent and growing site, was similarly cut down. In interviews after his firing, former Escapist editor Nick Calandra said that the new regime seemed to think they could increase page and YouTube views like turning on a faucet, upping their demands with every meeting. No longer were the hits paying for the below-the-line coverage. In an age of profit-maximization, Deadspin, The Escapist and many other outlets found themselves called to the carpet and asked “why can’t every post be viral?”

Indeed, why have culture writing at all? The rise of stan culture — a term that gets its name, let us not forget, from a scabrous Eminem song about an obsessive fan — has become the main mode of discussing music online. “Reviews” on TikTok that are barely concealed ads. Rabid fanbases like Swifties and K-pop stans that dox and sending death threats to writers. All this has been happily encouraged by record labels, of course: unthinking consumption is a good business model. And it’s working out all right for the upper echelon of artists, too. A few years ago, Chance the Rapper threatened to stop work with MTV due to a mildly critical piece on him. It was one of the first big signs that artists who had reached a certain level of commercial viability only saw cultural writing as press opportunities for tongue baths and anything negative (or mild) was unacceptable. These days, Taylor Swift does not give interviews. Nor does Beyonce. Harry Styles is ascending to that level as well. Why bother? Just cut a video to your fans, the same ones who act as a perpetual hype machine.

The future prospects for music journalism along this road are grim. As the brilliant Jeff Weiss in a different eulogy for a once- great music site gloomily noted, it’s “tiktok & YouTube accounts from glorified fans masquerading as journalists to obtain clout to sell branded merchandise to the fans of the artists they cover - while hoping that the artists share it on their own IG so they can pay their rent.” 

Media publishers no longer seem that interested in any alternatives. Conde Nast’s folding of Pitchfork — like the transformation of National Geographic into a lifestyle brand — signals that cultural writing is now seen as passe, and better used as tabloid-lite: relying on stans to click and generate positive talking points. This takes all the oxygen out of the air for any upcoming and promising stars of the future. But so what? Who’s in the business of the future anymore, when the past is so much easier to sell? In a bit of brutal irony, the scuttlebutt has it that Conde Nast intends for Pitchfork to live on mostly as a monolithic brand name, stamped across festivals, events and other marketing opportunities. Pitchfork did have a Pitchfork Fest, it’s true: but that event existed because they reviewed the artists they booked. Slapping “Pitchfork” on a tent at South by Southwest means nothing if the people there haven’t listened to the music.

Everywhere you look, the roads to success — never easy, but once imaginable — are being blocked. Small DIY record labels are closing down, unsure if it's even possible to promote artists that don’t tour in arenas. Many live venues haven’t recovered from COVID, and Ticketmaster’s tendrils have ensnared more and more spaces. There are fewer and fewer venues that cater to smaller artists — meaning the places where musicians cut their teeth and earn a following are vanishing. Musk’s handling of Twitter has killed visibility for DIY blogs. The Alt-mags? Dead or dying. What major publications still remain are turning their attention to pop stars only. Even that coverage of stars seems likely to be throttled. Despite helping them break out, Pitchfork was also the first to report that now disgraced Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler was (at best) a sex pest and at worst a true menace. A few years before that, Pitchfork published a glowing review of Mark Kozelek’s album Benji, only to then report that Kozelek had serious sexual misconduct allegations held against him. Would the current head of Conde Nast be so quick to publish those stories? Maybe. But I’m not holding my breath.

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The other path is a Defector model, where subscriptions are the funding base of a site. Successful as Defector has been, there’s only so much room for subscriber-based writing as social media wanes and no one is sure how to reach an audience without it. Stereogum has essentially gone to this model, but not without hiccups. For those who don’t have the infrastructure to pivot to that protocol — like, say, me—  everything will turn back into small blogs. There’ll be amazing writing out there still. Good luck finding any of it.

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I’m suspicious of nostalgia in general, but the gruesome spectacle of venture capital and private equity firms scalping beloved site after beloved site forces me to conclude that in this case it’s warranted. Pitchfork pre-Nast was better, as was much of the internet before the current wave of corporate vampirism. It was by no means a perfect publication: it was in many ways an ugly and flawed one. Yet it — as with other sites born in earlier days of the internet — held a certain promise that’s impossible to imagine under the boot of infinite growth. It, like other culture magazines — and sports publications, game publications, science publications — held out the promise that people might be able to make a living writing about things that mattered, at a time when newspapers were increasingly taking their own culture sections behind the woodshed. That there could still be a career fairly called “culture journalist.”

Instead, we’ve gotten what I’ve taken to calling adjunct-ification. Eventually the suits conclude that the lost knowledge and worse experience of their remaining employees is no skin off their back. Instead of compensated — or, perish the thought, unionized — staffers, an endless stream of adjuncts, ringers and interns becomes the bulk of the workforce. This happens in part because suits aren’t actually in the education industry, or the film industry, or the journalism industry: they’re in a separate line of work, one less interested in building things than bleeding them and flipping them to the next guy with a scalpel. Epic Games — of Fortnite fame — buys the website Bandcamp, a godsend for artists due to their limited streaming policy and platform for buying merch from musicians. And just as quickly, Epic sells them off to the nebulous and shady company Songtradr who — of course! — instantly enacted layoffs and mocked their employees as Bandcamp staff unionized. At some point, they’ll sell what’s left on to the next sucker. And on, and on.

If Bandcamp and Pitchfork continue on in any recognizable way, they will be populated by an endless stream of adjuncts. Just as part time teachers will be given precisely 36 hours a week so they can’t get healthcare, these sites will do the same to their freelancers — cutting off avenues for pay, respect and quality of life. The best case scenario is that they offer acceptable pay for good work. But the more likely scenario is what’s happened over in the comics journalism sphere: once successful sites like Comic Book Resources turned into content mills, their audiences long-since driven off, with the specter of AI-generated drivel creeping up behind. The suits cannot make infinite money off of cultural writing, so no one shall make any money off of it.

This hits especially hard for me. I, like many others, have a personal connection to Pitchfork. There were years when I checked the site every day, and it introduced me to incredible music and incredible music writing. The site, at its best, made me reevaluate my relationship with art I loved. The writing on display, especially from folks like Jenn Pelly and Philip Sherburne, made me feel like I was glimpsing a piece of their soul as they listened. 

But it’s more than that, too. I’ve had forays in and out of music journalism, and have tried to make a career out of journalism as a whole. I’ve also experienced back-to-back toxic workplaces at a state paper and public radio affiliates: neither were owned by venture capital, but both showed the classic symptoms of rot that appear just before rigor mortis sets in; never ending turnover, an old guard uninterested in innovation and an administrative suite that used metrics as a cudgel. (I am, in fact, leaving the industry — what industry there is — because of it.)

I’m never not listening to Gillian Welch’s astounding 2001 album Time (The Revelator), but its penultimate track has been hitting harder than ever. “Everything is Free '' is a stark country tune reflecting the touring musician’s view of file sharing and radio consolidation choking any avenues to make art for a living. And Welch’s assertion is that her own love of — hell, compulsion toward! — making music is her Achilles heel in the face of music losing its monetary worth. 

Someone hit the big score
They figured it out
That we're gonna do it anyway
Even if it doesn't pay

Conde Nast knows people will keep writing about music just as well as they make music. I’ve done both for free for most of my life and will keep doing so because they make life worth it. The terribly nostalgic smell of spilled beer, cigarettes and bleach that dominates every dive bar I’ve ever played at is ingrained in my soul and has nothing to do with the outside world. Conde Nast views that love both as a weakness to be exploited externally and to be stamped out internally. 

“Everything Is Free,” was prophetic, but perhaps not in the way Welch expected. File sharing gave way to streaming, and the glut of radio stations bought by conglomerates were in the same boat as the online media that would be eventually consumed. “Everything Is Free,” appropriately, ends on a fade out. Banjo, and hope, just out of ear shot: going, going, gone.

Nate Stevens is a music critic who writes at – among other places – The 2010s. His full album, "The Ballroom on Fire," releases this week.

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