Pitchfork founder and indie-rock tastemaker Ryan Schreiber talks about branching out to TV and video game soundtracks while keeping the integrity in his Web zine’s journalism and criticism. Can it be done?
Asked to name the most successful new publication of the Internet era, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a student of new media in general and music journalism and criticism in particular who wouldn’t say Pitchfork, the mostly Chicago-based Web zine that has become a must-read for every fan of adventurous cutting-edge music and independent rock.
Fresh out of high school and influenced by local fanzines and college radio, Ryan Schreiber launched Pitchfork in his native Minneapolis in 1995. The Web zine was already on its way to international prominence in 1999 when he moved to Chicago, and it was preparing to celebrate its third year hosting the massively successful Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park when he relocated again, moving to Brooklyn in 2007. Leaving his associate publishers Chris Kaskie and Scott Plagenhoef behind to run things from the Windy City, Schreiber set out to explore some nebulous expansion plans -- nebulous, that is, until the last week.
First came news on Feb. 29 that Pitchfork has partnered with Take-Two Interactive Software, Inc., picking half the music for the much-hyped new video game “Major League Baseball 2K8.” According to Tim Rosa, director of brand and lifestyle marketing at 2K Sports, “Pitchfork Media is a respected and reliable part of the independent music community and an integral part of the lives of hundreds of thousands of music enthusiasts worldwide.” Among the artists Pitchfork chose for the game’s soundtrack: Battles, Jay Reatard, LCD Soundsystem, the Cool Kids and the Hold Steady. The Flaming Lips apparently provided “The W.A.N.D. -- no MF edit” on their own.
Even bigger news was the announcement Tuesday that a new online music channel called Pitchfork.tv will launch on April 7. “The 24-hour music network was such a great concept. What happened?” a Pitchfork writer asked in a Pitchfork news story about Pitchfork’s new endeavor. “Given music’s nearly inexhaustible supply of notable artists and genres, there are no limits to how deeply it can be explored… As a visual extension of the music coverage Pitchfork has provided for more than a decade, and a means of updating and advancing the music television format, the online channel will bring you closer to the artists you love, through original mini-documentaries, secret rooftop and basement sessions, full concerts, exclusive interviews and the most carefully curated selection of music videos online.”
Given the powerful position that Pitchfork holds in the music world, it seemed high time for an in-depth chat with Schreiber about exactly where Pitchfork is going, and whether there may be some ethical potholes in the road ahead. The Web guru generally shuns real-time conversations in favor of email interviews, but he graciously agreed to speak with me by phone, and the transcript of our conversation -- edited only for grammar and syntax -- follows, along with an email addendum the publisher sent me an hour after we hung up.
Q. So tell me about Pitchfork.tv, Ryan. I’ve been hearing rumors that Pitchfork was going to be expanding in this direction for quite some time.
A. Well, the idea is that it is a music video channel that focuses on independent music, and it’s basically daily content that is entirely on demand.
Q. You’re not going to be programming a music station so much as you’re going to be offering content that people can play on their own -- the YouTube or YouPorn model?
A. I guess it is. [Laughs] To some extent, though it’s going to be a little more carefully curated and not user-generated.
Q. You laughed when I said YouPorn, but I mention that because the first time I heard of it was when I read some music industry executives discussing it on the Velvet Rope in the context of, “Here’s the last nail in the coffin; no one is ever going to pay for content again when they’re even giving porn away for free now!” And I mean, what 13-year-old boy will ever leave his bedroom again if he can watch any porn video or any cool music video for free at the click of a mouse?
A. I know, man! I couldn’t even imagine raising a kid in this environment. It would be crazy!
Q. We may have a generation that never leaves the bedroom.
A. Right. Exactly.
Q. Back to Pitchfork.tv: I’ve heard that you’ve had teams of people out shooting concerts across the country for the last six months.
A. We’ve had a New York crew, and we go out and shoot various things around the city. Our executive producer is R.J. Bentler, who has actually worked with us on shooting the music festival and who has done a lot of editing work professionally for like NBC and stuff like that, and then there’s Juan, who used to work at Plum TV and did a show over there called “Juan’s Basement” -- he’s doing a lot of shooting as well. Then, in Chicago, we have a crew out there, too, and they’re shooting basically live concerts for us as well.
Q. So are you going to offer entire concerts online or just songs from a performance?
A. We’re actually going to offer entire concerts. The first thing that we’re launching, or one of the first things we’re launching, is Jay Reatard at Cake Shop, N.Y.C., that we shot in October.
Q. But again, that’s not necessarily going to be programmed on the site; if I want to see that, I’ll have to click on it?
Q. What makes you think that’s the way to go, as opposed to programming the way that MTV used to? It was Pitchfork that made the comparison to MTV in its press release on the Web site.
A. You know, there seems to be a misconception that Pitchfork.tv is going to function like the old model of cable TV, with 24/7 content and viewers having to tune in at specific times to catch the shows that they want to see. But to us, on the Web, that model doesn’t make sense. People don’t want someone else to have control over what they want to watch. So Pitchfork.tv is going to be on demand: We’ll add content daily, and then people can check out what they want. To me, that seems like the logical way to go.
Q. So it will be democratic: The music that interests the most people or that the most people like will be the stuff that is played the most?
A. Right. And there will be categories for what is the most popular in the last seven or thirty days or whatever, so you have a sort of constant shifting play list of popular and high-rated content. Because listeners will also be able to rate music videos, so you’ll be able to see what is the most popular of what we’ve put up the last week, the last month, the last year. So there will be all these kind of constantly regenerating play lists based on what people are watching.
Q. Are you concerned at all that this could undermine what’s been Pitchfork’s main claim to fame: rock criticism? I’m thinking of a scenario where Pitchfork gives a band a rating of 2.0 or less, and yet 100,000 people click on it that day and love the video. And at the same time, a band that Pitchfork gives a 9.4, nobody likes or watches.
A. I don’t know, I think we have a little more confidence in how it’s going to work than that. I mean, for one thing, we’re being pretty selective about the videos we’re showing; we’re not just putting up any old thing. So if there’s something that we actively dislike, it’s probably not going to show up on Pitchfork.tv. That’s not to say that if an album gets a negative rating, that there’s not a really good song on that record that might get played a lot. But it’s a different thing, because you’re talking about individual songs versus full-length albums, and those two things are very different.
Q. O.K. But what about the bigger business picture? Pitchfork just helped select the soundtrack for a baseball video game. It’s been very successful hosting a major music festival in Chicago for the last three summers. Now it’s rolling out Pitchfork.tv. Those things would all seem to be opposed to doing journalism and criticism, which is what the Web site has done for 12 years. All of those things may be smart moves for a record label in this new media age. But Pitchfork is an organ of journalism and criticism.
A. I think it would be a terrible idea for a record label!
Q. Really? It seems to me that those other businesses are all about presenting artists to the world, whereas journalism and criticism are about reporting on artists as opposed to championing them.
A. I think that what we’re doing is we’re documenting the artists. We generally go out and cover the things that we like and the artists that we think are doing very good things, and that’s a very, very broad number of artists. We have more than enough artists that we like that we’re not going to run into problems with that.
Q. Wait a minute, Ryan: Pitchfork has gotten to a position over the last 12 years where it has a lot of power now; I think you’re aware of that, and you and I have talked about that before. If Pitchfork champions a band, that 9.4 rating means something -- it means a lot. Now, what band is going to deny you the right to videotape them and show that content for free on Pitchfork.tv if it’s worried about not getting a good review on the Web site? What band is going to say no to playing the festival, even if it has a better offer somewhere else, and what band is going to reject letting you include them on a videogame soundtrack?
A. I don’t know; I guess there are potential… You can see potential conflicts of interest in a lot of different things. Any time one kind of company starts another kind of company or something like that, there is always this sort of potential for it being a slippery slope. I mean, I have a lot of faith in our integrity to sort of not necessarily succumb to any of that kind of stuff. Like I always say, we’re very honest and straightforward about the way that we approach things, and we try to be very above the table about anything like that. I guess people can read into it… If you wanted to read into it like that, I supposed there are always things people could find…
Q. I’m just wondering if you see any conflict between doing the things that Pitchfork is starting to do and journalism or criticism. Or do you even see Pitchfork doing journalism and criticism? I mean, it looks a lot like both of those things to me.
A. Yeah, well, that’s really what this is: Us going out and documenting a band and spending time with them for a day. It’s basically a logical extension of the kind of journalism and features that we already do. It’s just a different format -- it’s a video format.
Q. If you had to make a comparison, would you say that Pitchfork today is more like MTV when it pushed the button in 1981, or are you Jann Wenner in 1970, building up the Rolling Stone media empire?
A. Oh, God! Can we please not compare me to either of those?
Q. I’m sorry, buddy, but it seems sort of unavoidable now!
A. [Laughs] We’re definitely neither of those things. I think MTV is like the model people are looking for because they’re obviously the name that people think of when they think “music television.” In fact, we have a very different idea of what the model of music television can be about. It’s kind of taking this idea of a music channel and applying a more respectful treatment to it. So, yeah, I think there’s a logical extension. But either of those other things… I don’t know, man.
Q. What about the video game soundtrack? Doesn’t that kind of tarnish what you say Pitchfork is doing?
A. Are we selling out? [Laughs] Is that what you’re saying, Jim? [Laughs uproariously]
Q. I don’t know if I believe in the notion of selling out, but I do believe in the notion of credibility, and you guys have been very credible critics up to now. But when you get into the business of lining up bands for the soundtrack of a baseball video game, I’m going to start to wonder if I can trust that 9.4 rating anymore.
A. Yes, because what we do is very sincere. The bands that we pick, that comes from a genuine point of us really liking them. We’re not really calculating about any of this kind of stuff.
Q. Well, by all of the accounts I’ve read, that was what Jann Wenner was like at first. When he was taking acid with the Grateful Dead in ’67, he was sincere, too.
A. But Wenner in ’67 and Wenner in ’87 or 2007 are three very different people.
Q. Sure, but that’s what I’m asking: Is Ryan Schreiber today different than the Ryan Schreiber who started Pitchfork 12 years ago?
A. Definitely; I’m a little bit older. [Laughs] But I definitely still have very much the same feelings about what I see Pitchfork as being able to do, and sort of what I see it being able to bring to people.
Q. How about the capital: Is Pitchfork financing the launch of Pitchfork.tv on its own, or did you have to bring in partners?
A. It’s funny: We’re totally financing Pitchfork.tv. That’s not a problem at all; it’s been fine. Like any time you start a new company, it’s always a little bit of a risk, but you believe in it and you take that risk and you hope that people will be into it and it will be successful. But we’re doing it totally ourselves. There’s no one breathing down our necks or looking over our shoulders, and that’s what we said in the news story: That we can remain completely true to our vision.
Q. As I said earlier, rumors have been floating around about Pitchfork.tv for months. Was the delay because of raising the capital, working out the technological bugs or what?
A. Actually, it was kind of a lot of work! You might never guess, but it’s actually kind of a lot of work starting a music TV network!
Q. I would imagine that just the demands of the server space are absurd.
A. No, it’s not that. The technology has changed a lot. In terms of bandwidth and things like that, bandwidth is definitely becoming a lot more affordable and the compression technology is getting so good that you can actually host a video site that’s really very affordable. Those kinds of things, they’re a small expense, but they’re probably nowhere near what people are thinking.
Q. And Pitchfork.tv will be funded like the Web zine: with advertising?
A. Yeah, pretty much. That’s the way we’re planning on doing it.
Q. What about the Pitchfork Music Festival this year? I hear it’s July 18-20.
Q. Can you tell me any of the artists who’ll be playing?
A. Not yet! Details are going to be announced very soon. Chris [Kaskie, Pitchfork’s Chicago-based associate publisher] is really more your man on that.
Q. But I prefer to go to the top, Ryan! Why talk to executive editor Joe Levy at Rolling Stone when you can talk to publisher Jann Wenner?
A. Oh, come on! Do you know how much that pains me to hear that?
Q. Sorry, Ryan. But you are now the owner of many media businesses!
A. Come on, hopefully what we’re doing has a little more value! I mean, I’m just trying to do what I always sort of believed was the right way to do this sort of thing. I have very strong opinions and views about music criticism and how these things should be covered, and I think I have a different perspective than a lot of other publishers out there. I don’t want to sound over-sincere, but it really is completely about the music we like and the music we’re into and music criticism in general, and so far that’s worked, so it would be not wise to suddenly be insincere.
Q. I understand that. But I have a radio show, and I talk about music. I’m happiest when I’m talking about music I love. But if someone says, “Would you produce a ‘Sound Opinions’ concert night,” I would never do that. We don’t want to be in the concert business; we don’t want to be in the business of selling CDs; we don’t want to be in the business of picking a soundtrack for somebody, because then we wouldn’t be journalists or critics anymore.
A. I disagree with that. I think there’s more flexibility than that, provided that you are being true to your ideals.
Q. Perhaps. But one of the things that you study in ethics class at journalism school is avoiding the appearance of a conflict of interest, which is different than actually having a conflict of interest. If I had written an authorized biography of the Flaming Lips, readers might question, “How do I know you really did the reporting and told us everything there is to know about this band -- the good, the bad and the ugly -- if you were financial partners with them and they were making a dollar from every book sold?” People have the right to ask that question.
A. Absolutely. You have a right to ask it. I definitely don’t object to you asking. But the other thing about this, too, is that the Pitchfork editorial department is completely separate from Pitchfork.tv, just like our advertising department is completely separate from editorial and also from Pitchfork.tv. These things are totally independent of one another. We see where the conflicts of interest could exist, and we try to think about that so that it can become a non-issue.
Q. Fair enough, and that’s a valid point: Everybody is talking about what the models of the new media universe will be, but what you’re talking about is one of the oldest ideals that have existed from the start of print journalism: The advertising people don’t talk to the editorial people. There’s a firewall between them.
A. Right! Exactly. Exactly! And I mean, that’s the way that it’s always been set up, and that’s the way that we’re setting up Pitchfork.tv as well. And Pitchfork.tv is not even in the same city as Pitchfork editorial! They are independent things; it’s not the same people writing who are shooting.
Q. Sure. But at the end of the day, you’re the owner of all of those businesses.
A. Yeah. But I do very little actual criticism myself anymore. I write maybe one review a year at the most. I’m definitely keeping my sort of journalistic ethics in check as well.
Q. O.K. But what if Animal Collective was a headliner of the Pitchfork Music Festival, and they said, “No, we don’t want you to film any of our concerts.” And whoever was chosen to review their next EP gave it a 1 out of 10 on your rating scale. Would you have any problem with those three things overlapping?
A. I mean, they would have to be completely… Two of those things would never occur as a result of one or the other. You know? Because again, as I said, it’s very separate. People are always going to try and theorize about these things. But the fact is we do take these things into account and everything that is up on our site is very genuinely sincere. You can use the same argument for, “If X record label doesn’t advertise and suddenly you give their records a 0” -- that’s the same thing. It’s a matter of just defining things and separating things from one another so that they don’t interfere.
Q. Fair enough. But when you say "theorizing," when you look at the way MTV has operated, it’s not just idle speculation to say that the acts that win Video Music Awards are the acts that agreed to play on the show!
A. That’s an example of the sort of thing that’s been done so wrong! I watched MTV all the time growing up. I was obsessed with music all throughout my childhood, and I watched it incessantly. And, um, as I got more turned on to music, I was like, “Why was there never anything like this on MTV? Why was there no exposure for these things anywhere else so I could have heard it, being as big a music fan as I was my entire life, and only discovering independent music and alternative rock at like 13?” It was like, “God, I’ve been listening to pop music all these years!” So it still comes from that: Watching MTV and thinking, “This can be done in a very different and cool way that people would actually like.” And that’s something that I feel increasingly that cable television networks are not really paying attention to. So that’s what this is about: Creating some things that people like myself who are really, really into music want to see and want to see done well. That’s the whole point: To change it and not make it what MTV is about. That’s actually the very antithesis of what we want it to be.
Q. You still sound as if the same impetus that first prompted you to sit down in your basement in Minneapolis and write about bands that excited you is the same impetus that has you wanting to put their videos up online.
A. Totally! Totally!
Q. Except how much money did you make last year versus how much money you made 12 years ago?
A. It doesn’t matter. I’m not a material person. I have a studio apartment and a Honda Civic that’s beat up and gets parking tickets all the time. It’s funny, actually, moving here: You see how much more status-oriented certain areas of New York can be.
Q. I grew up there; tell me about it!
A. It’s so revolting! What kind of material things define you as a person?
Q. But Ryan, this can’t be news to you: The music business has been based on materialism since long before somebody ripped off Robert Johnson at the crossroads!
A. [Laughs] It’s not news at all!
Q. I mean, you are in the music business!
A. Absolutely! But that’s not something I’m interested in. Why would I ever go down that road?
Q. Well, because anybody who’s ever built a successful institution in the music business has taken that path -- be it a record label, be it MTV, or be it Rolling Stone magazine.
A. It’s true.
Q. Most of the well-intentioned saints go out of business: Trouser Press magazine died, Creem magazine died…. The noble don’t survive, but the evil flourish.
A. That’s an even more cynical viewpoint than I have!
Q. Well, I’ll be happy to write the “Pitchfork disproves half a century of rock history” story. But the story’s not done yet; I’m just asking the questions at the midpoint.
A. I don’t know. I don’t know.
Q. Have you ever heard Bob Pittman, one of the founders of MTV, speak?
A. Yeah, I have!
Q. He’s Satan! Pittman was famous when he was running AOL Time Warner for promoting “corporate synergy.” The idea was that a band signs to Warner Bros. Records, its song is used in the soundtrack of Warner Bros.-produced movies and TV shows, it’s championed in Time magazine, it plays at Warner Bros.-owned theme parks, and AOL sells the music and the videos. They called him “Bob Pitchman” and it was all about sell, sell, sell.
A. Right. Exactly. That to me is the whole problem. I don’t know… I see where you’re coming from, but it’s not like we’re doing what we’re doing just for corporate expansion or more money or something like that. It’s a new model; we’re just kind of testing it out and seeing how it goes. We’re ready to do it right and we’re ready to do it with some kind of quality control. We’re just trying to make it the channel that people have always wanted to see, and that’s basically the long and the short of it.
Q. O.K. Forgive my skepticism., I just wouldn’t want to ask you lesser questions than I’d ask anybody else… Live Nation or C3 Presents…
A. Jim, come on!
Q. Well, I’d think you’d be insulted if I wasn’t taking you seriously as a businessman.
A. When the festival came out, people said the same thing about that!
Q. I never wrote that.
A. That is true. Everything we do, we try to do with some integrity.
Q. O.K. Thanks for the time.
A. Sure, man. No problem.
An hour after we ended our conversation, which I’ve printed in its entirety, Ryan sent me the following email:
Hey Jim --
Was just thinking about the conversation and wanted to clarify:
I respect your concern about Pitchfork becoming some massive multinational conglomerate in the way that Rolling Stone and MTV did, that there are potential risks of over-extending Pitchfork as a company. But what happened to Rolling Stone and MTV was that at some point, the focus shifted from attempting to create a good and valuable resource to becoming as profitable as possible, or appealing to as many people as possible. What we do with Pitchfork and with the Pitchfork Music Festival, and now with Pitchfork.tv, all come from a sincere place of being really dedicated music fans who want to create these things that don’t exist for other people like ourselves. So in anything we do, the focus is always on how we want to see it done from our perspective as music fans. If we were interested in broadening our readership or viewership or trying to be all things to all people, the logical step would be to start trying to get interested in records with a little more widespread appeal. But then we wouldn’t be covering what we liked, or what our readers like; our lives would be a living hell listening to all that garbage and our readers would understandably turn their backs. Staying true to our vision of Pitchfork and what it represents is the easiest thing in the world for us because we aren’t tempted by the alternatives.
Another addendum, 10:50 a.m.: A Pitchfork editor points out that while this review is not exactly what I was asking about in the Animal Collective question above, it's pretty darn close. Fair enough. Let's see if Pitchfork favorites Animal Collective turn up on the lineup of the Pitchfork Music Festival, or on Pitchfork.tv.