Nearly three decades after it was established, Pitchfork, the most influential music publication of the internet age with the power to make or break an artist, is being absorbed by another entity – a men’s fashion and style magazine.
The website, beloved for being one of modern music’s true centers of gravity and renowned for its daily record reviews scored 0.0 to 10.0, will be folded into GQ, parent company Condé Nast announced Jan. 17.
At least 12 staffers were laid off, three people involved in the situation told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they said the situation was still fluid. Ten of those were editorial layoffs, leaving a permanent editorial staff of eight.
The decision was made after what Anna Wintour, chief content officer for Condé Nast, called “a careful evaluation of Pitchfork’s performance.” Ms. Wintour called the move “the best path forward for the brand so that our coverage of music can continue to thrive within the company.”
As Pitchfork moves into its new configuration, it’s worth asking: If many view song discovery as music journalism’s primary function, what is the role of insightful culture writing about music when people can find their favorite artists by following recommendations on social media or by playing 15 seconds of a song on a popular playlist?
From music to men’s media
Record store clerk Ryan Schreiber founded Pitchfork in 1996 as an indie music blog inspired by fan zines and grew it into “the most trusted voice in music,” as its tagline reads.
Pitchfork began in the era of CDs and – with discerning tastes and unrivaled curation – shepherded voracious music fans into the mp3 and peer-to-peer file-sharing age of Napster and into the streaming era beyond. In that time, its voice moved from snarky to incisive (often both at once) and the scope of its coverage adapted to meet the current moment. Mr. Schreiber sold Pitchfork to Condé Nast in 2015.
“In the late 2000s, alternative culture was going overground and an artisanal, small-batch approach to life was taking over from the sheeny mass-production of the previous decade,” says Laura Snapes, The Guardian’s deputy music editor and a longtime Pitchfork contributor.
“Pitchfork was well placed to lead and mirror that shift,” Ms. Snapes says. “They became the go-to chroniclers of this moment and had legitimacy … you could see the long roots of this culture in the site.”
Ann Powers, NPR’s music critic, says Pitchfork plays a crucial role in 21st-century media because it is a music-specific publication and not simply a generalist site with a music section. That means its expert writers have been able to go deeper in coverage and criticism, highlighting “intelligent and engaged, truly passionate music writing for the music fan,” instead of focusing solely on what would appeal to a general interest audience – particularly at a time where music-specific press is atomizing.
“Pitchfork also became a beautiful space for diversity,” Ms. Powers says. “It grew into a space where there were a lot of amazing women writers, people of color, covering pop, R&B, experimental, and global music with the same passion and dedication that it was covering the kind of indie rock from which it was born.”
The choice to move the publication under GQ, she says, reminds her of ’90s music magazine culture, where advertisers classified publications like SPIN, Rolling Stone, Vibe, and Blender as men’s interest. “It truly feels like a setback,” Ms. Powers says.
Says Ms. Snapes: “Music is so much more than a ‘men’s interest’ or leisure pursuit. Pitchfork paid close, longform critical attention to so many different types of music, and so many different niches. I’m not sure how that will live alongside ecommerce pieces on stick vacuums.”
The moment Pitchfork changed
On Jan. 17, most of the Pitchfork staff were sent a link to a mandatory, 15 minute all-hands with Ms. Wintour at 1:30 p.m., three people involved in the situation told AP. That set off a chain of events in which most affected were told their last day would be Friday.
In screenshots of a public Slack channel accessible by Condé Nast staff, obtained by AP, Melissa Consorte, a Condé Nast vice president, wrote on Wednesday, “Pitchfork is not going away as a brand.”
“This is not a terrible thing for us – GQ and P4K were getting in each other’s lanes and this makes it easier for us to use them in a complementary fashion,” she said, using the popular shorthand for Pitchfork. “I think this will only help P4K feel bigger and more recognizable in the long term.”
On Jan. 18, Ms. Consorte followed up: “Pitchfork is not being shut down or rebranded as GQ – from a client and user perspective, everything will look the same.” And in another public Slack channel, Joanna Melissakis, Head of Sales, Beauty at Condé Nast, wrote that “Pitchfork will remain a standalone brand but the internal reporting structure is changing.”
A representative for Condé Nast did not agree to speak to The Associated Press on the record. However, one Condé Nast audience development editor shared on X that “by volume, Pitchfork has the highest daily site visitors of any of our titles … despite scant resourcing, esp from corporate.”
An evolving music media landscape
Gareth Paisey, singer of the Welsh indie band Los Campesinos!, is one of many musicians who posted about Pitchfork following the layoff news. His band has received favorable reviews from the publication, but even those with low scores found themselves eulogizing the entity.
“There was a period of time where if Pitchfork said something was good, I thought it was good. And if they panned something, I probably wouldn’t bother listening to it,” he says. “I think that speaks to its power – how it was able to push the needle and single-handedly make something seem relevant.”
In 2021, guitarist Yasmin Williams says she was almost ready to give up her career pursuits when a positive review from Pitchfork reignited her hope. “I was ready for the next level and it wasn’t happening,” she recalls. Then Pitchfork’s Sam Sodomsky reviewed her album, “Urban Driftwood.”
“Then there’s a flood of press. I really think it’s because of Sam’s review,” Ms. Williams says. She says musicians are concerned about the future of the site because “people trust Pitchfork more than other outlets.”
When it comes to his band, Mr. Paisey says Pitchfork informed how they were regarded by the public. “We’ve never been a cool band,” he says. “And then for Pitchfork to back us from the start, I think it really did reframe how people thought about us.”
He theorizes independent musicians will lose out on coverage in this new editorial shift.
“This sounds trite, but Taylor Swift isn’t tweeting her disappointment that Pitchfork is closing, right? It’s 5,000-follower emo bands that got a 7.6 review and has been proud of that for the past two years,” he says. “It’s the independent, experimental artists that are going to suffer.”
This story was reported by The Associated Press.