Music Journalism Can’t Afford A Hollowed-Out Pitchfork
11:05 AM EST on January 18, 2024
As first reported by Semafor's Maxwell Tani, Condé Nast announced yesterday that it is moving Pitchfork's editorial operations under the GQ brand banner. In a note to employees announcing the move, Condé executive Anna Wintour described it as "the best path for the brand so that our coverage of music can continue to thrive within the company." Whatever that means!
Notable in Wintour's statement was a line about Pitchfork employees leaving the company. Pitchfork Editor-in-Chief Puja Patel (Disclosure: I worked with Patel at Spin, and many of my Defector colleagues worked with her at Deadspin) will not be making the transition to GQ, nor will many of her colleagues, some of whom announced their layoffs on Twitter. The features department is gone. Executive Editor Amy Phillips, who worked at Pitchfork for nearly two decades, is gone. So many of the writers and editors, who spent every day working to make Pitchfork what it is, are gone.
Beyond gutting Pitchfork's staff, it's not clear what exactly being brought under the auspices of GQ will mean for the publication. But it feels safe to assume that it will become a smaller, dimmer version of what it was before it became the latest victim of the ongoing implosion of music journalism. This is a corner of the media industry that has been hit particularly hard by consolidation and downsizing. When I was laid off from Spin in 2018, I was part of a downsizing of a collection of music brands including Vibe and Billboard. The idea was that the brands these publications represented still had value, but that the journalism they produced didn't, and therefore the sites would be better off as little more than engines for listicles and veiled ad copy. Stereogum ended up having to go the indie route, and now more or less runs off reader support. Meanwhile, throughout the industry, features and reporting and music reviews have taken a backseat as companies push for more social media and video content. What has filled the vacuum left behind by actual music criticism is a loose collection of YouTubers and influencers who feed slop to their younger audiences, and fan communities that engage with music solely through their obsession with a particular pop act. This has all helped produce a mass of music fans who don't understand the value of criticism and outright detest being told the things they like might suck. Even worse, it has helped destroy what scant opportunities remain for obscure or up-and-coming musicians to find an audience. It's harder than ever to make it big without a cosign from Drake or Taylor Swift, and stuffing one of the few music publications left that swam against all these currents into GQ's stuffy environs isn't going to help things.
Pitchfork, particularly after being acquired by Condé Nast, tried and usually succeeded at marrying its indie-snob cultural output with the demands of becoming a global music brand that carried a valued stamp of approval/disapproval. The Sunday Review championed a lot of forgotten about or under-discussed classics, and kept certain artists and bands in the cultural conversation. One of the best pieces of music writing published last year was Pitchfork's long exposé on the Milwaukee rap scene. They covered the fascinating relationships that develop between music fans building community on Discord, explored the new frontiers of AI in music, and wrote honestly about Travis Scott's culpability in the disaster at Astroworld.
Plenty of people found reasons to criticize Pitchfork over the years—speaking as a former contributor, readers got way too hung up on those damn scores—but the site unquestionably earned its status as the last remaining major music blog of importance. To see a publication like that, which owes its cultural cachet to the people who produced so much good work for it over the years, gutted and then tossed aside by some executives who are trying to overthink their way toward a few more percentage points of revenue, is extremely depressing. Whatever the new GQ-infused version of Pitchfork plans to be, it will have to go about its business without the resources and structures that previously allowed it to shine a light on the kinds of artists and subjects nobody else cares to cover.
It is hard not to see this development as a true indicator that we're nearing the endpoint of robust, meaningful music criticism as a concept. The idea that music journalism has no value is one of the most pervasive thoughts circulating among the suits who control the industry. What those people continue to deprive us of is smart, varied music coverage produced by actual journalists, most of whom now find themselves being squeezed out of an industry that only rewards slavish devotion to the biggest pop stars, or a constant courting of drama, gossip, and violence that is only tangentially related to music.
If there's a better future for music journalism to come, it will perhaps spring from the re-emergence of small-batch music blogs and more localized coverage. But what we're left with now is a corporatized wasteland, and fewer publications than ever equipped to write about music with all the rigor and passion it deserves.