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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, May 8, 2005

Pitchfork e-zine tells indie fans what's hot and not

By Greg Kot
Knight Ridder News Service

CHICAGO — A trio of music fanatics is holed up in a dimly lit, carpet-free West Side basement, hemmed in by 6-foot-tall boxes of CDs. Posters touting Devendra Barnhart, the Arcade Fire and Future-heads provide ambience. Empty soft-drink cans vie for desk space with laptops.

They click away on deadline for the latest daily edition of the Internet music magazine Pitchfork (pitchforkmedia.com). What they write will be read by 120,000 music junkies on this day alone: everyone from record company talent scouts, magazine editors, college radio programmers and record-store managers to just plain fans ready to drop cash on the Fork's latest pet band.

Not all of its readers love the e-zine's often contentious writing or its occasionally mean-spirited reviews, but they depend on it as a convenient one-stop shopping site for music news. Even naysayers grudgingly acknowledge that Pitchfork has become the go-to national tip sheet for the indie-rock subculture.

"I'm not a fan of their writing," says Steve Sowley, product manager for the two Reckless Records stores in Chicago, "but they have an unshakable control over the indie-music scene. If they rate an album an 8.5 or above (on a 10-point review scale) and you're an indie store, you'd best be ready to stock a lot of those albums."

Or ignore the album if Pitchfork whales on it. Josh Rosenfeld, co-owner of Seattle-based Barsuk Records, says one Texas record store initially refused to stock one of his releases, Travis Morrison's 2004 release "Travistan," because it received a 0.0 review from Pitchfork.

"A Rolling Stone review doesn't necessarily sell a single record for us," he says. "But with Pitchfork, you get a review, and you can see the impact on sales."

Since starting Pitchfork in 1995 in his parents' Minneapolis home, 29-year-old Ryan Schreiber has emerged as one of the leaders of a new generation of Internet music tastemakers. Music's cutting edge has shifted from radio stations, retail stores and monthly magazines to a virtual domain dominated by e-zine editors, MP3 file-swappers and audio bloggers.

"They absolutely have a taste-making role," says Blender editor in chief Craig Marks of Pitchfork — and other music-intensive Internet sites. "There's a certain youthfulness to the writing style that appeals to an aggressive community of indie-rock fan."

The plugged-in fans who run audio blogs spread not only news and reviews but wade through thousands of MP3 files, pick their favorites and frequently create instant underground stars. Electro-pop producers Junior Boys, Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A. and Montreal rock band the Arcade Fire are just some of the artists who have emerged from obscurity to become indie hitmakers in the last year thanks to these Internet music gurus.

The Arcade Fire's debut album, "Funeral," became the fastest-seller in the 15-year history of the North Carolina indie label Merge Records after Pitchfork gave it a 9.7 review last summer. Soon after, "Funeral" became the first Merge album to crack the Billboard Top 200 album chart.

"The degree to which it took off is unprecedented for any record on our label," Merge executive Martin Hall says. "After the Pitchfork review, it went out of print for about a week because we got so many orders for the record."

Schreiber is bright-eyed, affable and self-deprecating, belying Pitchfork's reputation for being the loudest, brattiest voice in the Internet wilderness. With no background in journalism or even in music writing, Schreiber launched the site 10 years ago because "the Internet needed something like this to cover underground music."

"I had opinions about music, and I felt I could state them semi-clearly, so I just went for it," he says. "To me, music writing was the best way I could turn people on to bands I love."

He didn't make money for years, and after moving to Chicago in 1999, found himself so destitute in summer 2000 that he briefly had to hole up in a cabin owned by his parents in rural Minnesota.

But Pitchfork's rave review for Radiohead's highly anticipated "Kid A" album in fall 2000 brought an influx of new readers from other band Web sites and message boards. Though the writing on the site remains wildly erratic, it is fervent; the most hostile reviews are written with the passion of a freshly jilted lover berating her ex. And the rave reviews carry weight with readers looking for the next big thing.

A sample rant from the world of e-zines and audio blogs:

"The disc ended as the sun was rising over Syria. Had it lasted that long? My comrades and I looked at each other, stupefied. Our only memory was of forced effects, laughable lyrics, and audio surgical scars. I sat up and began packing my duffel. I'd rather pick bananas. One comrade suggested smuggling the disc out of the kibbutz to leak to the Internet. If Metallica were such proud artists behind their music, unable to both allow downloading and refund money after purchase, then we should warn others."

— Brent DiCrescenzo at Pitchforkmedia.com on Metallica's "St. Anger"

As readership has expanded, Schreiber began to hire full-time staffers, including managing editor Scott Plagenhoef, 31. The site now pays a stable of 50 freelance writers from $20 to $40 a review or article and displays advertising from major corporations, ranging from record labels to gym-shoe manufacturers.

Though hardly in a league financially with the Rolling Stones and Blenders of the music-publishing world, Schreiber sees the Internet as owning the future. "By the time a publishing cycle happens now, the Internet is already done with the story," he says.

"You want your news live, in real time, as it happens — not on some archaic daily schedule like the ones limited technology forces on us back when people still relied on paperboys and printing presses," Schreiber recently wrote on the site.

In the next year, Schreiber aims to publish a Pitchfork book, jump-start an Internet radio station and expand the staff and payroll. Pitchfork also will sponsor a major summer music festival July 16-17 at Chicago's Pulaski Park. But he says if he had to start over again, he might start an audio blog. "When I started, we had no competition," Schreiber says. "People would surf the Web for 'Fugazi,' and we'd be one of the few results. Now it seems like everyone has a blog. Starting a Web site like this is a huge endeavor, and there isn't a lot of quick payoff. If I were starting over, I'd certainly start a blog instead of a Web-zine."

The world of Internet music tastemaking is growing more influential, but it's not making anyone rich — yet. Many bloggers don't post any advertising, and even the most established e-zines bring in only enough revenue to pay their reviewers "slave wages," in the words of Blender's Marks.

"All my ambitions require much more money than we have," says Pitchfork's Schreiber. "I know if we have money we can build and grow, but going out and getting money is always a bummer, for me at least. We want this thing to be sustainable and fun. We're not looking to make a million dollars. If we can keep growing and writing about music we love, everything else will take care of itself."

Laern more:

There are hundreds of audio Web logs in operation (a partial list is at MP3blogs.org), most with daily readership under 1,000. But they speak to a dedicated community of fans, bands, artist managers and talent scouts. Most fill a niche for a particular style of music, covering everything from African pop (Mattgy.net/music) to Polish jazz (polishjazz.com).