Photographer: Laurel Golio for Bloomberg Businessweek
Pitchfork Grows Up
Ryan Schreiber’s once-scrappy hipster music review site has made it to media’s main stage.
Baby’s All Right, a club in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, is almost full when Ryan Schreiber arrives. A burly 41-year-old, he’s wearing a dark overcoat open to display a vintage Whitney Houston T-shirt. Schreiber, founder of the groundbreaking music website Pitchfork, gets a beer and threads his way through the crowd for a better view of Melina Duterte, a 23-year-old singer-songwriter who plays under the name Jay Som; her debut album, Everybody Works, recently earned a glowing 8.6 (out of 10) review from Schreiber’s site. He wants to hear how she sounds live, as he puts it, “before it becomes a job” for her.
Duterte is the kind of independent artist whom Schreiber set out to champion in 1996, when he started Pitchfork while living with his parents in Victoria, Minn. Along the way, he established what became the dominant voice of internet music reviewing. “It wasn’t the detached, scholarly take of a Rolling Stone review,” says Alan Light, a former editor of Spin and Vibe. “It stood out for its insidery, hipster tone.”
Much has changed since 1996. Today, Schreiber employs 51 people, runs music festivals in Chicago and Paris, and has Fortune 500 advertisers. In 2015, Condé Nast, publisher of the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and Vogue, bought Pitchfork for an undisclosed sum, and now Schreiber works in a comfortable office at Condé’s headquarters in One World Trade Center in lower Manhattan.
The sale stunned the music world—Pitchfork warrants a 4.7 as a luxury brand in the Condé mold—yet it’s easy to see why Schreiber liked the deal. Pitchfork was one of the first sites to get how the internet could mold listening habits, but now it’s surrounded by digital rivals offering much more than snarky reviews. Streaming sites such as Spotify bypass the music press, using algorithms to recommend tunes, and social media has turned anyone with a following into a tastemaker. “Kylie Jenner can blow up a song by posting it on Snapchat,” says Naomi Zeichner, former editor-in-chief of the Fader.
Schreiber says the sale wasn’t a defensive move. The music geek who made it big has grand ambitions for Pitchfork. He wants it to be the clearinghouse for music reviews, videos, and news. To do that, he says, he needed a partner.
A few days before the Jay Som show, Schreiber sits in his office talking about Pitchfork’s origin story. He’s been listening to More Life, the new Drake album, which the rapper dropped with little warning a day or two earlier. It’s one of the things artists do these days that makes Pitchfork’s job tougher. “We’re all trying to work out our opinions,” Schreiber says. (Contributing editor Jayson Greene’s review gives it a 7.8.)
Schreiber barely graduated from high school in 1994 and didn’t go to college. He got a job at a record store and watched as his music-loving friends published DIY zines that were long on enthusiasm, short on polish, and expensive to distribute. Schreiber thought, Why not publish one online?
In 1996 he started a monthly webzine called Turntable but rechristened it Pitchfork Media (to evoke the Midwest and a sharp edge) after another site claimed rights to the original name. Pitchfork’s distinctive review system down to the decimal let writers elevate or disembowel records with surgical precision. One day, Schreiber got a call from an online record store, Insound, that wanted to advertise. He asked for $500. “They were like, ‘Sounds great!’ ” he recalls. With that, Pitchfork became a business.
Still, Schreiber struggled to pay the rent. In 1999 he moved to Chicago, where he could see more shows. The next year he got a break when Radiohead released the otherworldly Kid A and Pitchfork contributor Brent DiCrescenzo penned an ecstatic but less-than-comprehensible 10 review that included lines such as “The butterscotch lamps along the walls of the tight city square bled upward into the cobalt sky, which seemed as strikingly artificial and perfect as a wizard’s cap.” Like much of the site’s writing, the piece was mocked for its obtuseness. But what it lacked in clarity it made up for in timeliness and clickability: It was one of the first Kid A reviews posted online, and Radiohead fans spread it across the internet, accelerating Pitchfork’s traffic and, in turn, its influence.
For a while, Schreiber kept doing double duty as editor-in-chief and ad salesman. In 2004 he made a plea on the site for a full-time advertising sales rep. Forty people applied; the last application he read was from Chris Kaskie, who had sold space for the Onion. Schreiber was ready to hire him over the phone, but Kaskie said they needed to have a beer first.
With Kaskie, who is now Pitchfork’s president, selling ads, annual revenue hit about $5 million within several years. Schreiber hired a managing editor, and when locals raised the idea of curating a music festival with him and Kaskie, the two figured it was good branding. After a trial run in 2005, the company took over the event the next summer, calling it the Pitchfork Music Festival. “Suddenly, people are like, ‘Why are there 20,000 people going to see bands I’ve never heard of?’ ” Kaskie says.
By 2007, Schreiber had moved to New York, where there were even more concerts to see. He and Kaskie introduced Pitchfork.tv with web shows such as Don’t Look Down, which featured live performances on rooftops. As Pitchfork delved into video, it attracted big-name sponsors like American Express Co. and Apple Inc. The reviews on the site became as erudite as those of the music magazines that Pitchfork had all but eclipsed in influence. The American Society of Magazine Editors nominated Pitchfork for a National Magazine Award for general excellence in digital media in 2013. It won.
Over the years, Schreiber brushed off would-be investors. But by 2014, Pitchfork needed money. The Brooklyn office was a cool place where employees could push desks against walls for bands to perform, but the toilets were unreliable. “Everything was on a shoestring budget,” Schreiber says. At the same time, the site was working to broaden its coverage, not just in terms of platforms but to take a less parochial position on pop music. This made sense at a time when younger listeners—and writers—were as interested in Taylor Swift as Vampire Weekend.
More than anything, Schreiber wanted Pitchfork to keep growing. So he was open when Condé approached the same year. At first, Fred Santarpia, Condé’s head of digital, wanted to see whether Pitchfork would share videos on a Condé site called the Scene, which features digital shorts, series, and documentaries. He thought Pitchfork content would make it easier to sell beer and soda ads. In the course of these conversations, Santarpia asked if Schreiber would sell the site. Schreiber said he would. It wasn’t just that he’d read the New Yorker and Wired for years. He says he was impressed that the names atop the mastheads had editorial independence.
Inside Condé, the proposal needed explaining. Some of Santarpia’s peers thought Pitchfork was a streaming site. Santarpia says he told them the site chronicled music the same way the company’s magazines did fashion, politics, and food. “Guys, Pitchfork is in the same business that we are,” he recalls saying. One supporter: New Yorker editor David Remnick. “I was thrilled with the idea,” he said in an email.
When the acquisition was announced in October 2015, there was consternation in the media. “Condé Nast Purchase of Pitchfork Media Sounds Death Knell for Indie Rock,” the New York Observer lamented. But indie rock hasn’t died. It’s just taken on new forms. Pitchfork contributed to an upcoming music issue of Teen Vogue, helping it prepare a timeline about music’s role in social movements. Pitchfork editors also appeared in a holiday video with a peer at Bon Appétit to play Christmas records and mix Old-Fashioneds.
The sale has bolstered Pitchfork’s appeal to advertisers. In January the company rolled out October, a site featuring beer news and reviews that’s owned by brewing giant AB InBev SA/NV and ZX Ventures, its venture capital fund. Mike Raspatello, formerly a ZX director and now October’s president, says he pitched the idea to Pitchfork last year. “Beer doesn’t have its Bon Appétit,” he says. Early on, the new site bit the hand that feeds it with a piece impaling the marketing of Budweiser, AB InBev’s flagship brand, after Donald Trump’s election. Raspatello says he didn’t flinch: “The independence of the editorial is the most crucial aspect of the partnership.”
It might be a good time for Pitchfork to diversify. John Stein, a senior editor at Spotify AB who focuses on independent music for the service, says that although Pitchfork can still increase an artist’s streams, “it’s definitely different than it was maybe 10 years ago, where a good review or a bad review from Pitchfork could really, really change things.”
Schreiber scoffs at this, noting that people are reading Pitchfork’s reviews more than ever. According to ComScore Inc., the site had 2.7 million visitors in October 2015; a year later, it had 4.1 million. He’s vigorously pursuing his strategy to make Pitchfork the No. 1 repository for music content: It’s reviewing records that predate its existence to “fill in the gaps of our archive,” he says. Pitchfork is also creating videos about records it considers epochal and celebrating anniversaries of classics such as Radiohead’s OK Computer, which was released in 1997. “We wound up doing seven features and three videos,” says Mark Richardson, Pitchfork’s executive editor. It’s also making playlists for Spotify’s main competitor, Apple Music.
Anyone who argues that Pitchfork’s influence is dimming should talk to Melina Duterte. Since breaking out, she’s been hailed by NPR, the New York Times, and the New Yorker. But when Duterte meets fans, she knows who discovered her: “People say, ‘I found you on Pitchfork.’ ”