The merger of Pitchfork and GQ is a devastating loss for the music industry and artists | Laura Snapes

Estimated read time 9 min read


In the late summer of 2011, I traveled to Norway to cover a music festival for NME. At a party in another writer’s hotel room, I struck up a conversation with an American named Zach Kelly, who happened to write for Pitchfork. As a 22-year-old music journalism enthusiast, it was like meeting a member of my favorite football team. He graciously allowed me to question him about his life and work, having started as an intern at their Chicago office. This was already an exciting experience, as I had always viewed Pitchfork as an unattainable publication to aspire to. Upon returning to the UK, I received an email from editor Mark Richardson, who had been recommended by Zach. He asked if I would be interested in reviewing albums for Pitchfork. Despite NME’s rejection, Mark persisted and a year later, I was invited to join Pitchfork as their first UK staff member, taking on the role of associate editor. I eagerly accepted.

I tell this story as it is one of hundreds like it: Pitchfork’s editors were extraordinarily committed to investing in new critical talent, the writers and editors who were the driving force in unearthing and chronicling the defining alternative acts of the 21st century, as the website that midwestern record-store employee Ryan Schreiber founded in 1996 evolved into an authoritative, professional outlet. Arguably not since the inky heyday of NME itself had a music publication developed such a distinct reputation, thanks in part to its famous decimal-point scoring system and early take-no-prisoners reviews. “Pitchfork” even became a byword for a certain kind of music and music fan: artisan before artisan culture took over everything; a little forbidding, cloistered; maybe you loved to hate it, but still clicked through half a dozen times a day.

In 2015, Condé Nast, a large multimedia company, purchased an independent publication that focused on niche music. This caused many to question the impact of the acquisition and why Fred Santarpia, Condé’s chief digital officer, was proud to add a site with a diverse range of critics and music genres, including indie rock, pop, and rap, to their portfolio. This move was seen as bringing in a passionate audience of millennial males, according to a statement in the New York Times.

Ed Droste of Grizzly Bear, once a staple of Pitchfork’s coverage.

After eight years, Pitchfork has faced the expected outcome that many new media companies encounter. On January 17, Anna Wintour, global chief content officer for Condé and editor of US Vogue, sent an email to staff announcing that the Pitchfork team will now be incorporated into the GQ organization. As longtime employees shared their layoffs on Twitter, including executive editor Amy Phillips who had been with the company for over 18 years, it was unclear what would become of the remaining “team” responsible for running the music section on the GQ website. This situation is disheartening for multiple reasons, most notably the loss of jobs during a challenging time for media. Pitchfork was one of the few stable music outlets left – where will the former staff and hundreds of freelancers find work now?

Incorporating Pitchfork into a men’s magazine also reinforces the idea that music is primarily for men, disregarding the contributions of women and non-binary writers such as Lindsay Zoladz, Jenn Pelly, Carrie Battan, Amanda Petrusich, Sasha Geffen, Jill Mapes, Doreen St Félix, Hazel Cills, Jessica Hopper (former editor), and Puja Patel (current editor). These individuals were instrumental in transforming the website in the 2010s. This move also implies that music is simply another commodity in a consumer-driven lifestyle, rather than a unique art form that connects diverse communities and deserves careful examination and investigation. Pitchfork’s Marc Hogan was the one to report on multiple women accusing Arcade Fire’s Win Butler (a band closely associated with the site) of sexual misconduct (Butler claims the relationships were consensual). Additionally, Pitchfork published writer Amy Zimmerman’s investigation into 10 women accusing Sun Kil Moon songwriter Mark Kozelek of sexual misconduct (Kozelek denies the allegations). It remains to be seen if GQ will dedicate resources to such reports alongside articles like “The Best Cordless Stick Vacuum Will Turn You Into a Clean Freak” on their culture news feed.

Pitchfork has several weaknesses – questionable reviews in its archives, recent coverage that is too arrogant and lacking in historical context, and a strong tendency towards gatekeeping. However, it also faces stiff competition from other music news sources such as Stereogum, Consequence of Sound, the Quietus, NPR Music, and the resurgence of blogging and newsletters. As the dominant player in the industry, its potential dissolution is akin to the disappearance of HMV from physical stores. Without a prominent example to look up to, differentiate oneself from, and debate over, the idea that specialized music journalism can sustain itself begins to lose relevance. (This is a situation we have already experienced in the UK with the disappearance of NME and Q magazine from shelves, with Q recently being sold and revived as a subpar blog.)

Some people have expressed disappointment in Pitchfork’s change towards favoring popular music in the past ten years. They used to only review Ryan Adams’ version of Taylor Swift’s 1989, but now they include more pop music. Some may argue that it has become less specific compared to its peak in the late 2000s when it was closely associated with bands like Arcade Fire and Grizzly Bear. However, this shift reflects the current trend of consuming music and Pitchfork stands out as the only music outlet that publishes two to four comprehensive reviews of new albums every day, featuring a range of indie, rap, and niche genres. They also consistently bring in new writers. I am not able to reword “Hanoi conceptualist” Aprxel’s Tapetumlucidum.

Changed perceptions in one Pitchfork review … Lana Del Rey.

As someone who has written many reviews, I am aware of the extensive effort that goes into them. This includes the involvement of two editors, fact-checking, and careful proofreading – all of which contribute to the growth and development of young writers. Each edit provides a valuable lesson that stays with you. For instance, when I wrote my first long piece for the site in 2012, Features editor Ryan Dombal’s meticulous guidance taught me how to write compelling profiles.

Despite the criticism that Pitchfork receives from musicians, a strong music media is crucial for them as well. It helps expose their work to a wider audience, creates a sense of myth and storytelling that leaves a lasting impact on listeners, and bridges the gap between recognizing good music and recognizing a good artist – as pointed out by Peter Robinson of Popjustice. Additionally, a thorough and unbiased critical review from Pitchfork shows respect for the artists, even if the assessment is negative. In fact, a positive review from Pitchfork can significantly elevate an artist’s career, as seen with Mike Powell’s review of Courtney Barnett’s 2013 single Avant Gardener, Sasha Geffen’s review of MJ Lenderman’s Boat Songs in 2022, or any review by rap critic Alphonse Pierre. On the other hand, a negative review can also change the way an artist is perceived, as exemplified by Jessica Hopper’s masterful review of Lana Del Rey’s 2015 album Honeymoon.

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Why do I require Pitchfork when I am already reading a lengthy article on the same topic in The Guardian? However, specialized music publications offer unique perspectives that general media outlets cannot. For instance, Pitchfork recently surprised me by accepting a Sunday Review pitch on a highly obscure album (which is yet to be published). This is the type of piece that we would not be able to justify publishing in our publication due to its lack of cultural relevance or newsworthiness. Yet, in writing it, I had the opportunity to contact the national library of the artist’s home country to uncover newspaper clippings from the 1980s, and the original record label for any relevant artifacts. I also scoured obscure forums and dug through dusty archives to gather information that would appeal to a wider audience. This type of content holds value that may not be apparent to parent media companies, who are primarily focused on the bottom line. These companies are quick to condemn platforms like Bandcamp, which do not meet their ever-changing standards (think “pivot to video”), leading to the degradation of the last remaining quality sections of the internet. While we are unsure of what the collaboration between Pitchfork and GQ will entail, it is evident that there is a fundamental clash in values between a publication that prioritizes criticism and one that revolves around access to celebrities.

Attempting to analyze this situation from Condé’s perspective is illogical. Pitchfork, a brand owned by Condé, was known for its quick and efficient operations. One of Condé’s audience development editors even tweeted that Pitchfork had the highest daily site traffic among all of their brands, despite not receiving enough resources from the corporation. These types of adaptable publications can serve as indicators for parent companies to experiment with new ideas and appeal to younger audiences, who may then transition to more traditional publications. However, it is possible that Pitchfork’s rapid evolution may have been too much for the conservative leadership at the parent company. This could be due to Pitchfork’s increasing representation and diversification, which may have alienated its original male audience who have aged without bringing in enough new readers. This has potentially resulted in a decline in a clearly defined target audience for marketing purposes. If this is indeed Condé’s view on music criticism and its audience, perhaps they should be more daring in reaching out to new readers and generating revenue, just as their misunderstood acquisition did in discovering new voices both on the microphone and behind the scenes.


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