Wednesday 20 March 2019

Could this be the world's most hated website?

Ed Power People have strong feelings about Pitchfork Media, a music website known for its purple writing and vicious put-downs. Frequently, those feelings run towards blind hate. Perhaps we reach too far in describing Pitchfork as the world's most despised web page, but only a little surely.

Ed Power People have strong feelings about Pitchfork Media, a music website known for its purple writing and vicious put-downs. Frequently, those feelings run towards blind hate. Perhaps we reach too far in describing Pitchfork as the world's most despised web page, but only a little surely.

Last week, Damien Rice, the morose Kildare strummer, was the latest to suffer the wrath of Pitchfork. Dismissed as "bland", "lazy" and "tepid", his new album, 9, staggered away from a Pitchfork review with smoke streaming from its ears - it had received a rating of 1.9 out of ten. Not long afterwards 9 limped into the US charts at number 22.

It is possible the two events are not unrelated.

What ticks people off is the frightening and apparently arbitrary power wielded by Pitchfork, which operates out of a scruffy office in Chicago. Despite being less than a decade old and written largely by unpaid volunteers, Pitchfork can claim to be among the most important music publications in the world today. Certainly, few 'traditional' music journalists enjoy anything like its influence.

Beyond doubt, Pitchfork has the clout to make or break reputations. When Arcade Fire, an odd if compelling Canadian rock group with folk overtones, crashed the mainstream in late 2004, it was on a back of an ecstatic Pitchfork write-up.

Similarly, artists such as The Boy Least Likely To and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah achieved wide exposure after winning the heart of Pitchfork writers. "You'll see a real spike in sales if Pitchfork gives something [a rating of] best new music," Josh Madell, co-owner of the New York record store Other Music, told the Washington Post. Conversely, bands trounced by Pitchfork should expect the worst. To a sizable body of music lovers, a Pitchfork review is nothing less than Holy Scripture. If it says Damien Rice's new album is rubbish, then Rice's new album must be rubbish.

Sometimes, Pitchfork can even wipe out an artist's prospects entirely. The most notorious Pitchfork casualty is Travis Morrison, whose band The Dismemberment Plan had enjoyed a modest yet loyal following through the late '90s. Striking out on the solo path, Morrison woke up one morning to find himself at the blunt end of a 0.0 Pitchfork rating.

Immediately, things began to fall apart: many record stores declined to stock his album, those that did made sure never to play it or give it shelf space. His career never really recovered.

Considering its prominence, one might take Pitchfork to be a bastion of classy journalism. In fact, Pitchfork writers often stand guilty of the very crime of which they so frequently accuse musicians: they indulge themselves shamelessly.

Reading the Rice review, for instance, one is struck by writer Mark Hogan's impenetrable prose. Rice, he writes, "is pretty much the vanguard of the avant-garde: a Bladerunner-snazzy digital billboard beckoning toward a brave, new, post-emotional future". Mark - what does this mean?

Predictably, there are signs of a backlash. There is already at least one Pitchfork spoof (Rich Dork) and executives at the indie label Sub Pop (whose discoveries include Nirvana) recently embarked on a rant about the website. For others, the answer to the Pitchfork 'problem' is obvious: just ignore it. "The fact is people shouldn't take things like Pitchfork as seriously as they do," says Irish singer-songwriter Patrick Freyne. "Part of what keeps the whole industry going is purple prose and hipster putdowns."

Nonetheless, Pitchfork has its defenders. "I've often come across stuff that I wouldn't have otherwise, especially since they did a slight revamp and included links and related stuff at the end of the pieces," says Tim O'Donovan, a Dublin musician who plays the drums in Bell X1 and releases his retro electropop album as Neosupervital.

"They often link to MySpace or YouTube. Only yesterday, I came across a remixer guy from Sweden who'd done a remix for the r'n'b singer Ciara and totally synthified it, so I made him my friend for obvious reasons. I'd definitely purchase stuff on their recommendations. I think you get to know the tastes of individual writers, like in most publications, and trust their judgments."

All things considered, perhaps the influence of Pitchfork is overstated. Some artists seem hardly aware it even exists. "Pitchfork? No, I don't know an awful lot about it," says Nathan Connolly, guitarist with Snow Patrol (panned by Pitchfork as "twee" Coldplay clones). "I don't really pay much attention to what is written about us to be honest."

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Also in this section