Considering Pitchfork.tv

Nick Martens runs down the successes and shortcomings of Pitchfork Media in an attempt to divine the potential impact of the company’s new online music television channel.

We all hate Pitchfork, and they have given us ample reason to feel that way. Kevin’s Dinosaur Comic synecdochically illustrates their biggest problem: worthless reviews. No less a figure than Radiohead bassist Colin Greenwood captured the essence of these reviews in a recent Pitchfork interview. When asked by interviewer Ryan Dombal whether he agreed with the assessment in Pitchfork’s Hail to the Thief review that “anything Radiohead does from here on out will sound like Radiohead,” Greenwood replied, “that’s like a late-night stoner comment. At about three in the morning– after you’ve put on Captain Beefheart and you put the red scarf over the light bulb– it makes a lot of sense.” If there’s a more perfect encapsulation of Pitchfork’s critical prose, I haven’t heard it. And if an independent music publication can neither coherently tear down the Mars Volta nor offer substantial insight about Radiohead, it seems only fair to disregard their commentary altogether.

But even if their textual evaluations prove irrelevant, one cannot dismiss their entire reviewing apparatus. For all their babbling, Pitchfork can still lend valuable exposure to bands who deserve it by giving them a high score and spot in the “Best New Music” section. Some may bemoan the Arcade Fire’s widespread popularity, but I enjoy being able to strike up a conversation about Funeral with nearly any college student. Pitchfork deserves credit for this. There are countless other examples of bands catching a break via Pitchfork, from Tapes ‘n Tapes to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, making it impossible to demonize the Forkers entirely (unless you find CYHSY as annoying as I do).

So, even Pitchfork’s most frustrating feature is somewhat redeemable, and that’s only the surface of their enterprise. While their news section prefers masturbatory yammering to a well-crafted lead, their coverage is fairly thorough. Though their questions are needlessly quirky and often self-important, Pitchfork can land high-profile interviews because of their clout in the industry. I don’t care for the establishing descriptions, but their Forkcast section sometimes offers exclusive content or interesting rarities. Basically, Pitchfork balances every annoyance with some kind of substance. It can be maddening to wade through the pretension to reach the useful content, but at least that content is there. (Let’s not discuss their “Best Of” features.)

Where this rule doesn’t apply is at the Pitchfork Music Festival. Nitpicking aside, I think it’s a great event. I’ve been the past two summers, and I can’t imagine a better value. Not only is it the ideal place to coalesce around fellow hipsters and beloved bands, but the festival also presents interesting new music to a receptive audience. This makes my life better because I now enjoy the Sea & Cake, and it makes the Sea & Cake’s life better because I will pay money to see their concert if they play in my town. Best of all, there is precious little room for Pitchfork’s editorial voice to disrupt their music festival. The audience engages directly with the music, with Pitchfork’s authorship only obvious in the festival line-up. And, as we have established, Pitchfork is exactly as good at recognizing talent as they are bad at describing it.

This is the long way of saying that I feel reasonably optimistic about the upcoming launch of Pitchfork.tv. Debuting April 7, the video-based website will feature content relating to independent music, such as live performances, music videos, and documentary-style features. According to Pitchfork’s publicity, new videos will be offered every day, available on-demand. Nothing in their announcement indicates any form of payment, and it’s hard to feel down about a free trove of videos about indie music. Their program schedule looks promising, too; the premier is marked by the well-regarded Pixies tour documentary, loudQUIETloud, followed by clips from other notable indie groups like the Liars and Man Man.

At the very least, Pitchfork.tv promises to be an entertaining diversion, but it has the potential to become more than that. With album sales languishing and iTunes taking over as America’s largest music retailer, a strong digital presence is now arguably a band’s most important asset. Not only does it help in selling mp3s, but it also drives audiences to concerts, where a successful indie band makes most of its money. If Pitchfork.tv proves popular, it opens new doors both in terms of publicity and creativity. If a good video will get a band noticed on the site, and if getting noticed on the site brings people to the shows, not only will the anemic music video industry feel a resurgence, but other music-related video formats will be given new life as well. It would be fantastic to see more content on par with the Take Away Shows, and Pitchfork.tv could be the perfect catalyst for this kind of indie filmmaking renaissance. But, if it falls short of that high bar, I’m still willing to consider the site a success if Pitchfork can resist the temptation to introduce ponderous video reviews.

[UPDATE: Seconds after posting this article, I caught this item announcing that Radiohead will be offering an exclusive performance via Pitchfork.tv and that a new M83 music video will be premeiring on the site. Jiminy.]

Nick Martens is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. You can email him, if you like.