Pitchfork staff last week did not expect to receive a memo announcing that the long-running music website was folding under the GQ banner. They also probably did not expect the memo to come from Dame Anna Wintour herself.

Much has been written about Pitchfork’s legacy as a mainstay of independent music criticism, as a guiding light in a vast digital world keen to reconfigure how music can be dissected and considered – and a considerable amount about the site’s storied give-and-take relationship with wider culture.

Music criticism is stuck between being organically grassroots and also the most openly corporatised. Pitchfork, somehow, managed to tread this line for years as the rare intermediary between the two.

Pitchfork was a symbol of a previously optimistic internet, where arts media could thrive without the gatekeepers of the traditional print industry. An ecosystem of messageboards and blogs grew in its wake, eager to provide curation, recommendation, and personal experience. Taking the internet’s intentions pure heartedly, the communication within this ecosystem was very human. It livened music discourse, created micro-stars out of independent musicians, and gave valuable insight into what people think and how people feel when encountering new music.

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But this reflective relationship with music struggles to exist now. The internet has been tightly centralised, leaving little room for voices outside the major social media platforms. The music industry relies on faceless algorithms from the top down, from touring schedules to radio playlists through to the endless personal listening churn of Spotify.

What is Pitchfork’s place in a world where streaming services have replaced music criticism as portals of discovery? Why go through the effort of reading, pondering, and engaging when algorithms can make predictions and infinitely spit out something it thinks the listener might like?

Pitchfork was no stranger to its own criticism over the years; too much focus on the white indie milieu in its early days, a lack of vision once it was acquired by publishing giant Condé Nast. Regardless, Pitchfork’s questionable decisions still added value to the running discourse. The site earnestly tried to establish a canon for independent music and took big swings when being overly praising or vicious towards particular albums and artists. It was a springboard for the careers of acts like Arcade Fire and Animal Collective, but also left paths destroyed if coverage was critical.

The Herald: Condé Nast chief content officer Dame Anna Wintour informed Pitchfork staff that the brand would be folding into GQ, with inevitable job lay-offsCondé Nast chief content officer Dame Anna Wintour informed Pitchfork staff that the brand would be folding into GQ, with inevitable job lay-offs (Image: Reuters)
Pitchfork was not scared to generate noise with a unique or challenging perspective, an approach that has faded in time as music criticism moves from informing the zeitgeist to playing a docile, helpless role within it. One of the biggest swings Pitchfork took in its early days was scoring Sonic Youth’s NYC Ghosts & Flowers record a 0.0 (the lowest possible score). It was a ballsy move – Sonic Youth were critical indie darlings throughout the underground eighties and the Nirvana-stirred nineties, but Pitchfork wanted a reaction. What better way to make a name than to slay a sacred cow?

Though the review’s writer Brent DiCrescenzo changed his stance on the record later (“It’s unlike anything else, eerie and beautiful”), he intended to create a dialogue, and mischievously rile up an old guard that the new internet had sought to decimate. This type of critical pointing is a difficult feat to pull off now. Strong opposing views can be conveniently filed under ‘ragebait’ in the social media world, where everyone has equal say but not equal information. Bold opinions struggle to be seen in good faith among the distortion of algorithms.

Our relationship with music is altered forever, and there’s no way back. Convenience is the standard bearer, and critical ears are washed away in the endless online seas. Music discovery was once the free exchange of perspective, personality, and ideas, but is now distilled into mindless content consumption. Music is now distributed and shared without context, history, background, or reflection. Spotify does not platform music, it platforms content. These aspects that we naturally engage with are filtered out in the content abyss. The mantras of the internet and its relationship with art and media have shifted entirely.

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Pitchfork folding is just one small shift in this technological tidal wave, all things considered. For the Silicon Valley enterprises, passive engagement is the key to success. Genuine exploration is antithetical to the bottom line, and the remaining music publications are helpless in slaying the beast.

There is some optimism if you look for it. Despite what the streaming services assume, humans are not data. Ambitious music lovers will continue to explore, share, and create avenues. Spaces outside the beast will always exist, as small and dwindling as they are. Pockets of forward-thinking music criticism, such as the long-running experimental music magazine The Wire, still thrive and cater to a niche of like-minded auditory adventurers. Local music scenes will still form, lying in wait for a wider audience. The question is whether these disparate strands can ever break through barriers and make a sincere impact.

Should we accept that our relationship with music has become more atomised, narrow, and mechanised for the sake of convenience? Do we have no choice but to accept the status of Spotify and others as behemoths, or can we again craft a space in discourse where music discovery is based on real human thought, emotion, and experience?