Pitchfork began as a bootstrapped blog back in 1996. Now it’s a bona fide, award-winning media outlet, complete with a video channel, music discovery app and festival. How do you define yourselves now?
We’re always one thing and that’s a music publication. While we have other elements, being a music publication is at the centre. We spent a lot of time being frustrated by the boundaries and limitations that were imposed on us by being in the browser. Not only was Pitchfork not tangible, it was hard to innovate.
That is until about two years ago, when suddenly everything that we used to romanticize about print and be jealous of, we could suddenly build on and use to redefine what it means to be a publication.
You have also just announced the launch of a print magazine, The Pitchfork Review. It’s a bold move for a digital-first publication. Why do it?
We often draw a parallel to when we started our music festivals. As a digital publication, we wished to recreate, for a moment in time, something more tangible. We had been to many festivals, so felt we could really create something special.
It’s a similar sentiment that explains why we’ve moved in the direction of print. Pitchfork was founded with inspiration from print/zine culture and at that time, the web was very confined. But that has changed dramatically. The innovation that we can now implement daily online is endless. That said, what always remains is the romantic and tangible nature of collecting – keeping something that means something for a long time.
Much like a record, putting a beautifully designed and content-driven publication on your bookshelf and going back to it over the years is an important thing, and one we do not wish to die. Creating something unique and elaborate – that was the goal.
So for us, the time was right to take cues from all the amazing things we do online and to contextualize it in a more permanent way.
From an editorial standpoint, Pitchfork has gone all-in on design-heavy long-form pieces. It has paid off in terms of accolades, but these kinds of features cost money. How do you make it worth it?
You have to make it sustainable, you have to structure your business – especially bootstrapped like we are – in a sustainable fashion.
At the same time, not only are there billions of digital ad dollars out there in addition to people who believe in long-form, quality journalism, but that audience tends to be very attractive to an advertiser. That’s not why you do it, but when you look at it, the answer’s right there.
It takes a while and patience, especially to build a trusting audience, but I think there is an underestimation of people that want something beyond fleeting. At the end of the day no one can really argue with the fact that you want to create something of quality and long-term value.
The ads on Pitchfork are very muted, but advertising makes up most of your revenue. Why is it so important to move beyond the banner ad?
Advertising drives 85 to 90 percent of our revenue. Muted or not, it’s an important focal point of what we do.
Much like we want to innovate in the way we’re publishing content and thinking about the magazine, we want to change the ways brands are able to distribute their message on the internet.
The world is ripe for experimentation and brands are more intent then ever on having an open dialogue about creating something unique that’s perhaps a little outside of their normal vibe. Our revenue continues to grow by leaps and bounds because of the way we’re able to innovate and drive value with our advertising partners.
Any examples of what that innovation looks like?
We did a program for Pitchfork.tv that won a Webby, called POV Concert Series with American Express, which was inspired by Major League Baseball. Normally, if you want to watch a game on TV, you have to watch from the centre-field camera, the left-field camera or home plate. We thought of that in terms of the live concert – what if you could switch through those different views?
We were trying to figure out a way to get it off the ground. American Express had a campaign at that point that synched up nicely. They gave us the creative freedom to do something we were proud of.
Being able to bring something into the world: That’s as good a thing for a brand as it is for us and our audience. But at the same time we want to be the ones that are creating it in the first place and not just to make money.
The notion of music ownership is changing completely: Before it was vinyl and CDs, now it’s subscriptions and streaming. How do you see this shift affecting the way people experience music?
Ultimately, the omnipresent availability of music is very exciting as a music fan. Having anything you want to listen to available within a few clicks or finger punches is amazing. That’s a dream come true for anyone who loves music.
That being said, there’s also an inherent problem with having 18 million songs in a streaming service because you don’t know what you’re doing or where to go. No one has solved that yet.
People need more than that base level “recommended if you like x.” If I’m on Pandora and I’m listening to No Age and it gives me the Replacements, I could probably connect the dots, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily where I’d go if I had the choice. There’s got to be more to it than that.
At the end of the day, as much as you need aggregators and things that just deliver you content and music, there is also a place for publications like us. And that’s kind of the future of media, and that’s also an archaic thought.
There is also something to be said about owning a physical artifact. Do you see the shift towards digital changing the way we interact with music and content generally?
Maybe I’m more than just a casual music fan, but there is part of me that is totally disappointed by the fact that it’s all available online because now everything is deletable. And I say that because it ties to content like Pitchfork.
You can download and throw away an MP3 in five minutes in the same way that you can click away from our website in five minutes. That’s a challenge.
It’s a disappointing reality that still needs a solution. People spend a lot of time creating and making their records and we spend a lot of time and resources writing about music. The last thing you want is someone to press play for five minutes and leave.
As much as you need aggregators… that just deliver content, there is also a place for publications like us.
When I die, I don’t want to leave my daughter my log-in credentials to Amazon. That doesn’t seem right to me. I want to give her 5000 records. That’s maybe me being old school, but at least you’re working to build something that is ownable.
The idea of ownership is debatable, but really what it comes down to is the same issue Pitchfork is looking to fix as a publication: How do you make music not feel disposable?
It’s a big question. I don’t know where it will land. I’m excited to see, I think there are a lot of people with a lot of good ideas. When kids ask me how they can get into the music industry, I always say, “Fix it.”
All images in title are courtesy of Pitchfork
(Sidebar text by Eve Thomas)