Friday, September 12, 2008


Statement of Intent:

The claim is a simple one: is an effective website for its audience.  To prove this, we will engage in a combination of Aristotelian rhetoric and logical positivism.  Carefully and systematically, we will analyze the disparate but complementary components of Pitchfork against “good” journalism and the semi-standardized axioms of “good” web design.  We will also add terms from various literary, linguistic, and philosophical disciplines into our folk lexicon to describe some of the unnamed memes of multimedia.  For clarity, we will approach the analysis operating in the binary of form and content.  Form is the aesthetic choices of the web design while content will address editorial patterns.  


What is Pitchfork?

Pitchfork is a webzine started in 1995 by Ryan Schreiber. It is based in Chicago.  Pitchfork is dedicated to music criticism while also offering news and feature articles.  They cover independent music, putting primacy on indie rock tastes.  Their coverage, however, is multi-generic discussing rock, pop, hip-hop, electronic, metal, avant-garde, jazz, dance, folk, and many other sub and sub-sub genres, named and unnamed. 

Pitchfork is updated daily Monday through Friday except on major holidays.  It has recently added a second tier to its online offerings called, a video hub that specializes in musical content.

Why is it Relevant?

Ethos, And Pitchfork in Popular Culture

Among the paradoxes of the Web is that the Litmus Test for online success is measured not in page views but in articles, that is, its coverage by old media.  Whatever the case, Pitchfork is often covered regularly by all sorts of publications, mainstream and niche alike:

“Pitchfork covers the independent, the new and the obscure, making songs available free as MP3 files and reviewing music with a ratings system that goes down to a decimal place. (Leave it to readers to figure out the quality difference between 8.3 and 8.4.) Pitchfork can build the Internet buzz that turns a local band into one with fans worldwide — a few here and there, but now aggregated online… For Pitchfork cult followings aren’t a sign of commercial failure, but of elite taste.”

In his New York Times review of music website Pitchfork’s annual P4K Music Festival in Chicago, Jon Pareles addresses two important elements of the website.  First, P4K’s manifesto implicite: a cynical critical approach that addresses the needs of a similarly cynical and critical audience.  Secondly, Pitchfork has grown in prominence and authority to where a good review is a platform for a band’s flight from obscurity into the populous.

In Wired’s 2006 feature “Music Reborn,” there is a 3,000 word article titled , “The Pitchfork Effect” with the byline: “How a tiny web outfit became the most influential tastemaker on the music scene.”  Clearly, Pitchfork is a little website with huge reach.

Pathos, Data, and Pitchfork Among the Web Monoliths

According to Alexa, Pitchfork’s ranks 1,399 in US traffic.  The average page views per visit is 3.18.  Furthermore, according to, another website data aggregator, Pitchfork averages 200,000 unique visitors a day spending 4 minutes on the site per visit. 

Here is a chart of Pitchfork compared against other top music criticism portals

Audience Analysis

A medium’s audience can be categorized as implicit or explicit.  The explicit audience are those who can be determined by advertising. The implicit audience are those who are addressed by the web’s content.

Pitchfork’s Implicit Audience.  In Pitchfork’s “Forkast” article on the new Belle & Sebastian song, “Perfection as a Hipster,” the author opines: “If the defining characteristic of a hipster is knowing not to admit you are one, then Belle & Sebastian's latest project is going to cause some uncomfortable squirming, at least among those whose vintage t-shirts permit such freedom of movement.” And then closes, “But it's worth hearing if only to be a more perfect, ahem, you.”  Clearly, Pitchfork thinks of most of its audience as hipsters.  The verbose language and obscure reference of reviews also shows that Pitchfork thinks its audience is capable of “getting” most of its content.  This category of person will be called “learned music connoisseurs.”

Pitchfork’s Explicit Audience.  Pitchfork courts mostly three categories of advertiser:  hipster clothing store American Apparel, record companies, and it’s video channel  This stratification of audience is more ambiguous, but let us say the category of person are music fans, hipsters, sartorialists.


Web design must balance what the user expects and what the user is actually given.  This axis of interaction amounts to site designers adhering to well-worn GUI tropes while still being new and innovative enough to visually differentiate the site amongst the clutter. 

In this sense Pitchfork is successful.  Everything works as expected. All links worked as tested.  Backgrounds should be neutral:  Pitchfork’s is a pale robin’s-egg-blue-to-white gradient making text readable and contrastable with its environment. The logo is always visible.  The sidebar is located prominently, always visible, linking to all relevant channels.  The search function works on a visible-transparent level, as it is also on the sidebar, and available on every page—a convenience for the user.   Also of note, it has a flip down menu for more specific searches.

Pitchfork uses both mimetic and diegetic cues for hypertext:

            Mimetic Cues:  uses actual representation for hyperlinking.  The Pitchfork logo re-directs to the homepage.  Pictures link to their respective articles, and advertisements open product pages in a new window.

            Diegetic Cues:  uses verbal or narrative cues for hyperlinking.  Bold texts link to appropriately “marked” pages.  Floating text boxes labeled “section” link to associated sections.

Pitchfork uses the “newspaper column” as metaphor in its presentation of articles on the homepage, showing stories in 3 columns.  P4K also takes a temporally hierarchal approach to how it displays its content, pushing up content that is most recent.  At the top are things that are updated daily: News, Forkcast, and Reviews —everyday there will be 5 new reviews while new songs and news are updated at irregular intervals over the course of a day.  In anathema, “below-the-line” are things updated over the course of the week including its “Best New Music” and “Features” categories.  Dates are also easy to read in its contrasting red type-face.

The design of Pitchfork’s homepage reveals two important elements of the website.  First, its emphasis on the sequential displays the site’s emphasis on “New” music (Pitchfork reviews reissues and boxsets but very infrequently).  Putting primacy on the date of articles also makes it easy for frequent visitors to navigate the relevant information on the site.  Secondly, on the web, when engaged with non-linear interaction, the user will automatically look not to left (like with old media) but to the uppermost-center of the screen; putting its review section in the middle, most-visible area of the homepage displays how important music reviews are in Pitchfork’s schematization of cultural criticism.

Above the fold, Pitchfork displays 4 categorical journalistic schema:  News, Reviews, Forkast, and Features.

  1. News.  Sequentially, the news section covers the latest gossip, releases, event photos, promotional releases, event listings, and reports on Independent music’s most relevant musicians.
  2. Recent Reviews.  Daily, this middle column features 2 lead reviews and then 3 lower profile releases “beneath the fold.”
  3. New Media Releases.  This section labeled, “Forkcast” is also updated several times over the course of the day.  Whenever an artist releases a notable new song or video, or whenever adds new content to its site, it is posted here.
  4. Features.  Includes interviews and specialized columns.  Typically, one new feature is added every day.

Below the fold, Pitchfork shows a 5th Category, “Best New Music”

  1. Best New Music.  Of all the reviews that Pitchfork does, occasionally they will add a new album to the esteemed “Best New Music” listing.  Albums here normally receive an 8.0 or higher.  Getting a high score, however, does not ensure a ranking on the list.  The 2 most recently added albums are always displayed here.
  2. Older Reviews.  This section is unnamed but includes the 5 reviews each from the past 3 days.


Pitchfork takes a curatorial, canonical approach to music and taste-making.  They create yearly “Best-of” top-50 lists and have formed canon-building decade retrospectives like “Best 100 albums of 1970.”  Controversially, Pitchfork has re-done their 90’s countdown, prompting protestations of revisionist history and feigned authority.

Pitchfork’s bread is buttered, however, by music reviews.  Pitchfork writes extremely dense reviews averaging 400-600 word counts with heavy esoteric references to obscure music theory, artists, films, and artistic movements.  The focus on references and a band's past work (which are nearly always mentioned) add credibility to the reviews.  Pitchfork uses a 10-point scale that goes to one decimal place.

Placing Pitchfork number 16 on their list of “Top 25 Best Internet Site,” Entertainment Weekly writes, “[Pitchfork is] A webzine people love to dis. Its dense reviews often are overwritten, underedited thickets of pretentious prose. The attitude? Frequently flip,mean, and smarmy. Grudgingly, however, we admit that the Chicago-based site has become a tastemaking institution that's impossible to ignore.”

Here are some examples:

The Review as Creative Writing Project:(1. Tool)(2. Beck)  1.  Tool's review is written as an essay by a teenager obsessed with Tool (point: Tool is for high-schoolers with undeveloped taste.  2.  The review for Beck's Guero is a dialogue between Beck's multiple personalities and an analyst (point:  Beck's new music is too scattershot, unfocused, diverse)

The Non-Review Review:(1. Jet)(2. The Black Kids)  No explanation necessary.

Odd Ratings: (1. Radiohead)(2. British Sea Power) 1.  Radiohead's review reflects how the album In Rainbows was distributed, allowing fans to pay what they want.  This is called the "honesty box" approach.  2.  British Sea Power's new album, according to Pitchfork, sounds like a U2 rip-off.

Here is a satirical Pitchfork review from Neo-satirists The Onion.  Pitchfork's founder gives Music a 6.8

Despite Pitchfork has a large staff of reviewers, the site has managed to formulate a unique voice and a specific attitude to certain artists: Radiohead will always get glowing reviews, while Jet, Kings of Leon, and controversially, The Mars Volta will always receive bad markings.


Pitchfork is a well-designed website that provides rewarding utility for its audience.

Pitchfork has been alternately lampooned for mean-spirited reviews, indie-elisit posturing, and a generally pretentious sentiment while being aggrandized for the same thing.  Nevertheless, Pitchfork provides a powerful platform for otherwise unknown artists who represent the ever-fragmented taste of our cultural environment, to be known on an international scale.  It has also become a useful hub and general disseminator of information including news and rare feature articles.

In Pitchfork newest retrospective, “Top 50 Albums of 2007,” electronic artist Panda Bear and his Beach Boys-esque album Person Pitch, earned album of the year.  To appropriate a line from its heroi-epic 13-minute-long centerpiece “Good Girl/Carrots,” “Get your head out those mags and websites that try to shape your style/think for your self/and wade in the deep end of the ocean.”

This line provides an important ethical consideration about separating the source of information from its inherent medium-bias.  Think for yourself. If you only listen to established and canonized works your worldview becomes provincial and not your own.  Taste is individualized and not collective.