Ryan Schreiber is founder and CEO of the online music publication Pitchfork, “the most prominent brand in online music journalism” (New York Times). Pitchfork has also spawned successful offshoots, including the Pitchfork Music Festival, which happens annually in Chicago and Paris, and the Webby-award winning online music video channel Pitchfork.tv. Schreiber now employs more than three dozen staff between Pitchfork’s Chicago and Brooklyn offices, and true to his original vision, his company remains entirely independently owned and operated. He has twice been featured in Time’s annual Time 100 poll of the world’s most influential people, and received an honorary arts degree from Columbia College Chicago.
From May 28–30, 2015, the Walker Art Center hosted Superscript: Arts Journalism and Criticism in a Digital Age, an international conference on cultural publishing’s current challenges and its possible futures. Prior to joining the conference’s panel discussion on Credibility, Criticism, and Collusion, he shared these words. To view the entire panel discussion playlist, click here.
I was raised in the western suburbs of Minneapolis, and as a young person, the Walker’s collection served as my first introduction to contemporary art, so it’s exciting to find myself involved with Superscript. I was lucky to grow up with access to this city’s arts community. My taste in music was strongly shaped by its influence. The alternative radio stations KJ104 and REV105 introduced me to bands like Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, Guided by Voices. KUOM at the University of Minnesota taught me about underground punk and electronic music. KMOJ introduced me to hip-hop, First Avenue and the Cedar Cultural Center made me a fan of live music, and the City Pages, along with local defunct zines, such as Cake and the Squealer, inspired me to be a writer and a critic.
Pitchfork began here in 1996. I was 18 and just out of high school when a friend introduced me to the Internet. I’ve always loved the idea of working for a music magazine and immediately recognized the potential of the web as a publishing platform. At that time, only a few web publications existed, but none with an eye towards independent music. I thought if I didn’t start one, someone else was going to beat me to it. So, despite having no formal writing background, I began typing up a few record reviews every day, and soon we added a new section and features, and after a few years of this, Pitchfork managed to accumulate a small readership and other larger music publications began to take note.
It was around this time in the early 2000s, that the old vanguard of elite arts journalists started to take issue of the influence of young new voices on the Internet, and we weren’t alone. There were fresh film publication, arts publications and, most loathed of all, that terrible scourge known as bloggers. The general idea was that these guys weren’t really critics, because they didn’t understand what real criticism was—simplified version, but nonetheless. And fair enough, this generation of Internet opinion makers were, in many cases, not formally trained, but we knew our subjects well and we weren’t content to regurgitate the same canon laid out by our forebears.
So, the idea that criticism as the world had known it was dying was totally unfounded, and as it happened, the web made room for all sorts of writers, from all kinds of different backgrounds, including those more seasoned, veteran critics and newer critics with the same kind of training. And part of the beauty of this was that, no matter who you were, you could find a voice, or several voices, that you trusted and related to. So now, as the web has expanded, there are recommendation engines, algorithms, user reviews and all kinds of other ways to discover the arts, including just going online and listening or seeing for yourself. So where does that leave criticism?
Some people argue, as they have argued for years, that criticism is no longer relevant, that in an age where discovery is so accessible, so-called gatekeepers are an anachronism. For those who have only ever reviewed criticism as a consumer report to guide their listening or viewing habits and find they have a higher rate of success when looking to these other avenues, there might for once be a very faint ring of truth to that. Still, the popularity of sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, which aggregate critical consensus, would seem to counter that idea. And Pitchfork itself has seen continual growth to its review section year after year and more time spent by readers on those pages. So the demand is clearly and quantifiably there.
So with more media being made and released than ever before, and virtually all of it accessible online, the question readers are hoping to have answered is not so much “How should I spend my money?” but “How should I spend spend my time?” And of course, criticism is much more than a consumer guide. I read it to learn, not just about the subject at hand, but to gain insights that confirm or challenge my own, to grasp the ideologies between different scenes and movements, and to better and more capably argue my positions as a fan. As often as I disagree with reviews, even sometimes those published on my own website, I’m nonetheless educated by them.
At their best, they lead me to reexamine my enthusiasm or distaste for certain artists and albums by offering an intelligent counterpoint. And like any other genre of writing, criticism is an art form unto itself. The greatest critics, Roger Ebert, Lester Bangs, Pauline Kael, Richard Meltzer, are wonderfully entertaining, educational, and thought-provoking and their work remains as relevant today as it was in their own time. And yet reviews, especially negative ones, are increasingly falling out of favor with editors and publishers. Over the last decade, several major music magazines have shrunk theirs to single paragraphs or tiny capsules. Some have ceased reviews altogether. Many of the newer music publications launched without them in the first place. And why shouldn’t they? Negative reviews are often unpopular, not necessarily by metrics but by the reactions. They cause all kinds of trouble. They can break important editorial relationships, incite fans to essentially riot on social media against writers—they upset people.
Pitchfork has succeeded, not just because our critics have distinctive tastes and insights, but because we’re willing to assume the weight of these consequences. This doesn’t always make us well loved, but it does create an active discourse around the music we cover. Because passionate music fans hold their own convictions about the artists and albums with which they engage, and the differences between those convictions are often the basis of engaging and lightening discussions.
There’s a cliche that critics use about the dialogue—that the opinions they express are essentially conversation starters, or jump-off points, for a larger productive conversation, right? Well, that’s pretty true. We understand our pieces figure into a larger critical framework, and that readers and writers may identify with any number of critical resources with broadly varying takes. We throw ourselves into our work and attempt to ensure that ours will be the definitive piece on the subject, but we also acknowledge that our taste is somewhat subjective. But our insights, our knowledge of our subjects and our recommendations, gradually built trust with our readers that translated to influence, and we don’t take it for granted.
Today Pitchfork is among the largest and most comprehensive music publications online. Our site sees 7.5 million unique visitors per month, we have a staff of 50 people spread between offices in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, annual music festivals in Chicago and Paris, a quarterly print journal called The Pitchfork Review, our sister site, The Dissolve, which is dedicated to film, and our video arm, Pitchfork TV. So, in an era where so many avenues exist for recommendation discovery, where you can listen to complete albums with the click of a button, or simply rely on the taste of friends or algorithms, our readers continue to turn to us to help them parse music’s ever-expanding world. And our work is for them, it’s not for the artists, the managers, or the industry. We do it because we love music deeply and care intensely about its future. So, thanks again to Minneapolis for helping me find my niche and to the Walker for having me here today. It’s an honor to be here.