One day in early 2010, the internet message board I Love Music began discussing the Pazz and Jop poll, which the Village Voice had recently published on its website. The Voice has conducted Pazz and Jop annually since 1971. Hundreds of music critics submit lists ranking their favorite albums and singles, and the Voice compiles two master lists identifying the year’s best music. It is the main event in American popular music criticism. On I Love Music, the Pazz and Jop thread chugged slowly along for a few hours. Then Scott Plagenhoef, editor-in- chief of the music website Pitchfork, began posting under the name “scottpl,” and things picked up speed. “11 of the top 13 LPs and five of the top six singles are shared between this and the Pitchfork list,” Plagenhoef wrote. “For what it’s worth.”
The suggestion that the nation’s music critics had copied their end-of-the-year charts from a website just over a decade old was a clear provocation, and twenty-four hours and hundreds of posts later the conversation was no longer about Pazz and Jop. “Man, Pitchfork circa 2000 and 2001 vs now is night and day,” Plagenhoef wrote. “The size of the site now utterly dwarfs the site then, and certainly the way it’s run and decisions are made are different.” Plagenhoef did his best to maintain a modest pose (“I don’t beg for credit or claim to be responsible for things”), but in the end it was hard to resist a triumphal note. “We’ve succeeded at a time when nobody else has,” he wrote. “We reach more people right now than Spin or Vibe ever did, even if you use the bs print mag idea that ‘every copy is read by 2.5 people’ . . . hell, I should stop caring, get back to work, and let people keep underestimating us.” Then he posted two more times. Then he wrote, “Alright, I will get out of this thread.” Then he posted eighteen more times.
He may have been bragging, but Plagenhoef was right. In the last decade, no organ of music criticism has wielded as much influence as Pitchfork. It is the only publication, online or print, that can have a decisive effect on a musician or band’s career. This has something to do with the site’s diligently cultivated readership: no genre’s fans are more vulnerable to music criticism than the educated, culturally anxious young people who pay close attention to indie rock. Other magazines and websites compete for these readers’ attention, of course, but they come and go, one dissolving into the next, while Pitchfork keeps on gathering strength. Everyone acknowledges this. And yet everyone also acknowledges something else: whatever attracts people to Pitchfork, it isn’t the writing. Even writers who admire the site’s reviews almost always feel obliged to describe the prose as “uneven,” and that’s charitable. Pitchfork has a very specific scoring system that grades albums on a scale from 0.0 to 10.0, and that accounts for some of the site’s appeal, but it can’t just be the scores. I could start a website with scores right now, and nobody would care. So what is it? How has Pitchfork succeeded where so many other websites and magazines have not? And why is that success depressing?