|"We've taken the world apart...but we have no idea what to do with the pieces... [...] All of our making fun of things isn't making the world any better. [...] We've spent so much time judging what other people created that we've created very, very little of our own. [...] I used rebellion as a way to hide out. We use criticism as a fake participation. [...] It only looks as if we've accomplished something."
It's unlikely that any music-loving soul using the Internet has gone this long without becoming familiar with -- or even addicted to -- Pitchfork Media (2). The site now gets over 160,000 visits per day from music fans around the world, but it took over ten years, since Ryan Schreiber created the site in 1996, to reach that traffic load (3). Upon discovery, the web site seems like a one-stop shop for those in need of information about today's music. Pitchfork is the single most comprehensive source of music news on the Internet, updating multiple times per day with announcements about tours, festivals, albums, and other artist notifications. Unlike traditional news organizations, most news on Pitchfork is good news.
The site also publishes in-depth interviews with artists and extensive features on a variety of topics. They have a "Forkcast" section, which hosts new MP3s and videos for readers to play or download for free. Their search engine is impeccable, and one can even specify which type of document (i.e. -- news, reviews, etc) one is looking to find. For example, if one wants to see if a new song has been premiered on Pitchfork, he or she simply has to type the band's name into the web site search box, choose "Forkcast" in the drop menu, and then click "go." But also, one can find an album review from 2002 as easily as an article published yesterday.
For all the site's apparent usefulness, there are an alarming number of flaws. First and foremost is their very manner of rating albums. Increasingly, publications have limited or terminated their use of numbered ratings in music reviews. They are beginning to realize that not everyone likes having an opinion dealt to them before even hearing the music. People welcome suggestions, especially from MP3 blogs, who do little more than say, "This band seems interesting. Download their MP3 for free."
Many publications still use a five- to ten-point system of rating, if they use one at all. On the contrary, Pitchfork uses a hundred-point scale (4). This minor fact should be more obvious to readers, but it's not. It isn't even obvious to mainstream news organizations and journalism reviews, which still describe Pitchfork's ratings as a ten-point system. Yes, their scores range from zero to ten, but they also include one decimal point. They rate albums 6.3 or 9.1 or 4.7. They have even rated albums 0.0 or 10.0. However, that decimal digit is almost never zero, because that would equate to a ten-point rating system.
This method of rating instantly gives off an air of superiority, but its strength lies in its subtlety. The system quietly implies that Pitchfork staffers are capable of knowing the value of an album or band, as if it were a jewel waiting to be snatched out of a dark cave. Not only that, they have the mental precision to know the difference between 7.6 and 7.7. Their auditory systems have apparently benefited from some genetic mutation incongruent with general human evolution. Forget speculation or hesitation. For a growing number of followers, what Pitchfork hears is the one "true" authority.
The only other source of music criticism online that uses a hundred-point scale is Metacritic.com, but they aren't even generating their own content. They simply aggregate critic ratings from around the web -- from sites that don't use a hundred-point scale. Averages and compilations of opinions are one great thing about the Internet. Look at Internet Movie Database (IMDB), for example. People regard that as an authority on film ratings when compared to any single movie critic, because IMDB scores are averaged from thousands of common movie watchers.
In The Elements of Journalism, Kovach and Rosenstiel give many pointers as to how a news organization should behave if it wants to be considered ethical. One of the main criteria is to adhere to a practice of verification. "Not only should [journalists] be skeptical of what they see and hear from others, but just as important, they should be skeptical about their ability to know what it really means" (5).
A dilemma arises from the notion that a music review is unverifiable. A review is not based on facts--it's simply an elaborate opinion. What makes this process worse is that it's irreversible. A Pitchfork writer can supposedly listen to an album a few times before its release date, and then mark the record with a stamp of approval or disapproval. As it turns out, this flighty action can determine the outcome of a band's career (if there is such a thing).
However, Pitchfork has changed their review on certain instances, if for nothing else than to amplify the illusion of their foresight. Two examples are Music Has The Right To Children by Boards of Canada, and In An Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel. Upon rerelease, they were bumped from an 8.3 and 8.7, respectively, to a 10.0 rating, even though the rerelease contained the exact same album as the initial release (6). Likewise, Pitchfork has reduced the rating of a rerelease. Moon Safari by Air was demoted from 7.9 in 1998 to 5.6 in 2008 (7). Of course, the original reviews are removed from the website's general search engine, so that the public only sees the corrected versions, and Pitchfork keeps the glue on the frayed ends of their operation.
Pitchfork is actually a perfect example of being in the right place at the right time, as the cliché goes. They've applied an old media formula to the new media of the Internet. People were dying for someone to make sense out of the immensity of the online world, as peer-to-peer networks made it possible for the public to download anything they wanted. File sharers needed a shepherd for the new indie terrain. They were willing to surrender their free will and analytical ability, and let Mr. Schreiber do it for them.
In fact, the site seems to take pride in the way it has undermined traditional music publications like Rolling Stone and Spin, which have dominated the music media world for the past few decades. Kovach and Rosenstiel call this serving as an independent monitor of power, and it's one of the cornerstones of ethical journalism. "As history showed us, it more properly means watching over the powerful few in society on behalf of the many to guard against tyranny" (8). That sounds like a nice idea, but, according to People Magazine, Schreiber is now among the 25 most powerful people in the music industry (9).
In the 19th Century, Lord Acton summed up the effect of power in a manner that reverberates through modern society. "And remember, where you have a concentration of power in a few hands, all too frequently men with the mentality of gangsters get control. History has proven that. All power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely" (10).
That's funny. According to a 2006 Washington Post article, Pitchfork's name was inspired by Tony Montana's assassin tattoo in the 1983 Cuban-refugee-turns-cocaine-gangster film Scarface (11). Is it possible that the web site was founded with the goal of selectively stabbing musicians to death?