Music criticism 2.0
By Doug Freeman, 3:03PM, Fri. Apr. 11, 2008
This week, influential indie music website Pitchfork unveiled Pitchfork TV, a new project featuring streaming music videos, exclusive live performances and interviews, and even full-length movies like the Pixies documentary loudQUIETloud. The site is an impressive undertaking, and though still in its infancy, presents a new model for integrating multimedia content within a critical space, an extension of the Forkcast feature of Pitchfork’s primary site.
Beyond the multimedia possibilities excited by Pitchfork TV lies another discussion brought to light during the Blog Factor, a panel at this year's South by Southwest. Online sites and individual blogs are gaining increasing critical influence and force within the music industry, a reality perhaps most evident in the recent foldings of magazines like Harp, No Depression, Resonance, and Bluegrass Now, which have either closed shop or switched to a strictly online format. It’s a trend endemic to the entire print industry, not just music publications.
The potential loss of in-depth, feature articles has already been bemoaned in this blog (ironic, I know). The SXSW panel, which featured former Sleater-Kenny guitarist and current NPR blogger Carrie Brownstein, Stereogum’s Amrit Singh, Idolator’s Maura Johnston, Perfect Sound Forever’s Jason Gross, Drowned in Sound’s Sean Adams, and Matador Record’s co-owner Gerard Cosloy, brought up more pertinent concerns of the online format in a refreshingly self-aware and self-critical discussion. Chief among the issues were the problems with online editing and fact confirmation, as well as the growing complications of compromised critical integrity as advertising on sites becomes more prominent and blogs have begun branding themselves by establishing labels and sponsoring festivals.
The former issue has always been a rampant problem for blogs. The ease of online publication and race to post stories first has produced a snap-judgment journalism that increasingly undermines reflection, analysis, and sometimes even simple facts. Before SXSW, a number of blogs quickly circulated the “joke” press release from bottle service club Pangaea that their No Depression showcase would be an exclusive, upscale event, none bothering to actually fact-check the information. Most egregious in perpetuating online misinformation may be the once-respected UK magazine NME, whose website touts itself as “the fastest music news service” and has repeatedly reported false stories, including announcing Led Zeppelin as playing this year’s Bonnaroo Festival and a riot at the Lamar Bridge during SXSW.
To their credit, as blogs such as Steroegum, Gorilla Vs. Bear, and the Gawker-affiliated Idolator have matured, their reputations have provided them with access to PR firms and industry insiders that can verify information, and they have become increasingly reliable and responsible in their reporting. The other issue of integrity of reviews in relation to industry affiliations, advertising, and sponsored events is somewhat more problematic. For many blogs, where one person or a small team handles all aspects of the site and beyond, the division between editorial and business functions is blurred.
Pitchfork attempts to manage the separation admirably, their staff large enough to have individually represented departments. The potential conflicts still arise, however, on any number of levels. The site has increasingly reviewed more country-oriented material, which is a welcome addition, but one must wonder if the review of the Gourds' Noble Creatures, the first of their albums to be featured, had any correlation to the band’s label, Yep Roc, running ads on the site that same month.
Pitchfork has also come under some fire for their annual festival, which many have speculated artists feel compelled to play for less money than competing events in light of the site’s cultural cache. Yeasayer’s decision to play Lollapalooza for a higher price over this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival was considered a surprise given their championing of the band, and Chicago Sun-Times music critic Jim DeRogatis recently confronted Pitchfork founder Ryan Schreiber on the potential conflicts of interests raised by the various projects.
As another example of potential conflicts, music networking site Buzznet.com recently announced its acquisition of Stereogum, yet has also reportedly had investment from Universal Music's imprint Interscope. In the age of dominant media conglomerates, that partnership may seem of small consequence, but whenever the supposed independence of critical publications is compromised, the potential for even unintentional censorship and influence becomes an issue.
My point is not taking issue with the integrity of online journalism – bloggers in all fields, especially politics, have increasingly become the vanguard of uncovering stories later picked up by mainstream media. And this concern could be equally levied against print publications, which Cosloy noted during SXSW seem to be sinking into the low standards of online coverage. My concern is that as the blogosphere matures and becomes the dominant source for news and reviews, sites need to establish the type of infrastructure that print media has developed to ensure both the factual and critical integrity of their writing. As online pioneers develop new formats and projects, they need to remain as concerned about these issues as they are excited by the potential for innovation, lest music criticism become only a mess of corporate-sponsored PR.