Pouring One Out for Pitchfork

Late one afternoon in mid-January, news about Pitchfork began trickling across Twitter before turning into a veritable flood. The screenshot initiating that outpouring captured a note from Conde Nast’s Chief Content Officer Anna Wintour, who announced that men’s magazine GQ would absorb long-standing music site and fellow Conde vertical Pitchfork. The item seemed concerning at first, alarming even, but then things got worse.

Within minutes, those of us contributing to the general outcry about Conde’s short-sighted decision—how it would further kneecap music journalism at a time when the field was already shrinking, how it would reduce one of the most significant music publications to the watchful eye of a magazine for men—grew more shocked as Pitchfork staffers, including long-time writers, editors, and management, began posting about layoffs.

The sheer volume of those redundancies gutted Pitchfork’s already lean editorial staff by two-thirds and signaled the end of the site as readers knew it. News and album reviews would remain, but seemingly little else of Pitchfork’s long-form journalism, which included robust features on rising artists, deep dives into industry practices, and series that cast a wider net when it came to music criticism by pulling in an array of cultural figures, like comedian John Mulaney, to discuss their history with the artform.

At a time when many digital outlets have been reducing their staff to mere fumes or shuttering entirely, Pitchfork became yet another cultural casualty—and a surprising one at that given the site’s strong metrics and distinctive audience. The loss deepens the dearth of conversation around what we produce as a culture and why. It’s not quite a desert just yet, but the tumbleweeds are spreading.

Up until the Pitchfork announcement, I’d mostly been a bystander when writers and editors from across the digital landscape inevitably took to Twitter (I will never call it X) to announce a new series of layoffs. But Pitchfork hit different because Pitchfork hit home. I felt the strangest and most surprising grief. A significant portion of that sorrow emanated from the fact that many of my former colleagues lost their jobs, another portion came from the eery sensation that something so many had contributed to and helped grow could be dismantled so swiftly and irretrievably, and yet another, deeper layer touched on the state of music journalism.

Cultural criticism isn’t gone absent Pitchfork, but it has changed dramatically in the decade since I first started writing about music professionally—and in the 20 plus years since the initial boom brought a spate of new voices to the internet. Where once there seemed to exist a glut of places to pitch your ideas, in recent years it’s shrunk to a mere few. As a result, this passion I have not just for music but for the analysis and regard of it feels flimsier than ever.

I came to music journalism through the strangest of routes. Where most music writers seem to find the craft in high school or college, writing for their school paper, I was a late bloomer. Like, really late. I’ve liked music and listened widely all my life, but it wasn’t until I neared the end of my PhD program that I started to develop opinions about the local music scene I enjoyed in Baton Rouge—something I eventually covered for Bandcamp Daily.

I never dreamed that the articles I wrote and published locally could turn into a career, but slowly and surely I began taking those clips and sending them, along with bigger ideas, to bigger outlets. Back in 2013, there was a lengthy register of options to choose from, meaning if one place passed there was a decent chance somewhere else might pick it up.

As much as I thrilled at landing a pitch (it’s a bit like casting your reel and hoping your bait attracts a sizable fish), I dreamed of the day when I might finally find something legitimately on staff somewhere. I say ‘legitimate’ because during my brief four-year tenure as a full-time music writer, I was an associate staff writer at Pitchfork. But the role was contractual and there was never ever guarantee you’d be brought into the fold given the high competition for full-time staff writer or associate editor roles.

Over those four years, I applied for every music-related opening I could find and managed to land many an interview: at the nascent Bandcamp Daily, Paste, KEXP, and even the New Yorker. Each time, I’d make it far enough along to begin thinking things might finally work out only to get passed over. It always hurt and eventually those blows took their toll. I  decided to find a full-time writing job outside of journalism, hoping it would provide me with some amount of stability and enough brain space to keep pitching and contributing on the side. I made that work for a while, even landing an incredible side gig writing album blurbs for Apple Music. In terms of a compromise, it was a pretty decent one.

But over time, it became harder and harder to get assignments—not because the ideas weren’t there, but because the outlets weren’t. As of today, my contributions have largely been reduced to the occasional album review at Pitchfork and reviewing SNL for The Atlantic now and then. It’s not just the lack of pubs these days, but the volume of writers—many now laid off and looking for freelance work—who are vying for assignments. It’s always been a competitive field, but lately it’s felt like a greater mountain to climb and my energy to make that trek has been dwindling.

The changes music journalism pubs—and really cultural pubs in general—have undergone in the past few years feel scary, a sign that those with the means don’t understand the value of criticism and coverage. I want to live in a world where shareholders are satisfied with a moderate amount of profit instead of expecting the sun and the moon. I want to live in a world where cultural journalism and the conversations that sprout from it hold weight and meaning and value because they offer a deeper way to engage with a piece of art—and a way to find yourself not only in the melee of the current moment but the history of that art.

If I have any hope to cling to it’s that, like certain previous boom-and-bust cycles, writers and editors may find a way to start and build new outlets, or that new investments will lead to a future rebuilding. In the meantime and for now, it’s certainly the end of an era.