The Pitchfork effect
It’s clear just why Condé Nast are spending large to bring Pitchfork into their stable – and it’s not just for those album reviews
Hey, who knew, there’s actually money in wordy, occasionally snarky, often over-blown but always passionate album reviews which come with a numerical ranking somewhere between 0.0 and 10.0. Yesterday’s news that Pitchfork has been bought out by mega-publishers Condé Nast for an undisclosed sum means the self-proclaimed guide to independent music and beyond takes a stall in the stable alongside The New Yorker, Wired, Vanity Fair, Vogue and a ton of other titles. A good day’s work for Ryan Schreiber, the dude who started Pitchfork on a Mac and a dial-up internet connection back in 1996.
Of course, Condé Nast are not jumping into bed with the Chicago magazine just because it’s become the go-to guide for new albums and has a huge and ever-growing repository of those reviews. The publisher’s chief digital officer Fred Santarpia spells it out: “from a business standpoint, they’ve got all the right pieces in place: a young, core, passionate audience; a growing video business; and a profitable live events business.” You can see where this one is going.
In many ways, Pitchfork in 2015 provides a road-map for any music media title looking for sustainability and/or a big pay-day. It’s grand and dandy to have album reviews and features and a brilliant quarterly print title in the shape of The Pitchfork Review, but the real growth metrics come elsewhere. Unlike some publications who move into this area, it seems clear from Santarpia’s points that P4K’s live events are obviously bringing more than profile to the bottom line.
There are many lessons to be learned from how Schreiber and co have built Pitchfork’s extra bells and whistles. While their peers who move into the events business do so for the really bad reason that “everyone else is doing it”, P4K seem to have made some sharp, savvy decisions about what they’re doing in this sector and why. As Schreiber points out, Condé Nast’s deep pockets brings a lot of possibilities for the future in this regard: “there are a lot of different ideas about where to do something else and how we might do something different than the other festivals that we’ve done.”
We can probably expect more ancillary services along the way, though it will be telling if such common new-school media games as native content make their way into the mix on the site. After all, P4K have no problem with listicles so why not some sponsored content saying that the new comeback album from Jet is actually really, really, really good? Santarpia talks about the publication’s “very passionate audience of millennial males” and if they’re consuming that kind of content elsewhere, they may well gobble it up here too as part of their P4K diet. Let’s just hope that Santarpia’s jarring, albeit true talk about the gender divide when it comes to the magazine’s readership (see these Quantcast figures for back-up of that “millennial males” comment) doesn’t mean some focus group-led decisions about what gets featured on the title’s pages.
Speaking of focus group-led editorial decisions…You have to wonder how this news about P4K was greeted on the eighth floor of the Blue Fin Building in London by the various Time Inc executives charged with keeping the NME and its various bits and pieces on the road. The relatively secure tenure of that title and many other paid-for music magazines was ripped apart by the arrival of online upstars like P4K who offered everything the NME had, only better, faster, sharper and sounder.
The NME’s response to this competition was not to up the quality of what was in the magazine, but to keep writing about The Libertines and The Cribs. We know how this played out and, in time, there were more pivots, the latest of which means the NME is now available for free from various clothes shops and other outlets after 63 years as a paid-for publication Tt remains to be seen if this particular iteration will prove to be a life-saver. That said, the website is still pulling in millions every week so it’s obvious what’s next if the free model proves to be as full of holes for the title as a pair of distressed Topman skinny jeans.