The 405 meets Ryan Schreiber, the man behind Pitchfork
Ryan Schreiber has a lot to answer for. From humble beginnings in the early days of the internet, his website Pitchfork has grown from an indie music blog into an online community into an all-out cultural behemoth, a beacon of the blog culture that has now swept the internet. But perhaps more importantly, it has been instrumental in launching some of the biggest bands of recent times: Arcade Fire have openly discussed the hand an early glowing review of their debut album Funeral had in the meteoric rise to indie acclaim, while new bands continue to come through the ranks and find their way into people’s stereos as a result of the brand's seal of approval.
To its readership, it’s an invaluable tool of music consumption and interaction; to its detractors, a cess pit of elitism and holier-than-thou indie cool. So which is it? The 405 spoke to Pitchfork's founder to find out, as the site prepared for arrival in France for the inaugural Pitchfork Music Festival Paris.
Pitchfork just celebrated its fifteenth birthday. How did it feel to hit that milestone?
It felt cool, very cool. I've been working for so long on all things Pitchfork, made it my life, working with wonderful like-minded people so it feels great to make it this far. It's been especially fun going through our archives, exploring where we've been.
How would you describe Pitchfork in your own words?
Well, as much as we're a music site, a criticism site, Pitchfork is mostly about celebrating great music - a lot of it new. We're not afraid to risk championing new bands in a way that print publications can't - or won't.
The brand is such a cultural force in its own right that it's almost strange to be chatting to the person behind it. Did you ever anticipate it becoming this huge, of having the influence and impact that it now does?
Man, not in the slightest, I couldn't have dreamt big enough. It's been a very gradual thing though. We did it as a labour love for four years before we had anything approaching what you could call a readership. I guess we just approached music from a pretty different perspective to the stuff that was out there at the time and it just resonated with people. We were very lucky. It all just...snowballed. I'm so in the centre of it all, that it's difficult to know our own success, really hard to gauge. I know that people say things, that things happen that couldn't happen without us having a certain influence, enough people paying attention.
The site is read the world over, but little is know about the man behind it. What was your relationship with music growing up?
I was pretty obsessed with music from a weirdly young age. I grew up in the midwest, so there was a lot of shit-kicking country knocking around my parents house, some 50s and 60s pop and a little disco. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting in front of my parents stereo, the rest of my family watching TV, me with these huge headphones on, listening to songs with an intensity that baffled my parents... For my third birthday, I asked for a record player, my stepmom would bring me Stevie Nicks, Olivia Newton John records... it kind of went from there.
Fugazi, the Replacements... MTV. I suddenly started seeing these bands that opened up a whole new world to me, you know? Bands who felt more like peers, friends, like-minded people. It was exciting.
So how did Pitchfork come to be?
I was straight out of high-school, I didn't have any money, I couldn't afford the printing or publishing costs of putting a physical zine together, so I turned to the internet. It had to be a real labour of love.
After fifteen years, do you still get the same kick, that same buzz out of music?
It can be exhausting, listening to music all the time, being surrounded by it, sure. But as exhausting as it can be, when you find those great songs, great bands, something wild and new, it's an exciting moment - it's exciting to be in a position to help them, now, too.
To me, it's so much more exciting to surround yourself with new bands instead of glamorising things that came out of ten, twenty, thirty years ago. In the moment - that's the most exciting place to be.
A lot of people see Pitchfork as synonymous with a kind of ugly, elitist music culture. Do you see that side to your site, your readers?
[Deep breath, then defiantly] You know, I think what it really comes down to is we have high standards. We're not easily impressed. I mean, I think music criticism is a little elitist by nature, but we always approach music in a casual, familial way that I don't think excludes anyone. It's just that we don't settle for the mundane - we strive for something better. It's what makes Pitchfork unique.
How about the contentious scoring system? Can music really be dissected to within a decimal point?
I think that the scale really means something to us and to our readers. It shows we grade things, engage with things even, a little fiercer than others. It's not hyper-scientific, but there's a real difference between a 8.0 and a 8.9 - really, there is! Being more precise can only be a good thing, right?
Are there any albums that you deemed to be worthy of a 10.0, only to think at a later point, "perhaps we got a little carried away..."?
There's definitely records that scored lower or higher than perhaps, in hindsight, they should have done. Perfect example is Daft Punk, Discovery, which I actually reviewed. I guess I wasn't - what's the right word... - predisposed towards liking it when I first sat down to write about it. I just wasn't enthusiastic about it. Over the course of that summer, I fell in love with it - now it's up there with my favourite albums of the last decade. So it does happen!
The past eighteen months have seen so many developments in the Pitchfork camp, from a site overhaul to 3D music videos. What does the future hold?
The next big thing is the Paris Pitchfork festival, which I am so excited about. There's something else that isn't quite ready yet but we'll be announcing on the site in the next week, maybe two weeks. The thing is, the internet moves so fast that it's difficult to really plan ahead a year down the line. I have always approached Pitchfork with a sort of "cross that bridge..." mentality. The Paris festival is a huge undertaking, though - a freshly overwhelming experience, let's call it.
How's your French coming along, in preparation?
Oh, terrible! I have been working on it, but it's definitely not up to conversational level.
Sean Adams of Drowned In Sound, said in an interview this week that he had considered branching his brand out into festivals and the like, but was worried he’d lose focus of his core product – is this something that worries you?
It is tough but we choose people to get involved who think in the same way, who are able to set the tone of these festivals and have similar thought processes to us. For me, I'm always hard at work, scrambling around. But because I work with such great people, who are completely on the same page as me, I can just sort of micro-manage and it'll be fine. I could go out of town for a month, come back and everything would be fine.
When you yourself turned fifteen, what were you listening to?
What year was that - '91? That was a good year. It was the first year I heard Nirvana, My Bloody Valentine - The Cure too. When you're that age, of course, everything is very emotional and has this fire and intensity to it, so those bands soundtracked a pretty dramatic period for me.
If you had to pick one record from the past fifteen years, what would it be?
On the spot, it's difficult to choose just one! Erm... I guess there are the obvious choices: Arcade Fire, Modest Mouse, Deerhunter... but I love The Avalanches' album. I keep hearing they're working on this, working on that, to follow it up. But so far, nothing.
If the internet had never happened, if Pitchfork never came to be, what would you be doing now?
I think I'd be working in a record shop somewhere. Still definitely in music. My love for music used to spill out into playing and writing songs on guitar - maybe I would have made more of that, I don't know. But I can't imagine not having had some version of Pitchfork. We would have found a way, we would have made it work!
Finally, how would you rate this interview out 10.0?
Ha! I'm not sure, the jury's out till I see it online. I have a strict way of scoring an album, but an interview... the jury's out, for now. I'll let you know!
The Pitchfork Festival in Paris takes places October 28/29, and you can buy tickets by clicking here.
Head image courtesy of Erez Avissatr
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