The World Is Flat: A Few Thoughts On Condé Nast’s Acquisition of Pitchfork Media

If you follow the world of music in general, you have undoubtedly read the news, announced yesterday, that Condé Nast, the media conglomerate who own publications such as Vogue, Vanity

8 years ago

If you follow the world of music in general, you have undoubtedly read the news, announced yesterday, that Condé Nast, the media conglomerate who own publications such as Vogue, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker, have purchased the music blog turned media empire (and everyone’s favorite punching bag), Pitchfork. The announcement has rippled through the vast void of Internet space with a range of reactions from shock to hand-wringing, and, of course, ironic detachment. Make no mistake though. Even if you never read Pitchfork or listen to the vast majority of the music they cover, this is a big deal. Just perhaps not in the way you might think.

Pitchfork being swallowed up by a company like Condé Nast is hardly surprising.

Though it was announced seemingly out of the blue, the fact that a company like Condé Nast might be interested enough in a company like Pitchfork to surely dole out a buttload of cash for it is really not surprising in the least. Pitchfork, which will be celebrating its 20th birthday soon, has steadily risen in size, scope, and clout in the music, entertainment, and media worlds. This is particularly true of the past decade as they’ve branched off into producing large scale (and very profitable) annual festivals both in the US and France, developing a successful and growing video production arm, and more recently, actually getting into the print media business with the Pitchfork Review. They are very much a profitable empire, and at this point it would not be hyperbole to compare them to the likes of fellow media upstarts (and I’m pretty sure owners of 50% of Williamsburg) VICE Media. From a bottom-line perspective it certainly makes sense.

Furthermore, Pitchfork’s main demographics and business strategy are the stuff of Condé Nast’s dreams. Pitchfork’s entire brand and identity is tied to the entire “indie” brand that had already been systemically co-opted and cannibalized since around the turn of the century thanks in large part to publications like them (more on that later). Fred Santarpia, CN’s Chief Digital Officer, specifically told the Times that the acquisition brings “a very passionate audience of Millennial males into our roster.” Really the only times you hear anyone say the word “millennial” are either in a thinkpiece bemoaning millennials for some reason or another or by someone looking to sell shit to them and make money off of them. And that is precisely what the executive board must have seen when the deal officially went through: huge dollar signs attached to bearded men in glasses who enjoy vinyls, “the sharing economy,” and other catchall nonsense buzzwords attached to predominantly urban white males in their 20s and early 30s. Pitchfork is one of the few brands of their size who have captured this demographic while still being viewed writ large as “cool” and “authentic.” It’s the perfect move for them and is pretty much guaranteed to make both parties far richer for it.

There is very little this move will have an effect on practically, unless you work high up in Pitchfork.

For all of the hubbub this news creates though, in reality very little is likely to actually change as a result of this move. Pitchfork has already been trending for years towards this sort of growth and expansion, which includes greater coverage of more mainstream acts from pop, hip-hop, and elsewhere (more on that as well in a moment). It’s unlikely that the character of their content will be changing as a result of this. Pitchfork will still be putting out reviews, lists, and articles that create controversy but ultimately play a significant part in the greater conversation and prominence of the artists it writes about. If you already read Pitchfork I expect nothing about this should cause you to stop reading them, and if you’re already familiar and don’t read them, well, you certainly aren’t going to start now. The only people this is likely to affect in a meaningful way are the people who work for Pitchfork full-time, particularly at the top, who I’m sure are about to come into more money than they’ve ever known. Of course, if you’re one of the many freelancers who actually supply content in the form of articles or video for them, don’t expect any extra money to be floating your way anytime soon. YA BURNT, FREELANCERS.

This doesn’t mean though that it’s not a big deal symbolically.

Regardless of what your personal feelings may be about Pitchfork, one thing is for certain: they’re a big deal. Few websites and media companies have had more influence on the music we consume and argue about in the Internet age than Pitchfork. They have risen to become one of the leading taste-makers in the worlds of indie and underground music and have long held the power to literally make (as they’ve done with creating hype for so many untested bands upon their initial releases) or break (as they’ve also done so many times upon those bands’ sophomore releases once the hype settles) the endless supply of bands looking to blow up. The Pitchfork brand is intrinsically tied to the concept and dream of indie even as the concept and dream have long lost all substantive meaning, and it produces a strange feeling to see something that started so small and was designed to highlight things outside of the immediate mainstream become a part of something so huge and utterly mainstream. It’s almost too perfect and obvious an example to demonstrate how corporatization and monetization of art and media eventually supplants everything that was once deemed “pure” or “authentic.” All of which leads me to my last point…

The world is flat, and “indie” and “the underground” have been meaningless, dead husks that only survive to sell you stuff for years.

Ultimately, Pitchfork joining Condé Nast and all of the symbolism that it represents is moot though by virtue of the fact that the world that Pitchfork lived in and represented even 10 years ago no longer exists. The most consistent trend in music since the time of Pitchfork’s rise (along with the Internet) has been an utter flattening of the world of music. What I mean by that is that the boundaries between what could be historically considered “indie” or “underground” or “outsider” music and the larger space of “popular” and “mainstream” music and entertainment have almost entirely vanished. In a purely musical context, this means that people are listening to more music (and more kinds of music) than ever, that someone listening to Thy Art Is Murder is also quite possibly a fan of Taylor Swift, Kanye West, The Weeknd, and countless other mainstream or at least pretty widely popular artists.

From a more historical, cultural, and business-centric context though, this has the effect of stripping away small, exclusive identities and communities either completely or propping them up as an aesthetic one can purchase. The DIY, anti-capitalist vein that defined some of the most important movements in underground music of the 80s and 90s is long gone. As companies and marketers saw that the music and culture surrounding it became fertile, untapped ground for co-option into mainstream products and advertising, they moved in rapidly to perpetuate a false image of this “hip,” young culture and lifestyle. The word “indie” has ceased to have any connection to anything meaningful for many years, and this deal is not so much a driving force or cause of that as a gigantic, bold exclamation point tagged on the end of it.

This isn’t entirely negative. Much of this can be attributed to the Internet’s democratization of media, and sites like Pitchfork played a key role in bringing much greater and wider attention to music that traditionally would have remained eternally obscure. And this reaches far beyond the confines of indie rock and pop. Metal, hardcore, and countless other genres that existed on the fringes for years have also benefitted in proliferation because of sites like Pitchfork. Regardless of your opinion on sites such as Metalsucks and Metal Injection — and there are many for sure — they have done a ton to expand metal’s popular reach, and those sites certainly would not have flourished the way they have if it weren’t for the groundwork that websites like Pitchfork and others had laid.

It’s been a largely vicious cycle however, and as much as Pitchfork’s rise in prominence was a result of the growing monetization and market value of the music it propped up, it certainly managed to fuel that co-option even further. When Condé Nast says that it looks forward to bringing an entirely new subset of individuals into their greater audience and readership, what they’re really saying is that they’re positively giddy at having a new, fresh field to target and market to. This deal matters in as much as it demonstrates the extent to which media firms and advertisers have figured out how to micro-target audiences large and small. Something being “mainstream” or “indie” or “underground” has zero meaning here other than as a brand with a particular set of aesthetic qualities and values. They’re almost completely devoid of meaning other than what corporations have assigned to them.

Once again, practically speaking, all of this is pretty insignificant and will not have a great effect on how anyone listens to or reads about music. Life goes on. But, if nothing else, this is a milestone moment that requires a moment of reflection to see how much things have changed in the past 20 years, how the identities and communities we’ve attached ourselves to have shifted, grown, or completely fallen apart in the process. And it’s a reminder that in a world that ultimately determines value based on marketability and profit potential, that each and every one of us is being bought and sold every time we browse a website, listen to a song, buy an album, and merely exist in our lives.


Nick Cusworth

Published 8 years ago