Giving Indie Acts A Plug, or Pulling It

Ryan Schreiber with colleague Chris Kaskie, left, at the South by Southwest music festival in March. Schreiber's Web site is
Ryan Schreiber with colleague Chris Kaskie, left, at the South by Southwest music festival in March. Schreiber's Web site is "shining light on bands that are taking risks," says one music retailer. (By Amber Novak For The Washington Post)

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By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 30, 2006

AUSTIN Indie-rock kingmaker Ryan Schreiber has just stepped out of a nightclub onto the locus of live music known as Sixth Street, and despite looking just like a kajillion other scruffy indie types wandering up and down the block, he's been spotted by some kid from some band, a nascent synth-pop outfit called the Gaskets.

Schreiber's never heard of them -- which means you probably haven't either, given that his enormously influential Web site, Pitchforkmedia.com, serves as an early-warning system for the indie-rock world.

"I'm a big fan of your writing," the kid says, laying it on thick. Never mind that Schreiber rarely writes anymore, as his days (and most nights) are consumed with the business of operating the site. He smiles, then asks if he can listen to the Gaskets' music. He's handed a CD, which he stuffs into his shoulder bag. "You're in luck," he says. "I have a rental car and I didn't bring any CDs. I'll listen to it tomorrow."

The kid's face lights up -- and why not? The Gaskets have come to the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference in search of their big break, and the Richmond-based band has managed to get its album into the hands of one of the 25 most powerful people in the music industry, if we're to believe People magazine. (And we do.)

Schreiber, 30, is the publisher and editor of Pitchfork, the hilariously snarky, oft-elitist, sometimes impenetrable but entertaining and occasionally even enlightening Internet music magazine, which may or may not be the new (albeit much more alternative-leaning) Rolling Stone. The Chicago-based online publication, which Schreiber launched in 1996 out of his parents' house near Minneapolis, has become the most powerful voice among the music media's exploding new breed of digital tastemakers. Viewed daily by roughly 160,000 music zealots, record store buyers, college radio programmers, label executives, magazine editors and their ilk, the free site is capable of propelling an independent artist's career with a single rave, as Pitchfork-approved acts including Arcade Fire, Modest Mouse and Broken Social Scene can attest.

An endorsement from Pitchfork -- which dispenses its approval one-tenth of a point at a time, up to a maximum of 10 points -- is very valuable, indeed.

"Who knows, it could be great," Schreiber says of the Gaskets' CD. "I mean, it could be the new Arcade Fire!"

(If it is, Pitchfork isn't yet saying: In the roughly two months since South by Southwest, the site -- which posts five album reviews every weekday, along with gossipy news bulletins and lengthy interviews -- hasn't weighed in on the Gaskets.)

Schreiber is talking as he rushes down Sixth Street, headed to another venue in search of the Next Big Thing. It's his duty as a guide to the underground musical wilderness where artists like Tapes 'n Tapes, Spank Rock and Man Man roam.

* * *

Pitchfork has achieved a sort of mythical status, like an indie-rock yogi: Readers climb the digital mountaintop to see what wisdom (and written weirdness) its team of freelance writers might dispense about this off-the-radar band or that one, and then they act accordingly -- as happened two years ago, when Pitchfork published its now-famous 9.7-point review of "Funeral," by the relatively unknown Canadian band Arcade Fire.

"Funeral" became the fastest-selling title in the history of Merge Records.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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