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Giving Indie Acts A Plug, or Pulling It
Pitchfork Web Site Rises as Rock Arbiter

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.

"That amazing review," as Merge publicity director Martin Hall calls it, "was really the band's first validation, saying: 'Everyone needs to pay attention to this.' Before that, Arcade Fire had been below the radar. But the floodgates opened. And I was just holding on for dear life."

Stephen Sowley, new product manager for Reckless Records, an independent music retailer in Chicago, says Pitchfork's uncanny ability to shape opinion has forced him to pay attention to the site in the same way a stockbroker might monitor CNBC.

"I look at it all the time, because I need to know what people are going to come in and ask for," Sowley says. "If they give a glowing review to a record, with a high number rating, it goes crazy."

However, Sowley is hardly an unabashed fan of the webzine, which has many critics -- especially in the blogosphere, where one site, Tuning Fork, is devoted to picking on Pitchfork. Among the sources of complaints: Pitchfork's mean-spirited rants, which have been accompanied by more than a few zero-point ratings; the site's cooler-than-thou indie-elitist tone; blowhard reviewers who don't really review the music; and pretentious writing that can be, as Rob Harvilla brilliantly put it in the East Bay Express, "a dense, hugely overwritten, utterly incomprehensible brick of critical fruitcake."

(An example, from a review of a Metallica recording: "A banana spider bit into Ktulu the Mule's heel. The animal reared. The cart spilled its contents, the CDs and myself, into the dust. A safety cut the electrical field protecting 'St. Anger.' As the cart master attempted to rein the bucking animal, I slipped a disc into my overalls.")

Sowley says Pitchfork's writing is "smarmy and not always about the music and it's not polite. I think they kind of embrace every sort of stereotypical, cynical faction of indie hipsterism."

Then again, he adds: "No matter what I think of the writing, Pitchfork does need to be commended. They're serving as a means for people to find out about new music. They're shining light on bands that are taking risks and doing it for themselves, without a ridiculous advertising campaign to back them up."

Pitchfork's pointed digs are no accident. The name, Schreiber says, came from the gangster epic "Scarface," in which Tony Montana's pitchfork tattoo is said to be code for an assassin.

"When I started out, it was about really laying into people who really deserved it," Schreiber says. His earliest targets included the Stone Temple Pilots' "Tiny Music: Songs From the Vatican Gift Shop," which received an 0.8-point rating (the equivalent of an F-plus). Wrote Schreiber: "There's nothing for sale at the 'Vatican Gift Shop' but lousy, repetitive riffs, wimpy lyrics, and a drug-addled [SOB] that should have OD'ed a long time ago."

Ouch.

"Honesty is such an important journalistic attribute," says Schreiber, who had no journalism training when as a 20-year-old former record store clerk he launched the site as a solo operation. "And you have to be completely honest in a review. If it gets sacrificed or tempered at all for the sake of not offending somebody, then what we do sort of loses its value. . . . That's so the opposite of what criticism is supposed to be.

"So I think we maybe have this sort of snobbish reputation. But we're just really honest, opinionated music fans. We might be completely over the top in our praise, or we might be cruel. But to anybody who reads the site, it's clear that we're not pulling any punches."

Says Merge publicist Hall: "I think 90 percent of the music industry logs on to Pitchfork first thing in the morning to see what they've written about your bands -- and to see if you need to massage any of your artists' egos for the rest of the day." He laughs. "They definitely take a lot of shots, but it's usually amusing."

Though not always. Travis Morrison, for instance, is still reeling from a blow delivered by Pitchfork 19 months ago.

Morrison was the frontman for the Dismemberment Plan, a D.C. art-rock band that was adored by Pitchfork's staff -- so much so that they named the group's "Emergency & I" album of the year in 1999. Five years later, though, Morrison released a solo project, "Travistan," that Pitchfork deemed a complete disaster.

The album was branded with a dreaded 0.0 rating (Liz Phair and Sonic Youth are among the other artists who've suffered that indignity), and Morrison's bandwagon quickly emptied: College radio programmers cooled to his new project, a record store in Texas initially refused to stock the CD, and fans suddenly decided they probably shouldn't like Morrison anymore, either.

"I just got the sense [Pitchfork] thought I was a rock star and they wanted to take me down a peg, but I don't think it occurred to them that the review could have a catastrophic effect," says Morrison, who is working on a new album, with a new band. (He's also working a day job as a programmer for Washington Post-Newsweek Interactive.) "Up until the day of the review, I'd play a solo show, and people would be like, 'That's our boy, our eccentric boy.' Literally, the view changed overnight. . . . I could tell people were trying to figure out if they were supposed to be there or not. It was pretty severe, how the mood changed.

"The review isn't the story. The reaction to it is. The seriousness with which everyone takes Pitchfork is kind of mind-boggling."

Privately, some Pitchfork staffers disagree with the rating. Publicly, however, the site stands by its review.

"It's difficult," Schreiber says. "On a personal level, I feel bad. But on a journalistic level, I don't. It's important for us to be as completely honest as we possibly can."

* * *

In person, Schreiber is pleasant and charming and polite, and, dare we say, sweet?

"I think people assume I'm this huge, elitist jerk," he says, though in more forceful and colorful terms.

"I can see people having that kind of reaction, I guess. But there's a separation between your job and how you are as a person."

Apparently to prove that he's not a huge, elitist jerk, Schreiber admits that he's a fan of Hall and Oates. Yeah, those guys. Revel in his affinity for "Kiss on My List," "Maneater" and "Sara Smile," people. And know, too, that he's an unabashed Justin Timberlake fan.

"People wouldn't think that was a 'cool' thing to like," he says of Hall and Oates. "But for me, it's not about what's cool, even if Pitchfork tends to come off that way."

His wife, Elizabeth, tells you that even when Schreiber was working as a record store clerk, he had no problem selling customers albums by, say, Enigma, if that's what they really wanted.

"He doesn't hate you if you love Celine Dion," Elizabeth says. "I mean, he might not hire you. But he won't judge."

Schreiber speaks with a slight lisp, and he says "dude" and "sweet" and "niiiiice" probably more than most publishers. He drives a used Honda and rents a modest apartment.

"Money sort of isn't important," says Schreiber, who declines to provide specifics about Pitchfork's advertising revenue.

"It's to the point where we can sustain six full-time people and two part-time reporters and pay the entire freelance staff for reviews. But we're always sort of cutting it close."

He insists he has no plans to sell even the smallest stake in the site, though there's certainly been interest among investors and "other people with proposals."

"It's really important for me to retain complete ownership," he says. "I don't want to compromise my ideals for a lump sum. It's not about money; it's about journalistic integrity."

But enough about business. Schreiber is in Austin for music, at an annual festival that celebrates discovery, and he's trying to determine what band to see next. He's put together a tipsheet for himself, but the thing appears to be about 125 names long. He's like a kid in a candy store. A very, very crowded candy store.

He's trying to push his way past a crowd outside a club called Eternal. It's a mob scene, really, and Schreiber is slightly agitated. Places to go, bands to see, food to eat.

He wonders what the fuss is about, why the crowd has gathered on the street, and then it hits you: These people are all here to see Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, one of the more recent Pitchfork success stories, a new band whose self-titled, self-released CD Schreiber's site praised with an effusive 9.0-point review last June. The entire pressing sold out, as did the band's live shows, and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah became one of the industry's hottest unsigned acts, an uppercase Buzz Band.

Schreiber shakes his head and shouts a sarcastic apology to the assemblage: "Sorry, people!" He's soured some on the group, apparently because singer Alec Ounsworth hasn't given the Internet enough credit for its role in having broken the band. (MP3 blogs and other music sites also had a hand in spreading the gospel.) Plus, Clap Your Hands just isn't that great live, Schreiber says.

"I'm really anticipating their next album," he says. "At their heart, they write really good songs. But I think they got too much too soon."

To which you point out that Schreiber is largely to blame.

He shrugs, then orders a slice of pizza.

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