The Pitchfork Frankenstein Effect

Indie powerhouse now spawns bands in its own image

Ryan Schreiber, the founder of Pitchfork, thinks indie rock is getting younger. The 34-year-old, who launched his highly influential website from his parents’ basement 15 years ago, was sitting on the steps outside of the Pitchfork office in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Greenpoint. He was wearing an unbuttoned plaid shirt and smoking a cigarette while an assortment of staffers, friends and musicians were inside, chatting in the afterglow of a brief live set by the Brooklyn, N.Y., band Beach Fossils.

“There’s definitely a subculture of blogger music that’s, like, super youthful,” Schreiber said, sounding more like a surfer from Southern California than the Midwesterner he is. “It just seems like almost everybody who’s starting a band now and coming out and sort of establishing themselves—it definitely seems like a whole bunch of, like, really young kids.”

The four young men of Beach Fossils, a delicate indie pop group who sound like Joy Division covering early R.E.M., are all either 24 or 25. Here’s how young they are: During their set, one of them wore a Zwan shirt, which if you don’t remember was Billy Corgan’s band for about five minutes after the Smashing Pumpkins broke up. They’re so young that the night before the Pitchfork show, when they played at Death by Audio in Williamsburg, a section of Brooklyn, the boyish bass player John Pena finished the set by smashing his instrument through the floor tom and breaking all of his tuning pegs. They are so young that Pena has been reading Pitchfork and listening to the records Schreiber and his cohort have been recommending since he was just 15.

That’s true of many of the youngsters whose music Pitchfork is championing lately. And while Beach Fossils frontman Dustin Payseur says he never read the site until they started writing about him, and Pena insists he just likes what he likes, it would seem that much of the music getting written about on the site today—Beach Fossils included—has Pitchfork built into its DNA.

Drinks were provided by Tito’s, the vodka manufacturer sponsoring the show at the high-ceilinged, windowless space near the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway that serves as Pitchfork HQ. The arrangement, brokered by the site’s advertising department, was that the Beach Fossils set would be taped for, and then promoted on the site’s front page alongside ads for Tito’s.

The ad guy spearheading the campaign asked the editors to find a band to play the show. They chose Beach Fossils because they were “available,” Schreiber said, and because their music had been praised on the site.

Beach Fossils have been playing together for a little over a year. Pitchfork first wrote about them last December, when one of the MP3s the band had posted on MySpace caught the critics’ attention. At that point, Payseur didn’t even have a full band together, let alone a record out. He doesn’t know how Pitchfork heard about him, but one day there was an e-mail in his in-box saying the site wanted to review one of his songs.

“It kind of made me nervous,” Payseur said. “I feel like a lot of people are impressionable, and a lot of people don’t know how to make up their own minds so they look to somebody who, you know, has a lot of power.” He went on: “A lot of blogs will say a lot of good things about a band and then the band might get a bad review on Pitchfork and all the blogs start saying bad things about the band.”

He offered an example of Pitchfork’s power in Wild Nothing, the band Beach Fossils shared a bill with the night before at Death by Audio.

“That’s a guy out of Virginia that nobody knew a few months ago—he just got ‘Best New Music,’ and now everybody’s listening to him. I think that’s awesome.” Payseur was referring to a coveted designation that Pitchfork bestows upon albums beloved not just by one writer at the site but by a whole bunch of them. Getting “BNM” can launch a band from zero, generating interest not just among music fans and retailers but assigning editors at other publications who use Pitchfork as a guide for what to cover. Whether or not an album gets “BNM” depends on whether a critic who’s really behind it can rally enough support on the internal Pitchfork staff board, the password-protected forum where most of the interaction between the site’s writers takes place.

Pitchfork has famously brought a number of previously unknown bands to prominence, such as Broken Social Scene and the Arcade Fire, whose success in 2003 and 2004, respectively, served as two of the earliest unqualified demonstrations of the site’s muscle. That mechanism is still very much at work, as one look at the lineup for last week’s Northside Festival—full of bands championed early by Pitchfork—would tell you.

Beach Fossils have so far received consistently favorable coverage from the site, getting several of their songs written about over the course of the past six months and most recently earning a respectable 7.8 out of 10 for their first LP, out now from the small Brooklyn label Captured Tracks. The album did not make Best New Music, but the momentum the band has achieved has been stoked largely by Pitchfork’s sustained interest in them.

Schreiber at this point has very little to do with the reviews posted on Pitchfork, though he has been attending about five shows a week ever since his recent move from Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill to Williamsburg. Most of his focus is on the site’s video component and “other projects” he would not discuss; editorial is still run almost entirely out of Chicago.

Ryan Dombal, 28, is the only Pitchfork writer in New York who actually comes into the office every day. At the Beach Fossils show, he spoke appreciatively to a guy who recently graduated from college and has been writing an anonymous blog about Pitchfork in which he excitedly scrutinizes every review published on the site. In a recent post, the 21-year-old compared his five favorite writers on the Pitchfork staff to the starting lineup of the Los Angeles Lakers. Evidently, some of the writers wanted to meet the blogger in person, and Dombal e-mailed him an invitation to the party.

“If you’re following Pitchfork since you’re 19 or whatever, it’s very—it’s beyond the moat,” Dombal said. “It’s this thing that’s castled up. And then you go to something like this and you’re like, these are regular guys, and they work in an office that’s kind of shitty, and they’re kind of approachable and awkward.”

“You guys are less awkward than I’d imagined,” said the blogger, who was standing nearby.

Awkward though they may be, Pitchfork writers are aware of their power—many of them because they themselves are longtime readers of the site, and are conscious of the profound effect it had on their taste growing up.

The consequence, Dombal reasoned, is that musicians who were in their 20s or younger when they started reading the site are making records directly inspired by Pitchfork itself. “It’s a perfect storm, you know?” he said.

Maybe not perfect: The truth is that Dombal is not Beach Fossils’ biggest fan in the world. Not that he dislikes them or anything. It’s just—“The people that I really love are these kind of larger-than-life figures—somebody like Lil’ Wayne, who’s, like, the same age as me,” Dombal said. “For me, loving somebody involves an element of unapproachability.” The Beach Fossils guys, in other words, are nice and everything, but it’s almost as if they fit the profile of a Pitchfork band too perfectly.

“They look like how I look,” Dombal said. “They went to similar schools as me. Similar backgrounds, similar references. It’s like talking to one of my friends. Which is OK, but … that’s not what I want to really grab on to as far as music goes.” Outside, Schreiber was talking about an earlier conversation with one of the boys in Beach Fossils.

“He was asking me questions about Pitchfork, which was interesting,” Schreiber said. “He was asking about old writers—he was asking about Jason Josephes, who wrote the Flaming Lips Zaireeka 0.0, and he was like, ‘I always really liked that review!’” That review, one of only a handful of 0.0s that Pitchfork has ever bestowed, was published more than eight years ago, when Pitchfork was a very different website, and appears to have since been taken down.

“At that point, we were just like a zine—no one was fucking reading us,” Schreiber said. “We didn’t give a shit what we said, so we would just do shit like that.”

The Beach Fossils kid remembered the review in detail. “It was cool,” Schreiber said.

Did he think the guys in the band felt any kind of funny about playing in this particular office, in front of these particular people?

“I don’t know, man,” Schreiber said. “I try not to think about things too much from a band’s perspective, you know what I mean? You try to remain critical and distant, for sure. But I guess I would imagine that it’s pretty surreal more than anything. Like, just a weird thing, you know?”

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