Independents' Day

Through its web and music festival, PitchforkMedia.com has emerged as a ingmaker in the idie music scene

August 01, 2006|By STEPHEN KIEHL | STEPHEN KIEHL,SUN REPORTER

CHICAGO — Chicago-- --Unlike the bands whose careers he has championed, Ryan Schreiber walked the grounds of Union Park this past weekend unnoticed. No one asked for his autograph, ran after him or passed him a CD they had recorded in a basement.

But for the all-access pass around his neck, Schreiber could have been any of the nearly 40,000 people who attended the Pitchfork Music Festival -- black T-shirt, beard, aviator sunglasses. Yet none of them would have been there -- the bands or their fans -- if not for Schreiber and his little Web site that could.

Ten years ago, recently out of high school and working a string of jobs he hated, Schreiber founded PitchforkMedia.com to indulge his interest in independent music. He thought he would post interviews with bands from his hometown of Minneapolis and write about the unheralded compact discs he loved.

FOR THE RECORD - A quotation in a Today article yesterday about PitchforkMedia.com was incorrect. The quote, from Evan Serpick of Rolling Stone, should have read: "Their bread and butter is the scads of indie rock bands. I think they have more credibility than anybody else for their world."
The Sun regrets the errors.

He never thought he would start a revolution. But, a decade later, Pitchfork has become the most influential force in the indie music world, bringing unknown artists to the attention of thousands and breaking bands with more frequency than Rolling Stone. The site has 1.3 million unique visitors per month, making it one of the top music review sites on the Web.

This past weekend, under a blistering sun, the power of Pitchfork was brought vividly to life as its two-day music festival sold out Union Park and drew fans from across the United States and Canada. For some, Pitchfork is a quasi-religion, offering a set of beliefs (good music, small labels) and, now, a place to congregate.

"Their influence is huge. Their influence is massive," said Ted Leo, a Washington-based musician who played the festival Saturday. "I think it's probably more significant than even they realize."

Indeed, some of the bands seemed surprised by the vast number of fans who came out to see them. Looking out at the sweaty masses, Art Brut lead singer Eddie Argos said, "Usually at this point in the set, I tell everyone to go home and form a band. But that might be too many bands."

On Pitchfork's signature zero to 10 scale, Art Brut's debut album received an 8.9, and the British band, which writes hyper-ironic songs about drunken text-messaging, first girlfriends and lying around in bed when you should be at work, is gaining recognition as one of the freshest acts to come across the pond in a long while.

The band members are keenly aware of Pitchfork's effect.

"They've been very nice to us this past year. It really helped, and we're just very grateful," said guitarist Jasper Future. "Everyone reads it. When the review came out, all of my friends were calling me up, `Oh, my God! You're on Pitchfork!'"

Posting five album reviews daily, plus music news and features, Pitchfork's world is independent music -- the artists who are not signed to major labels but are making a go of it on their own or on countless small labels rarely heard of. The site is where indie music fans find artists they wouldn't hear about anywhere else, and where the artists find an audience.

They filled Union Park this past weekend, playing Scrabble and reading Nietzsche ("It's for school!" explained Mike Stacey, 23, of Toronto) during the rare lulls. The audience was largely in its 20s and 30s and shared a hipster, in-the-know vibe.

"I feel like I should have worn my most clever T-shirt," said Chandler Campbell, 20, of Madison, Wis. Attending in person a festival organized by a Web site, he said, "I feel pressed between the evolutionary gears of time as we know it."

Before Pitchfork, and before the Internet, bands made it big through appearances on variety shows like Ed Sullivan and Top 40 radio. Small bands that didn't have the right sound for radio languished. Sites such as Pitchfork have given them new life.

A classic Pitchfork story is Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, a band that had no label and was pressing CDs itself when Pitchfork gave its debut album a 9.0 and named it the best record of 2005. The band has since sold 105,000 albums and is scheduled to play the Virgin Festival at Pimlico Race Course next month. Other acts that have seen sales reach the hundreds of thousands with a Pitchfork endorsement are the Arcade Fire, Modest Mouse and Broken Social Scene.

"The only singular thing that I've seen really dramatically impact sales is a positive review on Pitchfork, more so than Rolling Stone," said Tony Kiewel, a top executive at Seattle's Sub Pop Records, which had two acts among the 41 at the festival.

Schreiber, now 30, has succeeded beyond what he thought possible when he started the site while living in his parents' home outside Minneapolis in 1996. He worked as a telemarketer at night so he could run the site during the day. He posted two reviews a day and built a stable of contributors who weren't paid for their reviews but at least got the CDs for free.

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