Do you listen to music? Of course, we all do.
Then, you should have come across ‘Pitchfork’. Considered the “trusted voice in the music”, the publisher has influenced millions of music fans and helped hundreds of independent music artists.
Along the way, the publisher has also grown its advertising revenue and became an intrinsic part of the Conde Nast group.
When we hear Pitchfork, we often tend to see the grand events and impressive revenue numbers. As always, there’s more than what meets the eye.
Pitchfork was started by a high school kid (just after graduating), Ryan Schreiber with no prior experience in writing and online publishing.
This means you won’t see any staggering traffic or revenue in the beginning. The hockey stick graph of Pitchfork took time and a clean strategy to hit the apex.
So, it’s quite easy to predict that the publisher would have struggled a lot and implemented tons of successful strategies. Let’s dive in.
How it all started?
Young Schreiber (19), who was just out of high school started a webzine named Turntable.
In the early stages, he posted a few reviews every month, worked on his tech skills, created everything on his own, and interviewed every band he could. Schreiber was a telemarketer and record store clerk by night, Pitchfork editor by day.
And, the site was attracting roughly 2000 readers a month, as per Ryan till ‘99. It took him 2 years to earn the first paycheck (Src).
Where are they today?
Now, Pitchfork is garnering over 43 million page views every month from its 7 million unique millennial readers. From a one-person publisher, it has grown to employ 50 full-time staffers and a network of freelance journalists (Src).
In addition, they run a couple of music festivals and credit the best indie music and artists with the “Pitchfork Awards”
Revenue, readership, authenticity, reach, they’ve grown in every aspect you could think of. Considering the humble beginning and inexperienced founder, it is apparent that the publisher has a lot to teach us.
Let’s see the strategies and decisions that helped Pitchfork to grow into “the most trusted voice in music”.
Becoming the Pitchfork
Patching Up The Void
We’re not sure about you, but when we came to know that a 19-year-old started a website criticizing music back in 1995, we went ‘what?’. Because we knew how legacy print publications struggled to hold their presence online.
From the Guardian to Financial Times, teams were working round the clock to figure out the internet. So, how does Pitchfork happen?
Well, you should thank the traditional magazines and of course, the Internet.
In an interview with Mediabistro, Ryan revealed that he’s quite used to the Internet by the time Pitchfork launched. In 1996, the music industry in the UK was vibrant, thanks to the success of Britpop.
But in the US, there wasn’t anything. Traditional music magazines still followed the monthly/quarterly routines to release titles and no one seems to capitalize on the internet. Ryan believed that there is some gap to talk about independent music.
“There were not a lot of music publications or anything like that online, but especially for independent music it was really just a blank slate. And I had always been interested in publishing and music writing and criticism.”
He then created a webpage called Turntable and the rest is history.
Note: NME.com, a British music journalism website launched in 1996 took advantage of the void. But it isn’t the only factor that helped online music journalism. The legacy titles stuck to the periodic print schedules and operations long enough to let the new online websites thrive.
It’s worth mentioning the style and the tone of the website. Though it has been criticized by many, the publisher never changed its tone. And, if you’re wondering where it all started, look no more than the founder himself.
He was the editor-in-chief of Pitchfork from the start to 2015. He was replaced by Spin Editor-in-chief Puja Patel after the M&A with Conde Nast.
He read a ton of music magazines and DIY fanzines while running the website. And, he knows what the people want to hear about and what is missing in the print titles. From there, he would explore indie music and pitch every artist he could to get an interview.
“I was calling up labels out of the blue like, ‘Hi I have this music magazine on the Internet and people were like, ‘On the what?’”
Improved Business Model
When you look at it first, you might think the story is too good to believe. How can someone with no prior experience in journalism run a site about music journalism?
He didn’t have first-hand experience. But he saw his friends printing fanzines with scrappy content and designs.
He also noticed how expensive was it to print and distribute them. So, he thought ‘why can’t we do it online?’.
There’s the worldwide web and people are getting used to reading online (mainly because of the online news websites). His passion for music and knack for business was enough to propel the idea.
Unique Rating System
Yet another thing to notice is the rating system of the publisher. Unlike many, the publisher has a precise rating system where the reviewer has to rate the album or song from 0.0 to 10.0.
If you think it is weird, you’re not alone. It has been widely mocked online and in 2007, The Onion published a story deriding the rating system of the publisher. The title of the piece is enough to show you the context – “Pitchfork Gives Music 6.8”.
The ratings helped the publisher by,
a. Standing out from the crowd – Readers were used to five stars or x out of 10 ratings of the traditional magazines. The decimal numbers were enough to let readers discern Pitchfork from the rest.
b. Precision – The precise rating numbers indirectly push the reviewer to break down the album or song or artists to the deepest level possible and help them to zoom in on infinitesimal music notes. And, many fans loved it.
Besides, the publisher sprinkled sarcasm and criticized the albums with 0.0 ratings (more on this later).
Rechristening of Turntable
During the same year, Turntable, a webzine became Pitchfork Media, a media company, as another site claimed rights to the original name. This is the point where the publisher realized it could a bigger media company rather than a local webzine.
The next step was clear for the publisher. It needs to get sponsors and advertisers to sustain and thrive. For almost 2 years, the site was bleeding the cash and supported solely by the founder.
What happened next?
Ryan started calling labels and local businesses to see if they’re interested to run ads on the site. It was an experiment to see if he could scale the site and get some revenue. Eventually, he got some local businesses paying him to run ads.
Specifically, the first paycheck was from the online record store, “Insound” that wanted to advertise on Pitchfork. The pay was 500 USD, this was a turning point for Pitchfork and it launched itself into the advertising industry.
What’s interesting about the deal?
Pitchfork Media isn’t attracting thousands of readers every day. There were a few thousand in a month. However, the site attracted targeted local readers and made them stay longer.