Interview: Mark Richardson, Editor in Chief of Pitchfork

From The Vitalist:

How do you approach this continuum as an editor? To clarify: it seems to me that Pitchfork has become a point of axis for a huge swath of both independent and mainstream music culture. In a sense, what the internet has created, is a domain where a private aesthetic experience can grow into something communal—and this is what criticism has partly always been about—but the rate of this transformation is now much much much faster (someone like Bon Iver is a great example). Are there times when you feel that internet-music culture pulls things too much to the side of “lets make this big fast” or do you think it’s allowed a whole ecosystem of niches to flourish? Or both? Open ended question here—

Yes, there are certainly examples of music that wants to be smaller scale, and is made larger scale because of the internet, including through sites like Pitchfork. I’ve thought about this a lot with indie music that was really tiny in the cassette era. There was a label in Seattle that I used to really like called Slabco, and they put out albums by projects like Land of the Loops and Sukpatch. And this stuff was tiny, like, a few hundred people knew what it was and sought out these cassettes. And that size audience and that level of attention seemed organic to what these projects were, which was part-time, homemade things done for fun. And now a lot of projects that should operate at this level can grow very quickly.

But, I think as an editor, in terms of my role in working with Ryan Schreiber and other editors at Pitchfork to figure out the scope of our coverage, I can’t spend much time thinking about this. I feel like it’s our job to cover the music that: 1) we find interesting; and 2) our audience finds interesting in a thorough, smart, and entertaining way. I personally never feel the pull of trying to “make something big,” but I’m obviously aware that exposure on Pitchfork can lead to that.

Do you think the role of the music critic is changing as a result of the “Facebook like” phenomena? That because we’re basically monetizing the sacred moment, the critic has to work extra-hard, and extra-inventively to point out what makes a particular song or record or artist special?

Yes I do. I think “articulation,” for lack of a better word, is becoming even more important, since there’s a lot of online activity dedicated to things that used to be the province of the music critic. I like to use this analogy when talking about what I hope Pitchfork does, and the best music criticism in general does: we’re John Henry battling the steam-powered hammer. Because there are tens of thousands of brilliant computer programmers all over the world who think that if they write the perfect algorithm, they’ll have the entire field of human communication and sharing figured out as far as music is concerned, and writers will no longer be necessary (this is an absurd paranoid fantasy, but it’s a good motivator). In one tunnel, you have the computer-generated “Like” and “Recommendation” engines, taking data from large groups of music lovers and turning that information into something “useful.” And in the other, you have a lone writer with his or her own biases and limitations trying to figure out how to render thoughts about music into words and ideas that will make sense to someone else.

So ideally, I think criticism should evolve to recognize this conflict. Once upon a time music critics might have been there to say “This album exists, maybe you should buy it” or some variation on that. And while I think evaluating quality and letting someone know whether a record is worth their time is still important (readers’ investment of time, if not money, is still an important consideration), substantive ideas about music are something that computers are still (I hope?) not going to be offering any time soon. I hope I don’t live to see the Deep Blue of music criticism.

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