Building Communities: The Role of Electronic Specialist Media
Building Communities: The Role of Electronic Specialist Media
Essay by Steinar Ellingsen
Originally published @ Guidomedia
When people can listen to a zillion online radio stations and get instant access to hundreds of thousands of tracks, how in heck do they decide what is worth listening to; much less what is worth buying?
— Hypebot, independent journal of music promotion and technology
Internet music magazine Pitchfork is known as one of the big tastemakers in the independent music scene. The publication has grown from out of a Chicago basement to become one of the really influential protagonists for defining people’s liking in music – especially in the indie market. In the last few years this scene has made a few significant entries into the mainstream with bands like Interpol, Bright Eyes, The Killers, The Arcade Fire and Bloc Party, to give a few examples. Record labels – independent as well as majors – and, other publications look to this site, either to discover the stars of tomorrow, or, to dip into the independent side of the market and see what is new. This phenomenon can be seen as a shift in the industrial infrastructure of music publications: when web magazines like Pitchfork reaches 120,000 loyal readers every day of the week. This essay will account for the role of electronic specialist publications, such as Pitchfork and Insound (the two appear to have a close business relationship), through a case study of these two sites. The aim of the article is not to give an extensive account of how the music publishing industry works as a whole, but to provide an example of how electronic institutions like these work within a system. It will look at their role within in today’s media, in historic comparison to the postmodern evolution of music publications, in close relation to the industry and the audience; their role as tastemakers in a scene; how they define an audience; and, finally, how they influence the mainstream.
Who are Pitchfork and Insound?
Very briefly Pitchfork can be described as an electronic music magazine with a focus on the independent side of the music industry. Every day, the publication has 120,000 visitors, hungry for the latest news underneath the corporate surface. It has all the typical features of a print music magazine; news; feature articles and interviews; record and single reviews; top lists; and, advertising. There is also a site for free downloads, however, on this page there is a headline stating: “Paid promotion. No critical endorsement on behalf of Pitchfork’s staff or editors should be assumed.” Generally there are independent labels and artists making use of this feature.
A particular networking feature on the Pitchfork site is that with every published record review, there is a link offering you to purchase the record from Insound – an electronic music store which stocks every title reviewed by Pitchfork. Insound may be seen merely as a record store for indie-connoisseurs, but the site also provides a range of other features for music lovers to engage in and update themselves on the music they love. On a daily average, there are 30-40,000 visitors who can enjoy free downloads; a free ‘radio’ that provides a free continuous play list of new music; a zinestand; a discussion site for regulars; and, reviews to give a few examples of ‘bonus features’ the electronic record store offers their patrons. Insound’s Director of Marketing, Nicki Ittner explains:
Obviously people visit our site to purchase records, but they also come to learn about new music and bands and see what we’re listening to. In that way, Insound is something of a tastemaker. […] Our major appeal is that we’re an alternative to monster retailers. We actually care about the music we’re selling and we care about the people buying from us and the independent music and artists.
He adds that the business started out in very small terms, reaching out to a small range of independent labels and that they were “happy any time a label or zine called us. Just one at a time.”
What do you mean “independent”?
The musical indie tag is short for the word ‘independent.’ Originally it was applied to artists, labels and fanzines that stayed true to the DIY- concept (Do It Yourself), working beside – and often against – the corporate music industry. The term was most often used in relation to rock-related music like punk rock, 1990s grunge, and other lo-fi artists (often used in reference to the quality of the artists’ recordings). In the book Soundtracks, John Connell and Chris Gibson account for a notable change on the technological side of music production, namely the advance of Musical Instrument Digital Interfacing (MIDI) recordings. Digital sound recording was invented in the 1970s, but in the 90s the price MIDI technology were cut significantly. This allowed for independent artists to produce high quality recordings at less expense. Hence, they were no longer as financially dependent on a record deal to release their music to the public. The rocketing evolution of Internet technology later provided the artists with a new forum in which to advertise and sell their products. Also, the novelty of the information highway endorsed the fanzine writers to publish their work in a new format – provided one had the skill and knowledge to do so – one that cost less and, ultimately, took less effort and allowed for more immediate updates. Nick Lacey writes:
When, in the late 1990s, the Internet became a mass medium it redrew the boundaries that constituted the media. The boundaries of the Old Media, of the twentieth century, were more or less distinct: films in the cinema; television programmes and live relays on television; broadcast radio; printed magazines and newspapers. The Internet has changed this.
Another important change in the media landscape is exemplified by Wired Magazine’s Editor in Chief, Chris Anderson, who accounts for a significant break in audience behavior. He claims that “the future of entertainment is in the millions of niche markets at the shallow end of the bitstream.” This can be understood as another circular effect of the increasing immediacy of the Internet. Anderson describes how Touching the Void, a book about a mountain climbing tragedy in the Andes, was revived from being only a minor success in 1988 to spending 14 weeks on the top of the New York Times’ bestseller list ten years later:
What happened? In short, Amazon.com recommendations. The online bookseller’s software noted patterns in buying behavior and suggested that readers who liked Into Thin Air [new release at the time] would also like Touching the Void. People took the suggestion, agreed wholeheartedly, wrote rhapsodic reviews. More sales, more algorithm-fueled recommendations, and the positive feedback loop kicked in.
In 2003, Touching the Void’s success continued beyond the bookshelves, as the novel was made into a Hollywood docu-drama.
How has this changed the media outlet?
This example of change in audience behaviour mirrors the development and changes in technology for publishers, producers and retailers, the changing creative outlet from the music industry, and, the audience’s appreciation of all these combined. In the case of credibility and appreciation of publications like Pitchfork and establishments like Insound, these changes are what made their business possible. Nick Lacey notes that Radiohead’s 2000 album Kid A brought back the band’s underground appeal. In turn, Pitchfork’s rave review of the album, and, the immediate publication of their review on the Internet attracted a number of new readers and thus expanded their business significantly, according to The Chicago Tribune. A new audience discovered the site because of its concern with a mainstream band that still had – and still has – a big underground appeal. Hence, the publication introduced a new source of information to a wide variety of people.This happening marks something of a change in the history of music writing, and music audience behaviour, similar to what happened to Touching the Void. It can be argued that a significant other change that allowed for this to happen, was the move into commercialism for existing publications with distinct niche appeal. National Review Online’s Ben Domenech marvels over how Rolling Stone in the later years are accountable for what he sees as “The Death of Rock,” and thus their underground credibility is lost. He describes how – when bought by Jan Wenner, owner and editor of Us and Men’s Journal – the publication “went from a small San Francisco newspaper to a 1.2 million cash cow.”
What happened to Rolling Stone?
In the late 1960s and 70s, Rolling Stone Magazine had its years as the voice of a subculture – Rock Culture and, the growing influence of punk culture. The magazine provided cover photos of contemporary rock gods – artists whom the new generation of middle-class youth admired because they had made it within the system, without being overrun by the corporate industry. Rolling Stone were renowned for discovering new talents. Domenech writes that
the 1970s era Rolling Stone was hip, influential and cynical. It provided news sand articles about the latest hit bands and musicians […] and threw in a dash of movie gossip and leftist politics. Their reviews section was a respected forum for music journalism and intelligent opinion.
Also, they had writers by the likes of Lester Bangs and Hunter S. Thompson. These guys ‘lived’ the scene. They knew the people and partied with them. The image of the ‘rock star’ writer became a novelty, and the audience turned to Rolling Stone to get the look at the ‘real life’ behind the scenes. This kind of journalism marked a somewhat cultural break in writing style and opened for a new approach for young aspiring journalists; the fan as writer and scholar.
This unique appeal has faded through the last two decades, very much in line with changes in the industry in general. And, Rolling Stone decided to exchange their subcultural appeal for a dip into the mainstream. This business stunt received variable levels of appreciation from both readers and artists. Ben Domenech uses the example of how Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain refused an interview with the magazine after their single Smells Like Teen Spirit was ranked as the third greatest song of all time, sharing the top 10 with, among others, boyband Backstreet Boys. Even bigger artists disagreed to the sudden change in business. In 1996 R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe wrote, in a letter to the magazine: “ Limbo, limbo, limbo. How low can you go? This mag is cat-box journalism at best.” Rolling Stone’s ‘for-the-love-of-the-music’ sentiment was lost because a new business strategy was introduced, and the dedicated audience had to turn and look for other forums in which to find information about what is going on beneath the corporate music industry.
A community for music lovers
Nicki Ittner describes their general audience as “music lovers” and “people who care about the community.” British scholar Stuart Hall, in his celebrated 1973 essay Encoding Decoding, noted that changes in mainstream culture could be interpreted as results of developments in subcultures, because of a continuous struggle in the cultural hierarchy. This particular discovery very much represents the groundwork for audience studies in the following decades, and it proves hard to escape when discussing the role of certain players within an industry. The emergence of Insound is an example of that, as the founders, Matt Wishnov and Ari Sass, were both prior employees at Elektra Records’ New York office. Ittner explains:
They were both mailorder kids and bought a lot of vinyl and fanzines via indie distro mailorder. Their motivation was mainly to improve the mailorder experience and make it more of a community experience to give other indie rock fans a sense of what other, likeminded people were interested in. The Internet seemed like a very good solution to the distribution challenge that many indie labels, bands and consumers dealt with at the time.
In many ways Hall’s claim also applies to the wider appeal of protagonists like Insound and Pitchfork. Rolling Stone and Jan Wenner ‘sold out’ and the indie audience went looking for new impulses. And, Internet technology allowed people to start blogging. “When I first discovered them, I went nuts, because they seemed like the most honest sort of music writing. Seeing someone write about music strictly for the love of it was refreshing,” says Nicki Ittner. Founder and editor of Pitchfork, Ryan Schreiber, agrees. Without any background in journalism, he decided to start the magazine because “because the Internet needed something like this to cover underground music […] I had opinions about music and felt I could state the semi-clearly, so I just went for it” he says to The Chicago Tribune. Perhaps is this a new development in music journalism, as the phenomenon seems to keep growing. Looking back at the success story of Touching the Void, the word-of-mouth-effect appears to be one of the most important features for web-publications in defining their influence on sales. However, it takes either the weight of credibility or, a voice from a choir to gain influence on the commercial industry.
The underground emerged
An interesting tie between this example and the change in technology, is last year’s triumph for Montreal’s The Arcade Fire, who were the first ever band on Merge Records to enter the Billboard 200 albums in the US. The album Funeral received a raving 9.7 (out of 10) from Pitchfork. Merge executive, Martin Hall said to The Chicago Tribune that, after this review, the album went out of print for over a week because the orders exceeded way beyond their expectations, becoming the fastest selling album in the 15 year long history of the label. The premise here, for a band like The Arcade Fire is, because they are on an independent label like Merge, mainstream media do not see them as big enough to be included in the space of their publications, or even to be found in commercial record stores. They might not even know who they are there, regardless of how big their sales potential may be. Initially, feedback like the review from Pitchfork boosted sales through such outlets as Insound to such an extent that the mainstream publications could not escape the phenomenon.
Also, last year the British electro-band Junior Boys strove to get a record deal that never happened. That is, not until they personally uploaded a few tracks on a web site and a handful music critics and fans started hyping the band, spreading their tracks on the web. Pitchfork reviewed their self-released single and gave it an 8.9. Eventually, reviews like this generated bigger interest from the industry and the band got a deal, and, went on tour in America. Here is where these underground publications matter, in acknowledging new talent for their art. And, having built a good network their influence is expanding, much for their love for the independent artists, and, their devotion to their audience, using the Internet as a tool. With the emergence and development of the immediacy of the Internet as a mass medium, the market is no longer inhibited by geographical restraints. This is very much reflected in the diverse range of international content on both Insound and Pitchfork, such as Canadian The Arcade Fire, British Junior Boys and Norwegian Jaga Jazzist, to mention a few. Thus, these establishments have the potential to build a large community of fans who can interact on the web, beyond local gigs and record stores and, weekly or monthly newspapers and magazines and, they can do so on a daily basis. The audience no longer has to wait for next week’s issue to state their opinion or read about what is new.
A community with impact
At the moment, Bloc Party and The Mars Volta are found on Insound’s top-seller list. The bands are also to be found on commercial top-lists in a range of countries worldwide. The artists have been celebrated both by fans and critics alike, and share the appeal to both the independent and the commercial side of the industry. Yet, the underground influence should not be marginalised. Often this is what lifted these artists up from the underground in the first place. Nick Lacey notes that music journalists in print publications work under the pressure of a deadline and need to fill a certain amount of space. These constraints are less important for a writer for an electronic publication, as they deal with more immediate circumstances and their articles are not subdued to the need to fill a limited space. Thus, the print journalist may use these publications as a research tool. Nathan Brackett, senior editor of Rolling Stone, admits to be an active user of Internet blogs, and, he appreciates the impact of electronic niche publications. Brackett said to The Chicago Tribune that “Pitchfork in particular has usurped the role that certain mid-level alternative rock publications might’ve filled” and the publication “has a strong identity, there’s a comfort level they have with that community and a fair amount of clout.” In the same article, Josh Rosenfeld of Seattle-based Barsuk Records tells the story of how a Texas record store refused to carry Travis Morrison’s 2004 release, Travistan, because the album was killed by a Pitchfork review, receiving a devastating 0.0. He said “a Rolling Stone review doesn’t necessarily sell a single record for us. But, with Pitchfork, you get a review, and you can see the impact on sales. From the start Travis Morrison was an independent artist, but in many ways his immediate future as an artist was denied because of this review.
It is very much up to the individual whether to enjoy this development, or not, but it appears to be hard to ignore it as a fact in the changing media landscape. A Chicago music store owner uttered to the local newspaper that – even though he resents their writing – he cannot escape the influence of their opinion: “As much as I don’t like their web site, I have to look at it every damned day, because I cannot stop the albums they recommend from being big sellers.”
Wired’s Chris Anderson accounted for a significant change in audience behaviour, referring to an increased curiosity and the audience as “hobby researchers.” This appears to be the general notion about the continuously changing media landscape, in which Pitchfork and Insound operate. However, this is not an attempt at finding the ultimate truth about how the media as a whole operates, but an example of how some electronic niche publications function, growing out of the very personal writing on MP3 blogs, which can be seen as a development of the print fanzine. Even a highly commercially oriented publication like Businessweek has acknowledged the change in the music industry, referring to how artists use the Internet to advertise and sell their music. The article argues that it is because the new breed of artists have embraced the new technology, while the Old Media have been preoccupied with royalties and “waging war against the Net and music pirates.” Businessweek’s stance is very much in agreement with the predictions of Stuart Hall and Nick Lacey and their forecasts for upcoming changes in the media, having become a massive electronic hyperbole.
These outlooks may account for the role of electronic niche publications like Pitchfork and independent business establishments like Insound, and, their functions within the industry. Important to note is that they are still as dependent on a business structure as any of their collaborators, or, competitors in the market to be able to survive in the industry. Nicki Ittner admits that Insound is highly dependent on advertising revenue, because they barely break even from their record sales: “Advertising dollars keep us afloat, and allow us to improve the site and offer more to our customers. We do it because we love music, and we want to give people a different, more personal experience.” This idealistic approach is reflected by Ryan Schreiber, and appear to be their major appeal in building a community for people who want to explore culture themselves, rather than ‘being fed’ culture from commercial outlets. It is not about taking over the industry, but to create a common ground and forum for music lovers to express themselves in. Both Insound and Pitchfork have an extensive range of contributors, both volunteers and occasionally paid staff. This sentiment is stated in Schreiber’s conclusion to The Chicago Tribune: “we want this thing to be sustainable and fun. We’re not looking to make a million dollars. If we can keep growing and writing about music we love, everything else will take of itself.”
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