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How Pitchfork Struck a Note in Indie Music

7 minute read
Claire Suddath/Chicago

Big Boi isn’t indie. Or is he? As one-half of the rap duo OutKast, he has sold some 18 million albums, won six Grammy Awards and appeared on more hit songs than even he can keep track of. Yet there he was on July 18 at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, playing alongside bands only a fraction as successful. As thousands of writhing, fist-pumping fans swarmed the main stage and climbed on top of fences to get a look at the hip-hop megastar, thousands more were across the park, stomping and dancing to the largely unknown noise-pop act Sleigh Bells (album sales: 47,000). That doesn’t usually happen to Big Boi.

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But this festival is hosted by Pitchfork Media, the online music magazine that in recent years has become a commanding authority within the indie-music scene. Over three days in July, 46 acts — ranging from the recently reunited 1990s rock band Pavement to the weird, raunchy Jamaican-inspired dance group Major Lazer — blew the collective minds of 54,000 people (average age: 27) in Chicago’s unglamorous, nonlakefront Union Park. “Rock used to be one living cell,” says Victoria Legrand, vocalist for the dreamy pop duo Beach House, which performed on the third day of the festival. “It was all grunge or all metal. But I’m glad it’s not like that anymore. The cells are dividing.”

(Watch TIME’s video “The Pitchfork Music Festival: Indie Rock’s Finest.”)

The numbers back her up. U.S. album sales have dropped 38% in the past decade — but at the same time, there’s more music out there than ever before. In 2005, according to Nielsen SoundScan, 60,000 new albums were released in the U.S.; by 2009, the number had risen to almost 100,000. Factor in the millions of songs being downloaded for free on file-sharing systems like BitTorrent or being swapped on social-networking sites like MySpace and you’ve got a picture of how most industry insiders see the music business: fragmented, lawless and less and less profitable. Yet flourishing among those fragments is Pitchfork.

On a Scale of 1 to 10
In 1995, Ryan Schreiber was a 19-year-old Minneapolis record-store clerk who wanted to publish a rock-music fanzine but lacked access to a photocopier. Instead, he started a website, called it Pitchfork and began posting his thoughts on bands like Sonic Youth, Fugazi and the Pixies — groups whose songs rarely (if ever) appeared on the radio or MTV. It was the first golden age of “indie” artists, back when the word was shorthand for music released on independent record labels, signifying the artistic freedom and cachet that came from operating on the fringes.

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By 2000, Schreiber had moved the site to Chicago, acquired some freelance writers and codified the Pitchfork review into a signature formula — a long, rambling personal opinion of an album, accompanied by a rating on a scale from 0.0 to 10.0. But the site’s readership was still, to use his word, “negligible.” That changed in October of that year, when Pitchfork posted a fawning, grandiloquent 10.0 review of Radiohead’s experimental rock album Kid A. Critic Brent DiCrescenzo’s paean included lines like “butterscotch lamps along the walls of the tight city square bled upward into the cobalt sky” and became an Internet sensation — for all the wrong reasons. “The writing was so purple, so outrageous. People passed it around because it was funny,” Schreiber says. Pitchfork’s readership jumped exponentially, to about 5,000 hits a day.

Then an odd thing happened: people made fun of the prose, but they kept reading Pitchfork. Schreiber and his writers knew what they were talking about; Kid A., which later debuted at No. 1 on Billboard, really was a 10.0 album. Pitchfork’s reviews of artists previously considered unknown or underground — like xylophone-prone Icelandic band Sigur Rós and harmonizing rockers Modest Mouse — began to act as stepping-stones to mainstream coverage. In 2000, Modest Mouse moved from independent label Up Records to Sony-owned Epic; by 2005, they had performed on Saturday Night Live, been nominated for two Grammys and guest-starred on Fox’s teen drama The O.C. Their songs are now used in car commercials.

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Bands like Modest Mouse still weren’t as big as Pearl Jam or U2, but then again, neither was anyone else. Last year, only 11 artists released new albums that received a platinum certification from the Recording Industry Association of America; as recently as 2006, there were 56. “There isn’t really such a thing as mainstream rock anymore,” says Scott Plagenhoef, Pitchfork’s editor. “There are a lot of bands who shouldn’t be considered indie rock, like Modest Mouse, but they still are because you can’t hear them on commercial radio.”

That doesn’t mean you can’t hear them at all — far from it. Over half the top-billed acts at the Pitchfork festival are on major labels. Singer-songwriter St. Vincent, who took the stage right before Big Boi, is featured on the Twilight: New Moon sound track.

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Indie rock never had its Beatles-on-the-Ed Sullivan Show moment; it seemed to seep slowly into listeners’ ears, one song at a time. By 2004, when a rave Pitchfork review of Funeral, the debut album by a small Montreal band called Arcade Fire, helped turn it into the biggest-selling record in the 21-year history of its label, indie — and Pitchfork — were on a roll. Record companies courted reviews. Stores used them to make purchasing decisions.

“If they give a really high number to a new band, that puts it on our radar because we know people will come in and request it,” says Doyle Davis, a co-owner of Grimey’s, an independent record store in Nashville. “We definitely pay attention to Pitchfork.” That goes for hip-hop stars too. In his high-rise hotel room before the festival, Big Boi said he hadn’t heard of Pitchfork until last year. “They reviewed one of my songs,” he said, “and my manager got excited and said that was important.”

Taking It Outside
Pitchfork started its music festival in 2006 for largely the same reasons that Schreiber founded the website: no other venue was showcasing the type of music he and his friends wanted to hear, for a price they were willing to pay. At $40 a day, admission costs less than half that at Lollapalooza. And while this summer has been a dismal one for many artists — overall ticket sales are down 17% so far, according to industry trade magazine Pollstar, and some tours like Lilith Fair have had to cancel dates — Pitchfork’s festival sold out months in advance.

It’s here at Union Park that the evolution of the term indie most clearly manifests itself. After nearly 20 years of changing tastes and label consolidation, indie has become a catchall that suggests less what the music sounds like than the type of people who listen to it. The music may be rock or dance or hip-hop, but it all appeals to Pitchfork’s shaggy-haired, skinny-jeans-wearing crowd, sitting on blankets with eyes closed in the summer sun.

But when the sun sets, people get on their feet and start to move. Some watch Big Boi speed-rap his way through OutKast’s 2000 hit “B.O.B.,” while others opt for the unpolished, unfamous Sleigh Bells, the Brooklyn-based band praised by Pitchfork before they’d even released a single. “I wanted to see if they were as good as Pitchfork said,” explained Nick Mayor, 24, from Chicago. “I came [here] for stuff I hadn’t heard before.”

This article originally appeared in the August 9, 2010 issue of TIME.

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