The prestige recession
Pitchfork, music criticism, and culture after prestige
My first career was as a music critic. It started with writing for Pitchfork in some of the first years of the site. It was brief – I wasn’t very good and Ryan let me go – but I loved it and have always loved Pitchfork. I’ve been a daily reader ever since.
After college I moved to NYC and started working in full-time editorial capacities covering music and culture for a series of corporate ventures. In all of these I was part of an editorial team meant to legitimize what the businesses existed to sell (radio programming; live events; a digital music store). All of the companies operated in crowded markets, and “editorial” was their way to distinguish their product from the rest.
For my first few years I was lowest on the totem pole: an editorial assistant, an interview transcriber, a production editor. Eventually I became a staff writer, and, finally after five years, a Managing Editor, Editor in Chief, and part of strategic conversations among corporate leadership for the first time.
In those rooms I quickly learned how “editorial” fit in a corporate worldview. Nobody cared about what was being written or who was writing what. They simply saw editorial as a way to make their offering feel more quality – like a rug or oil painting meant to impart a touch of class.
This isn’t why I or my friends wrote about music, of course. I wanted to be another one of the greats: Nick Tosches! Richard Meltzer! Alan Lomax! I wrote to contribute to the amazing library of ethnomusicological understanding that is the music and arts writing canon. A collection of essays, classifications, and family trees crafted by professional and amateur obsessives who used their passion to help people better understand and appreciate a piece of art, its context, and the people who made it.
Even during its heyday, music writing was criticized for being insular and navel-gazing (newsflash: it was and is). When Elvis Costello dismissed music writing as “dancing about architecture” – an awkward, unnatural, and sycophantic relationship – this is what he meant. It's another critique rooted in truth — see Almost Famous, whose writer-star dynamics I personally experienced more than once in much less dramatic but equally awkward fashion.
Their art was the art. We were the scribes there to record the story. Being in the presence of the myth was to experience God. Neil Young saying to me on the phone: “In the beginning, there was sound.” Can you imagine?
Us critics saw our role differently. We were also artists and our art was to interpret and reflect their art. A perfect meta-symbiosis. As writers, we spent hours searching for the right metaphor and reference to properly illuminate the lineage or genius of a work and help someone else feel what we felt and hear what we heard. A goal that mirrors what inspired the music we wrote about in the first place.
Now that era is ending. This week Pitchfork was effectively shut down by Conde Nast, the corporate overlord that bought it out a half-decade ago in what back then felt like the culmination and end of something. It was, and now it really is. Not just at Pitchfork. The editorial jobs like the ones I had two decades ago are long gone, unlikely to return.
If I think back to those corporate meetings I was part of early in my career, it’s easy to see today's decision-making. A decade ago cultural criticism was a sparkly pixie dust you could spread over a business to give it a veneer of prestige. But in a world where TikToks dwarf all over forms of consumption and a video that someone spent a day making will get more attention than something a studio spent years and millions of dollars to make, who needs prestige?
The death of Pitchfork and cultural criticism is evidence that the mainstream is going through a prestige recession. It’s a value in decline. Witness the recent changes in programming decisions by the streaming services. Two years ago they were prestige maxing to garner cultural attention. But now it's the opposite. Values have changed.
Rather than prestige, this cultural moment is dominated by metrics, as George S. Trow predicted in a 1980 New Yorker essay called “Within the context of no context”:
“That movement… from wonder that a country should be so big, to the wonder that a building could be so big, to the last, small wonder, that a marketplace could be so big — that was the movement of history...
"From that moment, vastness was the start, not the finish. The movement now began with the fact of two hundred million, and the movement was toward a unit of one, alone. Groups of more than one were now united not by a common history but by common characteristics. History became the history of demographics, the history of no-history…
"The New History was the record of the expression of demographically significant preferences: the lunge of demography here as opposed to there.”
It was once critics who helped shape cultural values – spotting a trend here, putting a scene on the map there – but now the process is driven by metrics. Context, the land of the artist and the critic, has been determined valueless (unless algorithmic) by the mainstream, which honestly never much cared for it to begin with. Instead, art and culture have been safely neutralized as interchangeable commercial objects just like everything else. Who was it that criticized selling out in the first place? The critic, of course.
The decline of the critic mirrors the decline of the mediums they cover. Music and film are industries whose relative cultural value has dipped, thus their critics's cultural influence has plummeted. In realms like politics and the culture wars, however, critics are thriving. Where there's power and money, critics can have influence and get paid. When the money and power dry up, the beat does too.
I echo the widespread mourning for the loss of outlets, the ability to make a living, and the diminished cultural value of cultural criticism and coverage. A lot of friends lost their jobs over the years through this slow-motion crash, me included. It’s always been hard to make a living doing it, but today makes the past look like a socialist paradise in comparison.
There will be plenty of funerals for the critic, but I'd rather a celebration of life. The past hundred years a canon that defined modernity, post-modernity, and our world was established, celebrated, illuminated, and constantly revised by critics and appreciators who used the pen to make their case. They're the ones who helped establish cultural significance. They're the ones who remind us to marvel not at demographics, but at individual, collective, and spiritual genius both momentary and across a career.
At its best, cultural criticism is love and art that exists to give love to other expressions of art. It's beautiful in its indulgence. A positive feedback loop that gives everybody exactly what they desire. Gods, scribes, muses, an audience, a culmination. This is what we want out of art. Something that feels grand, meaningful, connected to the ages. That doesn't happen on its own. It needs context, dedicated space, deeper knowledge, appreciation.
Cultural criticism and contextualization aren’t going away. They're being de-professionalized. They're switching mediums. What was a grand(ish) vocation has been demoted to a hobby and another form of "content." It feels inevitable. We've gotten so used to it by now.
Like my past forays doing editorial in companies whose business was elsewhere (all of which eventually shuttered or dramatically reduced their editorial investments, including me), building a creative economy dependent on businesses and leaders fundamentally unaligned with our values will continue to cause problems. It’s only when we establish ourselves on our terms — as Pitchfork, RIP, once did — that we build durable worlds of our own.
For twenty years Pitchfork was as independent as they came. But as time goes on the harder it gets. Legacies rarely last beyond a generation. From the beginning of history, ownership and leadership changes have been hard to get right even in the best circumstances.
But the real dance will continue. Artists will continue to need context. It's what brings value and understanding to their work. People — many of them also artists — will continue to delight in interpreting and helping other people understand creative work. It's what brings us joy. This is the dance that matters. It hasn't stopped and it won't stop. Some things never change.