The award for Fun Read of the Week goes to “On Pitchfork,” Richard Beck’s smart, caustic review of indie rock’s überblog Pitchfork.  You can’t find this lengthy essay anywhere but the latest issue of n+1, an NYC-based journal of politics, literature and culture, and yeah it’s worth the $10 PDF download.  (The issue also features a very moving essay by Lawrence Jackson about a funeral in Baltimore as well as… sigh… another “serious” piece on the Juggalo subculture.)

[1/23/12 update: Richard Beck’s essay is now online at]

Beck effectively and righteously criticizes Pitchfork for turning music criticism into taste aggregation, with its hyperprecise rating scale of 10.0-0.0 and its facile attention to musicians’ “influences” (read: CD collections).  For Beck, Pitchfork is inseparable from indie rock, particularly the present decade in which 20-something musicians and listeners have evacuated post-punk music (broadly speaking) of any independent ethos or anti-commercial principle.  Now the big game in indie rock is status competition: who’s listening to the newest music, living in the coolest neighborhoods, rocking the tightest threads… and what do they think about how I’m living?  In this context, the reason for Pitchfork’s continual growth and influence is it’s become the hipster’s premiere users guide to successful musical taste acquisition and display.

(In the obscure, academic world of hipster studies, this cultural capital explanation for hipsters is maybe better associated with Mark Greif, an English professor at the New School, co-editor of the recent volume What Was the Hipster? A Sociological Investigation and, it should very much be noted here, a founding editor of n+1.)

You can poke around the internet for the greatest hits of Beck’s criticisms of Pitchfork and indie rock; here’s a good place to start.  Clearly he’s touched a nerve with readers, giving voice to their dismay at Pitchfork’s unchallenged ability to make or break worthy groups with its famously verbose, erudite yet aesthetically arbitrary music reviews.  (In a quintessential hipster riposte, one reader commented, “welcome to the party about 5 years late n+1”!)

In this post, I want to respond to an apparently casual attempt at urban theory that Beck makes toward the end of the essay:

In 2007, [Pitchfork founder] Ryan Schreiber moved to Brooklyn, which had become one of indie music’s vital hubs.  Just as the internet had weakened the major labels and the music magazines that Pitchfork would eventually see as its competition, so did it decimate the weekly newspapers that had supported indie rock throughout the 1990s.  As the alt-weeklies went into decline, regional music scenes began to weaken, and indie bands began gravitating toward New York, the city with the greatest hype-generating media apparatus in the world.  Priced out of lower Manhattan by the ’90s real estate boom, these bands lived in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Greenpoint, where promoters like Todd Patrick—better known as Todd P—had begun to organize DIY concerts in 2001 for acts like Yeasayer, the Dirty Projectors, and Dan Deacon.  Although the main body of Pitchfork’s editorial operations stayed behind in Chicago, Schreiber almost immediately became a fixture at concerts.  In that same year, the site also finally managed to buy its rightful URL from the livestock company.  Pitchfork has made a home at ever since (pp. 188-9).

On an empirical basis, I think the least credible statement here is, “As the alt-weeklies went into decline, regional music scenes began to weaken, and indie bands began gravitating toward New York…”  There are two quasi-causal claims here: (1) the decline of alt-weeklies is associated with the weakening of regional music scenes, and (2) New York, specifically Brooklyn, has drawn indie bands away from regional music scenes.  How do these hold up to scrutiny?

(1) It seems improbable that the decline of alt-weeklies has caused the weakening of regional music scenes.  The causal arrow, if there is one, more likely points the other way, but certainly there are more fundamental reasons, starting with craigslist and the internet’s erosion of alt-weeklies’ advertising/classified ad markets.  (Remember when you could find “musicians wanted to form a band” ads in these publications?)  The internet giveth and it takes away; it seems hard to believe that other online forums couldn’t fill any regional void left by the decline of alt-weeklies.

It’s an interesting theoretical claim to designate alt-weeklies as the crucial glue to a regional music scene.  Journalism, reviews, concert listings and other forms of music writing/media serve an important function in music scenes by gathering and filtering information to participants and audiences.  Not to dismiss the media urbanism thesis out of hand, but did alt-weeklies ever provide this service exclusively, or even primarily?  Now that traditional print-based media for music information across the board are in decline (as is of course the proverbial independent record store staffed by music snobs, another such forum), it remains an empirical question what if anything fills that void.  Presumably urban public space and “third places” also sustain their own public sphere.  Yes, these might be most vibrant in the biggest cities (a supposition by which all roads again lead to Brooklyn), but that remains to be seen.

(2) No doubt Brooklyn’s indie bands include a large number of musicians and groups who originally came from someplace else.  And no doubt Brooklyn’s scene is big, as is Brooklyn’s share of NYC’s 20-something population on the whole.  But has the indie rock pie, so to speak, remained the same size or even shrunk, such that Brooklyn’s gain in the last decade has necessarily been other regional music scenes’ loss?  Is anyone going to speak up for Austin or L.A. (or London, Berlin, etc.)?  I suspect we might not find definitive evidence to prove or disprove this, in part because indie-rock musicians are hard to find in occupational and population data (some researchers have better luck identifying them indirectly via their service-sector day jobs).

But more importantly, Brooklyn’s ascendancy as an indie-rock scene isn’t a purely demographic phenomenon.  Let me put it this way: precisely because the invidious distinctions that hipsters make aim at moving targets, Brooklyn’s indie-rock hegemony is by no means assured.  Will it surprise anyone when the day comes that Brooklyn is “no longer cool”?  One indicator here is that, just as Brooklyn draws indie-rock musicians from elsewhere, so too do these other regional music scenes elsewhere draw them from Brooklyn.  (This is anecdotal, but I met a few of them in Baltimore this summer.)

In sum, cultural capital better explains Pitchfork’s current hegemony in indie-rock circles than it does Brooklyn’s critical mass.  It’s not really helpful to think about a city’s cultural “market share” the same way we might a blog’s.  Cultural capital may very well motivate hipster pursuits—are they really the only musical constituency with this characteristic?—but Brooklyn hardly monopolizes the location for these pursuits.  Other cities will always play a role because in more general (and, these days, increasingly banal) ways, the urban is itself a medium for symbolizing cultural forms and practices—musical trends and genres of course, but also lingo, amusements, fashion, and the mundane elements of everyday life (day jobs, food shopping, slipping into RiteAid for a quart of milk, etc.)—and signifying them to status-obsessed constituencies both near and far.  Those instructive moments of silent observation on the bus or subway, listening to an iPod’s worth of Pitchfork’s “best new music” while commuting to work, are also important opportunities for articulating and acquiring taste.

Perhaps it’s a significant difference that in these latter cases, the accumulation of cultural capital occurs in socially heterogeneous settings, in contrast to the insiders-only milieu of a Pitchfork album review or a Brooklyn Vegan-sponsored gig.  But until the importance of these differences are better explained, we have no reason to confuse the supremacy of Pitchfork and Brooklyn as hipster status symbols (to grant Richard Beck his argument) with the centralization of status display, distinctions andanxiety under one media geography.