The Pitchfork Effect 

How a small staff in Chicago makes bands

Josh Grier is a normal dude living in Minneapolis. He likes Good Will Hunting; he’s a data analyst for a health benefits company.
Josh Grier is a normal dude living in Minneapolis. He likes Good Will Hunting; he’s a data analyst for a health benefits company. He’s really proud of his window cubicle. Like plenty of other normal guys his age, Grier has a band. They’re pretty good but not yet great, a playful indie rock group called Tapes ’n Tapes who owe debts to the usual suspects—The Pixies, The Beatles, The Beach Boys—and deliver playful, anxious romps about living. Their song “My Name Is Not Horatio” is the epitome of that aesthetic, two minutes of simple keyboard chords and the five-word title shouted repeatedly in simple refrain, like detritus from a Frank Black session. But the EP that “Horatio” appears on has become an Internet collector’s item due to an explosion in the band’s popularity. Grier still finds it astounding. Josh Grier is a normal dude living in Minneapolis. He likes Good Will Hunting; he’s a data analyst for a health benefits company. He’s really proud of his window cubicle. Like plenty of other normal guys his age, Grier has a band. They’re pretty good but not yet great, a playful indie rock group called Tapes ’n Tapes who owe debts to the usual suspects—The Pixies, The Beatles, The Beach Boys—and deliver playful, anxious romps about living. Their song “My Name Is Not Horatio” is the epitome of that aesthetic, two minutes of simple keyboard chords and the five-word title shouted repeatedly in simple refrain, like detritus from a Frank Black session. But the EP that “Horatio” appears on has become an Internet collector’s item due to an explosion in the band’s popularity. Grier still finds it astounding. The follow-up EP The Loon has also become hot indie property, nearly selling out of its independent-issue runs and slated for release by a big indie label, XL, this summer. A large part of the buzz stems from Pitchfork Media, an 11-year-old Chicago website that’s become the taste touchstone and cool directory for fans and music industry lackeys worldwide. It lauded the band for “arriving…at a fresh vision through eloquent pastiche.” It began with music blogs, several raving late last year about The Loon. The day after the first review, Capitol called suggesting interest. That was November. But on Feb. 28, Pitchfork pushed it over the top, as it has with increasing regularity for young bands in the last five years. They added The Loon to their über-elite Best New Music category, and Grier’s world caught fire. “My first reaction was ‘holy shit.’ I woke up at 7:30 that morning and checked the website, and the review was up. It was an 8.3 [out of 10],” says Grier, who has been loyally reading the site for four years now. “I immediately called into my boss and took the day off. The whole day was insane. From then on, it’s been really busy.” Representatives of at least 25 labels—from ambitious upstarts to multinational conglomerates—were begging Tapes ’n Tapes to sign, flying to Minneapolis to wine and dine the band. In mid-March, they played eight shows in four days at South by Southwest. They’ve since signed to XL, an imprint of the Beggar’s Banquet family, which includes stalwart indie labels Matador and 4AD, Jack White’s new band and Thom Yorke’s solo album. They sold out two London dates a week in advance. Still, Grier’s keeping his cube job for now, and the band are happily playing their part in the Minneapolis scene. In fact, they recently opened a show for their friends, Bridge Club, at the small local club 7th Street Entry. “It sold out a week ahead of time, and there were people wrapped around the club, waiting to get in,” says Grier. “It wasn’t anything like I’d ever seen before. It was awesome.” It began in 1995 when Ryan Schreiber, then a 19-year-old record store clerk with no college aspirations, began reviewing records, interviewing bands and posting the results online. Now Pitchfork claims 160,000 unique visitors each day, a small editorial staff and a strong team of regular contributors. It’s updated daily with album reviews and a pool of news stories breaking throughout an afternoon. Pitchfork holds no punches: they are as likely to slam a formerly favorable band as they are to embrace an unknown. Reviews can be scathingly or graciously honest: the Arcade Fire took their 9.7 and used it to build one of the biggest musical success stories of this decade, while Travis Morrison’s 0.0 relegated him from the cool guy who used to front The Dismemberment Plan to the butt of scenester jokes. New York’s Clap Your Hands Say Yeah were catapulted by the site’s exposure and seal of approval from a 50-person local draw to one of the biggest indie bands in America, gracing the cover of Time Out New York and packing every SXSW showcase. Music business publicists check it with zeal to see if they’ve scored big; journalists check it with faux disdain to stay in the proverbial know and audiophiles check it with open wallets to see what to buy. “You’ll see a real spike in sales if Pitchfork gives something Best New Music, but you also see that from good reviews in big outlets, like NPR or The New York Times,” says Josh Madell, co-owner of Other Music in Manhattan. “Pitchfork has definitely become as important as those outlets.” But the site’s bands and readers exercise caution in advocating the site or its opinions: Angus Andrew—one-third of Liars, a band Pitchfork has been raving or ranting about since awarding their debut an 8.1—warns against people accepting Pitchfork’s statements with blind faith. “It’s interesting to be doing an interview with a guy in Norway, and he’s basically quoting from Pitchfork,” says Andrew, whose latest, Drum’s Not Dead, was incorrectly labeled a concept album in a Best New Music Pitchfork wet kiss. “ ‘You said this to Pitchfork, so tell me something else about that.’ That’s bizarre.” Kevin Neudecker, co-owner of Cleveland indie records fave Music Saves, says the site’s as likely to hit as miss. He thinks The Loon is mediocre at best, while he agrees enthusiastically with the 9.0 Pitchfork gave to Seattle’s Band of Horses. Then again, Band of Horses frontman Ben Bridwell is nearly sick of the buzz-band status it’s earned him. They were on their way to SXSW when their Sub Pop debut, Everything All the Time, landed under Best New Music. His brother in Atlanta sent him a text message—“Pitchfork just gave you a blowjob”—to tell him. Life has since been a series of tours and interviews. Grayson Currin is an occasional contributor to Pitchfork Media.

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