x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Pitchfork can make or break a band

With news that the Duplass Brothers have Pitchfork: The Movie in the workings, we look at the music review website people love to hate.

A young aspiring rocker dies in a car accident. His distraught mother refuses to believe his driving was at fault, instead blaming a journalist from an influential music website whose savage review of her son's debut album she believes contributed to his fatal lack of concentration on the road. In her grief, she decides to seek vengeance on the scribe and the website.

It sounds like the plot of a rather implausible made-for-TV movie. In fact, this film to be directed by the independent filmmakers Mark and Jay Duplass, has been making headlines all around the world this week, and the Oscar-winning actress Susan Sarandon is being talked of in connection with the role of the grieving mother.

The reason? The music website in question is Pitchfork, the often painfully hip indie music website that many people love to hate. In fact, while the film is a revenge fantasy it could just as easily be promoted as a feel-good drama to the large number of indie rock bands and music fans who have nothing but disdain for the site. But then Pitchfork has always been divisive. Ever since it was launched in 1995 by Ryan Schreiber in Minneapolis from the back of his parents' house, it has been the object of both adoration and absolute hatred.

That's only fitting, really, because the site itself isn't exactly afraid of a strong opinion. If the reviewers like something (and bear in mind that since 1996 they have given only 11 newly released albums a perfect 10 out of 10) they tend to drown it in fawning hyperbole. Their 2000 review of Radiohead's Kid A has gone down in history as a classic of the genre. Sample quote: "It's cacophonous yet tranquil, experimental yet familiar, foreign yet womb-like, spacious yet visceral, textured yet vaporous, awakening yet dreamlike, infinite yet 48 minutes. It will cleanse your brain of those little crustaceans of worries and inferior albums clinging inside the fold of your gray matter."

At the other end of the scale, just 12 albums have been on the receiving end of a 0.0 score, including Sonic Youth's NYC Ghosts & Flowers and The Flaming Lips' Zaireeka. But the fact that Pitchfork's reviewers have been sparing with their lowest rating hasn't stopped them gaining a reputation for putting the boot in. They've been accused in the past of both wilfully favouring the new and obscure over the mainstream and popular, and of destroying up-and-coming acts with an unwarranted kicking.

Once upon a time, such criticism may have been dismissed as the unqualified ramblings of a jaded hipster, but the site's continuous growth - which now includes its own web television channel and national musical festivals - has long since established its influence.

But Pitchfork's greatest achievement - and the thing that really infuriates its detractors - remains its carefully cultivated image of being the bellwether of the indie-music scene. Record store owners, music promoters and college radio DJs often wait for the Pitchfork seal of approval before embracing a new band.

Unsurprisingly, it's far from unusual for the site to receive angry responses from bands that have been given the thumbs down.

One particularly memorable riposte came in July 2008, after Pitchfork gave a 3.7 review to Movie Monster, the major label debut from the American indie band Sound Team. In response, the bandmember Bill Baird stuck a sign with the album's name written on it on the chest of a life-size dummy and had a friend film him stabbing it with a pitchfork before throwing it off a cliff and finally setting it on fire, in what he called a "visual depiction" of the review.

In fact Pitchfork: The Movie could itself become the most extreme musician-response to a negative review. Mark Duplas's band Volcano, I'm Still Excited!! was also the subject of a scathing Pitchfork review in February 2004, when Hartley Goldstein labelled their self-titled debut "utterly forgettable" with a 5.5 rating.

It's easy to see why bands would get upset. Much of Pitchfork's success revolves around the site's reputation for predicting the next act to take the indie world by storm. It was Pitchfork that first introduced the little-known Canadian band Arcade Fire to the masses with its 9.7 point review of their now classic debut album Funeral in 2004.

Its 9.5 point review for New York's post-punk group Interpol's debut album Turn on the Bright Light brought the band its first wave of international attention. However, for all those decrying the site as only interested in unleashing unknown bands, Pitchfork also showed it was not averse to awarding high scores to popular artists. Kanye West's widely acclaimed album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was the 11th album to be awarded a perfect 10.0 score by the website.

Schreiber acknowledges the love-hate relationship the site has with readers. But he defend's the site's tone and content by stating he would rather sacrifice the site's literary value for reviews he deems as honest.

"We maybe have this sort of snobbish reputation. But we're just really honest, opinionated music fans," he told the Washington Post.

"We might be completely over the top in our praise, or we might be cruel. But to anybody who reads the site, it's clear that we're not pulling any punches." If Pitchfork: The Movie makes it into cinemas, we'll have to wait and see whether the Duplass Brothers pull any of theirs.