In a week with no shortage of seismic media happenings—including The Village Voice being sold and Playboy ceasing publication of nude photos—the news that publishing giant Condé Nast had acquired independent-minded music website Pitchfork Media sent even bigger shock waves around the industry. Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed, although a New York Times article breaking the news praised the company’s “thriving live event business” and noted the quarterly print publication The Pitchfork Review would continue to exist. The Times also obtained an email from Condé Nast CEO Bob Sauerberg, which noted the deal “reinforces our commitment to building Condé Nast’s premium digital network, focusing on distinctive editorial voices and engaging high-value millennial audiences.”
However, another comment in the article from Condé Nast’s chief digital officer, Fred Santarpia, in particular drew the ire of many: Having Pitchfork as part of the company’s portfolio brings “a very passionate audience of millennial males into our roster.” That Pitchfork is often perceived as being male-dominated is well-documented: 88 percent of respondents to the People’s List, a crowdsourced ranking of best albums during the site’s first 15 years, identified as male. (In response, the site noted that this skewed percentage only represented “contributors to the People's List. And is not indicative of Pitchfork's overall demographics.”) Recent Quantcast U.S. statistics for the domain pitchfork.com don’t fare much better: 82 percent of the site’s visitors are male, while 45 percentof the site’s visitors are males who fall in the 18-34 age range.
Of course, Quantcast is just one measure of web traffic, which is a notoriously tricky thing to measure in a definitive way. (Moreover, an archived copy of the 2010 Pitchfork Media overview is far more balanced: The collateral reported that just 64 percent of the site’s visitors were male.) Far more troubling was Santarpia only singling out the site’s “audience of millennial males,” because of what the comment implies about the rest of the site’s readership: that it doesn’t exist or somehow isn’t as dedicated. Quantifying passion for a website is an imprecise science—Is it return visits? Time on a page? Retweets? Facebook shares?—and insinuating that Pitchfork’s non-male-identified and non-millennial audience isn’t as fervent or loyal is insulting.
For women in particular, being taken seriously as passionate music fans is often difficult. It’s a bias that’s deeply ingrained—Google the phrase “female music fans” (but without the quotes), and the first hit is a link to the Wikipedia page for Groupie—and it starts early. Teenage girls enthusiastic about their favorite bands frequently earn the tag “fangirl,” a pejorative term that condescends to their excitement, denigrates their loyalty as somehow silly or lacking, and hints they’re only interested in musicians due to good looks. Earlier this year, Monster CEO Noel Lee explained the launch of its Pearl Collection of pink and purple headphones thusly: “Ladies have different priorities — sound quality isn't the top of the list. It's comfort, lightweight, that it doesn't mess up my hair — that's all very important."
And then there was the outcry against the blog “My Husband’s Stupid Record Collection,” which dredged up complicated issues about the gendered nature of music discovery, as well as how women are perceived to approach record collecting or critical analysis. When women like music, it often turns into a defensive pose, one burdened by stereotypes or fraught with baggage to overcome. (I was shamefully guilty of this in the recent past: In fact, a knee-jerk tweet I wrote chastising the “Stupid Record Collection” blog nearly went viral, and while I stood by the essence of my words, I subsequently felt bad about casting judgment on a perfect stranger.)
Perhaps more troubling, when the new owners of one of the biggest music websites don’t acknowledge over half of its audience, it shows an unsettling lack of understanding of what the site is about. By reducing Pitchfork to its “passionate audience of millennial males,” it undermines the site’s efforts to be inclusive with their masthead, contributing writers and coverage. Neither the site’s staff nor its content is male-dominated. Staff-wise, two of its four senior editors are women; its associate editor is a woman; and two of three contributing editors are women. Non-male bylines aren’t a rarity on the site, which isn’t always the case with other websites or magazines.
One of the senior editors, Jessica Hopper, oversees The Pitch, which has recently published articles called “Why Michete is The Worst Queer Rapper You Need to Listen To,” “Searching for Huggy Bear: Riot Grrrl and Queerness in the American South,” and “Op-Ed: Would Chris Brown be Allowed in Australia if He Were White?” along with pieces on Patti Smith’s new book, “M Train”, the evolution of prison songs and on bounce queen Big Freedia’s new book. Earlier this year, the site ran a massive cover story on Bjork which featured an extensive discussion of how she’s not given enough credence for her contributions to her own music, as well as how motherhood’s changed her outlook.
These articles were noticeably and deliberately trying to elevate awareness of underrepresented artists and points of view, provocative topics and (in some cases) problematic issues. All of these things are too complex to appeal to just one particular niche group. In fact, boiling the site down into a desirable destination for a coveted advertising demographic, or considering its distinctive traits as conduits for engagement, is a depressing reminder that even the smartest, important and well-intentioned journalism in 2015 is too often viewed as a mere product.
That women were excluded from this buzzwordy strategy is equally depressing, though sadly not surprising. Women who enjoy and are knowledgeable about music aren’t always rewarded with authority or treated with respect—they’re overshadowed (or mansplained to), or dismissed outright. That doesn’t mean they’re not out there, however: For the record, Quantcast’s stats show that the highest percentage of pitchfork.com’s female visitors are from the 25-34 age bracket, a group comprised of those considered squarely in the millennial generation. (A mere percentage point behind? Both the 18-24 and 35-44 age groups.) There’s no indication as to how passionate this “female millennial audience” is, but perhaps now that they’ve been actively diminished, it’ll make this group—and the rest of Pitchfork’s ignored readership—even more fired up to reclaim their space in music fandom.