In September 2023, New York Times reporter David Marchese pressed Jann Wenner, the founder of Rolling Stone magazine, on why he insists in the introduction of his book The Masters that Black and female musicians are “not in [his] zeitgeist.” The Masters consists of interviews with seven pioneers of rock—all white men.
“Insofar as the women, just none of them were as articulate enough on this intellectual level,” Wenner said. Following Marchese’s disbelief, Wenner attempted to save face by insisting Joni Mitchell “was not a philosopher of rock ’n’ roll” and contending that Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye “didn’t articulate at th[e] level” of a master.
“How do you know if you didn’t give them a chance?” Marchese wondered.
It would be lovely to think that Wenner is simply a 77-year-old man with outdated views that no longer reflect the industry. And yet, barely four months after this interview—which caused such major shockwaves that Wenner was kicked off the board of the Rock And Rock Hall Of Fame—media giant Condé Nast made a stark announcement, courtesy of CEO Anna Wintour, that contained echoes of Wenner’s assessment.
Pitchfork, a music outlet which has served as a taste-marker and (not always uncontroversial) megaphone for independent music for over two decades, would be folded into GQ, a men’s magazine.
“Both Pitchfork and GQ have unique and valuable ways that they approach music journalism,” Wintour said in her memo, “and we are excited for the new possibilities together.”
“Together” unfortunately excludes many Pitchfork’s staff, who were laid off shortly after the announcement. (Wintour reportedly kept her signature sunglasses on as she told staffers they were out of a job.) They included editor-in-chief Puja Patel and several notable writers working on diverse beats, who greatly helped the website expand out from its “white indie guy”-centric coverage in the 2000s.
Relegating one of the most recognizable online music periodicals to a tab of the website of a men’s magazine might sound absurd, but this way of thinking isn’t new. Since the moment Condé Nast bought Pitchfork in 2015, they have asserted that Pitchfork is for men. Then-Chief Digital Officer Fred Santarpia celebrated the acquisition for bringing “a very passionate audience of millennial males into our roster.” The comment immediately sparked anger. In fact, statistics suggest the site’s readership is about 56% male, 43% female.
Condé Nast decided that only Pitchfork’s “millennial males” were worth discussing, both then and now. In doing so, the company has deliberately underplayed the role that women have at Pitchfork—through reading it, working for it, and providing much of the music it covers. By shoving Pitchfork into GQ, Condé Nast has furthered the same harmful social assumption on which Wenner operates: Music is made by men, for men. Or, at least, the music worth paying attention to is.
Former Pitchfork associate editor Laura Snapes phrased the matter brilliantly in a column for The Guardian: “Incorporating Pitchfork into a men’s magazine also cements perceptions that music is a male leisure pursuit.” Naturally, the idea that women or nonbinary people don’t listen to music in their free time is ridiculous. But Condé Nast has decided that audience isn’t profitable enough. Erasing or undermining the impact that women have made on music, both as musicians and taste-makers, is a tale as old as time. But it’s also a tale that, in the post-#MeToo world, that we should have progressed past by now.
The effective dissolution of Pitchfork comes at a time when independent musicians are seeing the already frail infrastructure supporting their careers essentially crumbling to bits. In October, Bandcamp—a beloved music publisher which provides an equitable way to promote and sell music—was sold to licensing company Songtradr, resulting in half of its staff being laid off. A significant portion of the layoffs affected The Bandcamp Daily, the in-house periodical which provides a vital source of exposure for independent and experimental artists.
Additionally, Spotify is changing its already paltry $0.003-per-stream royalty rate, which now will pay nothing unless the song in question has 1,000 streams within 12 months. While Spotify asserts 99.5% of tracks reach this threshold, other reputable calculations say two-thirds of tracks on Spotify will now receive no payment at all. Even touring, which was touted as the primary way an artist can make income since the fall of CD sales, is often no longer financially viable, with artists as prominent as Animal Collective canceling tours due to lack of funding.
Add to this the extra hurdles women and people of color go through. In 2023, The Washington Journal of Law, Technology & Arts found that “women are chronically underpaid and underrepresented in the music industry because its unique characteristics naturally foster gender-based discrimination while simultaneously making it extraordinarily difficult for plaintiffs to prove employment discrimination or harassment claims.” The same study found women also tend to be vastly underpaid. A survey from 2022 found that 77% of women in music felt they had been treated differently because of their gender. 84% felt they had faced racial discrimination. (Once, a male musician at a session told me that a woman being treated differently was a good thing. “Men want a handshake, but women want a hug,” he said. “Right?”)
The dissolution of a self-standing Pitchfork, which is arguably the biggest name in modern music criticism, greatly adds to this sense that independent musicians are standing on quicksand. When the avenues for independent artists to promote themselves and make a living begin disappearing, the first affected are always the most vulnerable.
There are brave souls locating optimism in the darkness. Many are seeing an opportunity for the rise of smaller blogs, co-operatives, and local promotion through zines. Two laid-off Pitchfork writers have already joined with other journalists affected by other layoffs to form a subscription newsletter called Flaming Hydra.
Meanwhile, GQ’s current music coverage is not devoid of female and non-binary artists—Awich and Victoria Monét have had features since the beginning of January, but that’s compared to four other pieces about male artists.
We’ve all had our gripes with certain Pitchfork reviews over the years, but imagining it reduced to such a paltry drip is sickening. But not quite as sickening as the idea that what was formerly the world’s biggest independent music website is now operating under that tacit assumption that music appeals, first and foremost, to men.