Music blog institution Pitchfork has been shaking up its look of late — playing with the way content is presented online in a way that both looks to the past for inspiration and modern tech for utility. O Music Awards recently chatted with Pitchfork founder/CEO Ryan Schreiber about the blog’s new digs, the challenges facing longform journalism online, and what’s in store for the site in 2013.
If you haven’t hit up Pitchfork of late — which would be odd considering end-of-the-year list time is and was nigh — the 17-year-old site has brushed up with some new features. This fall, it unveiled its new “Cover Stories” format, which mimics the visually rich layout of a magazine story (see above). Instead of bombarding readers with a seemingly infinite scroll of text, Cover Stories unfold via rich photographs that change — GIF-like — as you read and pithy pull quotes scattered throughout. You can also listen to tunes while you scroll — something you obviously can’t do in a magazine. In a sense, this new story format is asking the reader to make an investment in what they’re perusing — to shut out outside distractions and focus on the story so richly unfolding before them.
Pitchfork continued this consciousness crusade recently with the launch of a new album stream hub, titled “Pitchfork Advance.” While pre-release album streams are pretty much the norm on music blogs nowadays, Pitchfork’s iteration is much more intriguing, much more immersive than your average slap-and-go SoundCloud embed. Each album stream is accompanied by album art, lyrics, track listings, credits, artist info and exclusive content, making the act of listening to a new disc more lean-forward than ever before. (see below)
While intriguing on their own, these new features are just the beginning when it comes to overhauling the Pitchfork reading experience. According to Schreiber, these tweaks are all part of a plan to explode the traditional guidelines of what makes up a website, replacing that skim-friendly format with something more tangible.
Read on for our Q&A with Schreiber to find out more about ‘fork’s future.
So the idea of featuring album streams on music blogs is pretty ubiquitous now. When did you guys first start offering up streams?
We haven’t done much in the way of full album streams up until now. Pitchfork has always been a place that people came to listen to music since basically the dawn of the MP3, but one obstacle was that we didn’t really have a dedicated space for album streams on the site, so there was nowhere for them to live.
We didn’t want to just half-ass it and offer just the same thing that every other site does, and I think because the role of album art has been so diminished in the digital music era, it felt like there was an opportunity to do something a little bit more interesting.
So how does this all come together? How are you working with bands to furnish this content?
We are looking to labels to provide us with the basic artwork. There’s an editorial approach to the selection of the albums that’s mainly based on its relevance to our readership and general anticipation. The layout is handled by Pitchfork’s tech and design department. Most of the artwork comes from the album packaging and then there’s additional material that is exclusive to Pitchfork Advance. For example, the Yo La Tengo stream featured a series of video loops that essentially function like animated pages in a CD booklet. So that’s part of the official album artwork as far as Pitchfork Advance is concerned — but, of course, it’s not something you could include with standard packaging.
So it seems that with this new album art project — and your Cover story features — you guys are making a return to traditional music media. Pitchfork Advance mimics records, while the Cover Stories are like magazine pieces. Is that something you’re doing intentionally?
It’s not so much to preserve an older era of music journalism as it is to advance what can be done online. I think a lot of what we’re doing sort of reminds people of print media, because the one real remaining advantage of print media is freedom of layout. Online, there’s structures that every site adheres to that allow people to navigate really easily. There’s navigation toolbars and sidebars and banners — they’re all in the same place. Essentially, we feel that taking people out of that structure allows for something a little bit more tangible. So we are working to essentially make that more standard.
So — along those lines — what do you think is the biggest challenge facing long reads online today?
I think the biggest obstacle facing long reads is just the distractions that come with being online. You may be working, emailing, tweeting, chatting — there’s all these things that are going on while you’re trying to read something online. It’s very easy to get pulled away from an article.
I think that is one reason why people actually like vinyl so much. There are a lot of reasons why people prefer vinyl besides the obvious difference in sound quality — there’s a sense of getting a bit closer to music. Putting a record on the turntable is more of a commitment than clicking around in iTunes — you’re investing some time in it, giving it your full attention, poring over the artwork and the credits and lyrics and other details. With digital music, there’s a sense that you’re getting an incomplete version of the record — the music is all there, but the artwork is usually reduced to a JPEG of the album cover.
So Pitchfork Advance really attempts to recreate that experience of vinyl online. It’s not perfect, because you still have all those online distractions that you have whether you’re listening to music or reading a long feature, but it does invite you in and brings you a little closer to that sense of tangibility.
So all of the things you’ve been doing recently seem like they would lend themselves well to an iPad app. Is that in the cards?
You know, it’s not something that we’ve made much of a priority. Part of the reason for that is that the site itself functions fairly well on an iPad. And also, we’ve created a mobile app as well. But I think this year as the site itself moves a little bit closer to that realm, that’s something that we’re exploring a little bit more seriously.
Nowadays, it seems like music publications — print publications — are having some issues staying afloat. What do you think they need to do to innovate — to continue to exist?
I do think that there is still an advantage to print. I do think that a lot of the music publications that are still surviving in the print medium are making the most of that format and are doing things with it that are very difficult to replicate online. But I do think that as this platform evolves a bit, we’re going to see a similar story that we did in the early days of the Web, when music magazines were kind of ignoring the fact that they needed an online platform. By the time they got around it it, there was so much catching up to do — they had lost so much ground — that it became very, very difficult for them to catch up. So I think the best thing that a print music publication could do currently is just ensure that they are exploring all fronts.
So what’s next for Pitchfork?
I do think that it really is going to be a focus on the evolution of the site in general and its functionality to make it feel a little bit more immersive, or a little bit more physical — to work toward the site overall. To bring it into a new era of design. It’s something that we’re just starting to dip our toes into with the Cover Stories and Pitchfork Advance, but we’re getting further and further along in terms of thinking of how this might translate to the news section or to album reviews. It’s a little bit of a challenge, because you don’t want to take people out of their comfort zone, but at the same time you want to offer something that feels unique and that feels new and fresh. So it’s a little bit of a balancing act, but we’re working on it.