Critical mass: when content creators can’t help but succeed
My dashboard has just blown up with the arrival of a new Pitchfork Reviews Reviews post, which is receiving tons of acclaim in the form of “likes” and re-blogs and replies. The piece deals with the idea of Pitchfork as burgeoning cultural institution and analytical vs. passionate writing, and it got me thinking about a few things. The specific point of inspiration was something Jim DeRogatis said:
Jim DeRogatis tells me, “My biggest problem with Pitchfork is their desire to be monolithic,” and I tell him…
This strikes me as a problem that is fairly non-sensical. Pitchfork doesn’t have an explicit desire to be “monolithic”: its massiveness can be attributed to 1) the very common motivating factor of popularity and 2) its reaching of “the tipping point” of music criticism at some point since its inception 15-odd years ago.
DeRogatis is clouding over the difference between desire for the establishment of a monolithic monopoly and the human craving for success. The word “monolithic” conjures up the image of Pitchfork’s editors and business personnel sitting in a dark room at twilight, plotting the destruction of Stereogum and Gorilla vs. Bear and every other music site on the Internet. Nobody’s interested in that sort of cultural homogeny, not even sites with active business interests. The creation and nurturing of intelligent discourse is beneficial for everyone. Of course, I think Pitchfork wants to be (and currently is) the pre-eminent voice and the authority on independent music, but that doesn’t mean they’re interested in the elimination of everyone else, which is what the word “monolithic” implies.
My second issue with his perceived “desire to be monolithic” isn’t based on semantics as much as cultural kinetics. The concept of the tipping point is a familiar one at this point: eventually, businesses and other entities reach a level of success where future success becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Well, Pitchfork reached that point a long time ago. Even if the site’s show-runners decided they wanted a reduction in scale, it would be impossible to achieve unless they shuttered their doors. P4K’s ubiquity is now an inevitability: every new review and feature will automatically receive Facebook likes one from segment of the population and will be shunned by another.
It’s important to note that Pitchfork isn’t the only site that’s reached this level of success, where acclaim and scorn are both assured. The Internet has made it possible for thousands of content creators to obtain a dedicated following that will support all of their output. Stereogum could post a Yanni MP3 (no offense, Yanni) and a small town’s worth of teenagers would head to The Pirate Bay to download Yanni’s discography. Disco Naïveté could upload a Nickelback video and write “This is a song!” underneath it and it would receive likes and re-blogs. These sites have ran with their strong content and initial success, and they’ve become institutions organically, not because they’re run by dictators looking to dominate everyone else.
Strangely enough, an excellent example of what I’m trying to argue is the very Tumblr that inspired these thoughts: Pitchfork Reviews Reviews. Within the nano-ecosystem of Tumblr (and even in the larger realm of “music on the Internet”), the site has accumulated a large, dedicated readership. Some people will undoubtedly like this latest post without even reading it, just because they know the source - an action that’s markedly similar to someone bringing up a band they’ve never heard because they saw the name on P4K or Fluxblog. (It’s already got 100 likes, or some other sizeable figure.) On the other side of the coin, perhaps a few disgruntled wannabe writers will dismiss the piece as “hipster B.S.” and ignore it completely. It’s funny to think about, but a certain level of success has already become inevitable for PRR. “David” (that’s the creator?) has experienced the same phenomenon that Pitchfork has, only on a micro-scale, and no one would argue that he wanted to become a monolithic force in the world of Tumblr long reads and “music criticism criticism”. It just sort of happened.