Pitchfork, “bro-ified” alt rock radio, and structural issues in the financialized media industry

On January 17, 2024, news broke that the leading anglophone music publication, Pitchfork, was getting folded into parent company Conde Nast’s flagship men’s vertical, GQ. Many venerable music journalists were laid off, and with this publication’s demise only months after the evisceration of Bandcamp Daily, many in the music writing community (including myself) felt like this was the last nail in the coffin for professional music writing.

As former EIC of Bandcamp Daily pointed out, “i will never forget when condé bought pitchfork in the first place [in 2015] and made it clear they were aiming for male readers (despite a diverse team actually at the helm).” In the Atlantic article that Skolnik linked in their post, Spencer Kornhaber implies without directly stating that market researchers think “millennial males” are a reliable media audience. Citing the 2014 Nielsen report The Men, the Myths, the Legends: Why Millennial “Dudes” Might Be More Receptive to Marketing Than We Thought, Kornhaber’s piece states that men are “heavy music listeners…They show a greater interest in personalized streaming audio services — think Spotify or Pandora — than other demographics.” Conde Nast’s Chief Digital Officer Fred Santarpia is quoted as saying the acquisition of Pitchfork was a way to bring this purportedly reliable audience to the Conde Nast portfolio.

This idea that men are a more reliable and loyal media audience than “other demographics” is not unique to Nielsen or new to the 2010s. Corporate alt rock radio programmers also used this reasoning to try to rescue the once-trendy format after it started to hemorrhage listeners in the late 1990s. As this August 2000 New York Times article reports, in response to the bursting of the market bubble in alt rock radio stations that followed the Telecom Act of 1996’s deregulation of radio ownership, big corporate programmers like Viacom, CBS, and ClearChannel (now iHeart Media), “most of the alternative stations have,” in the words of KROQ program director Steve Kingsoton, “gone decidedly male.” The reason they did that is, as the Times puts it

because women are seen as more likely to switch to pop stations — particularly the increasingly trendy adult-contemporary stations, which specialize in melodic pop artists like Sheryl Crow and Bonnie Raitt — men became the most readily accessible rock demographic. And most of the formerly free-wheeling alternative stations pursued them with a harder-sounding, more tightly formatted playlist.

In a stressed media environment where big corporations tasked with showing constant growth to shareholders are trying to rescue a floundering property, they turned to the market segment they believe to be most reliable: (presumptively white and middle-class) men.

As this earlier example clarifies, both corporate alt rock radio and Conde Nast turn towards men as the audience that will supposedly rescue their tanking media format or vertical not because men are empirically a more reliable media audience, but because investors are more likely to buy it. The audience in question here isn’t listeners or readers, it’s INVESTORS (shareholders, VCs, etc.). As long as the shareholders believe execs can grow the company’s stock price, they’re happy and will do their part to do the same (i.e., not sell them all at once and tank the share price). And the easiest and most effective way to keep shareholders’ vibes on the good side is to play into their existing biases about gender, race, class, sexuality, nationality, religion, and so on. As the ongoing unprofitability of Spotify demonstrates, investors care less about actual current performance and more about potential future returns; in this context, the game is all about managing their beliefs about the future. And in a culture where (white, cishetero) men are stereotypically more credible, intelligent, successful, stable, and generally better than “other demographics,” execs can lean into investors’ patriarchal biases to help convince them that their new bro-focused strategy will flip a tanking media property into one whose stock price is capable of continued growth.

So, while some social media users blamed Pitchfork’s subsumption into GQ on sexist views about music listeners and the audience for music writing, the sexism is in fact much more systemic and structural. The fact that Conde Nast handled Pitchfork the exact same way ClearChannel/Viacom/CBS handled of alt rock radio in the 90s shows that this “flip a distressed media property by refocusing its audience to dudes and dudes alone” is a response to structural issues in a financialized media economy. Financialization makes it such that stock price and shareholder sentiment matter more than mere profitability (hear those echoes of the Bandcamp sales to Epic and Songtradr, anyone?). Because they don’t have to broadcast or publish quality media that connects with an audience and their purchasing power, media companies can gut staff and put out crap…which leads them to lose clicks, likes, shares, and ratings. And when actual performance metrics aren’t positive indicators of future success, media execs have turned to other data to boost investors’ attitudes about the media property in question: patriarchy’s fundamental overestimation of men’s actual and potential success.