How Pitchfork Struck a Note in Indie Music

Mainstream pop may be struggling, but indie marches on--with Pitchfork Media leading the way

  • Lauren Fleishman for TIME

    Front row fans dance to Major Lazer at the Pitchfork Music Festival

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    Bands like Modest Mouse still weren't as big as Pearl Jam or U2, but then again, neither was anyone else. Last year, only 11 artists released new albums that received a platinum certification from the Recording Industry Association of America; as recently as 2006, there were 56. "There isn't really such a thing as mainstream rock anymore," says Scott Plagenhoef, Pitchfork's editor. "There are a lot of bands who shouldn't be considered indie rock, like Modest Mouse, but they still are because you can't hear them on commercial radio."

    That doesn't mean you can't hear them at all — far from it. Over half the top-billed acts at the Pitchfork festival are on major labels. Singer-songwriter St. Vincent, who took the stage right before Big Boi, is featured on the Twilight: New Moon sound track.

    Indie rock never had its Beatles-on-the- Ed Sullivan Show moment; it seemed to seep slowly into listeners' ears, one song at a time. By 2004, when a rave Pitchfork review of Funeral , the debut album by a small Montreal band called Arcade Fire, helped turn it into the biggest-selling record in the 21-year history of its label, indie — and Pitchfork — were on a roll. Record companies courted reviews. Stores used them to make purchasing decisions.

    "If they give a really high number to a new band, that puts it on our radar because we know people will come in and request it," says Doyle Davis, a co-owner of Grimey's, an independent record store in Nashville. "We definitely pay attention to Pitchfork." That goes for hip-hop stars too. In his high-rise hotel room before the festival, Big Boi said he hadn't heard of Pitchfork until last year. "They reviewed one of my songs," he said, "and my manager got excited and said that was important."

    Taking It Outside
    Pitchfork started its music festival in 2006 for largely the same reasons that Schreiber founded the website: no other venue was showcasing the type of music he and his friends wanted to hear, for a price they were willing to pay. At $40 a day, admission costs less than half that at Lollapalooza. And while this summer has been a dismal one for many artists — overall ticket sales are down 17% so far, according to industry trade magazine Pollstar , and some tours like Lilith Fair have had to cancel dates — Pitchfork's festival sold out months in advance.

    It's here at Union Park that the evolution of the term indie most clearly manifests itself. After nearly 20 years of changing tastes and label consolidation, indie has become a catchall that suggests less what the music sounds like than the type of people who listen to it. The music may be rock or dance or hip-hop, but it all appeals to Pitchfork's shaggy-haired, skinny-jeans-wearing crowd, sitting on blankets with eyes closed in the summer sun.

    But when the sun sets, people get on their feet and start to move. Some watch Big Boi speed-rap his way through OutKast's 2000 hit "B.O.B.," while others opt for the unpolished, unfamous Sleigh Bells, the Brooklyn-based band praised by Pitchfork before they'd even released a single. "I wanted to see if they were as good as Pitchfork said," explained Nick Mayor, 24, from Chicago. "I came [here] for stuff I hadn't heard before."

    This article originally appeared in the August 9, 2010 issue of TIME.

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