The Rule of the Fittest
Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson on How to Survive as a Music Journalist
In a world where even the red, flowing Rolling Stone emblem is having trouble moving magazine copies off the rack, Mark Richardson is feeling optimistic about the future of music journalism.
Editor-in-Chief of the world’s best-visited independent music writing website, Richardson’s at the helm of a ship that is retaining many tricks of the old media’s trade, while succeeding in the new.
Pitchfork maintains tight editorial control, doesn’t have comment sections on its articles, and doesn’t tweet back at its followers. In many ways, it’s still a magazine, rather than a website.
And yet it’s the de facto taste-making music site of the 21st century. A Pitchfork review can make—or break—a musical career. Pitchfork is at the top of its game.
Even though it now all seems rosy, it has not always been that way for Richardson. When he started out as a freelance writer, the Brooklyn resident couldn’t afford to be picky.
“I would write about whatever I could for money,” he admitted.
Despite living and breathing music and music journalism, it took him several years to refine his writing style. Then, in 1998, he went from odd writing jobs to writing steadily for the then-three-year-old website.
When Richardson talks about it, it seems as if he can’t believe himself how much time has passed.
“You know it was very, very small back then, it was just this tiny thing,” he stressed. “So when I talk about writing for Pitchfork in the ‘90s, it was just a really different world.”
Fast-forward through the last decade and newspapers and magazines are now in precarious financial positions, while the Internet has taken over. Pitchfork itself is getting more than 4 million unique visitors a month.
Still, for the head of such a depended-on news source, the cultural addiction to a no-cost, 24-hour news cycle has some drawbacks.
“I don’t really love the second-by-second, chit chat commentary. If someone is a reporter […], they might be excited at, like, 10:00 p.m. that something happened, and they have to sit down and write a story. I get a message at 10:00 p.m. when something happens and I’m like, ‘Huhhhh.’”
Richardson added that having to be constantly connected is probably the element he dislikes the most about his job. Pitchfork, for its part, doesn’t update on weekends.
As much as the site has become a staple of the web for many media-minded netizens, its social media cousins Twitter and Facebook are not on his list of favourites.
“I don’t crave the 24-hour cycle stuff. I would rather sit and stare at the window for an hour.” -Mark Richardson
“I don’t crave the 24-hour cycle stuff. I would rather sit and stare at the window for an hour,” he admitted.
“In my dream life, I’m in a quiet study, thinking and writing and undisturbed. I don’t really love having to be plugged in all the time,”
Although the non-stop flux of information can be overwhelming for some, it’s also undeniably affecting the way print journalism is perceived. In a society where information is instantaneously updated and accessible, print media slowly losing its relevance.
“I think print still has some advantages visually, with tactile experiences and longer pieces and those type of things,” Richardson said. Still, he acknowledged that the newspaper’s heyday is unlikely to return, but he held out hope for the industry, explaining that it simply has yet to figure out a new, more profitable, business model.
“I feel like there’s a possibility that there’s something looming that we haven’t quite envisioned yet, that will be of higher quality than things are now… At least, I hope so.”
Whatever the situation for the publications themselves, the reality for the people who hoping to break into them is something else entirely. It can be difficult to hold out faith in your craft when you can’t seem to find any work.
Journalists are the new actors; many people want to do it, but only a few, either the hardest-working or most talented, will make it. Pitchfork’s success story is certainly refreshing to journalists hoping to find some work—preferably paid—in an industry of temporary gigs and unpaid internships.
To them, Richardson has only one bit of advice: Patience.
“If you love to write, and especially if you love writing about art and culture, there’s nothing wrong with doing that part-time, for months or years,” he said, pointing out that publications will be willing to pay writers money for their writing when they’re good enough to get noticed.
That being said, the one question every journalist is looking for an answer is simple; what does one have to do to get a job in the business? The answer, according to Richardson, isn’t all that surprising.
Every year, Pitchfork, like countless other publications, puts out a call for interns. And, putting things simply, those interns who succeed and stand out will eventually move up the ladder, paving the way for the Mark Richardsons of the future.
“It’s not too much of a mysterious process, other than we’re looking for people that want nothing more than to be involved in the world of music journalism, and also seem like they are going to work really hard,” he noted.
“Making it clear that you want to do whatever you can to help is the best thing. Those are the interns you tend to notice more, pay attention to, and then eventually want to help out.”
—with files from Alex Manley