A trio of Chicago music fanatics is holed up in a dimly lit, carpet-free West Side basement, hemmed in by 6-foot-tall boxes of CDs. Posters touting Devendra Barnhart, the Arcade Fire and Future-heads provide ambience. Empty soft-drink cans vie for desk space with laptops.
They click away on deadline for the latest daily edition of the Internet music magazine Pitchfork (pitchforkmedia.com). What they write will be read by 120,000 music junkies on this day alone: everyone from record-company talent scouts, magazine editors, college radio programmers and record-store managers to just plain old fans ready to drop cash on the Fork's latest pet band.
Not all of its readers love the e-zine's often contentious writing or its occasionally mean-spirited reviews, but they depend on it as a convenient one-stop shopping site for music news. Even naysayers grudgingly acknowledge that Pitchfork has become the go-to national tip sheet for the indie-rock subculture.
"I'm not a fan of their writing," says Steve Sowley, product manager for the two Reckless Records stores in Chicago, "but they have an unshakable control over the indie-music scene. If they rate an album an 8.5 or above (on a 10-point review scale) and you're an indie store, you'd best be ready to stock a lot of those albums."
Or ignore the album if Pitchfork whales on it. Josh Rosenfeld, co-owner of Seattle-based Barsuk Records, says one Texas record store initially refused to stock one of his releases, Travis Morrison's 2004 release "Travistan," because it received a 0.0 review from Pitchfork.
"The review cast a pall over the record and actually predisposed people to not even listen to it," says Rosenfeld, who marvels at the site's sway over "a crowd of indie kids who want to be told what to like."
"A Rolling Stone review doesn't necessarily sell a single record for us," he says. "But with Pitchfork, you get a review, and you can see the impact on sales."
Since starting Pitchfork in 1995 in his parents' Minneapolis home, 29-year-old Ryan Schreiber has emerged as one of the leaders of a new generation of Internet music tastemakers. Music's cutting edge has shifted from radio stations, retail stores and monthly magazines to a virtual domain dominated by e-zine editors, MP3 file-swappers and audio bloggers.
"They absolutely have a tastemaking role," says Blender editor in chief Craig Marks of Pitchfork and other music-intensive Internet sites. "There's a certain youthfulness to the writing style that appeals to an aggressive community of indie-rock fan."
The plugged-in fans who run audio blogs spread not only news and reviews but also wade through thousands of MP3 files, pick their favorites and frequently create instant underground stars. Electro-pop producers Junior Boys, Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A. and Montreal rock band the Arcade Fire are just some of the artists who have emerged from obscurity to become indie hitmakers in the last year thanks to these Internet music gurus.
Nathan Brackett, a senior editor at Rolling Stone, says these alternative media guides have had an impact.
"You could make the case that Pitchfork, blogs and e-zines have usurped the role that print fanzines once filled, and that Pitchfork in particular has usurped the role that certain midlevel alternative-rock publications might've filled," he says.
Brackett says he regularly reads the audio blog Cocaine Blunts and Hip-Hop Tapes (cocaineblunts.com), which "appeals to the music geek in me."
"The great thing about an MP3 blog is that it not only replaces the friend who tips you to all kinds of cool music, it replaces the friend who actually lends you the music to hear," he says. "It's instant gratification: You get a tip on music, and then you have it to hear."
Certain bands, such as the Arcade Fire, have filtered into the mainstream consciousness and been written about in the pages of Rolling Stone after being championed by the Internet community, especially Pitchfork, Brackett says. "For specific kinds of music, like indie rock, Pitchfork has a strong identity, there's a comfort level they have with that community and a fair amount of clout."
The Arcade Fire's debut album, "Funeral," became the fastest-seller in the 15-year history of the North Carolina indie label Merge Records after Pitchfork gave it a 9.7 review last summer. Soon after, "Funeral" became the first Merge album to crack the Billboard Top 200 album chart.
"The degree to which it took off is unprecedented for any record on our label," Merge executive Martin Hall says. "After the Pitchfork review, it went out of print for about a week because we got so many orders for the record."
"Spin (magazine) can put people on their covers and not sell the way Pitchfork sells bands," Sowley says. "As much as I don't like the Web site, I have to look at it every damn day, because I cannot stop the albums they recommend from becoming big sellers."
Hall says Pitchfork has "cornered the market as far as being a destination for people looking for certain kinds of information. When I talk to people at other labels, it's often the first place they hear about things. For three guys in a basement in Chicago, it's amazing the clout they have."
Filling a need
Schreiber is bright-eyed, affable and self-deprecating, belying Pitchfork's reputation for being the loudest, brattiest voice in the Internet wilderness. His managing editor, Scott Plagenhoef, is slightly older (31) and explains Schreiber's inability to promptly return personal e-mails the way an exasperated teacher might explain the absent-mindedness of a gifted but precocious student. Together they are the editorial brain trust behind a magazine that runs 20 reviews a week and updates news stories several times a day.
With no background in journalism or even in music writing, Schreiber launched the site 10 years ago because "the Internet needed something like this to cover underground music."
"I had opinions about music, and I felt I could state them semi-clearly, so I just went for it," he says. "To me, music writing was the best way I could turn people on to bands I love."
He didn't make money for years, and after moving to Chicago in 1999 found himself so destitute in summer 2000 that he briefly had to shack up in a cabin owned by his parents in rural Minnesota.
But Pitchfork's rave review for Radiohead's highly anticipated "Kid A" album in fall 2000 brought an influx of new readers from other band Web sites and message boards. Though the writing on the site remains wildly erratic, it is fervent; the most hostile reviews are written with the passion of a freshly jilted lover berating her ex. And the rave reviews carry weight with readers looking for the next big thing.
As readership has expanded, Schreiber began to hire full-time staffers, including managing editor Plagenhoef and ad director Chris Kaskie. The site now pays a stable of 50 freelance writers from $20 to $40 a review or article and displays advertising from major corporations, ranging from record labels to gym-shoe manufacturers.
Though hardly in a league financially with the Rolling Stones and Blenders of the music-publishing world, Schreiber sees the Internet as owning the future.
"By the time a publishing cycle happens now, the Internet is already done with the story," he says.
"You want your news live, in real time, as it happens -- not on some archaic daily schedule like the ones limited technology forces on us back when people still relied on paperboys and printing presses," Schreiber recently wrote on the site.
Plans to grow
In the next year, Schreiber aims to publish a Pitchfork book, jump-start an Internet radio station and expand the staff and payroll. But he says if he had to start over again, he might start an audio blog.
"When I started, we had no competition," Schreiber says. "People would surf the Web for 'Fugazi,' and we'd be one of the few results. Now it seems like everyone has a blog. Starting a Web site like this is a huge endeavor, and there isn't a lot of quick payoff. If I were starting over, I'd certainly start a blog instead of a Web-zine."
There are hundreds of audio Web logs in operation (a partial list can be found at MP3blogs.org), most with daily readership under 1,000. But they speak to a dedicated community of fans, bands, artist managers and talent scouts. Most fill a niche for a particular style of music, covering everything from African pop (Mattgy.net/music) to Polish jazz (polishjazz.com).
Craig Bonnell, a 37-year-old Oak Park, Ill., stay-at-home dad, aims his Songs: Illinois blog (songsillinoismp3.blogspot.com) at roots-rock fans while tending to two children at home. "The goal is to help expose people to new music," he says.
"Anyone can do this, even though I don't know a thing about computers," Bonnell says. "I'm not a writer. . . . I let the music speak for itself."
For the time being, that is its own reward. Bloggers such as Bonnell pine for greater recognition.
The world of Internet music tastemaking is growing more influential, but it's not making anyone rich -- yet. Many bloggers don't post any advertising, and even the most established e-zines bring in only enough revenue to pay their reviewers "slave wages," in the words of Blender's Marks.
"All my ambitions require much more money than we have," says Pitchfork's Schreiber. "I know if we have money we can build and grow, but going out and getting money is always a bummer, for me at least. We want this thing to be sustainable and fun. We're not looking to make a million dollars. If we can keep growing and writing about music we love, everything else will take care of itself."