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Updated Feb 4, 2024, 8:58pm EST
media

How Condé Nast bought and destroyed America’s iconic music publication

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The News

In 2015, Condé Nast was nearing a deal to buy the music site Pitchfork, its first major editorial acquisition in years. But executives needed to be sure that the site, founded in 1996, could really meet the glossy empire’s editorial standards. So they asked New Yorker editor-in-chief David Remnick whether Pitchfork’s content was consistent with other Condé brands. Remnick, a music fan and Pitchfork reader, signed off, backing a deal the company believed would help connect the aging legacy content brands with a new generation of audiences.

Last month, Semafor broke the news that Condé Nast will fold the publication into GQ, laying off Pitchfork’s top editors and at least 10 other longtime staff writers, some of whom had joined the music media outlet when it was a Chicago-based blog in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

It was a remarkable fall for the most important music publication of its generation, the tastemaker of an indie music scene that eventually subsumed much of mainstream pop music. And even as its GenX and old millennial fans aged and tastemaking shifted to platforms and influencers, Pitchfork remained the premier publication for music criticism, its year-end lists synonymous with critical acclaim. Now it will be an arm of a men’s magazine whose business revolves around searchable ecommerce lists for the best chore coats.

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It was equally remarkable because it wasn’t all that long ago, Pitchfork represented Condé Nast’s digital future.

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Know More

As Pitchfork grew from a niche blog to the tastemaker of the indie music wave, and from Chicago to Brooklyn, bankers began to circle. VCs offered to inject capital. The swaggering Vice repeatedly suggested an acquisition that would’ve made Pitchfork the company’s flagship music arm. Founder Ryan Schreiber and longtime CEO Chris Kaskie were wary of selling to a partner who, in exchange for funding, would demand rapid growth. “Scale/investment always felt wrong and we said no to all of it, especially from the VC/PE world,” Kaskie told me in an email.

But Pitchfork’s margins were slim and it had little room for error. Schreiber and Kaskie realized that Pitchfork needed a partner. At the time, the digital music site had worked with Condé Nast to develop several video projects. The legacy magazine publisher had been pleased with the collaboration, and in Pitchfork, saw an opportunity. Condé was late in transitioning to the digital news era, and was impressed by Pitchfork’s creative editorial voice and the direct traffic to its homepage. Pitchfork had won a prestigious National Magazine Award in 2013 for excellence in digital media. And Condé, which did not have a music-first title, was also looking to expand its events business, and was intrigued by Pitchfork’s festivals in Paris and Chicago. Pitchfork’s leadership felt that Condé had a long track record of serving as a responsible steward for the important titles, like The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. On October 13, 2015, the two sides announced that Pitchfork would join Condé.

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But over the years, cost-cutting, near-constant corporate restructuring and departures, and most of all the dramatic shifts in digital media began to slowly chip away at Pitchfork.

The site — born in the texty ‘90s web — went through a familiar set of digital media spasms. In 2012, YouTube had given Pitchfork money to create original content for Pitchfork TV, which had impressed Condé Nast. But within a few years, Conde moved Pitchfork’s video team under Condé Nast Entertainment, its commercial special projects arm. CNE, which continues to struggle to turn video into a profitable business, was not interested in continuing many of the video projects and channels Pitchfork had nearly a dozen full time staffers working on pre-acquisition. Video staff eventually left or were laid off. Pitchfork also saw some of its identity folded into corporate efficiencies. Its in-house design and creative teams, which had helped win the publication awards for editorial, were similarly absorbed or laid off.

Condé also tried to fit the community-based site into the audience-driven terms of programmatic advertising sales. Condé chief digital officer Fred Santarpia had irritated Pitchfork staff when he told the New York Times in 2015 that Pitchfork would help Condé with male audiences, an idea that some inside Condé could not shake. In 2016, Condé Nast sorted the news brands under three different umbrellas: Fashion, Men’s, and Culture. Pitchfork still was furious that the publication was initially placed into the “Men’s” bucket.

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After Santarpia, who led the acquisition, left in 2018, there were fewer voices at the executive level to advocate for Pitchfork. Where Pitchfork’s leadership once reported to Santarpia, the publication was put under the purview of Anna Wintour, who several current and former staff did not seem to express particular interest in the site. In 2017, two years into a five year contract, Kaskie quit over frustrations with Condé about the diminishment of his role within Pitchfork, and the publication’s autonomy within the parent company. Schreiber never found a clear role within Condé Nast’s business side, and left years before the end of his contract. As digital media began to sputter in 2018, a new editor, Puja Patel, attempted to diversify Pitchfork’s staff and broaden the perspectives without compromising its editorial voice. But she also faced pressure to cut costs as traffic from social media platforms declined and Spotify’s algorithms siphoned off more casual fans who’d used Pitchfork for music discovery.

In other areas, there were times where it simply seemed like parts of the company still didn’t quite get Pitchfork, at least in the eyes of staff.

Condé has fulfilled some of the initial vision for Pitchfork’s consumer events business. Over the last several years, the publication has expanded into three new cities (London, Berlin, and Mexico City), and thrown other ticketed parties. The company has increased revenue from sponsorships of the festival, which has offset some softer ticket scans for several years at the festivals. But there has also been creative friction between Pitchfork and the parent company over the events. Pitchfork staff butted heads with Condé over attempts to further monetize the festival in a way that some felt eroded the brand. Condéhad pushed to make the festival experience more “luxury.” In 2016, a group of Condé sales people attended the festival in Chicago. Some complained afterwards that it was “not chic enough.” Condé pushed to build out Pitchfork’s VIP ticket experience for the festivals, an easy new potential source of revenue, prompting grumbling within Pitchfork about whether that would interfere with the actual VIP areas the publication already had for artists. In a recent meeting, one Condé senior vice president in charge of events made the outlandish suggestion that Pitchfork could juice ticket sales by reuniting Oasis or the White Stripes.

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Max’s view

Condé’s decision is undoubtedly part of the larger cost struggles within the company and the industry. Subscriptions continue to decline at major titles like GQ. Condé has been negotiating in a public and ugly battle with one of its employee unions, resulting in a drawn-out layoff process spurring an employee work stoppage. In asking for explanations about why the magazine publisher decided to cut from Pitchfork, the simplest answer anyone remaining at the company offered was that it simply didn’t make enough money.

There are other environmental factors. As Casey Newton pointed out in Platormer, Spotify and other streaming services have cannibalized music discovery. Where once music journalism was once a key part of music discovery, people increasingly find their new favorite music algorithmically.

But in many ways, Pitchfork is better positioned for a news media business in 2024 than other Condé titles. Pitchfork’s audience never achieved the scale of Condé’s wildest ambitions, but its readers remain loyal. While traffic at Pitchfork has declined from social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, its audience finds the site much in the same way it did in 2015: Visiting the homepage. Multiple people inside Condé Nast told Semafor that Pitchfork and Ars Technica, two of the smallest brands in the Condé portfolio, often vie for first and second place among homepage traffic, far outpacing glossier brands like Vogue and GQ. As Semafor has written previously, the decline of social news has rewarded news brands with loyal audiences — favoring, say, the older HuffPost over the social media sensation BuzzFeed. Other news brands that relied on social media for traffic and previously are now trying to develop more loyal audiences. Condé did not seem to fully grasp this dynamic: Two people with knowledge told Semafor that some corporate executives were taken aback by the strong and vocal response to cuts and reorganization under GQ.

Kaskie told me that Pitchfork’s editors saw themselves as “stewards of a subculture.” , and that the sale was intended to protect its identity, not erase it.

“Pitchfork was never designed to be everything to everyone; it was always to mean something to someone,” Kaskie said in an email to Semafor. “With the CN acquisition, our goal was not about how to unnaturally scale or increase revenue or check boxes on a demographic.”

“It did feel very real to think that we’d be able to further our purpose within Condé Nast in a way that felt as genuine to us as it would to anyone who trusts, cares, or even just reads Pitchfork,” he said.

Condé’s decision to fold Pitchfork into GQ has done the opposite, undermining trust with what’s left of the brand. Some artists who have already committed to play the Chicago festival were confused by last month’s announcement, and reached out to the company to figure out if the event was still happening. Other deals remain in limbo: Pitchfork was slated to create episodes for the Pitchfork Review podcast, which has not published since the company laid off its top editor, who co-hosted the show. It has also imperiled the subscription business that Pitchfork was beginning to roll out: Less than a week before the publication was folded into GQ, the publication began experimenting with “gated” articles that required users to put in their emails. But following the folding and criticism from readers online, Condé removed the gates. The company has also been in the early planning stages for Pitchfork New Orleans, which could be threatened by the move.

Internally, I spoke to staff across GQ and Pitchfork who seemed depressed and embarrassed. Pitchfork has been further hollowed out: the publication now currently has around a dozen edit staffers left, including several employees who work across multiple titles. GQ editors and staff, I’m told, have been embarrassed and bashful towards their new colleagues. In a meeting with staff after the decision, GQ editor-in-chief Will Welch said that he was not the editor of Pitchfork, but couldn’t offer specifics about who would be running the site long-term.

Still, Condé’s messy move may create its own opportunities. The furor over Pitchfork’s public decline prompted interested buyers to approach the publisher, according to two people familiar with the situation.

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Notable

  • In a eulogy for Pitchfork, former Pitchfork staffer Marc Hogan wrote that despite claims of its decreasing relevance, in recent years the publication’s world had “got a little bigger, the genres it covered continued to expand, and hard-news scoops kept piling up through last year, when the site received its first National Magazine Award nomination for general excellence. Now, it has been cut down to size.”
  • The decline of commercial music journalism to tech algorithms is a loss of pleasure for music appreciators. Ann Powers pointed out that music writing offers “a break from the grind, a free zone for thought and a few glorious, rejuvenating moments of fun. This is a different kind of pleasure than the quick nervous kind TikTok brings, always moving on to another source of stimulus, always ratcheting up the competition for attention. Music writing says: Slow down. Pay attention.”
  • Condé’s workers have ratcheted up actions against the company, blaming its CEO Roger Lynch and editor Anna Wintour. But some inside the company argue that there’s only so much executives can do swimming against macro digital media trends that have impacted all American news publishers.
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