Chris Kaskie pulled out his phone and flipped though his pictures until he stopped on an image, then turned the screen toward me and grinned: It showed the local staff of Pitchfork Media, the Chicago company behind the Pitchfork music website and Pitchfork Music Festival, absorbed in what appeared to be — gasp — print media.
It showed a day a few weeks back when a box arrived at their office containing the first printing of the Pitchfork Review, the handsome new ink-and-paper quarterly journal from the normally digital tastemakers. It showed them standing against the blond-wood desks of their Logan Square headquarters and just … reading.
"And smelling," said Michael Renaud, Pitchfork's creative director. "It smells great. It really does."
"Yeah," said Kaskie, president of Pitchfork Media, "we couldn't stop smelling."
The smell of fresh print — a novelty at Pitchfork.
And with good reason: In 1996, Ryan Schreiber, founder and current CEO, launched the music magazine as a daily publication. He was 19 then and living in Minneapolis; in 1999, using the money he made as a telemarketer, he moved to Chicago. Within a few years, Pitchfork was a 21st-century Rolling Stone, the most influential music publication of its time, online or off. In fact, its annual music festival in Union Park aside, Pitchfork became a significant cultural institution without actually creating anything — well — tangible.
Which, of course, is not unusual now.
Indeed, there's a scene near the beginning of Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street" in which Matthew McConaughey, as a stock broker in late-1980s New York, tells Leonardo DiCaprio that the secret to his future is never building anything, never making anything and never creating anything. He seemly predicts the digital age.
But still, when I picked up my copy of the Pitchfork Review, coming to bookstores this month (such as Quimby's in Wicker Park), I had to stare at it, adjust my bearings: It's the damnedest thing, counterintuitive and backward, an artifact from an alt-reality.
Curiously, Pitchfork seems to feel the same way. The brief introduction that kicks off the inaugural issue contains this: "After 17 years online, we thought it was finally time to bring you something you can hold. Since so much of enjoying music has to do with real, physical interaction … why not read about music culture in the same way?" (If you are at least 40 years old, or Jann Wenner, you probably feel older now.)
It goes on: "We encourage you to set this issue down, get up and get a cup of coffee or tea, and come back to it later on. We want you to take it with you on the train or to the beach. Eventually, we want you to place it on your bookshelf, perhaps lend it to your friends, tear out its pages …" (And who said literacy was dead?)
The Pitchfork Review, as seemingly unnecessary as it is thoughtful, is quite tangible: The paper stock is sturdy; the middle section has a lengthy, glossy photo essay about Pitchfork's Paris music festival (shot by Chicago photographer Nabil Elderkin and the only moment when Pitchfork Review becomes an advertorial). It will arrive four times a year and cost $19.96 an issue (the price is a sly nod to Pitchfork's founding). Pricey, though intended to be kept like a book.
Printing for the first issue was a modest 10,000 copies (microscopic compared with the 5 million unique visitors the website receives each month). And the only advertiser (by design, Kaskie said) is Converse, which has large ads in front and back, though nowhere else.
Of course, as a product of a generally hipster-y culture, plenty of irony gets mixed in with the sincerity and business savvy: The overarching theme of the first issue is dead culture, with a smart piece on great jukeboxes; an excerpt from critic Robert Gordon's new book, "Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion"; a remembrance of the glory days of the British music press (from Simon Reynolds, a well-regarded music writer and author of a great 2011 survey on nostalgia culture, "Retromania"); and a story on the odd (and thin) association between late director John Hughes and Los Angeles rap label Delicious Vinyl.
That's the front of the issue. The back is an assortment of somewhat less geriatrically-minded writings (repurposed from the website) on the buzz band Savages, on Vampire Weekend's ability to skirt nostalgia. Blended in are a generous helping of comics (including a winky piece on the philosopher Pythagoras, who left no concrete writings himself), charmingly designed pages balancing lengthy articles with cool illustrations and a few clever inside jokes, such as a computer page-loading icon on the spine and a wry, cryptic cover:
It shows an urn — just an urn.
Kaskie: "That's about, well, if print is supposedly dead, let's join them."
Renaud: "It's our way of saying we know a lot of people expect this to fail, but we believe in print."
Kaskie sat behind a desk with a "Honk If You're Boring" bumper sticker stretched across the back of his computer, but he and Renaud were sincere.
"Mike and I have been talking about (a Pitchfork print publication) for a few years," Kaskie said. "We talked about it from a business standpoint, from a statement standpoint: How cool would it be to do this? At the same, how indulgent would it be? But if it added value to Pitchfork and the world of print at the same time? The idea was not to get rich, but not lose money either.
"One of the reasons we didn't do it for a long time, frankly, was because, technically speaking, design-wise we could finally do the things online (that once looked better in print), and we didn't want to detract from that. We also didn't want to equate print with importance. I think we have already fought that battle, and we have awards. (A National Magazine Award for general excellence sat in front of him.) ...The thing was, could we create something that felt unique in the real world, while having articles that might still fit into Pitchfork?"
Kaskie told me that he promised himself he wouldn't use the word "branding" this year, but that's partly what he was talking about, a thoughtful way of keeping the Pitchfork name in front of its readership.
A print edition is also nicely on trend, a kind of unspoken mark of an online publication's success: The website Grantland has been printing smart, hardcover keepsake editions of its favorite articles for a few years; after going digital in 2012, Newsweek recently announced plans for a pricey, regular compendium of its more analytic, lengthier features; and the digital political magazine Politico launched a pair of print magazines last fall.
Which is all a kind of reaction "to the vast everythingness of the digital world," said J.C. Gabel, the former Chicagoan who Pitchfork hired as editor of its new excursion into print. Gabel has made a living as a counterpoint to that online maw: Founder of the now-defunct Chicago-based Stop Smiling magazine and a sometimes book editor for different publishers, he relaunched the Jazz Age literary magazine the Chicagoan in 2011, only to watch its staff and funding dry up (the long-awaited second issue is coming in the spring).
Gabel, who lives in Los Angeles (and will edit Pitchfork Review remotely, working with the company's Chicago and Brooklyn offices), told me he wrote a 5,000-word essay/introduction to the Pitchfork Review that Kaskie and Co. cut to three explanatory paragraphs. Perhaps wisely. He said he wrote a lot about the justification for an online magazine having a print component, though buried in those three paragraphs is a practical, digestible reason: "We love the speed and community of the Internet, but there's so much noise. … We wanted an opportunity to give some pieces a second life, one that won't be lost to Google searches."
Which is a good reason.
Juliet Litman, special-projects editor for Grantland, told me that having a hardcover journal was always part of Grantland's plan "since we do long-form writing here that lends itself to the printed page better."
But it's worth pointing out: Bill Simmons, editor of Grantland, came from the print world. As did Gabel. As did Kaskie, who came to Pitchfork from the Onion satirical newspaper (which recently went completely digital). As did Renaud, a former art director at the Chicago Sun-Times. When I asked him why Pitchfork, bottom line, was venturing into print, he replied quickly, "It's romantic." (He points out the Pitchfork Review will be printed in Chicago by Palmer Printing, a staple of Printers Row.)
Posterity plays into it. Gravitas plays into it. But money, not so much. "You can be successful at this," Gabel said, "but you can't expect a big profit."
Record collectors, Pitchfork readers, culture vultures.
"What people rarely admit is print puts limitations on a user's experience," Renaud said. "But there are still people out there who like that limitation, who like being forced to sit with something and enjoy it and take it in." And that, dear reader, is what we now call a niche.
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