I Want My Pitchfork TV

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Today marks the launch of Pitchfork.tv, an online video content site by the people who brought you independent music tastemaker Pitchfork. The site's popularity has both fueled and benefited from the rise in popularity of indie music in the last decade, eschewing the one paragraph review that's become a staple of newsstand music criticism, in favor of more detailed looks at a wide range of independent releases. In 2006, Pitchfork held its first annual two-day music festival in Chicago, so the launch of its video content site seems to complete the music media trident. Site founder Ryan Schreiber began publishing Pitchfork online in Minneapolis in 1995 and moved operations to Chicago in 1999, where the staff now numbers about 15. Pitchfork.tv makes its home in New York City and carries a full-time staff of five, including Schreiber.

We spoke to Schreiber about the new venture and his goals for the site.

Ryan Schreiber
Ryan Schreiber
When did you come up with the idea and how did it become a reality?
It's been an idea for maybe two years but began to look more feasible last May. I got in touch with this guy Juan Pieczanski, who had been doing a show called "Juan's Basement" for PlumTV. He basically invites bands over to his basement to do a session and then have a bit of an interview in his backyard. It's cool because it shows the band showing up and setting up and all that. I had seen a few things like this around the web and this was the nicest looking and best done, while still obviously on a budget. Anyway, I sent Juan an email and asked if he might be interested in doing some video stuff for Pitchfork. So, the first thing we did was go to Philadelphia the following weekend -- we got on it right away -- to document the band Man Man recording their new album. It was just a bit of a trial thing, if it didn't work out, it didn't work out, but it actually turned out super good. I was really psyched about it because it was so much better than I thought it would be. In August, I decided we should we really do this. It was then I brought on Juan and this guy RJ Bentler, who I knew from Chicago and had done a bunch of shooting for our festival. So yeah, we just decided to go for it.

Liars in Juan's Basement
Liars in Juan's Basement
How much content have you guys stockpiled leading up to the launch?
It's been really steady. I think, at this point, we've got about 90 projects done, some of which have just one video while others have 12, so we have a lot of content that we've produced originally. The shows have a pretty rigid format, like with "Juan's Basement" you've got performance and interviews, then there's a show called "Don't Look Down" which is a rooftop concert series where bands play on various rooftops around New York and Chicago. Then we have "Daytripping," which is like the Man Man thing, where we basically just try to spend the day and do stuff with the band. There is an in-studio element and because that is so accessible for us and seems to have a lot of potential, will probably become it's own thing. We did one with Lee Scratch Perry recording his new album with Andrew WK producing. That was crazy because you have these two insane personalities. Lee is such a great and amazing personality and to see him being so enthusiastic about recording and have all these new ideas, it just turned out really well.

How do you choose which older concert films you want to air and what's your relationship with the DVD distributors?
So far, it's been good. We've been talking to a couple of DVD distributors and I think they're as excited about the idea as we are. It's like getting old Bad Brains footage from CBGB's and things like that. They have all this stuff people haven't really seen that isn't getting licensed much by other places. Up to now, it's been about us asking to show a movie and them saying, Great. We look at our running these things as almost promotion for the DVDs because we're not running any of the extras or bonus features, we provide a link for people to buy the DVD and we do an interview with the directors, in most cases. So we do try to make it worth their while.

How did you approach the interface and tech you used? Did you use any existing sites as a model?
I've seen a lot of different video interfaces on the web and I guess we drew from a lot of what's out there, just in terms of how it would work, but we had other ideas to incorporate as well. It has a sliding sort of interface, depending on what you want to browse, which was an idea we had, tried it out and ended up liking. We were thinking of using Brightcove but once I got into that, I found they have an almost cellphone-like contract system where you can get locked in for two years and pay for a certain amount of bandwidth – it was just really complicated. We just figured we could do it cheaper, more reasonably and reliably through Amazon S3, so that's what we're using for our bandwidth and it's looking like it'll work fine.

This site is self-financed by Pitchfork. How conscious was the decision to go it alone, without outside investment?
I don't know, that can work in some ways and not in others. But it wasn't actually that difficult for us to finance this ourselves because it didn't cost that much. It also helped that it was a gradual accumulation of equipment. It wasn't this big, one-time investment. So that helped. This all came from my feeling that a lot of these bands weren't being documented that much, if at all. A lot of the video you can find is not much better than a camera phone video of a show on YouTube. There's not much in terms of learning more about these artists and getting to know them on a personal level. So when we did the Man Man piece, it just showed me the possibilities of what we could do because it does a great job of showing what these guys are like, which you can get from print but there are certain things that are much harder to capture in text than on video. That piece was the moment that I really began to feel like this has a lot of potential. It was just about realizing we have the capabilities and know the right people to make it happen, so let's just keep trying it (on our own) and see how it goes.

Okkervil River on Don't Look Down
Okkervil River on Don't Look Down
What's the response been from your advertisers?
It's been great. I think it has the potential of opening up new opportunities and I know we've been talking to people we haven't talked to before. The plan right now though, is to launch without any type of sponsorship and give it a month or two run that will afford people the luxury to enjoy and check it out before any type of advertising is there at all. And obviously when there is advertising on there, it won't be overkill. This content isn't that cheap to produce, though it certainly is cheaper than TV, but there are more costs in producing and editing this kind of stuff than there is with written articles. So there will definitely be advertising and we're working with sponsors to figure out how we can do it in the most inoffensive and unobtrusive way.

Are you promoting the new site outside of Pitchfork itself?
Pitchfork has never done any advertising, ever. We may have traded ad space with a couple magazines here and there, but really we haven't done any advertising. It's grown entirely by word of mouth and I think that's our approach with this. Obviously a lot of our readers will be interested immediately and from there, ideally, the word will spread. So we don't really have a marketing strategy, we're just going to do it and hopefully people like it. We're fortunate enough to be in the position to start an online music video network and hope to make a success of it through our existing readership.
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