On the morning of July 15, 2016, the first day of last year’s Pitchfork Music Festival, Netflix debuted the horror/sci-fi drama Stranger Things. Within a couple weeks the eight-episode show had become an inescapable part of the pop-culture churn. Somebody even set up a website where you could create your own version of its title card—big, bold neon-red lettering (the font is “Benguiat”), bracketed with horizontal lines and overlaid on the midnight blacks and blues of a barely lit forest scene. Because Stranger Things follows a group of kids (and their families and neighbors) fighting supernatural forces in small-town Indiana in the early 80s, everybody seemed to want to compare it to films from that decade that inspired it—including The Goonies, Halloween, and E.T., all of which are much better.
Stranger Things has its strengths, though, especially its nerve-wrackingly patient pacing, tense mood, and expert evocation of a Reagan-era suburban utopia corrupted by vile darkness. All these traits also manifested themselves in the show’s atmospheric score, composed by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, longtime collaborators in a four-piece synth group called Survive. Since 2010 they’d been building a following in their hometown of Austin, and they’d made fans in important places: Survive contributed two tracks to the 2014 cult thriller The Guest (which impressed the creators of Stranger Things, brothers Matt and Ross Duffer), and in early 2016 the group landed a deal with venerable metal indie Relapse. But the success of Stranger Things has become Survive’s whole story to most of the world, eclipsing their contributions to the Austin scene even as it gives them a supersize career boost. Survive have skipped several steps in the ordinary life cycle of a band, becoming a staple of the festival circuit almost overnight—they’ve already played Coachella, Moogfest, and Primavera Sound, and later this month they’re scheduled for FYF Fest and Panorama NYC. At Pitchfork they headline the Blue Stage on Saturday, one of their highest-profile bookings so far.
Pitchfork no doubt sought out Survive because the site has recently succumbed to the cultural gravity of prestige TV, whether the shows are music related or not. A popular new HBO or Netflix series has an audience that only the biggest indie artists can hope to rival—Pitchfork needs to maximize its Web traffic to support itself, and emerging bands have much less to offer (even if that sort of coverage is more traditionally on brand).
Pitchfork has undoubtedly undergone changes in editorial direction since media powerhouse Condé Nast bought the site in October 2015. At that point, Condé Nast chief digital officer Fred Santarpia told the New York Times that his company valued Pitchfork’s “passionate audience of millennial males,” which suggests a misreading of the publication’s actual readership and history. Since then Pitchfork has shuttered its print quarterly (the Pitchfork Review, to which I contributed) and published proportionally more videos and feature-length lists—advertisers love the former, regardless of what audiences want, and the latter get a steady stream of clicks from people searching on Google. I’ve also seen an uptick in sponsored or unbylined posts: “SoundCloud Go Brings the Next Wave to Austin,” which recapped the streaming service’s SXSW 2017 parties, was “produced by Pitchfork,” and the inexplicably bland “16 Best Band Shirts to Wear This Summer” was allegedly written by “Pitchfork.”
Sat 7/15, 7:45 PM, Blue Stage
Amid these shifts, coverage of TV shows has become a bigger part of Pitchfork’s output, and sometimes its posts don’t even mention the reason a music site might be paying attention in the first place: the presence of a taste-making score, for instance, or the involvement of a noteworthy musician. It makes you wisftul for the late-2015 interview that former Pitchfork writer Jeremy Gordon did with Master of None creator Aziz Ansari and music supervisor Zach Cowie, which took as its entire premise the show’s eclectic soundtrack.
In May 2017, when actor Michael Cera appeared on Showtime’s Twin Peaks reboot, Pitchfork published a news item that linked to pieces about the original series’s musical legacy but didn’t say anything about the home-recorded Bandcamp album Cera released in 2014. And that same month, when Broad City creators Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer announced a 25th-anniversary live reading of the Wayne’s World script in San Francisco, Pitchfork posted a news brief that said nothing about the music in the movie—not Crucial Taunt, not the Shitty Beatles, not even the famous “Bohemian Rhapsody” scene in Garth’s tricked-out Pacer.
Pitchfork seems to be finding its footing with TV. It focuses on a handful of shows that “passionate millennial males” presumably already know—Atlanta, Twin Peaks, Master of None—but doesn’t reliably cover programs that would serve its core mission of talking about cutting-edge music. When news broke last month that HBO would adapt Chicago-based webseries Brown Girls for TV, the site let it slide—even though soul singer Jamila Woods, a 2017 Pitchfork festival performer, recorded its theme song and appears on the show (which is based on her friendship with cocreator Fatimah Asghar).
Survive gives Pitchfork plenty of excuses to write about Stranger Things, because Dixon and Stein worked alongside the show’s creators to develop its music. But in June the site found the limits of those excuses with a news piece about forthcoming Stranger Things action figures—given such a flimsy pretense to discuss the show, the piece mostly pointed readers back to previous stories about Survive. Let’s hope those action figures are more convincing. v