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Chris Kaskie

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 Chris Kaskie Biography

Chris Kaskie, president of the online music publication, seemed utterly unconcerned by the derision that is still sometimes directed at Pitchfork from conventional media veterans.

Why would he worry' Every month, Kaskie estimated, Pitchfork gets between 30 and 40 million page views and 3½ to 4 million unique visitors come to the site, which features news, interviews, reviews, lists, video and audio, updated daily. It has become the go-to source of opinion and information for music consumers in their 20s and early 30s — particularly those who seek comprehensive coverage of indie bands that have yet to come close to mainstream success.

“That (criticism from the mainstream) was more widespread four or five years ago when we were (viewed as) punks on the Internet, doing whatever we wanted,” Kaskie, 32, said during a recent visit here for the Pop Montreal festival. “But in reality, we’ve always approached what we do like a magazine, like a print publication. We have some of the best music writers in the world. When the Internet started, there was so much noise and a few trusted voices came out, distancing what was traditionally thought of as journalism from the new forms of journalism.

“If you break it down, we’re all doing the same thing, in terms of what we’re writing about — but (with Pitchfork) you can’t hold it. That’s it. That’s the only difference,” he said.

Ryan Schreiber, a then-recent high-school graduate, started Pitchfork in 1995 in Minneapolis, Minn., in his basement. At the beginning, it was updated, roughly, every month.

Today, Kaskie said, Pitchfork has reviewed some 14,000 CDs, of which 12,000 are in the archives on the site. Five reviews are added every day, along with a feature or two and somewhere between 10 and 24 stories. The staff of 40, mostly full-timers, is spread between the company’s Chicago headquarters and two offices in New York City — one centred on editorial and another focusing on video production. Freelancers number between 40 and 60.

The brand name is spreading, too. Pitchfork TV, seen on the site, features acts considered important by the staff, caught on video for posterity. The annual Pitchfork festival has been running in Chicago since 2005 and now draws 20,000 people a day over three days. The second edition of the festival’s Paris version was held last weekend.

Kaskie was 23 when he joined Schreiber in 2004 as the company’s first full-time employee. He had received a business degree from the University of Dayton, in Ohio, and done master’s studies at Chicago’s Loyola University. A faithful reader of Pitchfork, he was in the process of leaving the Chicago-based satirical news publication The Onion.

“I saw Ryan had a need for someone to run the nitty gritty — everything but the editorial,” Kaskie said. “That’s where my passion had lain, in independent publishing. I emailed him and said ‘Let me do this for you,’ we talked on the phone, and he hired me over the phone. I demanded to meet with him first, so we could at least have a beer before we started working together. We hit it off immediately. Now we’re basically brothers.”

The reviews were then, and essentially still are, the sine qua non of Pitchfork. Writers, mostly in the same twentysomething demographic as their readers, write thoughtful analyses of new releases and assign a value between one and 10, graded in increments of one-tenth. If a musician gets, let’s say, 9.8 on a new release, his or her publicist will no doubt be furiously re-drafting the new press release and the email pitch to music writers.

A 9.7 for Arcade Fire’s debut, Funeral, was the band’s first validation, causing the floodgates to open, Merge Records publicity director Martin Hall told the Washington Post in 2006.

The nightmare' A 0.0 rating. It happened, notoriously, to Travis Morrison of The Dismemberment Plan when he released his 2004 solo disc Travistan.

“Up until the day of the review, I’d play a solo show, and people would be like, ‘That’s our boy, our eccentric boy.’ Literally, the view changed overnight. … I could tell people were trying to figure out if they were supposed to be there or not,” Morrison told the Post for the same story. “It was pretty severe, how the mood changed.”

Asked about the Morrison incident, Kaskie was compassionate, but unapologetic. “We have an obligation to be honest and an obligation to call it like we see it,” he said. “We never say ‘We’re the only people you should listen to.’ But the fact people believe in what we say might have an effect on the way shows go or the way bands go. We can’t think about that. We’re not invested in that. What we do want is for music to continue to be made.”

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Kaskie is that he seems to have a soft spot for tradition and history. While one of his most beloved albums is Neutral Milk Hotel’s indie masterwork In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, the record he has the softest spot for is the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty. His all-time favourite band' Talking Heads.

While boomers are unlikely to recognize many names among the artists recently reviewed on Pitchfork, and won’t find mainstream young performers like Taylor Swift in there, they will find that Neil Young’s Psychedelic Pill (7.0 rating) and Bob Dylan’s Tempest (6.8) are covered.

In all cases, there’s a big-picture sensibility reflected in Pitchfork‘s long-form reviews. In an age of throwaway capsule appraisals, theirs tend to average 500-plus words.

“Part of our ethos involves thoughtful and long-form criticism of music,” Kaskie said. “Whether it’s Jay-Z or the smallest band in the world, it deserves thorough evaluation. Sadly, it’s an art form that isn’t as widespread as it once was. Music reviews in general have been relegated to 250 words in the back of a magazine that no one’s reading.”

So perhaps it’s not all that surprising when Kaskie says Pitchfork‘s directors want the site’s content to have more of a print feel or a magazine look. Nor is it a shock when he talks about the romanticism of tangible things like books, seeing an echo in the way vinyl records are enjoying a resurgence. Kaskie said a print project — not the first — is being considered, one that would have to be fun and either celebrate the writing that has been done for the site or create something unique.

“The one downside of putting 120,000 words in Pitchfork every week is that people can’t keep up. It’s just too much. So how can we slow down a little bit and allow people to enjoy what we do in a different way'” he asked. “How can we be there for people, regardless of how they’re consuming things — whether it be once a week, once a month, once a year or many times a day'”

If there’s one word that kept coming up in our one-hour interview, it was that oldest of old-school connections between writer and reader: trust. For Kaskie, Pitchfork‘s success comes from hard work to become a trusted voice. “Our taste, our opinions on music and the way we cover music is the currency with which we exist. And the same could be said for anyone,” he said.

Including the print media, clearly. “If they trust what the newspaper or magazine does, people will inevitably (follow),” he said. “Let’s just say that everyone stopped printing (their work) on newspaper. People would transition to the Web. If they trust you and they want to hear what you say about things, they’ll go.

“I’ve seen so many print publications redesign their websites 100 times. There’s a new redesign every month, based on trends or based on what they think will suddenly sell more ads,” Kaskie said. “At the end of the day, all that’s really going to matter is the quality of the content. Do good things and people will care. That’s what our focus is.”

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