Last night I went to another Rainer Maria show at the Black Cat only to discover another pathetically small audience for the once-popular band. The tragedy of it is that their latest album, Catastrophe Keeps Us Together is every bit as good as their earlier work. The problem is it just got a terrible review from Pitchfork Media, written by Rob Mitchum. Mitchum also gave their previous album, Long Knives Drawn a very poor review prefaced thusly:
Rob Mitchum is an admitted former fan of emo-punk act Rainer Maria, a fact that has brought him great ridicule from the rest of the staunchly anti-emo Pitchfork staff. Confronted with the dilemma posed by reviewing their latest album, and torn over whether to reveal his weakness for the band, or to verbalize the unqualified hate of the staff’s collective opinion, Rob underwent what is medically known as a “psychic rift.” The tragic results are presented below.
The panner, in other words, didn’t even not like the album. Rather, he was mocked by his colleagues for liking earlier albums, and decided in advance to make amends by henceforth trashing the band and making it clear that the issue here wasn’t just that people might disagree about the quality of an album, but that liking this band just made you terribly lame and uncool. A sad result. What’s interesting beyond the career of one band, though, is how in the realm of indie rock the internet, which usually prompts media fragmentation, has had the reverse effect of causing a quasi-monopoly to emerge.
Most categories of media used to rely on a handful of big players that dominated the scene. The internet, by lowering the barriers to entry, lets more voices get at least some audience and you see a lot of fragmentation. But indie music was very fragmented back in the day thanks to alternative weekly papers. That particular brand of media has, however, been very hurt by the Internet. On the one hand, there’s less need for each town to have its own record critic and movie critic when the Web can distribute reviews nationwide at very low cost. At the same time, Craigslist has really undercut the classified advertising market. So we’ve seen the emergence of a single website with enormous market power — Pitchfork.
The barriers to entry, of course, are still low. But to prevent a rival from emerging, Pitchfork doesn’t need to be perfect — it just needs to be good enough. Which it is. Their taste is generally reliable. What’s more, however, there’s an assymetry to what kind of reliability matters. A website that regularly recommended bands that turned out to suck would be a real problem. You’d waste money on albums and shows that you didn’t enjoy. But if the website merely fails to recommend albums that are, in fact, good you won’t notice. You just won’t buy them. Instead, you’ll buy other things that they do recommend. And as long as those things are non-terrible, your life will proceed just fine — you’ll still have plenty of good music to listen to and there won’t be an incentive to seek out alternative opinions.