Saturday, June 17, 2006

A sneak preview of the new Pitchfork

If you read Pitchfork everyday, then you probably noticed something a little different about their site this past Thursday. For about five hours Thursday, Pitchfork had a bunch of new design features. Their graphical look was the same, however, they added some new features to the home page, reviews and other parts of the site. I poked around, took stock of what was new (and some of it that wasn’t quite done yet) and made a little list. It’s a good thing that I did, because by 2 pm EDT, Pitchfork was back to their old design. Fortunately, the t-shirt ads from American Apparel didn’t go away.

Now, I don’t know when these new features will be back – that’s probably up to their programming company iheartsquares. However, this is what we can look forward to from Pitchfork 2006 XP.

The Good

Related reviews and news on review pages. At the bottom of each of the review pages that day were other reviews of records by that artist as well as any news stories. This will be great for us here at Tuningfork so we can go back to old reviews and berate PFM for any inconsistencies. Less persnickety readers will like learning more about artists’ back catalog as well as related news such as tour dates. In any event, it helps get the vast archive of reviews that Pitchfork has in front of more readers.

Audio and video links on reviews pages. At the bottom of several reviews were links to MP3s, audio streams or music videos for the records. With MP3 blogs becoming the way many folks find new music, Pitchfork needs to give its readers direct access to sample tracks. It’ll sure save me the trouble of having to go to the label site, then better propaganda, then a half dozen blogs to hear an artist who’s just been reviewed.

Search by artist, label, score and date. Freeform keyword search is okay, but some artists and titles just give you headaches if you use them in a search - just do a search for “Son”, the title of Juana Molina’s new album. The new search lets you search specifically by artist, album title, record label, score, date and reviewer. In just one click, I could pull up all of the reviews from this time a year ago. I was also able to pull up all of the records Nick Sylvester panned. The only drawback was that the “power search” was only the available from a review page or the list of reviews. Still, it made finding old reviews tremendously easy.

RSS Feeds! If you follow a lot of blogs in your day to day surfing, you probably already know about RSS (Really Simple Syndication) or you need to find out. Basically, RSS lets you use tools like the Personalized Google Homepage and My Yahoo to track the latest posts from multiple websites at one time. Blogs have been offering RSS for years. Now, if you use an RSS reader or software of some kind, you’ll be able to see the latest reviews and news without having to go directly to Pitchfork.

And if you don’t know what RSS is, you can learn more here.

The Bad

No release dates. People come to review sites to find out about music that they might want to buy. An essential part of buying music is knowing whether it has been released yet in your market. Compared to the features above, this would be easy to add. Pitchfork wouldn’t necessarily need to update the dates either – it’d just be good to know what the street dates are at the time of the review. Any related news at the bottom of the page could fill in readers on U.S. vs. U.K. release dates and so forth.

No direct links to albums. The eMusic and Amp Camp links still go to search pages not album pages on those respective sites. For folks who want to buy a record after a review, this means two or three more clicks to find a record – or a visit to Insound or Amazon instead of Pitchfork’s partners. I’m not the only one to notice how effective direct album links are; Coolfer had a good article on them. If PFM can put album links in news articles, they should be able to put them on reviews. It’d be a great feature for Pitchfork, its advertisers and its readers.

No comments/letters. Back in the day, Pitchfork actually had a letters section. That has since disappeared and now communication is one-way – from Pitchfork to its readers. However, music fans are finding ways to talk back in comments sections of blogs as well as well as on social networking sites like Comments don’t just give the writers direct feedback but also give readers a reason to come back later in the day after reading the initial reviews. Based on their comments and e-mails, I think that many of PFM’s writers actually dig getting responses from their readers. If you want to see a comments section that works, check out the comments on Stylus magazines reviews.

The Ugly

So where did all of this new goodness go Thursday afternoon? Well, as I played with the new features, I quickly figured out that not everything was finished.

  • The RSS feed for reviews didn’t give me any stories. In fact, it didn’t even give me a valid RSS file.

  • Not all of the options for search worked. I could search reviews by artist and title, but the record label search didn’t work.

  • The site was dog slow. Pitchfork gets a serious amount of web traffic. As the day progressed, I noticed that even simple things like reading a new article were taking forever. My guess is that some of the new features were added without planning for the beating they’d take from Pitchfork’s daily traffic.

Now, my day job is writing software and I’ve worked on a big website. I won’t give Pitchfork’s technology partner iheartsquares a hard time; I imagine their code monkeys are fixing the issues right now. Also, I’ve seen rougher software releases from much bigger companies.

Overall, I look forward to using the new features once they’re ready for prime time. However, Pitchfork will need to add more if it wants to keep its spot as one of the most read music websites. Based on some of the features, it seems like Pitchfork is trying to compete with the growing popularity of music blogs. If Pitchfork has anything to worry about, it’s blogs – not because blogs (like us) may be critical of them, but because blogs are becoming a more trusted source of opinion for many music fans. Unlike the mid-nineties when Pitchfork started, anyone can start up a fairly full featured website for free in a manner of minutes. And if they don’t have the time to follow blogs, music fans can go to sites like Pandora or and get recommendations for music based on their tastes. There are more places to get information about music than ever – which can be great for fans, but may make things a little rougher for Pitchfork in the future.

Added 6/19/2006: After a weekend of work, it looks like the new features on Pitchfork are a go. Hopefully PFM's programmers can sit back, enjoy a cool beverage and listen to some tunes - perhaps This Boy Is Exhausted?