The Art Mafia

by Henry Farrell on October 9, 2006

I meant to respond a few weeks ago to Matthew Yglesias’s “complaints about Pitchfork Media”: and never got around to it thanks to work obligations and the nine month old. But since it’s not a time sensitive topic, here goes.

Matt complains:

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 … 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. … 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. … 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.

Now I’m a bit allergic to emo myself, but I think that this is a real problem. However I don’t think that it’s necessarily a problem of monopoly. Certainly, I remember the same sort of stuff happening in the early 1990’s, when there was a proliferation of critical outlets – for example, every pop reviewer seemed to decide overnight that The House of Love, which had previously been critical darlings, sucked, just at the same moment as they released their _best album evah_.

So I think there’s a structural problem here, that goes deeper than monopoly – that critics have an incentive for some reason or another to sometimes throw out judgements that they know are unreliable, even in conditions where monopoly doesn’t obtain. And my best guess as to what’s going on borrows from Diego Gambetta’s work on the Sicilian Mafia (his key short piece on this is conveniently available “here”: in PDF form). Gambetta’s thesis is that the Mafia are badly understood – they are often less in the business of supplying heroin etc themselves, than in acting as brokers/extortioners, guaranteeing a variety of transactions, many of them more or less illegal, in exchange for a cut of the proceeds. Mafiosi act in order to protect clients who are buying or selling goods from being ripped off by the other side. However, the Mafia have an incentive occasionally themselves to broker bad transactions.

the mafioso, by ‘guaranteeing’ the sale of a blind horse to a victim who for whatever reason is not under his protection (or indeed under that of any more powerful mafioso), is performing a demonstrative action: reminding everyone that without his protection it is not just likely but ‘guaranteed’ that cheating will occur. The mafioso himself has an interest in regulated injections of distrust into the market to increase the demand for the product he sells – that is, protection. If agents could trust each other independently of his intervention he would, on this score at least, be idle. The income he receives and the power he enjoys are the benefits to him of distrust.

I think that there’s a similar problem in the relationship between music artists and music consumers, in which critics play a key brokerage role, just as the Mafia does in a rather different sphere of commercial relations. Critics serve to guarantee to the public that certain artists, certain music, is ‘good’ (there are a whole bunch of sociological questions about what constitutes ‘good’ in this sense that I don’t want to get into). But they also want to preserve their own role as critical intermediaries and arbiters of taste – in other words, they don’t want consumers to feel sufficiently secure in their own tastes that they can bypass the critic and formulate their own tastes about artists. Therefore, one could make a plausible case that critics have an incentive to inject certain amounts of aesthetic uncertainty into the marketplace, by deliberately writing reviews which suggest that bad artists are good, or that good artists are bad, so as to screw with the heads of the listening public. This ensures that the Plain Music-Punters of Ireland remain unsure of their own ability successfully to gauge artistic quality, and don’t start ignoring what pop critics say in favor of following their own aesthetic judgements.

I don’t know how to test this argument to tell if it actually describes what happens – but I will note that there are certain features of pop criticism in particular (and art criticism more generally) that seem to correspond with predictions that this theory might make. Thus, for example, we see a pretty consistent gap between the tastes of critics and the tastes of the general public, in which critics prefer more ‘difficult’ music (some of which is excellent; some of which godawful), perhaps as a means to assert their aesthetic superiority and to undermine ordinary punters’ confidence in their own tastes. We also see a high degree of unpredictable change in critics’ tastes – erstwhile critical favourites ruthlessly written out of history, for no apparent reason other than a decision that they aren’t fashionable any more. I’m sure there are other correspondences, none of which constitute smoking gun evidence, but all at least suggesting that applying Gambetta to pop criticism is _prima facie_ plausible.



bi 10.09.06 at 1:08 pm

But it still sounds weird. The Mafia is one single organization. But art critics (supposedly) work independently of one another. What then will be the mechanisms that cause art critics to all decide in the same direction on The House of Love?


Henry 10.09.06 at 1:11 pm

The Mafia is one single organization.

Actually it’s not, according to most of the scholarship I’ve read – it’s something closer to a quasi-organized oligopoly. Some scholars actually doubt that the Mafia exists as an organization at all (which seems to me to go rather too far).


joe 10.09.06 at 1:18 pm

Thus, for example, we see a pretty consistent gap between the tastes of critics and the tastes of the general public, in which critics prefer more ‘difficult’ music (some of which is excellent; some of which godawful), perhaps as a means to assert their aesthetic superiority and to undermine ordinary punters’ confidence in their own tastes.

The critic listens to vastly more music than the punter, and so the music which is the most different from the mainstream is most likely to capture the critic’s interest and attention.


bob mcmanus 10.09.06 at 1:27 pm

I would like some direct evidence and examples, please.

In particular, I have used All Music Guide as a guide to quite possibly tens of thousands of pieces of music, and have rarely been in strong disagreement. Any disagreement has usually been a matter of my own acknowledged eccentricity that a fault with AMG. The AMG practice of genre reviewers of course means that a 5-star Motorhead album might not appeal to a 5-star Dusty Springfield fan, but there is adequate text and ass’t other information that no one should be confused. And I will not speak of those who think giving 4 1/2 to Sgt Pepper and 5 to Abbey Road is a matter for pistols at ten paces.

AMG might be overly generous, perhaps every Miles Davis album and compilation 1950-70 is not 5 stars. But if I were given the task of picking the five second-rank and 5 third-rank Miles albums from that period I might shoot myself.

I ask for examples of reviews I would strongly disagree with from AMG.

PS:My impression is that MY is a specialized listener, precisely suited to Pitchfork, and that Pitchfork gave MY what he wanted, until it didn’t. Current,cool,hip,special,superior…a Rainer Maria type. NTTAWT.


bob mcmanus 10.09.06 at 1:37 pm

PPS:My own specialized taste run to garage, psych, prog etc 1965-75 and there has been a long issues of obsucre stuff that had limited print runs or were not printed or were never dreamed of printing. The collectors dream of the “hidden gem” of which many are found. Some only collectors could love. But when AMG discusses the 66 Cincinnati garage band whose tapes were thrown in the trash to be dug from the landfill 40 years later, and tells me the tapes should have remained in the landfill, I usually agree. Although I may listen anyway.


bob mcmanus 10.09.06 at 1:52 pm

Finally, AMG gave those RM albums 3 and 3 1/2 stars respectively. Quite respectable ratings. They seem current and knowledgable about Indie and recent releases. I would really like to know what the beef is with AMG. I can only presume MY and crew wouldn’t be caught dead somewhere where the Carpenters and Yes get 5 star reviews.


aaron_m 10.09.06 at 2:27 pm

I have a hard time seeing Pitchfork’s success in using a mix of posturing and elitism to thrive at hopeless reviews as an intentional strategy to secure their own existence (although it is working). The problem with Pitchfork critics is that they have an adolescent relationship to music. Their musical development has remained at that self-conscious teenage faze where what you listen to defines who you are in a direct and unsophisticated way. If you listen to heavy metal you are a banger, if you listen to top twenty you are a cheerleader…yater yater yater, you all remember what it was like to be thirteen. The question facing a Pitchfork critic is not ‘is this good music’ but rather ‘will praising this band make me appear to be a trendsetter or not.’

Pitchfork is popular because its target audience (New York indie kids) has the same stunted ‘look how cool I am’ pubescent relationship to music. Pitchfork’s does not do a good job a picking albums that will be interesting in a year never mind ten, and the reasons behind their consistent ability to miss the “best new music” is a perfect recipe for unrelenting popularity. It is kind like how getting bad grades and fighting helped you get laid in high school.


Aidan Kehoe 10.09.06 at 2:39 pm

The critic listens to vastly more music than the punter, and so the music which is the most different from the mainstream is most likely to capture the critic’s interest and attention.

And the critic’s opinions on music are relevant in that they have some reasonable relation to the wider tastes of the society at hand. If they don’t, then the critics interjections are the rantings of an æsthetic madman, perhaps legitimised to some extent by their being published on real paper.


joe o 10.09.06 at 3:06 pm

This is my favorite part of yglesias’s post:

>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.


JakeB 10.09.06 at 3:17 pm

Riffing, so to speak, on bob’s comments, I’ve found I virtually never disagree with AMG in terms of relative rankings of albums for a given band, or even of albums across bands that are in the same subgenre (e.g. At the Gates and Bathory in re Swedish black metal).

It seems to me that a long-sustained reading relationship with a given reviewer, as long as you understand your differences, can be useful no matter what your perspectives. I can be almost certain I’ll like a movie if Mick laSalle of the SF Chronicle does, but I remember that for another reviewer I had to essentially multiply his assessment by -1 to know what my own was likely to be.

I find Henry’s notion plausible but also sort of alarming, if music reviewers tend to make these kinds of veers. Certainly the notion of injecting noise makes sense for maintaining strength as a broker, and I see no reason that this wouldn’t work, even if brokers aren’t aware that they’re working essentially towards the same ends. It needn’t be a conscious conspiracy,as it sounds like bi is suggesting. If it works for individuals, the behavior will tend to be maintained.


bi 10.09.06 at 3:23 pm

JakeB: I was just thinking that if critics inject noise independently, then by right the noise should be going in different directions, rather than all the same way. But maybe I missed something, as always…


joe 10.09.06 at 3:24 pm

And the critic’s opinions on music are relevant in that they have some reasonable relation to the wider tastes of the society at hand.

True, if the reasonable relation you have in mind is ‘better than.’


perianwyr 10.09.06 at 3:42 pm

I rather liked Pitchfork’s review of the latest Jet album.

Quite a thoughtful analysis.


Anderson 10.09.06 at 3:53 pm

Never attribute to malice what can be explained by bad taste.

In Jackson, MS we have film maven Anita Modak-Truran, whose taste is infallible: anything she likes is awful, and vice-versa. If she pans it, I see it; if she loves it, I pass.

(The one time I broke this rule, hoping against hope that The Hours would not suck, only proved it anew.)


Matt Weiner 10.09.06 at 3:55 pm

erstwhile critical favourites ruthlessly written out of history, for no apparent reason other than a decision that they aren’t fashionable any more.

Do you have examples in mind? Other than Rainer Maria and The House of Love?

I don’t really see this as a useful strategy for pop critics. There might be some marginal extent to which people will follow the critics rather than their own taste when critics praise something terrible, but to the most part I’d guess someone who found themselves generally disliking what a critic recommended would stop listening to that critic (as jakeb suggests). And I’d think that critics were guaranteed their niche by the sheer volume of music; if you’re interested in stuff that doesn’t get played on the radio, you may have to depend on critics to find out about it.

I think critics may have reason to take counterintuitive stances sometimes so as not to sound like everyone else. If your reviews always reflect the common wisdom then people will read someone else as soon as you; if you were the only person to pan Illinois maybe you’ll capture a lot of those benighted Sufjan-haters. Or maybe it’s just that tastes vary.


James Stevenson 10.09.06 at 4:08 pm

Henry: your theory sounds about right to me, but this gets at a problem:

there are certain features of pop criticism in particular (and art criticism more generally) that seem to correspond with predictions that this theory might make

The socially-mediated pressure towards unpredictability is certainly in evidence at Pitchfork, but I wouldn’t say it’s any worse than what one might find in 95% of pop music reviews elsewhere, or 95% of any popular art criticism in general. In other words, you’ve identified a problem with most popular art criticism, not Pitchfork specifically.

Now, what bothers me about them is that a lot of folks writing reviews over there seem basically tin-eared. Doubtless, they listen to lots of music and follow the various comings and going of bands and record labels closely (as joe in #3 suggests). And you can see that when it comes to talking about a group’s history or in comparisons with the music of other bands: they come across as generally smart and well-informed. But whenever they try to talk about what a band actually “sounds like” without resorting to comparison; when they try to explain why an album succeeds or fails in harmonic, formal, or timbral terms; when they attempt to deal with music that just cannot be contextualized in the framework of what’s come before because it’s simply not like anything that’s come before, they tend to fall flat. The best they can do is revert to the metaphorical mode, where a lot of rhetorical bombast is used to disguise the fact that their writers tend to revert to the same very 5 or 6 very general musical metaphors over and over. Is Spin at one end of the spectrum, or AMG at the other, any better at this? Not really, I guess, but if this lack of musical rigor is a problem with most pop-music journalism it’s especially annoying in pitchfork because they use a lost of rhetorical excess to disguise the lack of it, giving them industry cred in an area where they really just don’t merit it.

Just to be clear, I don’t think they’re bad people or anything. After all, this stuff I’m talking about is probably the hardest part of musical criticism. It’s a shame you so rarely get it in pop music writing.


JakeB 10.09.06 at 4:10 pm

I beg your pardon. I should have reread what you said; I got too wrapped up in my own thoughts. Your objection makes more sense to me now. I guess it would depend on how common a particular assessment is, and how much critics influence each other. If say 75% like band X, and then one of the bellwethers changes his mind, if enough follow him (or her) then the overall “rating” presented to the public would appear to change, even with contrarians moving the other way. At the risk of awakening commenting Balrogs, it would seem to me that this might be a suitable social networking problem.


NL 10.09.06 at 7:02 pm

One suspects the tiredness of Rainer Maria is more to blame for the lackluster attendance, a tiredness common in indie bands that have been together too long, and a tiredness which longtime devotees are sometimes blind too. I mean, we should admit that that’s possible. Occam and all.

They sure did have some great albums back in the day, though. But so did Metallica.


astrongmaybe 10.09.06 at 9:48 pm

After all, this stuff I’m talking about is probably the hardest part of musical criticism. It’s a shame you so rarely get it in pop music writing.

Sasha Frere-Jones (I don’t know if that’s a man or a woman), who writes for the New Yorker is good at describing quite banal pop music in very exact terms, making it imaginable and interesting even to those who’ve never heard it, and he never resorts to that “It’s like an all-girl Brazilian Sugarcubes tribute band suddenly doing a Sun-Ra covers album” comparison thing.


Christopher M 10.09.06 at 11:39 pm

mcmanus: i’m not sure i disagree, but don’t forget that AMG sells its music reviews to people who sell music — among other things, they show up in iTunes. Assuming they’re making money from that deal, it’s a pretty good incentive not to be too harsh.


Doug 10.10.06 at 1:39 am

14: Five-word review of The Hours “Hours? It seemed like days.”

10: And then there are reviewers whose tastes are skew to yours, such that what they say about the piece under consideration tells you nothing about what your reaction will be like. Michiko Kakutani in my case.


Ginger Yellow 10.10.06 at 10:50 am

I don’t get this idea that Pitchfork has “enormous market power”. The percentage of music buyers and listeners who read Pitchfork is tiny, especially compared to those who listen to radio or watch MTV or read the NME or Rolling Stone or whatever. Moreover, the people who read Pitchfork will by definition tend to be more dedicated music fans than the population average and hence are likely to have other sources of opinion, or just first hand knowledge.


vibracobra 10.10.06 at 11:29 am

I’m still trying to wrap my brain around how you’ve managed to put the Sicilian Mafia and Pitchfork on the same level. Oh right, there’s a reason I can’t — having grown up in Sicily in their presence (as opposed to your Sorpranos-addled teenage fantasy), I know the two can never, ever be conflated.

I will say the thought of Ryan Schreiber as the Godfather is a pretty funny image.


Rich B. 10.10.06 at 1:19 pm

I’m failing to see how a bad review would stop you from at least _listening_ (if only in 30 second Amazon/ iTunes chunks) of the songs of an album by a group you previously liked.

If someone I respected told an old (30s) fogey like me that the latest Paul Simon album sucked, I would appear surprised, and then go check it out for myself.

Put simply, the theory may work for new groups with no developed fanbase. If a great band with followers gets panned, though, then either the new music sucks, the reviewer will get ignored, or else the “fans” are really more interested in being hip and cutting edge than in listening to good music.


99 10.10.06 at 1:45 pm

I don’t think there are many people who read Pitchfork without an understand about the particular, narrow context in which they operate. And for those who read it uncritically, well, they relish the frission of taking cues from smarmy music critics. In other words, they have more of an interest in that particular hipster moment to moment namechecking than the music. Witness the path of the Artic Monkeys, Clap Your Hands and Say Yeah, etc.

Pitchfork is a good place to find new music, but you should never use their ratings as a guide over time. They don’t necessarily promote exclusively ‘difficult’ music, but they do privilege the new. So bands that develop over time might not get the fair shake they deserve.

As to Rainer Maria — well, maybe they have gotten better, but it’s not like they aren’t just one of a pretty crowded landscape. Long Knives Drawn is about all you need. But at least their time in the sun lasted long than Blonde Redhead. That was like, what, a weekend?


Henry 10.10.06 at 2:54 pm

vibracobra,I’ve lived in Italy for three years, albeit in the center. My major academic area of research for my Ph.D. was the Italian political economy. I’m borrowing my argument from Diego Gambetta, who is perhaps the world’s foremost academic authority on the mafia, and has, I understand, enough intimate knowledge of them to have had some quite uncomfortable experiences(he’s received a bullet or two in the mail). The comparison I’m drawing isn’t entirely serious, but if you don’t think that the mafia can be analysed as an economic organization, then you’re flat out wrong.


joe o 10.10.06 at 3:33 pm

The mafia can be analysed as an economic organization and pitchfork can be analysed as an economic organization, but vibracobra is right, pitchfork is nothing like the mafia. The mafia wants to get rid of or weaken other intermediaries like the state. Pitchfork doesn’t do this. It doesn’t even rate albums like the rolling stones “a bigger bang”. Pitchfork just doesn’t care.

nl is right that indie bands who are together too long get burned out. Pavement is one of my favorite bands, but on their final tour they were just depressing to watch.


Bryan 10.11.06 at 1:19 am

I think it needs to be opened to up to question how far your experience of a piece of music is some sort of pure encounter between you and the music. I.e. how far does the thought “what will people who’s approval I value think of me for (dis)liking this” enter in to the equation while listening? I have to admit if I hear something and I don’t know who it is or what their reputation is I feel a little twinge of nervousness and a little reluctance to judge it.


jayinbmore 10.11.06 at 11:51 am

Wait a sec. “Babe Rainbow” is the best House of Love album?


bryan 10.11.06 at 12:49 pm

for who’s read whose.


Steven Poole 10.12.06 at 2:25 am

James Stevenson puts his finger exactly on the endemic problem with pop-music criticism, in the UK as well as the US. The writers can write about lyrics and hype and history, but most of them can’t write about music to save their lives. It’s not as though they all have to be Alex Ross writing about Radiohead in the New Yorker (though that was a sublime piece), but they barely even try to evoke what the record sounds like. Of course that’s difficult, but you would have thought it’s their job. (This does not apply to Paul Morley and a handful of others.)


trialsanderrors 10.12.06 at 3:01 am

We had this discussion last year when Pitchfork came out with its year-end Top 30 (or 50?). Looking at the comparable list on metacritic, which surveys the whole market, how could we show that Pitchfork controls the market for album reviews? Two things come to mind:

1. If the two lists overlap significantly, this could mean either a. records have an innate quality level which everybody recognizes (with some distortion), b. Someone dictates taste, and Pitchfork is a follower, or c. Pitchfork is the taste leader.

2. To solve the above indeterminacy we would look at variance in reviews for albums Pitchfork has already reviewed vs. album that Pitchfork ignored.

Of course the discussion was on a music list so we never actually followed through on it, but maybe someone is looking for a research program on this…

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