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Owned Media Research and Analysis: Pitchfork vs. Spin

Abstract

Both Pitchfork and Spin have served important roles in music history. However, these two publications have seen drastically different levels of success in recent years, due in part to each company’s founding. Despite being created just ten years apart, Spin started as a magazine while Pitchfork was online native. This essay will examine how these foundational differences have impacted both Pitchfork’s and Spin’s owned media, primarily their websites, Instagrams, and Twitters.



Pitchfork

Background

Pitchfork was created in 1995 as an independent music blog best known for its coverage of indie music. The publication has grown considerably since then and now covers most genres. For many readers, Pitchfork serves as a tastemaker. In a 2006 article about the website, Dave Itzkoff—a former editor at Spin—wrote, “Through the bands that it chose to focus on and the artists it ignored – and, yes, its utterly unscientific but geekily precise 10-point album-rating scale – the site was speaking directly to listeners no longer served by traditional media outlets” (Itzkoff, 2006). As a result, Pitchfork has also been extremely influential to certain bands’ successes or failures. One of the most notable examples of this was the website’s 0.0 score for the solo debut of Travis Morrison. According to the cofounder of the label that released the album, "One indie record store even said that they wouldn't carry it because of the Pitchfork review…Not because they heard it – because of the review" (Itzkoff, 2006). In 2015, Pitchfork was sold to Condé Nast for an undisclosed sum. The move marked the acquisition of Condé Nast’s first music publication.

Website/Blog

Overview:

Because Pitchfork began online, its website is well designed and easy to navigate. Pitchfork has a minimalist aesthetic, using almost exclusively black and white with the exception of featured album covers. The fonts used play into this as both are clean and easy to read. These design choices allow the company to remain gender- and age-neutral.

When looking at their SimilarWeb analytics, Pitchfork is ranked 24th for music websites and has a global rank of 5,692nd. However, the website’s ranking has actually fallen over the last three months, decreasing from its initial position of 4,449th. The website receives a majority of its traffic from direct traffic (60.19%) and users in the United States (44.95%). The website’s audience are predominately males aged 25-34. According to Fred Santarpia, Condé Nast’s chief digital officer who led the acquisition of the publication, this was a key component to the company’s decision to purchase Pitchfork. Santarpia said the acquisition would bring “a very passionate audience of millennial males into our roster” (Lhooq, 2015).


What Works:

  • Pitchfork’s site is easy to navigate and uncluttered.

  • The ads are integrated in a fairly typical and non-distracting way.

  • The email signup form is easily accessible in a pop-up bar at the bottom of the screen.

  • Pitchfork typically has a unique and distinct voice—a reader can tell that an article is from Pitchfork without having to see their branding.

What Does Not Work:

  • While Pitchfork’s voice is distinct, it can often be controversial.

  • The website design is clean but not particularly unique. Many other websites use similar designs.

  • The website traffic has decreased over the past three months.

  • The average visit duration is low (00:02:23).

  • Too many of the front page articles are similar to those on competing sites.

How It Could Be Fixed:

Pitchfork has been declining in prominence in recent years and their website analytics highlight that. Their website traffic has decreased and their average site visit duration is low. Pitchfork’s success has relied on its unorthodox review style, and the current front page headlines do not reflect that. Many of its competitors also feature articles about the Rick Astley/Yung Gravy lawsuit and the death of Tom Verlaine. While these are important stories in the music industry, they are not the stories users look for from Pitchfork. If their front page better reflected their narrative tone and had articles more unique to the company, their visit duration would likely increase as visitors would be more inclined to click on the stories.


Social Media

Pitchfork has a presence on all of the major social media platforms, although some of these are more successful than others. Twitter serves as the platform’s highest source of traffic back to their website and is the company’s most followed platform. From a branding aspect, Pitchfork’s headers on its accounts are extremely consistent. However, its graphic design is much less so. On some accounts (like TikTok), Pitchfork relies heavily on overlays while on others (like Instagram) it does not use them at all. Pitchfork’s social media also does not see the engagement levels that accounts of its size should.


Instagram

Overview:

Despite having 1.4 million followers, the Pitchfork Instagram is one of their weakest social media accounts. The engagement on their posts is relatively low and many of the comments are negative. The brand focuses almost exclusively on images (82%) and rarely posts Reels, Carousels, or videos (3%). With the images, few have any sort of overlay. As a result, when simply seeing a post from the account or looking at their feed without the header, nothing is immediately recognizable as Pitchfork.


What Works:
  • The account has 1.4 million followers.

  • The link in bio makes it easy to find articles referenced on Instagram on their website.

What Does Not Work:
  • When looking at Pitchfork’s Instagram feed, a viewer would not be able to immediately tell it belongs to Pitchfork. There is virtually no branding on images.

  • For an account with 1.4 million followers, an average engagement of 4,374 per post is low.

How It Could Be Fixed:

Of the most recent nine posts on the Pitchfork Instagram, only one has a Pitchfork logo on it. While not every post needs an overlay, Pitchfork’s images are not immediately recognizable as being linked to the brand on a crowded home feed. This likely contributes to the account’s low engagement. If the Instagram account used more Pitchfork branding, their posts would stand out more and likely receive more engagement. They should also consider diversifying their content to reach a larger audience.


Twitter

Overview:

Twitter is Pitchfork’s most followed platform with 3.2 million followers. However, it also has lower engagement, with the average tweet receiving only 78 likes or retweets.


What Works:
  • The account is the largest driver of traffic back to the website.

What Does Not Work:
  • Despite 95% of Pitchfork tweets being links, their combination type tweets receive much more engagement.

How It Could Be Fixed:

When looking at their Keyhole analytics, Pitchfork is clearly focused on creating the wrong type of tweets. Their link posts account for 95% of their activity but only receive around 78 engagements. Meanwhile, their combination tweets do significantly better, receiving around 211 engagements. Pitchfork should focus more on creating combination tweets instead of link tweets.



Spin

Background

Spin was founded in 1985 as a print magazine. It covered a narrow selection of music with an emphasis on college rock, grunge, indie rock, and hip-hop. As a result, the magazine was most influential during the grunge era. After that, it struggled to find its voice, with former editor Dave Itzkoff writing, “In one incarnation, it would sing the praises of nü- metalheads like Korn and Limp Bizkit; in the next, it would pin its hopes on garage-rock revivalists like the Strokes and the White Stripes” (Itzkoff, 2006). Ultimately, this led to the end of Spin’s print editions in 2012. “The trouble we had at Spin was that although there were still new and emerging indie-rock acts worth getting excited about, none would ever be big enough to sell a magazine that had to reach half a million consumers every month just to stay alive” (Itzkoff, 2006). The publication is now online only.

The company has been bought and sold numerous times since its founding. In 2020, Billboard sold the publication to Next Management Partners for an undisclosed sum. Next Management Partners is a private equity firm that specializes in digital media. According to the press release about the sale, Spin’s audience had grown over 40% in the year prior.


Website/Blog

Overview:

Spin’s print beginnings are immediately clear when going to the website as the home page highlights a “cover story.” It is also evident from the lack of good web design. The front page of the website is cluttered and hard to navigate. It switches layout numerous times as the visitor scrolls down and the email signup form is buried amid the headlines and ads. Looking at the website is jarring and overwhelming.

Unsurprisingly, these design failures are reflected in the website’s analytics. The average visit duration is only 00:01:13—about half of Pitchfork’s. As a result, the site ranks 135th in the music category and 51,189th globally. However, these numbers are actually an improvement, as the site has seen growth over the last three months. Spin’s audience demographics are similar to those of Pitchfork with the majority being men aged 25-34. Spin’s traffic comes primarily from search results, with “dad rock” being a top keyword search.

What Works:

  • The website design is bold with eye-catching colors.

  • The articles featured on the homepage are also more unique and not simply the same top news as competitors.

What Does Not Work:

  • The navigation, design, and ad integration are jarring and hard to use.

  • When looking at their linked social media accounts, there is no link for TikTok despite the publication having an account.

  • The email signup form is buried under numerous ads and differently formatted sections.

  • Depending on window size, the navigation menu cuts off the top of the website, making it unreadable.

  • The average visit duration is low and users do not visit many other pages.

How It Could Be Fixed:

While Spin’s graphic design style is bold and eye-catching, the website’s front page is hard to navigate and overly cluttered. If Spin hired a talented web designer to use the same aesthetic but improve the experience, it would likely increase the visit duration as the articles featured on the homepage are unique and engaging. While Pitchfork’s top stories were news related (and thus more generic), Spin highlights a digital cover story as well as interesting features. If these stood out more instead of being lost in the shuffle, they would likely increase site traffic as well.

Social Media

Spin’s social media presence is more successful than its website, although it needs tweaking. As seen through its SimilarWeb statistics, Facebook drives the most traffic to the Spin website. It is also one of their most followed platforms. However, as their primary demographic is not in line with Facebook’s primary demographic (which tends to skew more heavily toward older women), the brand would likely see more success in their owned media if they were better able to drive traffic from sources like Twitter and Instagram.


Instagram

Overview:

Spin’s Instagram analytics from Keyhole are strong. Although it only has 177,000 followers, Spin’s Instagram posts receive thousands of engagements. In fact, Spin receives about half as many engagements on their image posts as Pitchfork does, despite the latter account having almost ten times as many followers. Spin focuses heavily on Carousels, with those making up 57% of their content. Spin’s Reels are their most successful form of content, receiving an average engagement of 22,475.


What Works:
  • Their Instagram posts are fairly cohesive, sharing similar fonts and formatting.

  • The brand often leans into sharing music-related memes or viral trends.

  • The engagement is relatively high.

What Does Not Work:
  • While the memes and trends are fun, they can sometimes make the account feel it does not belong to a publication that creates its own content. The memes also do not drive traffic back to the website.

  • The follower count is low.

How It Could Be Fixed:

While Spin’s Instagram posts are receiving strong engagement, they are not leading to traffic to the Spin website. Many of the posts are screenshots of Twitter trends or reposted TikToks. As such, the account can sometimes feel more like a content aggregator or fan account and less like a content creator. Spin should focus more on creating their own content similar to what they have been reposting. Doing so would create more viral moments for the brand and a possible call-to-action to drive Instagram users to the Spin website.


Twitter

Overview:

Much like Pitchfork’s Twitter, Spin focuses primarily on using the platform to share links. However, this strategy has been much less successful for Spin whose engagement is quite low for an account with almost 500,000 followers. Links shared typically only receive around 19 engagements whereas combination posts see much better results.

What Works:
  • The Spin Twitter has a higher number of followers than their Instagram.

  • The Twitter account does a better job of driving traffic to the website.

What Does Not Work:
  • Engagement is very low.

How It Could Be Fixed:

Unlike their Instagram account, Spin posts almost no funny or trendy content on their Twitter. As many of the posts they share to Instagram as screenshots from Twitter, the brand is missing an opportunity to increase its Twitter engagement by trying to create the same type of meme content they screenshot. If Spin was able to create some of their own viral trends, their engagement would likely increase on a platform from which they are already fairly successful at driving website traffic.


Conclusion

During Pitchfork’s early success, the platform was able to put significant pressure on the struggling Spin. Itzkoff notes that Spin began to compare itself to the growing Pitchfork, writing, “We consulted the site as both a resource and a measuring stick – if it was lavishing attention on a new band, we at least had to ask ourselves why we weren't doing the same: By then, our value as a trustworthy and consistent filter had waned” (Itzkoff, 2006). As a result, Pitchfork continued to see growth while Spin continued to decline. When examining both sites analytics, the difference in these numbers becomes evident. However, things may be changing. Spin’s website is experiencing growth while Pitchfork’s is declining, and Spin’s social media engagement rivals that of Pitchfork despite the latter having many more followers. These results are likely due in part to Spin’s increasing focus on unique articles and content while Pitchfork promotes more generic news. Perhaps soon, Spin will reclaim its tastemaker title.



References

  • Billboard. (2020, January 16). The Hollywood Reporter Media Group Sells Spin, Agreement in Place for Sale of Stereogum. Billboard. Retrieved January 29, 2023, from https://www.billboard.com/music/music-news/billboard-hollywood-reporter-media-group-spin-stereogum-sale-8548204/

  • Itzkoff, D. (2006, September 1). The Pitchfork Effect. Wired. Retrieved January 28, 2023, from https://www.wired.com/2006/09/pitchfork/

  • Keyhole. (2023). Real-Time Social Media Analytics & Reporting Tool. Keyhole. Retrieved January 29, 2023, from https://keyhole.co/?home_force=true

  • Lhooq, M. (2015, October 13). Condé Nast bought Pitchfork, but the moral of the story is "Millennial males". VICE. Retrieved January 29, 2023, from https://www.vice.com/en/article/gvnv5j/cond-nast-bought-pitchfork-but-the-moral-of-the-story-is-millennial-males

  • Semrush. (2023). Online Marketing Can Be Easy. Semrush. Retrieved January 29, 2023, from https://www.semrush.com/

  • Similarweb. (2023). Website traffic - check and analyze any website | Similarweb. Similarweb. Retrieved January 29, 2023, from https://www.similarweb.com/


Notes

  • For this essay, focus was placed only on Instagram and Twitter because of Keyhole’s restricted access to other social media analytics. Spin’s most successful social media platform is Facebook but those analytics were paywall restricted.

  • All images from Keyhole, Semrush, and SimilarWeb belong to those companies.

  • This article was initially written as an assignment for the Berklee College of Music graduate class "The Business of Music Marketing."

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