February 20, 2013 at 2:16 pm

How Pitchfork Visualizes Music on the Internet

pitchfork tv rj bentler interview

Pitchfork vice president of video programming RJ Bentler

Welcome to part two of our condensed, super-digestible interview with RJ Bentler, vice president of video programming for the influential music tastemaker Pitchfork. The first part of this interview covers the interactive promise of internet-on-the-television.

This second (and final) segment concerns Pitchfork’s plans for putting its original video programming directly on the television — an area of particular interest for anyone who cares about the future of media — as well as the fundamental, philosophical question of whether it is weird to make video to go along with music.

The time is ripe for change in the video world. But for all the talk from the tech sector about how someone “smart” needs to “fix” television (by which they usually mean unbundling the channels on cable/satellite services, making everything a la carte and on-demand, and fixing those horrible on-screen menu systems), nothing will change until the techies control at least some of the content, because there is no reason for the people who own televised video to want anything to change.

This is finally starting to happen: Witness Netflix’s $100 million experiment with producing its own content (the popular show House of Cards), which gives it a real bargaining chip, finally, for dealing with the networks and studios.

Pitchfork isn’t spending $100 million dollars on Pitchfork TV, for which the site creates almost all of the content in-house. Still, whenever tech companies (and Pitchfork is in a sense a tech company focusing on music criticism) start owning premium video content, things will get interesting fast, because the future of television isn’t just about fixing menu screens; it’s about rearranging the whole ecosystem, which as of today, has very little reason to change according to the biggest current stakeholders.

Anyway, back to the interview. Just like last time, we’ve broken it down into little digestible nuggets of wisdom.

Does Pitchfork TV have plans to get onto the television through traditional means — i.e. by partnering with a cable or satellite company — or is it easier to circumvent them with Apple TV, Roku, and similar IP TV boxes?

YouTube Is Key for Boutique Video on TV and Mobile (But Tomorrow, Who Knows?)

“Ever since we started the YouTube channel, if you have some sort of box, be it Apple TV or whatever, anything on our YouTube channel you can watch it on television,” said Bentler. “I watch what we do, and what other people do, and Netflix and Hulu, on my TV… That’s one of the great things about YouTube. Their player has expanded; being able to watch anything on YouTube on your TV is awesome…

“One of the cool things about the YouTube channel is we’ve started seeing the growth of mobile viewership, and people watching it in other ways too. It’s pretty exciting.”

What about getting onto the television in a more traditional way — i.e. through cable and satellite?

“There are a lot of different paths you could take towards that… there are ongoing conversations that we’re having with various people — that I don’t want to get too into — [but] there are a lot of opportunities emerging right now for bringing those things to television in a more formal way, all the way down to the boxes, and like I say, that is already possible with just YouTube alone.”

Advanced Online Formats

Most online publications don’t stray too far from the print form, relying on static words and images. Pitchfork has been pushing the envelope with its Advance and Cover Story formats. Will stuff like that start incorporating video, too?

“I think one of the coolest things that Pitchfork at large has done over the years is thanks in large part to Mike Renaud, who is our creative director,” said Bentler, “finding ways to build design into what we’re doing…

“Some of the stuff coming up has varying degrees of visual content, and different forays into visualizing records, which is exciting. And I’ve had some minor involvement with some of those different things, but generally, that’s more on the editorial (writing) side, at least so far as the curation goes, and then Mike handles the layout of how that stuff works.”

Should Music Be Seen And Not Heard?

The late George Haddad of Northampton, Massachusetts, a friend of mine, and a great fan of The Clash, died at sea in a crab fishing accident over a decade ago when his ship went down off the California coast. Before that, when we were in the eighth grade, he told me something I’ve always remembered, in reference to MTV (this was the ’80s):

“Music should be heard and not seen.” -George Haddad

As a way of letting George in on this conversation all these years later, I put that statement to Pitchfork’s RJ Bentler, who after all heads up video programming at the most influential tastemaker in the world’s biggest music market, to see how he disagrees, which he must. Which is fine.

“I’m a child of the ’80s,” said Bentler, “and MTV was just as huge a part of music in the way that I grew up and absorbed it, what I was into as just listening to it — from my point of view, they’re certainly different experiences, but I think of them as being two parts of the same thing. And I think there’s been a resurgence with music videos, just in the last few years, and I think people are doing really interesting things.”

One thing that has changed with music videos “in the last few years” is that they are no longer considered promotional for recorded music — meaning that when they hit big, the artist/label/etc. are paid, rather than letting MTV play stuff for free. Back to our interview.

“There is definitely a visual component for me,” he said. “This is a way for me to blend a few of my interests together: not just music videos, but documentaries and all these different things. I don’t personally think of it as one or the other. I certainly listen to music a lot, but I enjoy what people are doing with the visual components for it, and like I said, I’m excited by the potential and the possibilities for some of the things that haven’t been done yet. Tapping the potential of the online medium to do some of these things is, I think, really exciting.”

Then, it hit me: Listening to music without seeing is actually weirder, historically speaking, than listening to music without a visual component. If you played recorded music for someone born just a few centuries ago, they’d wonder where the visuals were. You pretty much had to see music, if you were going to hear it.

“Yeah, or even the record covers,” replied Bentler. “I mean, that’s why people are studying- I love vinyl, and I think just that large, tactile image, and the way people put together the art. I’m a visual person and I always have been, and I love music, but there’s never been a complete disconnect to visual, for me… There’s always been a place for some sort of visual interpretation or representation of music, and it’s exciting to be involved in that in any way.”

(See part one of Evolver.fm’s interview with RJ Bentler.)