Chris Kaskie pulled out his phone and flipped though his pictures until he stopped on an image, then turned the screen toward me and grinned: It showed the local staff of Pitchfork Media, the Chicago company behind the Pitchfork music website and Pitchfork Music Festival, absorbed in what appeared to be — gasp — print media.
It showed a day a few weeks back when a box arrived at their office containing the first printing of the Pitchfork Review, the handsome new ink-and-paper quarterly journal from the normally digital tastemakers. It showed them standing against the blond-wood desks of their Logan Square headquarters and just … reading.
"And smelling," said Michael Renaud, Pitchfork's creative director. "It smells great. It really does."
"Yeah," said Kaskie, president of Pitchfork Media, "we couldn't stop smelling."
The smell of fresh print — a novelty at Pitchfork.
And with good reason: In 1996, Ryan Schreiber, founder and current CEO, launched the music magazine as a daily publication. He was 19 then and living in Minneapolis; in 1999, using the money he made as a telemarketer, he moved to Chicago. Within a few years, Pitchfork was a 21st-century Rolling Stone, the most influential music publication of its time, online or off. In fact, its annual music festival in Union Park aside, Pitchfork became a significant cultural institution without actually creating anything — well — tangible.
Which, of course, is not unusual now.
Indeed, there's a scene near the beginning of Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street" in which Matthew McConaughey, as a stock broker in late-1980s New York, tells Leonardo DiCaprio that the secret to his future is never building anything, never making anything and never creating anything. He seemly predicts the digital age.
But still, when I picked up my copy of the Pitchfork Review, coming to bookstores this month (such as Quimby's in Wicker Park), I had to stare at it, adjust my bearings: It's the damnedest thing, counterintuitive and backward, an artifact from an alt-reality.
Curiously, Pitchfork seems to feel the same way. The brief introduction that kicks off the inaugural issue contains this: "After 17 years online, we thought it was finally time to bring you something you can hold. Since so much of enjoying music has to do with real, physical interaction … why not read about music culture in the same way?" (If you are at least 40 years old, or Jann Wenner, you probably feel older now.)
It goes on: "We encourage you to set this issue down, get up and get a cup of coffee or tea, and come back to it later on. We want you to take it with you on the train or to the beach. Eventually, we want you to place it on your bookshelf, perhaps lend it to your friends, tear out its pages …" (And who said literacy was dead?)
The Pitchfork Review, as seemingly unnecessary as it is thoughtful, is quite tangible: The paper stock is sturdy; the middle section has a lengthy, glossy photo essay about Pitchfork's Paris music festival (shot by Chicago photographer Nabil Elderkin and the only moment when Pitchfork Review becomes an advertorial). It will arrive four times a year and cost $19.96 an issue (the price is a sly nod to Pitchfork's founding). Pricey, though intended to be kept like a book.
Printing for the first issue was a modest 10,000 copies (microscopic compared with the 5 million unique visitors the website receives each month). And the only advertiser (by design, Kaskie said) is Converse, which has large ads in front and back, though nowhere else.
Of course, as a product of a generally hipster-y culture, plenty of irony gets mixed in with the sincerity and business savvy: The overarching theme of the first issue is dead culture, with a smart piece on great jukeboxes; an excerpt from critic Robert Gordon's new book, "Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion"; a remembrance of the glory days of the British music press (from Simon Reynolds, a well-regarded music writer and author of a great 2011 survey on nostalgia culture, "Retromania"); and a story on the odd (and thin) association between late director John Hughes and Los Angeles rap label Delicious Vinyl.
That's the front of the issue. The back is an assortment of somewhat less geriatrically-minded writings (repurposed from the website) on the buzz band Savages, on Vampire Weekend's ability to skirt nostalgia. Blended in are a generous helping of comics (including a winky piece on the philosopher Pythagoras, who left no concrete writings himself), charmingly designed pages balancing lengthy articles with cool illustrations and a few clever inside jokes, such as a computer page-loading icon on the spine and a wry, cryptic cover:
It shows an urn — just an urn.
Kaskie: "That's about, well, if print is supposedly dead, let's join them."
Renaud: "It's our way of saying we know a lot of people expect this to fail, but we believe in print."
Kaskie sat behind a desk with a "Honk If You're Boring" bumper sticker stretched across the back of his computer, but he and Renaud were sincere.