Music

Pitchfork Names Mano Sundaresan as New Head of Editorial Content: Exclusive

Mano Sundaresan, founder of the music blog No Bells, will take on the role of Head of Editorial Content for Pitchfork, the publication announced on Tuesday (July 2).

He joins during a fraught time for media — numerous publications have laid off staff in the last 18 months — and for Pitchfork in particular. In January, parent company Condé Nast folded Pitchfork into GQ and cut a number of longtime staffers, including Puja Patel, who had served as editor in chief since 2018. The backlash was swift: The Washington Post declared “the end of Pitchfork,” while The Guardian called the move “a travesty for music media” and many publications ran postmortems eulogizing the venerated site.

“I understand what the concern was — [people thought] this really important media outlet was going away,” Will Welch, global editorial director of GQ and Pitchfork, tells Billboard. “It was a misunderstanding. It’s not going away, and in so many ways, it’s getting all this new energy.” 

That starts with Sundaresan. In 2021, stuck at home during the pandemic, he decided to launch No Bells. “Everybody in quarantine had their little hobby,” he tells Billboard in his first interview since taking the job. Some took up baking bread; he started a site to house some of his stories — “mostly about these undercover online music scenes” — that weren’t being accepted by the remaining publications in a rapidly-thinning music media landscape. 

“It was initially me doing everything: writing, editing, designing a bit,” Sundaresan recalls. “But then I brought on some friends and made it more of an actual publication.”

As No Bells grew, it “started to gain a bit of authority,” he continues. “We definitely became a voice for the underground rap scene in New York, and in Milwaukee, and in these various micro-communities that were popping off.” 

Sundaresan, who also worked previously at NPR and freelanced for several sites, spoke with Billboard about his plans for Pitchfork‘s future, in an interview alongside Welch. These are edited excerpts from the conversation. 

Related

What did you learn building No Bells that you’re hoping to implement at Pitchfork?

Sundaresan: What I’m bringing to Pitchfork is essentially the adaptability and experimentation that comes with trying to start a music blog in the 2020s. It’s really hard. It requires not only publishing interesting stuff but also seeing where your audience is and cultivating that. We didn’t have any type of legacy to hinge on. 

Pitchfork is interesting because it obviously has this authority [built] over two decades now. It’s also got a bevy of incredibly talented writers, and I think we’re in this age where we turn to individual tastemakers for validation when we’re curious about new music. I think more care needs to be put into building worlds around those tastemakers. That’s kind of what I was doing at No Bells, and that’s what I’m going to try to do at Pitchfork.

Are there other new directions or priorities you’re interested in?

Sundaresan: I’m definitely trying to honor the traditions of Pitchfork as-is. They’ve done so much over the past few years, especially with broadening the accessibility, making it more conversational. I want to continue those efforts. Really, my focus is to try to adapt Pitchfork to the modern age of media, where individual voices are prioritized. We can tap into the incredible writers that are on staff and try to build verticals and columns around what they’re doing — cater to more specialized audiences that way, and younger audiences that way.

Related

What does it mean for Pitchfork to be folded under GQ? What’s different now compared to a year ago?

Welch: Pitchfork is still continuing as Pitchfork and GQ is continuing as GQ. I’m now leading both, and very excited to have Mano working on the Pitchfork project with me. And there are ways that we are sharing efforts on the back end — operational stuff, logistical stuff. We just had a really cool meeting last week, where it was GQ editors sharing what they’re excited about in music looking ahead at the rest of the year, and then the Pitchfork editors doing the same. There are conversations like that happening, but the Pitchfork brand is continuing standalone, and GQ is continuing standalone as well. 

This new chapter is taking place after a round of layoffs that got a lot of attention. What led to the layoffs, and what do those mean for the future of the publication? 

Welch: I’ve been a reader of Pitchfork for 20-plus years. I started my career at The Fader, another music magazine that was sort of at its peak around the time that Pitchfork was really thriving. There was always a [dynamic of] looking across the road at what the other was doing. It’s an honor to have the opportunity to actually work on Pitchfork and to lead the team. They have done an awesome job in the time since January; we’ve been continuing to publish at a great clip. There’s been a lot happening in music, really exciting, emerging music that the site has covered — as it always has, going all the way back to the beginning — and then a bunch of huge releases as well. 

Mano had such a clear vision for really what drives music conversation today, what all of us who are on the internet every day want to see. That just clarified for me what the future should be. Now we get to lead a conversation with a team of staff members and contributors about how we apply what Mano articulated: What should we keep exactly the same, and what can we do in new ways, especially as we think about all the platforms at our disposal.

It’s really hard for musicians right now. The way things are set up can be really beneficial to the huge acts, and it can be really hard for the middle and for the younger acts. And I think a huge part of Pitchforks role is supporting that whole ecosystem, especially new artists and people that are in that difficult middle ground.

Sundaresan: One thing that’s working really well with No Bells is the way we’ve built a community around what we do — writers certainly, but also artists. Pitchfork at one point, before it got bigger, was very community-driven. I want to try and restore some of that feeling, getting back to being literally on the ground reporting about things, creating physical spaces for writers, whether that’s live events, readings, panels. I want to create more of a real community around this really robust online ecosystem that Pitchfork already has.

Related

Even before the layoffs, it felt like Pitchfork started running fewer reviews and moved them down the homepage. The New York Times was historically focused on reviews but it has moved away from them as well. Do you still believe that format has value?

Sundaresan: I feel like every few months the album-review-is-dead conversation pops up. For every discourse around that, you see 18,000 more people posting that Taylor Swift got like a 6.2 or whatever it is. Album reviews, especially for some of these really big releases, are pored over by fans. Some of the highest-performing things on the Pitchfork website are still album reviews. 

And I think there’s still such a necessity, from a historical record standpoint, for album reviews. You see with platforms like Tiktok and Instagram Reels — they’re really important, and I think Pitchfork really needs to tap into them more and create more interesting content around them — but there’s only so much you can do. You need comprehensive writing of some sort about these really important releases, just so that in five or 10 years, somebody can come back and see this is what happened at this time. 

Welch: I would also add that if other outlets have moved on from reviews, and Pitchfork is still known as the place that’s really committed to that form, then that’s a position of strength for us. The foundation of the site is news and reviews, and that can and should continue. And then we’re going to do a bunch of other cool stuff too.

Related

Is there a tension between trying to document some of these smaller scenes and the need to generate traffic? It seems like people have moved away from covering some of the niches because they’re all fighting for the same mainstream clicks.

Welch: We live in a world where audience matters, traffic matters. At Conde Nast, we have KPIs for audience just like any other media brand on Earth. But I think there’s a huge opportunity to evolve the Pitchfork ecosystem. When that’s done effectively, and I think GQ is a good example of this, your business does not live and die based on pure raw traffic. 

Broadly right now in internet media, relative to other phases that I’ve been in, this is not a time of traffic as the be-all, end-all. Without taking it to a naive extreme, Mano’s directive is not to chase traffic. It’s to build a really high quality website. And then we’re going to be collaborating with the rest of the team on building out the Pitchfork ecosystem. Mano referenced events — I think that’s incredibly important. Thinking in new ways about the social platforms, there’s just so much you can do, so many different ways to not just mean something to your audience, but also to bring revenue into the brand that isn’t about raw traffic. 

Sundaresan: You nailed it. Tent-pole reviews are always going to matter. But No Bells to some extent was about, “Let’s create this ecosystem around online music scenes.” We didn’t always have the highest readership. That wasn’t our goal. But we were able to sustain ourselves just by having very loyal readers because they cared about the things that we cared about. 

I think Pitchfork has a potential to essentially do that tenfold, and have different pockets that cater to specific audiences, almost like subcultures, that are spearheaded by genre specialists — which, by the way, Pitchfork already has. The resources just haven’t been put in those directions yet. 

After the layoffs, I’m sure you saw there was just a wave of pieces basically saying that Pitchfork was dead. Do you have any response to those?

Welch: Just that Pitchfork is still continuing as Pitchfork. I feel confident in my ability to lead the title, and I think we have an incredibly exciting new voice, new thinker — it wasn’t until I talked to Mano that it really crystallized what I thought the future of Pitchfork should be. He’s bringing this very of-the-moment perspective: This is how people want to talk about music. All the tools are there, we just need to adjust the dials a little bit, do some new things. And I think there’s an opportunity for Pitchfork to really grow and feel fresher than ever.

Powered by Billboard.

Related Articles

Back to top button