If you read music reviews on the Internet in 2017 then you have Ryan Schreiber, at least in part, to thank. Back before he started Pitchfork in 1995, reading longform album reviews on the web wasn’t really a thing. There were scraps of it here and there, but Pitchfork very quickly became the place to go to read thorough deep dives into the latest independent music being released. It was like talking to your local record store owner about the Yeah Yeah Yeahs but in the comfort of your own home. And just like your local record store, there was always something to argue about. Ryan, after all, has always been a man of stark opinions and a willingness to speak his mind about music he does and doesn’t like. And Pitchfork’s brand became something of a household name because of it. There was always something to say about them and the music they were reviewing. Given that that name was taken from Tony Montana’s tattoo in Scarface, it sort of feels predestined that they were going to Pied Piper an entire generation of scene kids into a deluge of more thought out music criticism. The universe is, after all, occasionally kind to us even if it’s an accident.
I’ll admit that when I was in my Uber to Ryan’s apartment I was pretty nervous. I was a product of the online musical world he helped create and I both was and was not stoked to try to talk music with him. It felt similar to having to talk to an anthropomorphic Library of Congress about the nuances of Founding Father political thought and I was sure I was about to get totally owned. As it turns out, Ryan is outrageously nice and incredibly easy to talk to. Once we’d each made a drink and sat down to do the interview, we were immediately off to the races on all things vinyl. I started by asking him to tell me about how vinyl had come into his life, a question that got a brief grin from him before he jumped into his love for 45’s when he was a kid. “Vinyl has always been a part of my life. Since I was a really little kid I was obsessed with music and I used to buy records with my allowance. I would usually buy 45’s wherever we went on a Friday, which was usually a department store, like Target, who used to sell 45’s and full length records back in the day. Of course other formats came along eventually, like cassettes and CD’s and whatnot, and I had a lot of those too down the line. I still have a huge CD collection in storage in Chicago and I have no idea what I’m going to do with it. But then just a few years ago I came back around to vinyl finally. It had been so long since I had the means to play it and, once I finally had the space in my apartment to get the kind of setup I wanted to have, I went for it.”
I was sitting across the room from his setup, which looked amazing, and I needed to get the details on it so I asked him what it entailed. “I’ve got 2 turntables, one of them is a Pioneer, one of the newer ones that’s modeled after the Technics, and then I have a Technics 1200, and I’ve got a Luxman vintage receiver from Japan that is really just beautiful. He was right, the Luxman is stunning. It sounds like an exaggeration but it was hard to look away from it and there’s a particular kind of jealousy that comes over you in the presence of top shelf audio equipment. You just need it, you don’t even totally know why, and situations like these have pushed quite a few of us into conceptual larceny enough times to warrant an ankle monitor.
As a whole, vinyl has long been one of the only widely acceptable fetishes in American culture and like all fetishes, it comes with its requisite habitual accoutrements. We love the things we repeatedly do, and I’m always curious how people spice those things up. His answer was refreshingly to the point. “The thing I love about vinyl is there’s something tactile about it. Having a physical medium for music you love and it has a quality that’s difficult to describe. On the one hand it’s a different form for listening and taking things in, you know, you put the record on and listen straight through, getting up, flipping it, and there’s something about the ritual of it that’s really fun. But I also love the quality of the sound too. I don’t know necessarily that it’s better per se than other mediums to the untrained ear, but there’s a different quality to it, it hits you a little differently than any other form of listening to music.”
He went on to tell me that he listens mostly in the morning before work. After he wakes up, he puts on reggae (he’s obsessed) or old soul records and makes himself some coffee and breakfast. Vinyl is something that seems to act as an anchor for his mornings, and given how important Reggae is to him and how that genre in particular feeds so well into his love for 45’s, I’m not surprised that it’s a staple for those times. In a world in which an Einsteinian level of attention has been put into the mechanics and meta-meaning of coffee, it was refreshing to hear it taking a back seat to the sacred wax. The art of grounding yourself to the music that moves you the most has no better home than a vinyl ritual, and the placement of his setup as the focal point of his living room along with the absence of a television made it pretty clear just how much he loves that stuff. Vinyl, done the way he does it, is a powerful stratum that brings real meaning into every part of your home and habits therein.
He also launched into a really interesting bit on why he thinks exploring music through crate digging, either digitally on Discogs or in record shops, is such an important component of our music listening lives and why 45’s have such a special place in his heart. “You know, stumbling across something you’ve never heard of or maybe are aware of to some degree and taking a chance on it and listening to it in this way. I really love 45’s probably the most. There’s a lot of nostalgia for me in 45’s and I think there’s a different quality to them than LP’s even in a lot of ways. I think a little more of the character of the era comes through in 45’s. Like, putting one on from the 70’s, or the 60’s, or the 50’s, there’s something fascinating to me in the particular nuances that show up more clearly in 45’s.”
As I packed up my microphones and finished my drink and talked MF Doom with him, I was struck but just how thorough of a person Ryan seemed to be with everything he did or said. The short version is that he knows his shit. The long version is that he’s a guy who has given his life to unpacking music and trying to see it for what it is no matter how subjective that process may be or how vulnerable it makes you when you speak your mind in the public forum. And as he was digging through his collection and going on about how heartbroken he was when DJ Rashad died, I saw in him what must have been just as true way back when he started writing about music on the 90’s web. There’s an electricity about him when he starts talking music, and you get the sense that it operates for him as a sort of grounding, almost-metaphysical truth in the midst of the ongoing fistfight of the modern day web and the grind of running a company as big as Pitchfork. That there’s a part of him who is still just a guy in an apartment who loves the shit out of music and could talk with you about it for days. The older we get, the more we miss the simplicity of just loving a thing for itself and not worrying about anything else, and we spend a great deal of time getting ourselves back to that place. Ryan struck me as someone who has put in the work to get back there, and is loving every second he gets to spend in that space. As the founder of Pitchfork free time doesn’t come easy, and it was an honor that he spent a bit of his with us.