Pitchfork, the music website that was purchased by Condé Nast this week, has a tormenter. His name is Chris Ott, and he wrote for the site at an earlier point in its history, though you can’t read any of his reviews anymore because on Wednesday Pitchfork decided to completely erase him from its site.
Ott is a notorious crank who uses his Twitter feed to decry the commodification of the independent arts. At his best he can be a necessary check on the capitalist impulses of the music industry and the publications that cover it. At his worst he can be a straight-up asshole who uses his modest platform to hammer away at personal grudges, many of which seem to end up involving women who make and/or write about indie rock. To some he is an anti-hero, to others he is simply a verbal harasser.
Pitchfork (where I have previously written, and whose staff I am friendly with) often finds itself in Ott’s crosshairs. This is partly because the site has for some time been the foremost arbiter of indie music, in the process growing itself from a ragtag quasi-blog (in the days when Ott wrote for it) into a full-blown company that does big boy website things like packaging major features alongside brands such as Converse and Apple. But Ott also picks on Pitchfork because of his personal history with the site and its founder Ryan Schreiber.
Ott tweets about Pitchfork constantly—sometimes he pithily critiques published pieces, sometimes he rants, and sometimes he makes megalomaniacal statements like, “Due to Pitchfork’s legacy of greed around the globe, they are about to be taught a lesson in the real use of power. You will be witnesses.” Pitchfork—both as an institution and as a group of individuals who are sometimes personally hounded by him—has long chosen to ignore Ott’s wailing. But that changed this week when the site’s founders decided to delete his byline from its history.
Ott’s author page now returns a 404. The same is true for the individual reviews that bore his name, such as Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief and the remastered edition of Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted. Pitchfork pretended Ott didn’t exist up until the very moment it chose the nuclear option, which was to make sure he truly didn’t exist, at least on its site.
The ramifications of Pitchfork pressing the red button are myriad. On the one hand, it is a quietly hilarious middle finger to an unapologetic bully who probably knows he deserved some sort of retaliation. On the other hand, it raises questions about who controls internet-native writing and what those people choose to do with that power.
Ott, in his grandiose way, had these questions on his mind in the days before Pitchfork wiped away his work. Upon Pitchfork’s sale to Condé, Ott began tweeting at the site, its president Chris Kaskie, its Director of Editorial Operations Brandon Stosuy, and Condé’s Chief Digital Officer Fred Santarpia about the ownership of years-old content such as Ott’s reviews.
In a phone interview, Ott told me that he was serious about issuing takedown requests (“DMCA’d”) to Pitchfork and/or Condé once Pitchfork’s domain officially transferred over, which could theoretically explain why Ott’s writing was removed from the site. Ott, at least, believes that was the reason.
“It’s absolutely driven by the potential for legal harassment,” he said. “They did not delete this to be funny, they deleted this because they were concerned.”
But in an email to me, Schreiber, Pitchfork’s CEO, said that the site was essentially just sick of Ott’s shit:
Chris has repeatedly made us aware of his negative views about our site, and we’ve determined that it no longer makes sense to have any association with him or his work moving forward. We wish him all the best.
It’s hard to know if a DMCA in this case would have been successful, or if Pitchfork and/or Condé would have just told Ott to fuck off. The standard freelance contract currently issued by basically every website gives ownership of content to the website, but Ott claims that when he was writing for Pitchfork in the early 2000s, no such language existed in whatever paperwork was signed, if any paperwork was even signed in the first place. (That claim seems likely to me.) In any event, Pitchfork went ahead and solved the problem proactively—whether the problem was personal or legal is mostly a matter of semantics.
For Pitchfork specifically there is a certain amount of collateral damage in severing ties with Ott in this fashion. Pitchfork is the internet’s go-to website for music criticism, and it has built up a nearly two decade-long archive of opinions on thousands of albums, all as legacy publications such as Rolling Stone and Spin deemphasized album reviews and/or failed to maintain their archives. But now if you want to read what Pitchfork thought of, say, Hail to the Thief, a beloved Radiohead album, you have to consult a third-party service like the Wayback Machine. Pitchfork disappeared Ott from its site, but it also, in the case of Radiohead, disappeared a slice of the discography of one of the bands that defines the site and its readership. Up until Google de-indexed the dead link to Ott’s review, it was the second result for “radiohead hail to the thief,” above even Amazon.
Schreiber says the Pitchfork brain trust thought about what it would mean to erase part of its archive, but in the end made what he said was an easy choice to distance itself from Ott.
We considered that, but it wasn’t a difficult decision.
The more sinister angle in the Ott/Pitchfork feud is that it demonstrates a sort of revenge a publisher can enact on an ex-contributor turned critic: harangue us too much and we’ll render part of your life’s work nonexistent. The Ott problem is also a new twist on a question that every budding digital media company has to ask itself: Does a website have an obligation to keep up every article its ever published, even if it some of them were written by a person who turns out to be a legendary dickhead and incessant troll?
I would say it does, but Pitchfork has deleted plenty of articles before—in some cases, infamously so—and practically speaking, Ott is a unique case. His structural criticism was often a trojan horse for a personal vendetta, and he has gone out of his way to inflame the individuals who work at and run Pitchfork. He probably deserved something. But who exactly was punished?