A Dreamworld of Esoterica

Remembering Other Music 25 years after its opening

For at least a generation or two of fanboys, working in a recorqd store was a status symbol.

You were cool because you knew the latest music first. You were paid to spend your time, not with mere mortals, but kibbitzing with other music fanatics. Swathed in worn T-shirts trumpeting Kraut Rock, with plenty of free record label tchotchkes and schwag to sweeten the deal, you were able to endlessly pontificate under the guise of “helping” two-legged blank canvases with absolutely no idea what they were looking for. As minimum wage retail gigs went, it was cut above. It wasn’t selling, it was evangelism. Turning people on to new music, transferring your enthusiasm—not to mention unassailable knowledge–made you a teacher and it felt good. Initially an all-male endeavor, retailers got smart and women eventually became part of the daily passion play. Around the best stores, a scene developed, with regular customers and clerks, all convinced of their superiority, bantering back and forth about cool records, trying to one up each other, waiting to play the ace card: “Oh, you don’t know this record???”   

The trouble was that while all of this scenesterism was soul-nurturing for those who valued music, music trivia and staying hip, the business of selling records often got lost in the enthusiasm. Record stores have always been on the edge of insolvency. Selling music, so-called physical product, was tough even in the best of times. It’s this dynamic—cool place to work and be seen versus economics—that is at the center of the wonderful if eventually sad 2019 documentary Other Music, which documents the glories and the much-lamented end of the celebrated NYC record store of the title. The film is now available on Amazon Prime, iTunes, Google Play and other outlets. 

In Manhattan in the late 90’s/early aughts, while the megastores in Times Square and Union Square drew tourists (along with its ever-eccentric standby, J&R Music World), serious musicheads who’d exhausted more esoteric offerings like the vinyl-oriented Rebel Rebel, Rockit Scientist and Bleecker Bob’s (all now defunct), eventually drifted towards 4th Street and Broadway. There a symbiotic relationship once thrived. On one side was the behemoth Tower Records, where oceans of CDs and some vinyl resided in multiple packed floors. On the other, “subversive in its geographical location,” (according to the film) was a mom and pop—actually two pops—that had the music and spirit that Tower didn’t—Other Music. In the early aughts, that combination was a magnet for music fans. Hundreds of dollars flew out of my possession between the two stores. 

Other Music: Bird’s eye view (Art: Ron Hart)

Before anything else, Other Music, which could only exist in a diverse mega-city like NYC, was a one-of-a-kind store where there was much to learn. Focused on indie labels and obscure imports, if they couldn’t get the record, it probably didn’t exist. They were damned near unstumpable. Someone in the store usually knew the answer to any question. For the musically curious, it was a wonderland where you could spend hours, grazing through unknown albums and tracks, listening to what they were playing in the store. More than once I bought whatever amazing thing was coming out of the speakers when I walked in. They were an irreplaceable force in music in New York City. And sadly, no new emporium/scene in NYC has taken up the Other Music banner since their demise. 

Early on in the 85-minute Other Music directed by Rob Hatch-Miller and Paloma Basu, everyone revels in the details of working in the store which was founded and owned by Josh Madell, Chris Vanderloo and Jeff Gibson (who departed in 2001). The store’s employees are the supporting actors and take up much of the film enthusing about their discoveries and obsessions, many of which play a part in the soundtrack of the film. One says that OM was a whole world that you had no idea about, but you had to get ready to learn. Another OM staffer Scott let’s out a “whhhaaaatttt” as talks about “what you know is there beyond what you can see.” Another clerk Dan says, “you could live in a dreamworld of esoterica.” A selection of musicians chime in as well. Matt Berninger from The National intones how much he loved the “curators” who worked in the store. Brian Chase of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs says that to be stocked on Other Music’s shelves meant that a band was in good company. Leave it to an actor to go completely over the top. Benicio Del Toro who compares the store to a “religious experience,” talks about how he’d just go into the store and say to whatever uber knowledgeable staff member who happened to be on duty—“Pick `em.” Stuart Braithwaite from Mogwai however, provides a brief moment of lucidity in this sea of self-congratulatory hipsterism when he laughs and says of the Other Music employees: “Weirdos need jobs.”

Other Music storefront (Photo: Other Music)

While OM categories like “Then” (classic punk rock and folk reissues) and “Decadanse” (European Pop) elicit smiles and admiration, the store’s most endearing eccentricity, its handwritten cards taped above each stack of new CDs—what clerk Jim aka Ning Nong calls “personal passionate endorsements,” -are discussed in great detail. The film’s most loving detail is the shot of the low hanging pipes behind the counter that are bubble wrapped to prevent head injuries. Martin Gore (Depeche Mode) Brian Chase (Yeah Yeah Yeahs) Stephin Merritt (The Magnetic Fields), Ezra Koenig (Vampire Weekend), Tunde Adebimpe (TV on the Radio) and Regina Spektor are among the musicians interviewed in the film who lend weight to the point that more than just a retail store, OM was a nexus for NYC downtown music culture. Although like many retail stores in downtown Manhattan, 9/11 hit Other Music hard and jumpstarted its eventual demise, the store’s support of the bands that sprung up in the wave of the attack, names like The Strokes, Interpol and LCD Sound System is rightly celebrated. Another part of the store’s reputation and connection with the community was its in-store performances, clips of which appear in the film.

Make no mistake however, despite all the effusive friendliness you see in the film, OM was a place where the attitude so vividly captured by Nick Hornby in High Fidelity hung thickly, nearly visibly, in the air. It was often not a welcoming store. Stupid questions were often met with a derisive snort. Being exposed as a musical dummy was a palpable fear. Pedestrians, unwitting fans of Coldplay who wandered in were rightly intimidated. At one point the staffer Daniel says if you came at him as a “hot mess,” and “not knowing what you are looking for” he admits he wasn’t “always the most understanding.” OM employee Scott adds that there were a lot of chips on shoulders among the clerks. And while co-owner Chris Vanderloo says he never saw any snobbery and doesn’t agree that there even was any, his partner Madell mentions that there’s a sense that “underground music” was for “snotty kids”, but Other Music tried to “have a little more sophisticated look at what that can mean.” Trying to stay on that high road, he says that the store simply wanted to be on “the edge of what was happening in culture.” In an online age, being a brick-and-mortar store that valued attitude and obscure titles over financial reality ultimately led to extinction. 

 

VIDEO: Fred Armisen performs “Police On My Back” by The Clash at Other Music, December 2011

As in all documentary films where you know there’s a tragic end coming, Other Music’s denouement happens quickly. In 2006, Tower Records went out of business, an event chronicled in another recent record store documentary, 2015’s All Things Must Pass. While the disappearance of the foot traffic from Tower wounded Other Music, that becomes anti-climactic when Josh’s wife Dawn says that the partners had not really “made a wage they could live on” since 2003. The Other Music download store, which opened in 2007, failed to staunch the bleeding. Yet another example of why Manhattan has become a haven only for tourists and the wealthy, OM’s monthly rent eventually doubled from the 6K a month they were originally paying when they opened in 1995. The gentrification of the neighborhood around them did not help either. Mom and Pops were forced out. The center of music and record shopping in New York City moved to Brooklyn. The final knell for the store came in the form of a pair of unstoppable industry trends; downloading, both legal and illegal, followed by streaming. Not mentioned is the fact that Other Music stayed heavily invested in CDs long after the revival of vinyl pushed much physical media buying in that direction. 

While change is inevitable, watching the racks dismantled and hauled away, leaving just the bare, worn floor, a sign Madell and Vanderloo say they once took to be a reliable sign of which sections were getting the most traffic, does not make for a happy ending. And yet, Other Music is an endearing Valentine, one that devotees of the now-departed store will cherish. Seeing the store in operation again, hearing its soundtrack reanimated for an hour and half, preserves and celebrates the memory of a place where customers and employees lived for the music and tried as Madell at one point says, “to live for a purer type of joy than we get in our daily grind.” 

 

VIDEO: Other Music Documentary Trailer

 

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