If you were a Gen X music geek, you definitely had your go-to independent record store. Sure, you might pick up the popular titles at Tower or Best Buy or (gulp) even Sam Goody, but if you wanted something from a local unsigned band or wanted to explore a new genre, your independent store was the place to go. Other Music is a documentary about Other Music, the legendary independent record store in Manhattan’s East Village, that was open from 1995 to 2016.
OTHER MUSIC: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: In 2016, the record store Other Music, located on 4th Street between Broadway and Lafayette Street in Manhattan’s East Village, closed for good after 21 years. But it wasn’t just a record store, and it wasn’t just any independent record store that somehow manged to stay in business in the face of Napster, then iTunes and finally Spotify. It was a place whose owners, Josh Madell, Chris Vanderloo and Jeff Gibson, made sure carried the music that the big guys across the street didn’t carry.
And the big guys were literally across the street; in 1995, they opened up across 4th Avenue from a massive Tower Records. But Other Music built a following via owners and a staff that knew their stuff, a desire to promote independent groups and many obscure genres, in-store performances, and just a vibe that it wasn’t just a place to buy the latest Taylor Swift CD.
Directors Puloma Basu and Rob Hatch-Miller document the store’s final two weeks, where customers of all stripes reminisce about the store, the community of musicians and other music nerds that either shopped or worked there, and how Madell and Vanderloo (Gibson left the store in 2001 and didn’t participate in the documentary) shaped that vibe.
The directors interview a number of current and former employees, all of whom have deep knowledge of a number of genres, and a number of musicians that not only shopped there, but also revere Other Music because it was the first place that would sell their music. Included in the interviews are Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend, Martin Gore of Depeche Mode, Matt Berninger of The National, Brian Chase of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Regina Spektor, Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio, and more.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Ironically, Other Music can fit right in with documentaries like All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records. Of course, the vibe at Other Music will remind almost anyone watching of the film and TV versions of High Fidelity.
Performance Worth Watching: Duane Harriott is the employee that’s featured the most, and for good reason: Not only did he open up the inventory of the store to more hip hop groups, but he’s so into music in general that he taught himself the genres he didn’t know. And when the store closed and he helped the owners clear out the space, Vanderloo makes a point of telling him how important he was to the store’s history.
Memorable Dialogue: At a certain point, the store was losing money; while vinyl sales helped float the place after the mid-’00s decline of CD sales, it wasn’t enough, and the online download store they opened in 2007 failed because people wanted the store experience. Lydia Vanderloo, Chris’ wife, said that in the last few years he’d think of the customers and his employees before he thought of himself. “And I’m like, ‘Chris, it’s great to think about that, but what are you gonna do?’ Because he’s always at the back of the list,” she says as she starts tearing up.
Sex and Skin: Nothing.
Our Take: Other Music isn’t a comment on the music business, or how everyone is streaming music now instead of playing it on physical media. Yes, those things are mentioned; it’s a big reason why the legendary story closed four years ago. And it’s also a fact of the owners’ lives, like when Madell tells his young daughter that they can stream the Hamilton soundtrack on Spotify rather than buy the expensive vinyl version they have at the store.
But, for the most part, Other Music is simply about how a special place became like a home for the people who worked there, the people who dropped hundreds of dollars there on music per month, and the bands and musicians that got their starts thanks to the store.
So your enjoyment of the documentary will depend on what kind of memories you have of going to your local independent record store when you were younger. Were you the type who liked flipping through the racks of tapes, LPs and CDs looking for a find or for that title you’ve been looking for forever? Did you like having conversations with like-minded music fans who would be able to recommend things you’ll love based on what you listen to now? Then, whether you ever shopped at Other Music or not, you’ll be flooded with great memories of your own experiences.
If you shopped for top-200 CDs at Tower or Sam Goody, you may feel that the folks at Other Music are giving themselves too much of a pat on the back. They talk about some of their best sellers — stuff like European easy listening or other esoteric genres — like they charted on Billboard. But to them, championing those bands via in-store appearances and handwritten pick-of-the-week cards was their whole world, and if a favorite artist sold a few hundred copies, that would be considered a hit.
There is a segment about how customers, including musicians and hipster actors like Jason Schwartzman, were intimidated by the staff’s “elite” music knowledge, but for the most part, the filmmakers saw the employees as helpful music experts and not versions of Jack Black’s High Fidelity character.
But as a simple tribute to a great store with a staff that was passionate about what they sold, Other Music works very well.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Other Music may get a bit inside baseball, but it’s still a fascinating look at a store that defied the odds, launched careers, and created a family over a couple of very interesting decades.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesnt kid himself: hes a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, VanityFair.com, Playboy.com, Fast Company.com, RollingStone.com, Billboard and elsewhere.
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