Directors Puloma Basu & Rob Hatch-Miller find their groove in this ode to the left of center record store, Other Music.
In lower Manhattan, between Broadway and Lafayette, 4th street is much quieter than it used to be. That is not to say that sirens and horns don’t assault the ears there—New York City is never so considerate. Rather the buzz of 4th street’s air lacks musicality, a human bustle that points to an ethos, a vibe, a sense of community it was famously known for not so long ago.
4th street, once a valve that pumped music execs and musicians into the maw of East Village’s music scene, no longer beats to the hearty rhythms of indie punk, jazz, and hip-hop. Instead, fitness centers and coffee shops orchestrate a barren melody as cold and smelly as a SoulCycle bike. In the tone of a tender eulogy, documentary “Other Music,” directed by Puloma Basu & Rob Hatch-Miller, pays tribute to the record store of the same name, equally celebrating what it stood for and lamenting what its demise meant for the future of New York City culture.
When Other Music opened up on the corner of 4th and Broadway, naysayers thought owners Josh Madell, Chris Vanderloo, and Jeff Gibson had a death wish. Located right across from record store titans Tower Records, it seemed as though Other Music would surely be annihilated. But what these skeptics failed to recognize was the power of painstaking curation: Other Music, staffed by music aficionados armed with encyclopedic knowledge, became the hub and cheerleader for niche genres and underground musicians other blockbuster chains wholly ignored. Before they became giants in their respective genres, bands like Animal Collective and the Strokes exclusively distributed their albums to Other Music when no one else would bear their torch.
From the avant-garde to esoteric electronic offerings, Other Music not only helped kindle the careers of countless musicians through consignments and intimate concerts; It also was a budding source of inspiration for those very bands. In the documentary, Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend reminiscences about how Other Music helped him discover new “genres because of the way they would organize the music.” Other Music was democratic in the sense that it invited everyone to the table: no consumer or band would be barred because of their “otherness,” their lack of mainstream appeal. A walk through the store could bring you face to face with categories as strange as “decadanse” (warm, love-making French pop) or “Out” (slightly more self-explanatory). Even the most seasoned record collectors would be mystified by these designations, but those meticulously crafted genre titles gave Other Music its edge: it was always challenging assumptions, expanding both our tastes and empathy for novel sounds, cultures, and ways of being.
Although Other Music promised a more personalized experience, it wasn’t aiming to satiate individual palettes ad nauseam. The appeal of Other Music was how willingly its prismatic staff would throw you into uncharted musical waters, often without mercy or patience. Regina Spektor recalls how entering the store would spark “first-day-of-school” anxiety— if you came flat-footed, prepare to catch a bad attitude on the chin. But what might have been mistaken as a pretentious outburst was more likely a well-meaning challenge to shake up assumptions—or, it could have been, as one employee mentioned, due to a “bad hangover.” Tensions aside, Other Music’s greatest gift was perhaps a simple lesson: that the “best album” is always beyond you, making the act of pushing yourself to listen to music you hate at first listen an ache worth suffering.
In 2016, Other Music closed its doors, marking the end of an analog-centric era of music. Though the East Village is still peppered with record stores, New York City no longer has a physical nucleus for its local music scene, no proud defender of the new, subversive, and unwieldy. Other DIY venues that serve to create a tangible sense of community for musicians and listerners are also experiencing a similar fate, shutting its doors due to increased rent prices and a waning interest in such art-centric spaces. Today, a Time Warner Cable center now occupies the space Other Music once held. A slight sadness simmers when I pass by it, but I can’t claim to feel the same nostalgia as those who frequented the record store for years. What I can do is wonder—wonder what it would be like to “crate dig” at Other Music in its heyday; to feel the heat of being schooled by its resident hip-hop expert; to imagine a world where the smell and touch of vinyl was a religious experience you lived for.