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Are there 18- or 20-year-olds today who listen to older people talk about what a truly great record, book or video store could be with the kind of longing previous generations had for scenes — the Greenwich Village coffeeshop, the underground film club — that died before their own times? Culture didn’t end when these neighborhood retailers became an endangered species. But certain kinds of social/cultural interaction definitely became far more rare, and a whole class of entrepreneur had to find other, often much less rewarding, ways to make a living.
In their wonderful documentary Other Music, Puloma Basu and Rob Hatch-Miller come to both celebrate a place and lament its passing: a shoebox-sized Manhattan shop where even famous musicians were daunted by the selection, and by the knowledgeability of the employees; a place that dared to open directly across the street from Tower Records, and outlived that behemoth by many years.
Other Music sprouted from another East Village landmark, the storied and sketchy Kim’s Underground (also R.I.P.). More famous as a video rental store, it also sold music; in the mid-1990s, three Kim’s employees defected. They signed a sublease on a storefront across from Tower, one of the world’s most famous record stores, a move Le Tigre member JD Samson describes as “subversive.” But it was also savvy, in two ways: Tower was a tourist magnet, drawing music lovers from around the world to this block; and by setting its smaller but intensely curated stock up alongside the mass merchant’s, Other Music staked its claim on all that was too odd, esoteric or incomprehensible to exist in a chain store.
After trying briefly to make sense of the shop’s idiosyncratic organizational scheme and explaining the importance of the hand-scrawled staff recommendation, the doc offers glimpses of the shop’s exotic wares. OM may have paid its rent by selling locals on Belle & Sebastian or Animal Collective (two of whose members worked there), but they also introduced a generation of New Yorkers to the psychedelic Brazilian rockers Os Mutantes; the forgotten English songwriter Vashti Bunyan; the electro-weirdo Gary Wilson. If those artists are too mainstream for your tastes, rest assured, OM had deeper cuts. Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore marvels that even as something of an authority on electronic pop, he always made discoveries there; Regina Spektor admits the staff was so well informed that “if I’m completely honest, I was never just chill in there.”
But more important than having the inventory is helping you find what you don’t yet know you want. Other Music is at its best when introducing the sometimes-misfit employees whose highly specialized knowledge grew the store far beyond the turf owners Chris Vanderloo and Josh Madell knew well. Customers who came in frequently enough, or were even semi-articulate about what kind of stuff they liked, found staffers who could direct them further down aesthetic rabbit-holes. Benicio Del Toro, who says visiting the store was “kind of like a religious experience,” trusted employees enough to sometimes just say “pick ’em,” and buy whatever they selected for him.
The shop held in-store concerts by up-and-comers and forgotten geniuses; it accepted consignments and stocked home-made debuts by unknown New York bands. St. Vincent, TV on the Radio, Interpol, The National and Vampire Weekend all owe slivers of their careers to the store. But the internet, New York blandification and other factors pointed toward the end.
Hatch-Miller and Basu (who previously worked together on Any Way the Wind Blows, a portrait of oft-sampled soul musician Syl Johnson) chronicle the ways OM tried to keep the store viable in a changing music industry. They opened an online store early on; they tried selling music digitally; they formed their own record label. Vinyl made a comeback, but it’s hard to sell enough 12-inch pieces of shellac to pay the rent. Inevitably, their account of the store’s impending closure hits notes familiar from other “this city sucks now” docs; but Other Music never grows maudlin or embittered. Its farewell scenes could only be improved by closing titles telling us (here’s hoping!) how the shop’s owners and employees found work that similarly enriched the culture and themselves after the store’s demise.
Production company: Production Company Productions
Directors-producers: Puloma Basu, Rob Hatch-Miller
Directors of photography: Puloma Basu, Rob Hatch-Miller, Mike Rossetti
Editors: Greg King, Amy Scott
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (This Used to Be New York)
Sales: Derek Kigongo, Paradigm
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