“It’s a lot harder to put it together than it is to take it apart, huh?” So observes Josh Madell, co-owner of Other Music, as a contractor swings a sledgehammer into the shelves of the NYC record store, which closed its doors in June 2016. The shop was beloved by music obsessives around the city and the world, known for its obscure hand-picked selections reflecting the carefully cultivated tastes of its customers and staff. In Other Music, a documentary from directors Puloma Basu and Rob Hatch-Miller, we watch Madell and his colleagues aid in the demolition of the shelves they’d once stacked with names like CAN, Broadcast, and Toumani Diabaté. It’s gut-wrenching to see them tear down their second home brick by brick, the business they helped nurture for two decades gone.
Other Music charts the store’s history as a once-vital outpost for esoteric records, DIY performances, and anyone who wanted to expand their musical horizons. It’s no surprise that the filmmakers wanted to commemorate this world — Hatch-Miller is a former employee and Basu a former customer, and the two met and married as a result of that connection. Their frank, informal interviews with colorful former staffers and OM fans, including musicians like Regina Spektor, The National’s Matt Berninger, and Interpol’s Daniel Kessler, provide the backbone of the film. It jumps back and forth in time, juxtaposing the shop’s earnest beginnings in the early ’90s with its eventual end.
Madell, along with co-owners Chris Vanderloo and Jeff Gibson, started out selling records in the back of another now-lost East Village gem, Kim’s Underground Video, which drew a loyal following for its arcane cinematic selections. They opened up their own shop in 1995, naming it Other Music as a sort of rejoinder to the imposing presence of Tower Records across the street. The staff could collectively boast an encyclopedic knowledge of music — if one person didn’t know a certain genre, someone else lived and breathed it. There’s plentiful archival footage of lively in-store performances and staff having a ball during working hours, with cameos from former employees like Dave Portner of Animal Collective and Beans of Antipop Consortium. This place fostered a symbiotic relationship between artist-employees and the business itself. Staff would benefit from spending time in a world that revolved around music, and the shop would gain from their passion.
At one point, a staffer says they came to work at OM because they wanted to be “bombarded with music,” and the film likewise attempts to catapult sound at the audience (people at my screening were tapping their feet and subtly dancing in their seats). In one hyper-stimulating sequence, staffers list off some of their favorite artists, with the film following their trains of thought via a montage of samples and videos featuring everyone from Os Mutantes and Masaki Batoh to Vashti Bunyan and Harmonia. You’re left feeling like you just got micro-dosed with a bit of their knowledge. Other Music conveys the excitement of making a personal musical discovery. It’s a feeling that former staffers are mourning, now that musical tastes are largely shaped via algorithms.
Other Music prioritized the physicality of musical appreciation — holding a record in your hand, experiencing a live performance, talking about a band with a fellow fan. This was at a time when the landscape of New York, and what it means to listen to and share music, both underwent seismic shifts. While the documentary is ostensibly lighthearted in its nostalgic take on music culture, a hint of rage lies beneath the surface. Anyone who walked through NoHo before Other Music closed can remember its iconic blue and orange sign over East 4th and Lafayette, a landmark highlighting one of the last surviving record stores in the city. It’s eerie to watch its dismantling play out on film.
This is a story we’re seeing repeatedly right now, as countless institutions that fostered New York’s creative culture continue to disappear, from record stores to bookstores to movie theaters. Should you want to keep the legacy of Other Music alive, their website is still operational, and they just hosted their third annual “Come Together” Music Festival with MoMA PS1, featuring live performances and a record market to buy directly from over 75 indie labels. But if you’re so inclined, you can also follow their official account on Spotify.