The record store as a concept, let alone a business model, is growing obsolete with such global-warming-like inevitability that it’s much more surprising to see one still in business than it is to see one close. But the announcement Monday that New York’s legendary Other Music — an institution for left-of-center listeners for more than 20 years — will shutter on June 25 truly feels like the end of an era.
The best record stores are, or were, an epicenter of a scene. In the years before the Internet, they were the best place — along with certain left-of-the-dial radio stations, venues and (usually cheaply made) publications — to find and find out about not just music and artists and records, but to find like-minded fans, potential bandmates, burgeoning indie label owners, future best friends, future soulmates, a consensus. Pier Platters in Hoboken, Oar Folkjokeopus in Minneapolis, Waterloo in Austin and Aron’s in Los Angeles are just four examples of stores that helped to incubate scenes; back in the day there was a battery of them clustered around St. Mark’s Place in the East Village and Bleecker Street in the West Village incubating virtually every subgenre and scene. (I myself spent countless thousands of hours working and/or hanging out in smaller but similar record stores during high school and college — shout-out to the long-shuttered Recordland in Johnson City, New York and Desertshore in Syracuse.) Other Music outlasted nearly all of them.
It’s hard to overstate how influential the store has been — not just on New York, but on left-leaning music all over the world. People in Europe and Japan and Brazil know it; artists from those countries made sure their records were stocked there. Over the years its employees included members of Animal Collective, Mountains, Widowspeak, Anti-Pop Consortium and many DJs, as well as future execs at XL, Captured Tracks, Dead Oceans/Secretly Group, The Orchard, Light In The Attic and more. The tiny space hosted ludicrously packed performances from Vampire Weekend, Neutral Milk Hotel, Elliott Smith, St. Vincent, DJ Shadow with Grandmaster Flash and so many others.
In the same way one band might evolve out of another, Other Music evolved out of Kim’s Underground. Its three founders — Josh Madell, Chris Vanderloo and Jeff Gibson — started the music department of the then-booming Bleecker Street video-rental emporium during the post-Nirvana alternative gold rush of the early 1990s. Kim’s and later Other Music were ground zero for new sounds arriving from all over the world. At all hours they would be packed with fans, industry execs, tourists — I vividly remember one Japanese tourist holding up a CD to a staffer and saying “Indie?” — and particularly major-label A&R types, with credit cards in one hand and towering stacks of CDs and 7”s in the other, grilling the stores’ employees with more than a hint of desperation in their voices: “What’s new? What’s hot? What’s everyone talking about?,” with the unspoken subtext being, “Tell me who I should sign!” Many unlikely major-label deals for even less likely bands — which never would have gotten such a deal in any other era — began their ill-advised boondoggles in Kim’s or Other Music.
But as far as I could see, the founders of Other Music and their deeply knowledgeable staff never pandered. Ask them what they like and they’ll tell you — or refer you to the resident expert. With occasional exceptions, the level of traditional record-store snobbery was shockingly low.
At the heart of it all was a concept that’s vanishing as quickly as record stores themselves. Obvious as it sounds, back then, music was an investment, in virtually every sense of the word: a financial one, sure, and one based on future collectability (“What might this be worth in 5, 10, 20 years?”), but perhaps most of all, an emotional one, which made buying an album a statement of allegiance as vivid as wearing a band’s T-shirt or a team’s jersey. You had to earn your music: the process of finding out about it, then actually finding it and procuring it, took days or weeks or even, depending on how hard something was to find, months or years. And the longer it took and the harder you had to work for it, the more emotionally invested you became. Hard as it is to imagine now, for years The Velvet Underground & Nico and Big Star’s Radio City and Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain could only be found as battered (and pricey) second-hand copies in used-record stores, or fluke jackpots in random antique shops or garage sales.
In Nick Hornby’s novel and John Cusack’s film High Fidelity (the touchstone for all record-store lore since its release in 2000), when store employee Todd Louiso’s character is playing the new Belle and Sebastian album or Cusack’s is playing Beta Band, it’s a statement. Belle and Sebastian is one of the most important things in that character’s life; more cynically, Cusack’s character understands how important his endorsement is to his store’s customers. (My boss in Syracuse would often say the same thing Cusack’s character said before playing the Beta Band: “Watch me sell five copies of this album.”) A lame album — or an expensive CD single with tossed-off B-sides — from a band you loved was a personal affront. Now, it’s just another thing to delete dispassionately from iTunes or your streaming service as you cue up what to play next from literally limitless choices.
None of this is to say things are better or worse now, or were then. They’re just different, and Other Music recognizes that, as Madell told the New York Times, “the energy of music has moved on from places like this” — largely to social media. The fact that the store was able to hang in for as long as it did is a testament to its staff’s adaptability, expertise and far-sightedness: They outlasted former neighbor Tower Records by a decade.
And although Madell told me on Monday that he doesn’t want the store to become another “dead East Village institution” — sorry, dude, but there will be an element of that each time we walk past 15 East 4th Street and see the juice bar or phone store or fancy shoe outlet it’s likely to become. It’ll be the same feeling we get walking past 20 St. Mark’s Place (Sounds record store) or 59 East 7th Street (See Hear fanzine mecca) or 315 Bowery (CBGB). And even though record stores are far from dead — long may the Rough Trades and Amoebas thrive — they somehow feel different, like a post-Internet version that follows more than it leads. Sooner or later, everything becomes extinct except extinction itself.
So thank you, Other Music — not just for the Neutral Milk Hotel CD Chris convinced me to buy in early 1996, or the Brazilian reissue of Caetano Veloso’s first album I couldn’t find anywhere else, or my first pressing of Tortoise’s debut LP, or the sold-on-consignment first Strokes EP or any of my many CDs and records with those little price stickers that are so hard to remove. Most of all, thanks for showing what a record store could still be, even as the music industry deflated around it.