By Steve Erickson
New York rents used to be cheap enough and the population willing to spend money on music large enough to support the existence of record stores, even those specializing in jazz, reggae and heavy metal. Those days are long gone.
Chris Vanderloo, Jeff Gibson and Josh Madell, who had all worked in the music department of Kim’s Underground, opened their store Other Music in 1995, across the street from Tower Records’ Village location. Stock was carefully curated but accessible, with an eclectic rack of new releases near the door. The staff wrote knowledgeable, smart descriptions of the music on offer shared via a weekly E-mail and note cards in the store itself.
Other Music thrived until increasing gentrification, the declining appeal of the area to tourists after 9/11 and the rise of streaming made it harder to sustain. In June 2016, the store went out of business.
Other Music, Puloma Basu and Rob Hatch-Miller’s documentary, premiered at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival and is available on all VOD platforms from August 25th. While the store was surely a commercial enterprise, it felt uniquely personal, with a real aesthetic, and the film captures that. As streaming has wiped out physical retail, Other Music demonstrates the real virtues of those spaces for creating a sense of community and inspiring people to make art, not just sell it.
Given wide access during the store’s final six weeks, Basu and Hatch-Miller delved into its history and interviewed actors Benicio del Toro, Jason Schwartzmann and too many musicians to name, capturing their passion about the store and musical discoveries made there. For one thing, Other Music underscores the store’s importance in the marketing of ’90s and 2000s indie music; Madell says that they were responsible for fully 20% of the dance label Ninja Tune’s American sales.
I recently spoke to the filmmakers about Other Music, Other Music and other music.
Was it hard to film the store constantly during its final few weeks, particularly emotionally? I’m sure the employees and the owners must have found that period difficult and draining.
Rob Hatch-Miller: We started filming after the store made the announcement they were going to close. We were very cognizant of the sensitivity there, especially since Josh and Chris were both close friends. They were hesitant to let this project happen. Closing this place that meant so much to them was really fraught. They wondered if they wanted to do a farewell concert or just go out quietly. This place was so important to us, and to so many other people, that documenting it was vital. It meant long hours. One of us would be there for six weeks from the moment someone arrived till the doors closed. But I wouldn’t say it was taxing. It was actually great to be there and spend all that time again.
Puloma Basu: It was definitely emotional, but it really helped that everyone at the store knew who we were. After the first couple of days of filming, they really did forget we were there. We were part of the store’s normal, everyday life. When you’re trying to document something, the best thing that can happen is your subjects forgetting about you.
Hatch-Miller: I had worked at Other Music when I was a junior at NYU film school. It was really one of the most magical times in my life. Getting to spend another six weeks there was something I wouldn’t give up for anything. Even if we hadn’t made a film out of it, that time was invaluable.
I worked at Kim’s Video in 1992 and 1993 alongside the three guys who founded Other Music. Jeff Gibson introduced me to Scott Walker, Serge Gainsbourg and Pulp (who hadn’t even signed to a major label yet). They were great at passing knowledge around. There’s a stereotype of record store clerks as snobbish geeks and a critique of snobbery in our culture that might once have been valuable, but now reverse snobbery dominates, where there’s a stigma to liking anything except Hollywood movies and pop music. Do you have the same sense?
Hatch-Miller: Poptimism is what people talk about, where every music critic says, “Pavement isn’t great, Carly Rae Jepsen is the best music ever.” Other Music was considered snobby by people who hadn’t gone there, but Chris was the antithesis of the snobby record store clerk. He couldn’t be more excited to tell people about a record he liked, whether it was Tom Petty or some obscure Afrobeat group. When people talked about Jeff Gibson, whom I never got to know, I understood how much he shaped the store. He really was its foundation, naming it and setting its taste level. He’d get so excited by some Japanese noise CD that he’d order 100 copies they could never sell.
Basu: We wanted to show that these people were really passionate. I think that comes across as snobbery sometimes. To me, it’s curiosity.
Hatch-Miller: I remember being an 18-year-old in New York coming to Other Music for the first time and being intimidated by the fact that I didn’t recognize 90% of the names on the bin cards. But that didn’t keep me from coming back. I wanted to find out who they were. That wasn’t a barrier to entry.
Basu: People like us are so obsessed with music. You think you know all this stuff and go into a place like that and think, “Actually, I don’t know anything.” It took me a long time to talk to anyone there. I didn’t want to look stupid. But when you finally did, they’re just nerds who want to tell you about this great music they love. One of my best friends introduced me to Rob when he worked there.
When I saw the interview with Vampire Weekend singer Ezra Koenig, I wondered if the store introduced him to African music. The aesthetic that the store championed – the wide array of music they recommended, even the layout – really encouraged people who might be fans of Wilco and Belle and Sebastian to also check out techno or Afrobeat.
Hatch-Miller: I don’t know, but Ezra discovered tons of different types of music through the store. I have a friend who, growing up, said you could be into metal, punk or classic rock, but you couldn’t like more than one of them. The eclecticism that Other Music championed has gone on to influence underground music, much like the eclecticism of Kim’s has influenced the people who worked there to spread out into the film industry in independent cinema. There’s an interest in all kinds of other international cinema and documentaries.
Cultural spaces like art galleries, record stores and used book stores are often the first outposts of gentrification, but then get wiped out in its later stages. Obviously, that was well under way in the East Village before Other Music opened, but do you see a larger picture about arts in urban areas in this story?
Hatch-Miller: For sure. Josh talks about it in the film. At first, their customers lived in the East Village and there were music venues in the neighborhood. But as the store continued, their customers lived further and further away.
Basu: It became an island.
Hatch-Miller: The Mercury Lounge is still around, but Tonic and Brownie’s are gone. We didn’t want to bring in an expert to explain [all that]. We wanted people to connect the dots.
Basu: We did not need to tell the story because people have been telling it for years. Every generation has [its] own version of it. We were living in New York and saw it happen before our eyes in Williamsburg. Artists and musicians lived there and got priced out eight years later. It feels like a story that people know. We used Other Music as an example, without delving into the nitty-gritty.
Hatch-Miller; We submitted the film for PBS funding. There was strong interest, but ultimately they didn’t give us funding. One of the panelists was really adamant that the film needed to shift and be really overtly about gentrification. That wasn’t the film we wanted to make.
Was it a problem finding distribution for a film about a local record store?
Hatch-Miller: There’s always a sense that anything small is too niche. There’s a lot of caution in the film business. It’s a miracle when a film like Searching for Sugar Man gets a wide release and a lot of attention and acclaim, because it’s about a super-obscure artist. If the guy who made that film was an American rather than a European who had access to arts funding, it never would’ve gotten produced, because the commercial distribution arms would’ve said, “No one is gonna watch this except his fans and no one has heard of Rodriguez, so we’re gonna make another Beyoncé documentary.”
Basu: That movie was an outlier. It’s a true mix. There are people who thought it was too niche, but some people in the industry knew what Other Music was. The film has enough big names to give people pause.
Hatch-Miller: Greenwich Entertainment was really interested in the film. They’d been doing nostalgia docs for baby boomers, like Echo in the Canyon. If Other Music was 10 or 20 years older, they would have taken it. The idea that this is too niche a film…one person at PBS said it was too small a story, but others said it was fairly universal.
Basu: We would never set out to tell a story just for the people who already know what that story is.
Hatch-Miller: We always intended to make someone fall in love with the store whether or not they had set foot there or not. We’ve heard from people who said, “I don’t care about records, I don’t collect records, but I love this.”
Did you approach anybody at Spotify about an interview?
Hatch-Miller: We did not. I think if there had been someone who came into our minds who had a direct connection to Other Music that worked at Spotify, we would’ve interviewed them. We deliberately didn’t want to talk to “experts.” We only interviewed artists that shopped there and had a real connection. We didn’t seek out famous people who maybe shopped there once.
Basu: Our interview subjects helped us out because they cared about the store and wanted to talk about it. We didn’t want to go into a long explanation about what streaming has done. Everyone knows that. We didn’t want to spend time explaining the shift, because we wanted to focus on the store. It’s one reason why the music industry changed dramatically and affected stores like Other Music.
Basu: We wanted it to be very tight and not have any tangents about the music industry. That’s not our story to tell. We were telling the story of a community in a specific place. It’s a larger story because there are so many other people who can recognize a store like that in their own lives, whether it sells books or records.
Hatch-Miller: We saw the Tower Records documentary which came out five years ago. I really liked the first act of it, which is just a celebration of working in a record store.
Basu: Getting to know the people who started it.
Hatch-Miller: We tuned out when it went into the history of the iPod. Well, we know what iPods are and how they affected stores.
It feels like one class of music buyers no longer exists. There are a huge number of people who stream music, often for free, and a small number of people who spend $30 on vinyl. At one point, CDs cost about $12 or 13 and it was possible to get affordable used vinyl. That’s gone out the window now. There also used to be a lot more “gateway artists” that might get a teenager to go into a store like Other Music. Now, record stores are a niche market selling vinyl to collectors.
Hatch-Miller: We love music. We stream it, but we also buy new and used records. We’re not object fetishists with records. There’s a Ty Segall record on my turntable now. I’d rather play it on that than through Bluetooth speakers off my phone, but ultimately I just like the music. I think the function of record stores has changed radically. Are they necessary? I think they are for cultural reasons more than as a way for artists to get their music heard.
Basu: The pandemic makes it more possible for these places to be valued. People now are realizing “I stopped going to my record store,” and now that they can’t, they’re thinking about how fun it was to go and talk to a person.
Hatch-Miller: It’s the same thing with going to the movies. It’s really easy to think, “I can just wait a month, rent it on iTunes, it’ll be cheaper, and I can hit pause.” But when you don’t have that [theatrical] option, you miss it much more and appreciate the things you don’t have.
Basu: People who’ve watched our film during the pandemic have realized that they can’t go to the places they care about. I hope people come out of this realizing that they have to support these spaces or they’re not gonna be around anymore. I’m not an expert, but I do know that people miss social spaces. And there aren’t many of them. Most people will go to a bar to drink or a venue to see a show. Maybe book and record stores were taking a hit because it was no longer the only way people could buy music.
Hatch-Miller: We know plenty of record stores that are thriving. They’re just in places that have lower rents than Manhattan. They’re [charging] $35 for a new release. I don’t like paying that much for a new album, but I’ll still do it.
Basu: Other Music’s model really did focus on new music. That made it unsustainable in the end. Record stores that focus on healthy used sections are doing fine.
Hatch-Miller: Now that records cost so much money, the profit margin is healthier than if you buy a $12 CD. It costs three times as much. So the stores are able to exist.
How did the lockdown affect the plans for your release of the film?
Hatch-Miller: It completely and totally affected them, in every possible way.
Basu: We had a pretty good theatrical run figured out. We were gonna play for a week at the IFC Center in New York, then the Northwest Film Forum in Seattle, then Toronto. There were more than 20 cities booked around the country and the world. We were super-excited.
Hatch-Miller: It would have been the first time a film either of us directed or produced had any kind of run outside of film festivals. That was a big deal, as lovers of the theatrical experience. As the pandemic started coming into focus, we quickly realized our plans were not going to play out as we thought they would.
Basu: We scheduled our theatrical release around Record Store Day, which was April 18th. So we quickly knew we needed a plan B. There was a film, Bacurau, which did a virtual release before us, that everyone was talking about. A lot of people were wondering “Should I wait? When can people go back to the theater?” We knew that even if this was eradicated within a few months, people won’t feel safe going back to movie theaters. It will change the way people come to see films.