The Newly Released Documentary, “Other Music”

The newly released documentary, “Other Music,” serves as both a love letter and sympathy card for a one-of-a-kind record store. So it’s only appropriate that the film opens with a New Orleans-style second-line funeral, complete with a somewhat avant-garde marching band, festive umbrellas, and the progression from sorrow to celebration that goes along with all of that.

In this case, the dearly beloved was Other Music, an indie record shop that opened in Manhattan’s East Village in 1995, a time when the neighborhood’s indie music scene had yet to be eclipsed by its Brooklyn counterparts.

“Other Music,” which made its debut at the Tribeca Film Festival, has already raised thousands of dollars online to help temporarily shuttered indie record shops stay afloat. The documentary has now gotten a much-deserved wide release — via streaming services like Amazon, iTunes and Google Play. It’s a deeply moving, beautifully crafted film about a record shop that became a kind of community center for local underground musicians, devoted record collectors, and anyone else open-minded enough to understand that alternative music can transcend aesthetic and geographical boundaries.

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“We just always wanted to be on the edge of what was happening in the culture,” says co-owner Josh Madell early on in the documentary. Madell and his fellow Other Music co-founders, Chris Vanderloo and Jeff Gibson, soon discovered how many others shared that desire, as the small shop’s reputation and customer base expanded from its local community to esoteric music lovers from around the world.

But it took some time to get there. Longtime staffer Nicole Lang recalls the sensory overload she felt while wandering through the store for the first time as a customer. “I was like, ‘What the heck is this?’ — I just couldn’t figure it out  — and I got so freaked out I just left,” she recalls with a laugh. “Other Music just cracked my head open. It was like, there’s a whole world that you have no idea about, and get ready to learn!”

Other Music’s business strategy — to the degree one existed — would have made perfect sense in the alternate universe of DC comics’ “Bizarro World.” Having found some success selling records in the back of a friend’s video store, the three music fanatics began scouting for a location of their own. As luck would have it, they found one on West Fourth Street, between Lafayette Street and Broadway, a cozy little storefront in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood with plenty of walking traffic.

The only catch was that it was directly across the street from Tower Records’ four-story flagship NYC store.

This, of course, was during a time when the Starbuckses of the world were deliberately opening retail outlets as close as possible to existing mom ’n’ pop shops that, more often than not, would be forced to go out of business.

The incongruity of the situation did not go unnoticed. Madell and his partners were still setting up the store when that started to become obvious. “A guy came in and said, ‘What are you guys gonna be selling here?’” recalls Madell. “We told him we were selling music. And he’s like, ‘Man, have you looked out your window?’”

While Tower’s presence is barely mentioned in “Other Music,” it’s worth pointing out here that this conspicuous location was most likely an advantage. An indie record shop the size of a two-car garage wasn’t going to cut into the profit margins of a four-story megastore, and even if it did, Tower’s corporate culture was such that they likely wouldn’t have cared.

As a similar 2015 documentary “All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records” makes clear, Tower’s affable owner Russ Solomon had a similar origin story. He, too, started out in the corner of an already-established business, in this case his father’s modest corner drug store in Sacramento, California. And unlike his corporate peers, the seasoned entrepreneur retained an abiding love and respect for music and the culture surrounding it, which was expressed by the chain’s devotion to in-store performances and a famously deep catalog that went infinitely beyond what most chains would even consider stocking.

But that’s where the similarities end. The Tower documentary includes obligatory testimonials from superstars like Elton John, Bruce Springsteen and Foo Fighters’ Dave Navarro. Other Music’s: team of expert witnesses, by contrast, offer decidedly more personal recollections from loyal customers like Regina Spektor, James Chance of the Contortions, Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O, and The National’s Matt Berninger.

The shop’s in-store performances, meanwhile, were no less eclectic, including such diverse acts as Revlon 9, Tinariwen, Handsome Boy Modeling School, St. Vincent, Gary Wilson, The Go-Betweens and Vampire Weekend.

But on a day-to-day basis, Other Music’s biggest selling point was the savant-like knowledge of a staff with varied gender, ethnicity and musical preferences. What brought them all together was a shared devotion to the music they were selling, and their ability to convey that to customers.

Well, at least in most cases.

“There shouldn’t have been an intimidation factor, but there was,” recalls actor Jason Schwartzman in one of the film’s more amusing exchanges. “I’m not the first person to say that, right? I remember asking somebody who worked there about an album that was in the staff ‘We Love’ section, and he was like [mutters under his breath] ‘I don’t like it.’ And I was like, whoa, this badass guy, he doesn’t even like the stuff that they like.”

Another frequent customer, Tunde Adebimpe from Brooklyn’s TV on the Radio, expresses a similarly bemused sentiment: “I remember so often I would walk in there and it was like, ‘How did you guys get hired? Because I KNOW you don’t have a résumé. How are you all here?’”

But, as mentioned earlier, all things must pass. In 2006, the Tower Records across the street called it quits. Other Music would carry on a full decade longer, until June 25, 2016, when it, too, shut its doors.

“The world is changing quickly in a lot of ways, and so much of it happens in the virtual world, and for sure there are a lot of positives to that,” says Vanderloo, as staff and customers can been seen sharing tearful hugs, memories, and in many cases, conversations about their favorite music for the last time before Amazon claims yet another legendary record shop. “But, you know, the magic of human interaction, and the way it kind of forces you to be in the moment — to have a real give-and-take dialogue — is something that can only be experienced face-to-face.”

Still, two decades is a good long run, and he’s more than grateful for that.

“A place like Other Music is only about the community, and the people who shop there, and the family,” he says at a concert celebrating the store’s legacy with performances by Sharon Van Etten, Yo La Tengo, Frankie Cosmos, Yoko Ono and other members of that extended family. “It’s not about buying and selling, it’s about being a part of something.”

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