Other Music

A documentary about the legendary NYC record store plays Saturday, February 8, as part of NW Film Center’s 37th Annual Reel Music Festival

I bought my first record at Kmart in Moscow, Idaho — a 45 of the Doobie Brothers “What a Fool Believes.” My record-buying habits were indiscriminate in those early days, as I later added well-used public library copies of Glen Campbell and Van Halen to my collection. Maturing into middle school, I dabbled in the mail-order world of Columbia House record club, never getting much farther than buying my first six cassettes (Queen, Bryan Adams…) for a penny (plus shipping and handling).  But, what really hooked me on buying music were my early trips to Budget Tapes and Records in downtown Pullman, Washington, where I often went to peruse the records, whether or not I really had any money to buy anything. Looking back, it probably wasn’t that great of a store, but at the time it was an important locus, the people behind the counter larger than life. The main record store guy, Rick, seemed so much older and wiser — he even played in bands! Tolerating a kid like me in the store, asking him questions about the latest Tom Petty or Quiet Riot release; he helped lead my way into the world of record buying.

As I moved through my adolescence, my tastes departing further from top 40 radio, a good record store became an important touchpoint, one way to tap into a world beyond the confines of small town Eastern Washington.  In those days, the only way to really learn about new music — especially music on the fringes of the mainstream — was to have a guide in the form of a record store employee, a friend’s older brother, or perhaps a copy of The Rocket from a trip to Seattle.  Finding new music often depended on scouring the liner notes of records and looking for familiar names. Previewing a new record often meant borrowing someone else’s copy — I remember the excited but uneasy sense I had when first playing the 1981 Chunks compilation (with Black Flag, Minutemen, and the dangerous sounding The Nig-Heist) and the 1980 Cracks in the Sidewalk compilation, both of which I’d bought on a whim at Budget Tapes — not sure how much I liked them or even really knew how to listen to them, but convinced they were a portal into a different world, in which the rules seemed different.  Moving to Seattle, I eagerly awaited new Sub Pop releases at Cellophane Square, then relied on the collision of different genres at Wall of Sound to expand my palate. I never much cared for the bigger stores, like Tower or HMV, preferring the personal and more curated feeling of independent stores.

Other Music was a great record store in New York City.  On Saturday, NW Film Center will be screening a documentary about the legendary store as part of the 37th Annual Reel Music Festival.

The film was done at the time the store closed in 2016 — looking back over its 20 year history on E 4th Street in Manhattan. The documentary is an engaging look at the life of the store, incorporating interviews from regular customers (including a number of famous faces, like Benicio del Toro), musicians (such as Tunde Adebimpe, Dean Wareham and Matt Berninger), and staff. Like other documentaries on record stores (I Need That Record, Last Shop Standing), this film is also about the changes in the music industry and the challenges faced by stores selling physical media, like vinyl.

In traveling to Manhattan over the years, my circuit of record store visits has steadily diminished in scope — no longer able to go to Kim’s Underground or Rocks in Your Head. Other Music gone too. Fortunately, Academy Records remains a hold-out. The first time I visited Other Music, I was impressed by the musical reach of the store, despite its physical size. Other Music’s greatness lay in its curation and its dependence on staff, who were passionate about music and glad to share this love with others.  The organization of genres in the store was unique, foregoing typical groupings to use classifications, like “Then” and “Now,” “In” and “Out,” which even the staff admit they didn’t always understand.

I was never a fan of a record store with the High Fidelity, hipper-than-thou guy behind the counter — I have always gravitated towards the type of store that aims high with the collection, but is also willing to absorb the wide-eyed teenager, or the dad in a bomber jacket and white sneakers trying to find that song they heard in a movie. The documentary touches on the level of intimidation some customers felt in interacting with the staff, but I always felt Other Music employees had just enough, but not too much, cool. Unlike many record stores, fortunately, the staff were not just a bunch of white guys. Incorporating the voices of the store staff, the film does a nice job of giving their perspective.

Other Music was intimately tied into the local arts and music scene. They shoved the stacks aside to host many in-store performances, including some I would have loved to see: Yo La Tengo and Tinariwen among them.

The store also expanded well beyond its walls, as they sought to adapt to the shifting landscape of the music industry, moving to online ordering, then a short-lived digital download service. The Other Music weekly update was a crucial source of learning about new music, long before many other music-focused websites started.

Although we are spoiled for choice in Portland, with an abundance of great stores, it seems harder than ever to find a good record store in many parts of the country.  When traveling in or out of the country, one of the first places I often go is the local record store — hoping to find a treasured souvenir, but also because it’s often a good way to make a personal connection with someone local, whether in Athens, Barcelona, Arcata, or New York City.  With rents going up and the increasing commercial and cultural homogenization of Manhattan, the difficult labor of love of running a record store became increasingly untenable, leading to the closure of Other Music in 2016. As the internet seems to make everything available, the idea of going to a physical store to buy a record has become a more niche experience. Even with the resurgence of vinyl production, the ability to walk into a good record store in any town is much diminished. Some companies have even tried to turn record-buying into an experience equivalent to getting a takeout meal delivered to your door, but the best musical discoveries are still made through a personal connection. The Other Music documentary offers a celebration and lamentation of the record store experience. Staying close to the store and its community of staff, artists and buyers, the film immerses the viewer in the world created among the records and CDs. And, just like going to the actual store, you’ll leave the cinema with a list of artists you just need to check out.

Other Music, the documentary, plays Saturday, February 8, at 7 PM at the Whitsell Auditorium. After the film, there will be a discussion involving owners of some of Portland’s finest record stores: Andrew Neerman (Beacon Sound), Jed Bindeman (Little Axe), Tony Remple (Musique Plastique), and Eric Isaacson (Mississippi Records), moderated by Robert Ham from the Portland Mercury.

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