Documentary ‘Other Music’ revives record store appreciation in a digital age

Illustration of the storefront of "Other Music", featuring a black cat.
Jason Yen/File

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“Before the internet, before the iPhone, people trusted people.” 

In the digital age — where streaming services and algorithms are the name of the game — it often feels like a genuine appreciation for more traditional ways of consuming music, such as collecting vinyl records, has been largely forgotten. With their endearing documentary “Other Music,” filmmakers Puloma Basu and Rob Hatch-Miller revive the spirit of the titular record store, offering both a fitting eulogy for a beloved music landmark as well as a touching celebration of an unlikely community brought together by their shared love for music. 

Other Music opened in New York City’s East Village in 1995 as an independent record store directly across the street from Tower Records, one of the biggest record stores in the country at the time. The shop, which amassed a large base of loyal customers, was known for having a highly knowledgeable staff in a wide range of musical genres. It championed and popularized small local bands, many of which would go on to become critically acclaimed acts: Interpol, Vampire Weekend, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV on the Radio and The National are among the list.

The film centers around co-owners Chris Vanderloo and Josh Madell — from their start at a video store called Kim’s Underground to booming business in the late ’90s and early 2000s — as they recount the record store’s rise and fall across its 21 years of business. Framed around the final weeks before Other Music closed in June 2016, the film additionally features interviews with a host of past and current employees as well as various artists with ties to the store, including Ezra Koenig, Jason Schwartzman, avante-garde composer William Basinski, Regina Spektor and members of the experimental pop band Animal Collective, to name a few.

Things initially fare ordinary as the film delivers the necessary exposition. But when the filmmakers start showcasing the store’s eccentricities, from the unique way music was organized to the personalities of the staff and the exciting in-store shows (of which the delightfully odd performance from reclusive artist Gary Wilson is a highlight), “Other Music” truly starts to shine. Basu and Hatch-Miller effectively capture an appropriately reverent tone; it’s clear from the interviews with both ordinary customers and celebrities (such as Benicio del Toro) that Other Music was much more than just another record store.

If this sounds like a lot of intimidating information, that’s because it is. At times, viewers may find that “Other Music” feels like it’s slightly lost in the weeds, the film’s subjects caught up in technical jargon and pretentiousness. But that’s also the beauty of it. The middle portion of the film is devoted to addressing the gatekeeping and music snobbery synonymous with Other Music and record collecting in general, arguing that the passion for curation, no matter how brash, is ultimately what connects others and keeps art alive. 

In one of the film’s most memorable moments, The National’s Matt Berninger makes a compelling case for higher standards for art and music as a necessity: “If your bar on art is high, then your bar on kindness is high. When art gets dumber, when movies get dumber, when TV gets dumber, I think we all get dumber and meaner and sh—ier. You should celebrate the stuff that’s better than the average.” 

While it’s a tribute to a store that is no more, “Other Music” isn’t solely a nostalgia trip or a commentary on the rippling effect of the changing music industry. Mostly, it’s a charming documentary about how passion can create shared spaces and a sense of community for those who are bold enough to pursue what they love. And in a time when computers and consumerism dictating what we stream is the new norm, this purely human connection is not only much appreciated, it is also extraordinary.

Contact Vincent Tran at [email protected].