Photo via Other Music's Facebook
Living in New York, you get used to your favorite local stores shuttering to make room for a Whole Foods or luxury doggie daycare or whatever, but this one hurts: Other Music is closing shop after 21 years of record store service.
That sucks. The store has been a beacon of independent and experimental music in Greenwich Village since the dawn of the Giuliani years, with their platinum-selling grunge clones and $18.99 CDs. We all figured this news would come eventually, but not now. For Other Music to outlive its Tower Records neighbor by a matter of a decade and still find itself forced to bend to the dismal trends of the record industry feels like a sad epilogue—especially considering that the store remains pretty popular today (I stop in often and rarely see it empty).
“We still do a ton of business—probably more than most stores in the country,” co-owner Josh Madell told The New York Times. “It’s just the economics of it actually supporting us—we don’t see a future in it. We’re trying to step back before it becomes a nightmare.”
The streaming revolution, in which customers expect to hear everything before buying and a big new album might be exclusive to Tidal, doesn’t help. Lots of New Yorkers stopped visiting, and who blames them? It’s hard to afford luxury vinyl goods, harder to find room for LPs in closet-sized apartments. So the store and its mail-order service will both shut down on June 25. (If you want to go record-shopping in New York, head to Brooklyn. Manhattan rent prices have almost completely driven out the borough’s record shops, with a few exceptions, including the great Generation Records.)
I discovered Other Music as a teenager growing up in a Westchester suburb where a cultural happening meant going to the local library to greet a live pig. Taking the train down to Astor Place or St. Mark's Place felt like hopping a portal into the last vestiges of Manhattan counterculture. When you’re a kid, literally nothing seems edgier than head shops and tattoo parlors. But as a kid, I didn’t care about tattoos or bongs. I liked record stores—gritty-seeming ones that didn’t exist in the suburban universe of Coconuts and Sam Goody.
Back then, a trip to the Village meant lots of stores to choose from. There was Mondo Kim's, the famed underground music and video retailer with its numerous floors of esoteric finds. Long-beloved, the last Kim’s location shut down in 2014. There was Rockit Scientist Records, with its narrow, wall-to-wall aisles of psychedelic records, which closed in 2012, and Sounds, which became St. Marks’ last record store standing when it closed last year. A few blocks up was the massive, godlike Virgin Megastore, which shuttered in 2009. And on the other extreme was Second Hand Rose’s (which is still in business), the place to look for curmudgeonly audiophiles and pricey, first-edition Beatles pressings.
Other Music was the most well-known and arguably the most beloved of the independents. Established in 1995, the deceptively small store took its name from the fact that Tower Records was across the street on East Fourth Street. OM was where you’d go to find “other music”—the indie and avant-garde discs not for sale in the Tower bins. Few predicted that Tower Records would shutter a decade later while OM would carry on, its name shorn of context. I remember visiting the store for the first time after taking a college tour of NYU. I walked out with a Talk Talk album (recommended by a list of the top 100 albums of the 1980s) and a Jesus Lizard album (recommended by Mark Prindle’s reviews site).
I never attended NYU, but I returned to Other Music over and over. The store shaped my music collection for years, not just carrying but spotlighting indie and post-punk artists that had only seemed to exist on music blogs and message boards. It’s where I bought my first Slowdive, Nick Cave, Slint, and Cocteau Twins albums. It’s where I spotted a familiar-looking CD called Psychocandy, brought it home, and wondered if my stereo was blowing a fuse.
In the late-aughts, the store seemed to benefit from the indie-rock’s surge in popularity. Most used bins consist of secondhand Hootie & The Blowfish CDs and like 12 copies of R.E.M.’s Monster. In OM’s vast used shelf you were as likely to find promo copies of recent releases by, say, Broken Social Scene or The Knife. The New Releases section was also indie-centric, with handwritten recommendations affixed to CDs. Unlike most stores, Other Music had separate categories for new indie and old punk/etc, plus sections marked with off-the-path genres like psych-rock, avant-garde, and J-pop. Other Music seemed willing to stock local underground and punk acts as well.
When I moved to New York after college, I’d visit the shop every few weeks. I worked nearby, in Soho, and seeing the blue and orange awning was like a Pavlovian response: I’d enter the store and spend an evening browsing instead of sitting in my windowless railroad apartment. One day, I purchased an early CD copy of Like a Prayer that still contained the AIDS/HIV fact sheet Madonna had distributed to fans in 1989. More recently, I headed to Other Music the day after David Bowie died and bought Blackstar on my way to Bowie’s nearby apartment-turned-memorial.
Sometimes the store hosted events, in-store performances that felt like yet another throwback to the era when Other Music opened. It was almost comical to see indie-rock royalty squeezed into the tiny storefront, CD racks pushed to the sides. Once I waited on a line full of gossipping NYU students coiled around the block to see Lee Ranaldo play. In 2015, I greeted Ira Kaplan as he and his bandmates took turns DJing at a Yo La Tengo release party. To its credit, the store never really compromised its mission—it doesn’t stock jokey coffee-table books, it doesn’t display three dozen copies of Adele’s 25, and it hasn’t opened an in-store cafe like Rough Trade has.
Though Other Music was largely known for indie music, it’d be wrong not to mention the store’s impressive experimental and avant-garde stock. If you were trying to figure out what Steve Reich or Robert Ashley were all about, Other Music was a goddamn great place to look. I remember returning to Other Music during a break from my first semester of college. I was taking an experimental music 101 course with Alvin Lucier himself, and Other Music was the first store I’d ever seen that had a name card for Lucier.
The comment thread beneath Other Music’s closure announcement is full of nostalgic remembrances like this one. “My prized Bjork and Tricky collections of over 50 cds come entirely from your store,” one nerd writes. Another commenter marvels at “the amount of albums I bought by picking up what was Now Playing.” One shopper singles out the “snotty but cute cashiers.”
Much has been made of the store’s supposed snobbiness over the years, though I rarely found the staff to live up to that unsavory reputation. (As one Yelp reviewer dubiously claims, “Keith Richards could walk in & snort Pope JP2's ashes off the counter & they'd yawn & tell 'em that some dude in a noiserock band from the Bronx... had come in & snorted Gram Parsons ashes' out of the cleavage of some strung out Suicide Girl last week.”) Maybe they’ll snicker if you ask for help finding a Jack Johnson album, or maybe Jack Black’s High Fidelity character will materialize to berate you if you ask for "I Just Called to Say I Love You,” but I doubt it.
What is clear is that the staff loved using the store’s stereo system to introduce customers to new and sometimes jarring sounds. The last time I visited the store, two Sundays ago, they were blasting a disc of unaccompanied throat-singing. It sounded pretty grating. Some customers scowled and made pained faces. But they stuck around to browse. After scouring the used bins, I settled on Le1f’s recent Riot Boi ($6.99—cheaper than buying the thing on iTunes) and walked out, grateful such a store was still allowed to exist in our brave new New York.
Zach Schonfeld is a senior writer for Newsweek. Follow him on Twitter.