WHY RECORD STORES MATTERED
By Amanda Petrusich , JUNE 22, 2016
The actress Chloë Sevigny, in 2011, at the New York record store Other Music, which closes its doors this week.
PHOTOGRAPH BY THOS ROBINSON / WIREIMAGE FOR AMERICAN EXPRESS / GETTY
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This Saturday, Other Music—the tiny, beloved, and outré record shop on East Fourth Street—will cease its retail operations. No longer will sealed Belle and Sebastian or Boards of Canada LPs be tentatively placed on its counter. The headline of a Times article last month announcing the store’s finish read, “Other Music Record Shop, Yielding to Trends, Will Close.” What “trends” means in this context is startlingly self-evident. The prevailing trend of our time is, it seems, a disburdening of the past. Things that once appeared immovably vital are now relics to be examined, mourned, and recast as affectations.
Critics can and have read Other Music’s bow-out as representative, in an allegorical way, of any number of bigger Ends: the End of music as a physical medium to be collected and doted over, the End of curated off-line retail, the End of curation, the End of the East Village, the End of New York. Most of those Ends—whether real or imagined—have already been eulogized so aggressively that to revisit them now seems plainly indulgent. In our accelerated culture, collective nostalgia, in which we mourn the freshly antiquated for reasons that are unclear but still enormously potent, is its own cottage industry (especially for culture reporters).
At the store’s inception—and, I’d argue, for most of its lifespan—what distinguished Other Music from other independent record shops, both in this city and beyond it, was the quietly confrontational ethos behind its name. Most people want to believe in their own deep-rooted exceptionality, whether they’re directly reckoning with those feelings or not; Other Music explicitly indulged that desire. In 1999, if you were the type of person who was looking for something a little different (more challenging, more sophisticated, more esoteric) from the schlock being peddled to the herds of dead-eyed automatons browsing the Tower Records up the block, then here was the store for you! Welcome/Not welcome! I was fifteen when the store opened, in 1995, and, of course, I found the whole idea of it equal parts terrifying and aspirational. Other Music: not regular-ass music. Other. The implication was so clear. (When Other Music outlasted both Tower and the Virgin Megastore that eventually opened ten blocks north, in Union Square, its premise was also vindicated.)
The store’s stock has always tended toward the abstruse. For many years, it was the only place in the city (and maybe on the East Coast) where you could find copies of great but commercially unpopular records: free jazz, certain strains of world music, Krautrock, long forgotten folk balladry. I bought my first albums by otherwise-unclassifiable artists like Arthur Russell and John Fahey at Other Music. I later read from my book about obscure 78 r.p.m. records there. Uncommon but extraordinary records were offered prominent shelf space, and serendipity was always in the air. Station yourself before the bins labelled “Out”—“Out” in the context of Other Music implied either intrepid or foolhardy experimentation, or maybe both—and see what calls to you.
I still don’t know anyone who has ever stepped into Other Music with total confidence. In the nineteen-nineties and well into the aughts, this was an enormous part of the store’s appeal. It was the bungee jump of shopping experiences: did you have the nerve, and could you survive the leap? Certainly, the need for a knowledgeable staff is less urgent these days—a smartphone will instantly tell you anything you want to know, and you don’t have to feel lethally embarrassed if it turns out you are asking a phone a dumb question—but, when I first started buying CDs there, as a teen-ager, it was hard to find a more astute, studied assemblage of music nerds than the crew lounging behind the counter. I found them so formidable as to be frightening. They did not abide musical foolishness, or bad taste.
To anyone born after me, this probably sounds like a hideously snobbish scene. As I’ve learned teaching music criticism to New York University students, subsequent generations have since adopted a lovely “Do you!” magnanimity when it comes to musical taste. Part of this might have to do with their instinctively inclusive temperaments—they have come of age in an era in which intolerance is forcefully policed—and part of it might have to do with the breakdown of genre, at least as it once existed in the record bins. There are no record bins anymore—no little plastic signposts signifying content, broadcasting a set of principles, musical and otherwise. Genre itself—or, more specifically, genre affiliation as a means of self-identification—feels like another End hovering in the atmosphere this week. No one is asked to choose one affiliation at the expense of another. Instead, it is perfectly normal, even expected, that a person might have a little bit of everything stacked up in her digital library. The idea of “Other Music” as it was conceived in 1995 is unknowable now.
I was not quite so sanguine as a youth. My scramble for self-identity was tied up in records, and Other Music was where I went to get myself sorted out. What did I like? What did I want? Which section did I want to start flipping through first, and what did that say about me? The classification of a person via her cultural preferences and proclivities—maybe that’s something we should be glad to wave goodbye to. One is no longer either a punk or a goth, In or Out; one merely is.
But it’s also why I think of Other Music as an integral player in my making, and why witnessing its end feels especially personal. We all experience some version of this dissociation a million times in a life: a drawbridge being raised behind you. The sense that you couldn’t re-create yourself now if you tried. When I needed it to, Other Music turned the whole notion of “Other” into something prideful—it forced me to make a choice about who I thought I was, or could be—and for that I’ll always be grateful, beholden.
Amanda Petrusich is a contributing writer for newyorker.com, and the author of “Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records.” MORE