Over the last few years there’s been a lot of doom and gloom across the record industry. Sales are down, physical shops are closing, Record Store Day is doing more harm than good, etc. Like most record collectors, I’ve seen a lot of changes occur over the years, not the least of which are the countless record stores that have come and gone – many of which I miss terribly. Though the ridiculous rise in rents in urban centers increasingly plays a role, and people are quick to blame online sales, retailers like Amazon and Urban Outfitters, as well as downloading and streaming, in my experience the story is slightly more complex – particularly in more recent years.
A few days ago a friend (who owns a record shop) sent me the New York Times article doing the rounds about the imminent closure of New York’s Other Music. His intent was to illustrate his waning faith in the sustainability of the industry. As someone who began fervently shopping at Other shortly after it opened, but had shunned it in more recent years, I felt compelled to offer some context – firstly so he might not lose faith (because I truly believe what he is doing is important), but also for others who might be inclined to feel the same way, and perhaps as a means to offer some insight into lessons that might be learned from its shuttered doors. It’s my feeling that the demise of Other is no exception to the slightly more complex contemporary reality that I eluded to above.
Many of the initial impulses the pushed me to begin The Hum grew from my increasing concern with trends in the independent record industry. Some of my earliest efforts drew their inspiration directly from what I was witnessing during my visits to Other.
In the early years of the shop, I was one of those people that Josh Madell mentioned in the Times article. I would come with as much money as I could muster and spend more. Other Music was a haven for people like me, making otherwise unavailable records obtainable, and turning us onto a never ending stream of ambitious music that operated outside of the mainstream. It was one of the only record stores in the country where I could find the music I wanted, and for many years I spent more money there than anywhere else. I certainly wasn’t alone.
Like many shops of that era, Other catered to a very small clientele. It had a narrow focus, and those of us who shopped there did so with absolute love, faith, and thanks. Because of us it thrived. Despite what the gauzy memory of pop culture will tell you, records stores during 90’s and through the mid-2000’s were a lonely affair. It was you and the tumbleweeds (and a grumpy employee) as you flipped through the bins. Sometimes another costumer would drift in and out while you were there, but few shops were heavily trafficked. They were kept alive by a dedicated clientele who would rarely venture to the counter with less than $100 worth of stock.
When I moved to New York in the early 2000’s, Other still maintained much of its original focus, but changes were beginning to take shape. During that period there was a lot of interest focused on underground bands from the city that Other had helped champion – particularly Animal Collective, Black Dice, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol, and Vampire Weekend (with the exception of Black Dice, none of whom I cared for). The musical climate in the city was changing and Other seemed resolved to follow it. The evolution was slow, but I began to notice the “Out” bins shrinking – pushed to the side by a growing stock of “Indie Rock”. This shift mirrored many of the changes taking place across all corners of the music industry. Though impossible to chart accurately with any concision, they are worth addressing in a small way. When looking at the sales big figures, and the effect that downloading (and later streaming) had on numbers, most people see doom, but it’s important to recognize the historical differences between the independent market and the major label industry. Mainstream music listeners tended to listen to the radio and buy a few releases a year. Sales were sustained by a few hits bought by a large number of people. The independent market was almost a perfect inversion of this. It was defined by a small number of people who tended to avoid media outlets and purchase a lot of music. As the major label industry began to lose their foothold and the internet democratized access (and undermined the historical corporate dominance of advertising channels), independent music was able to make gains – offering artists like Cat Power, Yo La Tengo, Will Oldham, Animal Collective, and many more, a fan base that would have never realized itself in another era. Importantly these new fans were largely drawn from the pool of people who would have normally been part of mainstream paradigm – in other words a large number of people who now stream music rather than listen to the radio, and buy a small number of releases a year. Though this offered growth in sales across the independent market, the lessons of the mainstream industry show that it isn’t a sustainable model. It’s about turnover, which undermines the core ethos of independent music, and reduces fan loyalty.
The most significant shift in the recording industry over the last decade and a half has been an evolving relationship to physical media. There is no contesting that people buy less than they once did, but as sales have fallen across digital media formats, we’ve also seen significant gains in the vinyl market. Everything suggests that this is the future of physical sales, and thus at the core of sustaining “brick and mortar” shops. Record collecting has become ‘hip’ in a way that most of us could never have imagined. Unfortunately this has resulted in a deeply ironic trend on the part of many record stores. Seeing opportunity in a new market, a great number of shops have begun to shift the priority of their stock, and subsequently abandoned the dedicated customers like myself who had kept them afloat for many years. This is partially what befell Other Music.
As a record collector, who has many friends of the same disposition, I can surmise that very few of us have slowed down (despite thinning bank accounts, buckling shelves, and the ire of angry partners). It is a deeply passionate pursuit, and most of us have a bit more money that we did in our teens and twenties. In other words, it is unlikely that sales figures stemming from our demographic have fallen, which would imply (factoring as much as possible for rent increases, price rises, etc) most records shops that survived during the 90’s and early 2000’s, where they to stick to their proven model, would be able to continue to survive. So if sales are up across the vinyl market, why are so many shops closing? Beyond greedy landlords, the answer is simple – because there is no longer anything special about them. The landscape evolved, and many shops tried to change with it. While chasing what will likely prove to be an unsustainable and fickle millennial market, they left behind the faithful shoppers who had carried them through the darkest years. Urban Outfitters and Amazon shouldn’t be able to undermine the independent market, because it shouldn’t operate in a zone that overlaps with it. It’s too dangerous. Let them have the 110th shitty pressing of the Velvet’s first record, or whatever crap they stock. Everyone should let those records go. Independent record stores survived the era of Tower, Strawberries, Record Town, Sam Goodie, and the Virgin Mega Store, and for good reason. They offered things that no corporate machine ever could.
If you walk into Other Music today and scan the stock, most of it could be found at any store in the city – including Urban Outfitters, or Rough Trade. A significant proportion of the remainder could be found at Academy, which has more to offer already (or dare I say it..Amazon), and what’s left (which is probably found in their now tiny token “Out” bins) at a few other specialty shops. If you are competing for a base which buys sweat-shop produced garbage at Urban Outfitters, and thus for a market that does not apply loyalty, conscience, or consumer responsibility to their purchases, how could you possibly believe that this market will buy the same records from you that they stock? If that base wants to have an “authentic” record store experience, it seems pretty obvious that they are going to go for the branded squeaky clean Rough Trade across the river during a package tour to Williamsburg, before drinks at the Wythe Hotel. None of these things have anything to do with the culture of music that once defined Other.
Long after these changes started taking place I still attempted to apply my faithful loyalty to the shop. First I’d go in looking for the kind of releases they once prioritized. Even hot off the presses, they were almost never to be found. Then I decided to give it my business for new releases by more well know artists – Shellac, Yo la Tengo, Jim O’rourke etc. Time and time again I would find the space behind the divider empty. My inquiry at the counter was usually met by a blank stare. Eventually I gave up and gave these purchases over to my already and faithful and fulfilling attendance at Academy, but not before I noticed another troubling trend – the prices.
Every serious record collector is slightly obsessed with the price of records. We know what every record we want is worth as a matter of ritual. We buy too much to afford to be casual about it. We also never forgive or forget being burned. These days you can buy most new releases directly from the label online. I do this occasionally, but as a matter of principle if the price of the record (with shipping) is close, I would rather support a record store. I know that the ability to buy from labels has made it hard for some shops to compete, particularly because the price of records has jumped significantly in recent years. Every dollar counts to the consumer. What I witnessed happening at Other was on another level. It bordered on price gauging. Time and time again I would notice records listed between 25% and 50% higher than I could buy them at another shop in the city, or across the river in Brooklyn (and that’s ignoring online prices). On a $20 record, this means $5 to $10 additional cost to the consumer, which adds up quickly. Not only is there no excuse for this, but it’s frankly bad business, and was the final nail in the coffin for my abandoning the shop once and for all.
If a shop doesn’t have the records you want, and will likely overcharge you on the ones they do, would you shop there? Maybe it’s easy to become cynical when you operate in the shadow of the monster that is NYU, but there is no excuse for what Other Music became. If the rent became unmanageable, they should have moved rather than trying to pass on their expenses to the customer. It’s not like the space was jaw-dropping. Of course I don’t own a record shop. I won’t pretend to know how hard it can be. I haven’t seen the books at Other, and don’t know why they have made the choices they have, but most record store owners I know love music so much that they would rather die than close. They’ll move again and again and dig themselves into debt before they give up faith. The fact that Other Music is simply ending its tenure implies that it had just became about business – something the stock already displayed.
I say all of this because I took issue with the perspective of the Times article. That it was a troubling trend. A threat to all. My thoughts are different. Record stores have never been easy to run, but they nearly always find a way to survive, especially when done well and with care. They never make much money, but I have faith in their worth, importance, and sustainability, as well as in the many consumers that have dedicated themselves to them over the years. They’re not going anywhere. Other Music failed because it lost its way. It abandoned its original vision, what made it successful, and most importantly its most loyal customers. The lesson that should be gained is not that record stores are damned to fail, but that mediocre ones are. It’s like any other business. If you do what you do well, people will come and be loyal. If you forget them, you will die.
It’s true that the independent industry has some hard times ahead, but not because of streaming and downloading. It’s because what happened at Other is happening across the field. It’s increasingly forgetting its faithful fans, particularly those who are dedicated to music and willing to spend a lot of money, for a new larger market that will spend little, and likely turn its back when the vinyl trend goes the way of the CD. What will be left then? Collectors like myself increasingly turn to Discogs, directly to labels, or online retailers like Experimedia and Soundohm which have stepped in because many shops no longer stock the records we want. Will the shops remember us when the crowds of Millennials drift away and their Crosley suitcases get pushed to the back of a closet? Independent music was exciting, and drew many of us in because it had principles and put music first. It was immune to temptation. It seems the memory of how faithful we were, how much we gave back, has begun to wain. This, above all else, could spell long term disaster for our world. When it looks up in panic, we may no longer be there. It all begins with the shops. The place we all went to meet and discover, and around which we built our community. It is they who define the principles and taste, choosing to lead rather than be led.
Other Music was once a wonderful place. It turned me onto an incalculable amount of incredible music. It supported the work of many of my dear friends, and offered numerous others employment. For that I can’t offer enough thanks, but it hasn’t been what it was for a long time. I mourned its loss years ago when it became no longer “other”, and just “another”.